The Middle Eastern fiasco and the consequent refugee crisis in Europe, to which Western Christian intellectuals have responded with either a deer-in-the-headlights indecision or an all-too-familiar anti-Western (or at minimum anti-American) blame-gaming, suggests that we need a new and heavy infusion of “Christian realism” into our discourse.
The expression “Christian realism,” largely associated with the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr, along with Neo-Orthodoxy defined the lion’s share of Protestant theology from World War II up until the Vietnam era. And it is certainly plausible to argue that Niebuhr’s Christian realism was indeed the first genuine iteration, other than the long-depreciated ideas of Carl Schmitt who invented the term, of “political theology” in the contemporary sense.
Although Niebuhr’s actual influence has waned considerably in the last two generations, while his name is often invoked – sometimes even by U.S. Presidents – for reasons that would perhaps seem odd to him, given the Cold War context in which the key contours of his later thought were gestated, the core elements of Christian realism abide and are clamoring to be introduced seriously into our theological stream of conversation.
Before going any further, let me emphasize that I am not trying to pose one more quirky version of the shopworn sort of question: “What would Reinhold Niebuhr do?” Nor am I concerned with plumbing the mind of Niebuhr himself, who was not by any means the sole voice of Christian realism and whose ideas are often more complicated and conflicted than many of his admirers give him credit for.
The notion of Christian realism, as Niebuhr himself stressed, harks all the way back to Augustine and consists in the “dialectical” opposite of our instinctive Christian “idealism,” which in The Nature and Destiny of Man he characterized as the “disposition to ignore or be indifferent to the forces in human life which offer resistance to universally valid ideals and norms.” (Nature and Destiny, I, 151).
When Niebuhr wrote those words, he of course had immediately in mind the slow, post-World War I collapse of the Wilsonian ideal of democratic world order as well as the growing economic chaos and spread of fascism. Niebuhr was particularly fond of castigating the kind of implicit utopianism associated with the social gospel and the belief that a strong, Christian ethical commitment to “righteous” policy-making could ameliorate the present human condition and transform the international situation.
Today we face a not entirely different set of circumstances, even though the analogy is not always apparent. It is not only the situation in Europe, but the crackup of the Middle East and the domino effect it is having on the European continent through a massive immigration influx that should draw attention to the need for a new Christian realism.
As historians of the movement known as Christian realism have uniformly pointed out, what marked it off decisively from its liberal theological counterpart was its emphasis on the intractability of human sinfulness, which not only called into question, but placed under “divine judgment” all political pretenses, as the common cliché runs nowadays, “to make the world a better place.”
Christian realism took as its anchor principle Augustine’s well-known dictum of initium omnis peccati superbia (“pride is the beginning of all sin”). All great moral crusades as well as forms of social or political mobilization under the pretense of advancing the collective good are invariably shot through and deeply corrupted, according to the tenets of Christian realism, by pride and egotism.
Moreover, superbia can just as much turn out to be the failing of nations and large-scale movements as it is of single persons. In fact, the inherent iniquity of the individual is magnified multifold through collective causes, according to Niebuhr and his intellectual kindred. Unlike the political calculations and ubiquitous rhetoric of the present day, Christian realism in its specific applications neither sanctified nor demonized particular groups or the conceptual commitments they represented.
Nor did it invoke the kind of Manichean language of good versus evil which former President George W. Bush famously used in right after 9/11 in his “war on terror,” or the lack of moral ambiguity which the current fashionable rhetoric of race deploys on the left to frame the issue of “black” versus “white.” When it came to prescriptions for action, Christian realism always weighed in on the dilemma of making tough choices as well as the “lesser evil” option, recognizing that the sin of pridefulness would always be present regardless.
It is no longer necessary to underscore the obvious – namely, that the consideration of sin, not to mention the immensity of human fallibility en masse, is completely absent from the way we analyze the political, and the manner in which we do political theology. Instead, we much prefer the theodicy of historical attribution, which amounts to blaming one set of political actors, while exonerating others, for setting off a chain of events that we cavalierly in hindsight believe somehow could have been easily avoided.
The debacle in Syria is a case in point. On the political right it usually comes down to the relentless and insidious campaign of jihadist Islam, whether we are talking about Iran or ISIS, to confront the West, as the threadbare saying of the last decade put it, “because they hate us.”
On the left it points to a cauldron of captious causalities from the invasion of Iraq to American support of Israel to the never receding shadow of European colonialism, which in the Middle East was always far more nuanced than in, say, Asia or Africa.
But as Aaron Miller puts it in a a highly perceptive article in Foreign Policy magazine entitled “Middle East Meltdown”, the “main storyline in this region has less to do with the United States [or the West] and more to do with the profound changes that have occurred in the region.” The changes are not pretty, nor can they be easily whisked away in the fantasies of the blame-gamers with the simple phrase “if only someone had done something different.”
Striking the kind of somber “less evils” posture that would befit a Christian realist, Miller asks:
So what does this Middle Eastern mess and meltdown actually mean for U.S. policy in the region? Quite a lot, really, as America is on terra incognita, balancing tough choices in a harsh environment with few good choices and even fewer friends.
Miller makes the case – rather convincingly – that what Niebuhr termed the “irony” of American history is now violently at play in the Middle East, that is, a perverse kind of causation – if one wants to cling to the causal thesis – that no one really cares to acknowledge. Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech and the short-lived “Arab Spring” in 2011 dangled the alluring promise of secular democracy, which has always been the global-civic-social promised land for American policy-architects whether they be conservative, neo-conservative, progressive, or even radical, before an inveterately authoritarian Middle East.
But the unintended consequences have been an explosion of the most vicious kind of Islamism, unprecedented sectarian strife, and overwhelming chaos.
Ironically (again), the Bush administration’s swaggering military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan has produced pretty much equivalent results to Obama’s conciliatory, hands-off signature approach, which were supposed to pacify conditions on the ground and renew American prestige in the region.
Regarding Europe’s accelerating refugee crisis, a very similar dynamic has been underway since last summer. At the time German chancellor Angela Merkel was riding high as not only her own country’s but the world’s most admired leader until she rolled out the welcome wagon in Germany for the hordes of refugees from the Middle East.
Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and a strong Christian, obviously did so out of strong faith convictions, and a for a time Germany itself basked in the radiance of its new, high-principled international profile as a homeland for the dispossessed. But the resulting and overpowering influx has compromised Germany’s renowned image of managerial competence while seriously exacerbating long dormant political tensions not only within its own electorate, but with neighboring countries.
In an article entitled “Merkel’s Migrant Crisis” in the Brown Political Review Lydia Davenport notes:
It is clear that in order to continue to accept incoming refugees, the country has had to compromise on the comprehensiveness of its hospitality. That the country has begun moving refugees through deportation centers in a rapid and often chaotic manner suggests that the rate of incoming foreigners has begun to chip away at the country’s ability to uphold its promised generosity.
Christian realism can be summarized as fidelity to Jesus’ maxim of the “cost of discipleship.” In Matthew 14:28 Jesus asked “Suppose one…wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?”
It is up to us political theologians to stop moralizing in the abstract about such principles as love, justice, hospitality, etc., and adopt that same principle of fidelity when it comes to the fraught world situation of today – especially.