Shuck and Jive

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Obama and Niebuhr: A Sermon

Here is today's sermon. In relation to it, you might be interested in this thirty minute television interview between Mike Wallace and Reinhold Niebuhr from 1958.

We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
November 16th, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama has been getting a lot of advice. Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, wrote an open letter to Obama and advised him above all to care for his soul. She told him that he didn’t create this mess and he alone won’t be the one to get us out of it. His primary responsibility is to cultivate happiness in his own life. She writes:
A good model of how to "work with the enemy" internally is presented by the Dalai Lama, in his endless caretaking of his soul as he confronts the Chinese government that invaded Tibet. Because, finally, it is the soul that must be preserved, if one is to remain a credible leader. All else might be lost; but when the soul dies, the connection to earth, to peoples, to animals, to rivers, to mountain ranges, purple and majestic, also dies.
She closed her letter with this interesting sentence. “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” That is wisdom.

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the following 56 years ago in his book, The Irony of American History. This is also good wisdom for our new president-elect.
  • "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.
  • Nothing which is true, or beautiful, or good, makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith.
  • Nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love.
  • No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint; therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness."
If we are curious as to how President-elect Barack Obama might see himself as president, it would be good to read Reinhold Niebuhr. Obama called Niebuhr his favorite philosopher. Obama was interviewed by New York Times columnist, David Brooks a couple of years ago. Brooks wrote about this recently. According to Brooks, the interview wasn’t going anywhere. Brooks asked him if he had ever heard of Reinhold Niebuhr. Obama talked for twenty minutes summarizing Niebuhr’s thought.

I have to say how refreshing it is to have a President who has a favorite philosopher. Not just a philosopher, but a philosopher of the intellectual caliber of Reinhold Niebuhr. Not only can he just name a favorite, but he can offer a cogent summary of his thought. That made my day.

Reinhold Niebuhr is no easy read. He was a complex person. He changed his views throughout his career. He was a minister and activist in Detroit in the 1920s speaking out against working conditions in Henry Ford’s assembly lines. He was a socialist and a pacifist. Then he rejected the pacifist social gospel and the liberal ideology of progress during the Depression and the rise of Hitler. From the magazine he edited, Christianity and Crisis, he advocated for the U.S. involvement against the Nazis when the U.S. was still in an isolationist mode.

Niebuhr understood power and that the way to deal with abuses of power was with power in return. It needed to be self-critical power, not self-righteous power. He understood what he called “the brutal character of all human collectives and the power of self-interest” in all inter-group relations.

In 1932, Niebuhr wrote Moral Man, Immoral Society. In this book he argued that while individuals may operate from altruism and self-sacrifice, the state is incapable of doing so. Not only can the state not do so, it deludes itself by thinking it can. It does horrendous, evil things in the name of ideals it perceives as good. In its most evil form, it calls itself good.

Niebuhr criticized the notion that we could educate ourselves to the point that reason and goodwill would solve our conflicts. He understood that reason serves all too easily prejudice and passion and that social conflict is inevitable and will likely remain so throughout human history.

The mythical religious ideal of ultimate peace and brotherhood is not likely in history even as we can keep it as an ideal to approach. What we can hope to do is to limit brutality. Quoting Niebuhr:
“…collective man, operating in the historic and mundane scene, must content himself with a more modest goal. His concern for some centuries to come is not the creation of an ideal society in which there will be uncoerced and perfect peace and justice, but a society in which there will be enough justice, and in which coercion will be sufficiently non-violent to prevent his common enterprise from issuing into complete disaster.” P. 22.
Niebuhr’s goal perhaps sounds too modest for the romantics among us, but as we look through history with open eyes, we are fortunate when this modest goal is achieved.

These past years have been marked by a dangerous and destructive illusion that American society is moral. If only we good guys were in control then the world would be good. The neocons of the Project for the New American Century sought to capitalize on the mythology of the divine selection of America as the moral leader of the world. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfield, Jeb Bush, Paul Wolfowitz were all part of this club. This is their mission statement:
“The Project for the New American Century is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to a few fundamental propositions: that American leadership is good both for America and for the world; and that such leadership requires military strength, diplomatic energy and commitment to moral principle.”
In the name of an ideology that America is moral and as such should be leader of the world, we have been engaged in war. This war has been justified in the name of democracy or against terror or to rid the world of evil. There is little self-criticism and much self-righteousness.

Former Tennessee Senator, Howard Baker was quoted a couple of years ago in the Johnson City Press:
“’We’re the strongest nation on Earth militarily.’ He said, ‘We’re the most moral nation on Earth. We are an example to the rest of the world, even that part of the world that doesn’t like us much. …You realize that even our most vocal adversaries really in a way are expressing an envy for America, for our ability to create wealth and distribute it as equitably as has ever been known in history….We are the greatest nation on Earth, but we have the greatest obligations of Earth.”
Self-righteous but not self-critical. I wonder if Reinhold Niebuhr is turning over in his grave at the hubris of statements like those of former senator Howard Baker and of course, the neocons. I think he might say, “That is the very thing I was writing about when I wrote against the Capitalists in the 1920s and the Nazis in the 1930s and the Communists in the 1950s and the Americans in Vietnam in the 1960s.”

In the name of being the most moral nation on Earth, we have selected ourselves to bring democracy and freedom by starting an endless war on terror which is a tactic not an enemy. In this battle of good vs. evil, we have justified evil actions against real people, not the least of these actions is torture.

How is it that we individual Americans would allow something to be done on behalf of our society that we would never do as individuals?

Niebuhr explained this dilemma in the opening page of Moral Man, Immoral Society:
Individual men may be moral in the sense that they are able to consider interests other than their own in determining problems of conduct, and are capable, on occasion, of preferring the advantages of others to their own. They are endowed by nature with a measure of sympathy and consideration for their kind, the breadth of which may be extended by an astute social pedagogy. Their rational faculty prompts them to a sense of justice which educational discipline may refine and purge of egoistic elements until they are able to view a social situation, in which their own interests are involved, with a fair measure of objectivity. But all these achievements are more difficult, if not impossible, for human societies and social groups. In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships. Xi
In other words: People make decisions and act in groups in ways that they would not decide or act as individuals. I have said to members of various church sessions I have moderated to be sensitive to that when they make decisions. Would you make this decision as an individual face to face with the person or persons this decision will affect?

Our group identity, like a uniform, protects us from the need to take ownership of and be responsible for our decisions. The larger and more complex the social groups the greater the protection. No American, except a sociopath that we lock away, would torture someone. And yet our country does it.

For Niebuhr, the role of ethics is to puncture that protective uniform. We can only have our individual consciences raised when we feel a little of the pain, accept some of that responsibility, and question our justifications and rationalizations as to why this happens. As Alice Walker wrote, we need to preserve our souls.

This is the text I chose for today from Hebrews: Hebrews 13:1-3:
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.
I never noticed that last line before this week. It popped out at me as though it were in bold print.

Let mutual love continue. Show hospitality to strangers. Because we think of love and hospitality as sentimental, we expect the next line to be “Oh, by the way, be nice to your grandmother.” But instead it is: “Oh, by the way, remember those being tortured as if you yourself were being tortured.”

How do you do that? How do you put yourself in that frame of mind? Remember those being waterboarded as if that was happening to you. The text calls us to personal responsibility. It won’t allow us to accept abstraction. It won’t allow us to accept the rationalization that says we need to do everything we can to protect our country. This text is designed to puncture that protective layer that regards those who are being tortured as not my responsibility. It becomes personal.

What do you do after you have remembered them as if you were in their place? You might do what these folks did this past Wednesday in Washington.

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture held an event to urge Barack Obama to sign an executive order banning torture as one his first official actions. These religious leaders also urged congress to form a committee to investigate the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by U.S. personnel since September 11th 2001.

Did these religious leaders pressure Obama to create world peace? No. The goal is more modest: stop the most inhumane forms of brutality. Preserve our soul. Our current outgoing administration has suffered from the illusion that America as a nation is good and moral and so it can outmaneuver, outthink, and outshoot evil. It should be able to do all of these things without criticism. Mission accomplished. Reinhold Niebuhr knew that while individuals may be moral on occasion, society itself is not. According to Niebuhr, America, like every other society, is immoral and capable of the most horrendous evil. However, moral individuals can move America to be more honest with itself and more just.

How do we do that? Those who hope for the transformation of our societies need to keep some illusions. We need to throw out the illusion that we are good but we need to keep the illusion that we can be good. According to Niebuhr we need “a sublime madness in the soul.” This is where the romantics and the visionaries have a role. This is how he ends his book, Moral Man, Immoral Society:
The most important of these illusions is that the collective life of mankind can achieve perfect justice. It is a very valuable illusion for the moment; for justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul. Nothing but such madness will do battle with malignant power and “spiritual wickedness in high places.” The illusion is dangerous because it encourages terrible fanaticisms. It must therefore be brought under the control of reason. One can only hope that reason will not destroy it before its work is done. P. 277
Reinhold Niebuhr was a complex person. I am glad that Obama has some Niebuhr in him. This is what Obama said in regards to Niebuhr in that interview with the New York Times columnist, David Brooks:
"There's serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. I take away [from Niebuhr]... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism."
That may be good wisdom for us as a church, as Americans, and as citizens of Earth. May we preserve our souls and keep our faith as we chart that middle path between idealism and realism. I will close with a prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr. Let us pray:

"God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
courage to change the things that should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other."


  1. Sheer brilliance John, sheer brilliance.

    And yes- is it not the greatest to have a president that has a favorite philosopher and that can wax eloquently about him?

    Deep sigh.

    Thank you from the bottom of my own Niebuhr-loving heart for this most generous and wise preaching.

  2. We have a president with a favorite philosopher that he can coherently summarize???

    And it is Niebuhr???!!!


  3. Thank You John, You opened my eyes this morning (and saved me from having to write a post - I just linked to you.) - I suppose I should not have said that I may have to pay you a royalty.

  4. Thank you all! Have a great remainder of the weekend!