The American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr began his prescient, perhaps timeless, essay on the Sino-Japanese War – “It may be that the greatest moral problems of the individual or of a society arise when there is nothing to be done.” In the face of a colonial conflict in Asia, and calls for U.S. intervention, Niebuhr urged an active inactivity. Like the Communists who saw present conflict laying the groundwork for more radical transformation in the future, Niebuhr called on believers to remember their belief that radical change would eventually come. And, like the Communists, Niebuhr urged that inactivity in the present conflict be accompanied by preparation for future activity. But Niebuhr differentiated himself from the Communists by seeing that preparation as consisting of analysis of our own faults, of how we are implicated in the present situation, of how our desire for intervention arises from impure motives, and of how we can improve our deficient virtues in the future.
Watching the events in Libya unfold from afar, the parallels with the situation confronted by Niebuhr are obvious. On the one hand, the struggle of ordinary people against the (proximate) powers that have silenced them is exciting. Beyond the revolutionary titillation, which so easily complements Western triumphalism, the process of struggle affects the character of those who struggle. By calling out the mystifications of power, by formulating strategy to confront power, and by organizing with neighbors and strangers against power, ordinary people become fit to govern themselves. Or, rather, struggle is a necessary but not sufficient condition for fitness to govern – of course, in a fallen world, there can be no sufficient conditions.
On the other hand, as many have pointed out, Western military intervention cannot be detached from the history of Western imperialism. Equally important is the symbolic significance of Libya, and Muammar Gaddafi, as opponents of Western imperialism. Obviously they are flawed opponents. Libya does not offer an attractive alternative, but it does offer an outspoken refusal. As in the cases of Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran, that refusal alone may warrant special treatment, may justify muting our protests at injustices and mounting energetic defenses when such nations are threatened. Politics is a symbolic business: it is not about rationally allocating our support based on merits and demerits but rather on positioning ourselves on the side of justice, even when we know that behind the symbols of justice are deeply flawed human beings.
The ascesis of saying nothing is difficult. It is painful. It often has clear, negative political consequences. Think, for example, of those Muslim leaders who are called on to condemn terrorist attacks – that is, to enter into a conversation the terms of which are already determined by Islamophobes. There is clearly a desire to commiserate with those who suffer, to reprimand those whose actions are misguided, and to sooth a frightened public. But ascesis is, by definition, about refusing one’s desires. It is about refusing the worldly calculus which assumes there is always a right answer ascertainable with enough discernment. “The Grace of Doing Nothing” is what Niebuhr titled his essay, for he believed that through the ascesis of inactivity we open ourselves to the invisible, to the unexpected, to the radically transformative, to the ultimately just – to grace.
Vincent Lloyd is Assistant Professor of Religion at Syracuse University. He is the author of The Problem with Grace: Reconfiguring Political Theology (Stanford, 2011) and the editor of Race and Political Theology (Stanford, 2012).