A Response to Scott Paeth’s Complication of Reinhold Niebuhr on Race

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Part of the frustration of reading Niebuhr on racial injustice comes from the fact that, as Paeth says, Niebuhr failed to support black liberation and empowerment at the precise moments when the logic of his Augustinian thought should have told him to do so most strongly.

Scott Paeth is spot on in his assessment of Niebuhr’s record on race. I have long shared the belief that Niebuhr’s engagement of racial injustice is frustrating. Part of the frustration of reading Niebuhr on racial injustice comes from the fact that, as Paeth says, Niebuhr failed to support black liberation and empowerment at the precise moments when the logic of his Augustinian thought should have told him to do so most strongly. When black students needed support integrating schools, Niebuhr justified the fears of white parents. When black soldiers risked their lives for the United States and needed solidarity, Niebuhr asked them to be prudent. For a man who was so attentive to the need to check power with power, Niebuhr very often failed to advocate black power to counterbalance white supremacy, which he knew was evil. Paeth’s presentation of this blind spot is a needed corrective at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement sorely needs white support and when white Christians claim to love the work of Reinhold Niebuhr.

As I read Niebuhr on race, I would add two points to Paeth’s piece. The first is that Niebuhr’s shortcomings on race were often a matter of failing to recognize asymmetries of power. This is a point that Paeth makes, but I would like to draw it out for more attention. Niebuhr chided just about everyone for not understanding power as deeply as he did. And yet, he often failed to recognize asymmetries of racial power in America adequately. When he did give them sufficient attention, he frequently failed to consider those asymmetries when developing social and political stances. Noting asymmetries in racial power ought to lead someone to recognize that black high school students need all the empowerment they can get, and that white parents don’t need their fears to be assuaged. Noting these asymmetries ought to lead someone to make extra efforts on behalf of mistreated soldiers, rather than capitulate to the power that mistreats them. In the face of these discrepancies, it is poor form to emphasize sin’s universality, even if you wholeheartedly believe in such an idea. What needs emphasizing at these moments is power’s destructive potential. Feminist critiques of Niebuhr make similar points about the way that he often failed to notice asymmetries. The most influential of these points (to my reading, anyway) has been Saiving’s argument that men and women have asymmetrical experiences of self-love and sacrifice. Extending Niebuhr’s reflections into today’s political atmosphere requires us not just to theorize about power imbalances; it requires us to name them and actively respond to them. As Paeth says, Niebuhr could have been better about this.

Secondly, I wonder if taking Niebuhr’s thinking to its logical conclusions doesn’t lead to more radical conclusions about racial justice. More specifically, we might begin to read Niebuhr’s reflections on power, justice, and the use of force toward a theory of black just warfare. As Niebuhr was famous for saying, power must be checked by power and only a naïve sentimentalist would think that power will surrender when asked to do so. In reflecting on racial injustice throughout American history, this would mean Niebuhrian Christians should consider using force against white power. Paeth is quite correct to note all of the ways that Niebuhr was guided by prudence and pragmatism. However, Niebuhr’s writing on the use of force also insists that justice is most closely approximated when power stands up against power. Emphasizing this part of Niebuhr’s work would go beyond thinking about racial support and begin to consider, in an Augustinian vein, the merits of the Black Panthers’ approach to racial conflict. Members of the Black Panthers such as Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton put Augustinian principles into practice in response to white supremacy in the form of police brutality (even if they did not characterize their ideas in this exact way). Niebuhr followed Augustine in stressing the importance of responding to the sinful lust for power that dominates the poor and the vulnerable by using force to approximate justice (or at least the tranquilitas ordinis, in the case of Augustine). But Niebuhr didn’t extend this insight to situations of black oppression and white supremacy. If he had, he might have advocated a Christian use of force against white supremacy. True, one might object that such a call to use force against white supremacy is hopelessly naïve, given the disproportionate power that white supremacists possess in this country. James Cone makes this point in Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare, as he points out the difficulties that Malcolm X would have had in advocating “any means necessary” in the South. Despite the legitimate argument that Augustinian calls for forceful resistance against white supremacy are naïve, Niebuhr could have sacrificed some realism, pragmatism, and prudence—which are indistinguishable from capitulation in this case—in order to gain intellectual consistency, courage, and solidarity with “the least of these” in the ongoing conversation about racial justice in America.


One thought on “A Response to Scott Paeth’s Complication of Reinhold Niebuhr on Race

  1. I’m sure I don’t know Niebuhr as well as Daniel Morris. Where does RN say power must be checked by power? I remember my teacher, Joseph L. Allen, emphasizing that nonviolent resistence is definitely resistance (i.e., power). Morris’ proposal of violent resistance might make the same mistake Niebuhr made: that love is always sacrificial. There must be blood! This view of love as sacrificial may reflect the view of early 20th century liberal Protestantism which Niebuhr shared early on. The liberals certainly didn’t think of Jesus’ cross as a lynching did they? One view stresses Jesus as the hero, the good Savior, who sacrificially lays down his life to save us. The other view sees Jesus as the helpless victim. Both views resonate with Scripture. I’m sure Niebuhr’s view of love as sacrificial has been challenged. Doesn’t your proposal of violent protest propagate an incomplete love, using methods unfaithful to Christ, to reach goals in direct opposition to Christ?

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