The following article was published last week at Journey Films. It has been republished here with the agreement of all parties involved.
Martin Doblmeier’s documentary An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story brings out many aspects of Niebuhr’s thought as it follows his career through half a century of history. His friendship with Paul Tillich, his socialist politics, and his work alongside George Kennan shaping policy at the State Department all contribute to what we call “Christian Realism.”
But seeing the film again at a recent screening at Loyola University Chicago, I was particularly struck by the importance of the prophetic tradition in the Hebrew scriptures to Niebuhr’s work, and to his influence. That tradition has—or had—a resonance in American public life that gave authority to Niebuhr’s voice and drew others to his message, even when it included things they were not eager to hear. You see this especially toward the end of the film, during the Civil Rights Movement, when Niebuhr, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Martin Luther King, Jr. become a trio of Hebrew prophets for modern times.
Niebuhr was not as visible as the other two, of course, and not as outspoken as some wanted him to be. His health limited his activity, and as Cornel West points out, there was a Burkean caution in his later works that worried about resistance to changes that ran too deep or came too fast. There were tensions and differences between Niebuhr, Heschel, and King, but they recognized each other as leaders whose prophetic commitment to justice was setting directions for American society.
For Niebuhr, the prophetic tradition was about a standard that doesn’t bow to power and that always stands in judgment—not just on what other people do, but on our own injustices and failings. In Niebuhr’s reading of the Hebrew scriptures, the false prophet is the one who pronounces judgment on our enemies. The true prophet is the one who pronounces judgment on ourselves.
Niebuhr loved the scene depicted in I Kings 22, where the king of Israel complains that the prophet Micaiah never prophesies anything favorable for him, but only disaster. The king of Judah demands nonetheless to hear what Micaiah has to say, and the prophet at last, reluctantly, foretells the defeat that will follow if the two kings go to war against the Arameans as they propose. They went to war anyway, with disastrous results. Ahab, the king of Israel, was killed. We do not know what finally happened to Micaiah.
After narrating this story in Beyond Tragedy, Niebuhr drew the lessons for America, where demos rules instead of kings. The role of the prophet remains the same, he insists, and today, too, the authority of the prophets is confirmed by those to whom they speak. This is true even when those who hear the warning decide to ignore it and urge others to treat it as “fake news.”
I update Niebuhr’s idiom a bit there, but his point is clear, both for our political leaders and for those who advise them: “Men are always trying to prove that what they are doing is in accord with God’s will or with ultimate truth or with the supreme good. But they can do this only on the supposition that there is a will beyond their own, a truth higher than their knowledge and a good better than their own.” It is for that reason that the true prophet will invariably at some point contradict the wishes of those who seek the word of the Lord. “A prophet who speaks only what the king wants to hear ceases ere long to be of use even to the king” (79).
More important, the prophet recognizes that the people share in the sins of their leaders, and the prophet shares in the sins of the people. Niebuhr concludes an extended meditation on Jeremiah with this axiom: “The prophet himself stands under the judgment which he preaches. If he does not know that, he is a false prophet” (110). True prophets take the sins of the people upon themselves, and the point of this is basic to Niebuhr’s theology.
“The ethic of Jesus is the perfect fruit of prophetic religion,” he wrote in An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (37). Niebuhr’s theological critics often say he has no Christology. But I think this is his Christology. He understands the passion and death of Christ not only as a sacrifice, but as a prophetic act. Christ takes on the burden of human evil so completely that all attempts to denounce our enemies and justify ourselves are silenced.
That is what made the prophetic tradition powerful in the late twentieth century. It does not depend on our own achievements for its authority, and so it can acknowledge the failures in which we all have had a part. King, Niebuhr, and Heschel were not calling Americans to go back to the eighteenth century, when the Founders declared that “all men are created equal” and kept their slaves.
Nor did they look back to the nineteenth century, when legislators amended the Constitution to end slavery and guarantee equal protection of the law while they were drafting Jim Crow statutes. King, Niebuhr, and Heschel were calling Americans to live in the twentieth century according to covenants that none of them had fully kept. Prophecy allows you to demand justice without having to be right all the time.
By contrast, our polarized politics today states, “Whether you go right or left, your goal is to be completely right.” EITHER you follow an elite leadership and rewrite all the rules so that they conform to a theoretical standard of liberty or equality, OR you make America great again by putting things back the way they were, which in a lot of people’s minds means putting other people back in their place.
We have a shortage of prophetic politics today. I think that’s one reason why An American Conscience is so powerful. It’s not just nostalgia—though there is some of that for those of us who are old enough to remember those iconic moments from the 1960s. It’s a hope for a politics that knows how to proclaim judgment, even while acknowledging our share in the guilt; and that knows how to offer a vision of a better future without having to claim that we’ve already been there.
Robin W. Lovin is the Director of Research at the Center of Theological Inquiry and the Cary Maguire University Professor of Ethics emeritus at Southern Methodist University. He has been serving as Project Leader of CTI’s three-year interdisciplinary research project on New Approaches in Theological Inquiry, 2012-2015, and was Co-Leader of CTI’s Inquiry on Theology and International Law, 2006-2010, with Professor Jeremy Waldron. He is the author among other works of An Introduction to Christian Ethics: Goals, Duties, Virtues, Christian Realism and the New Realities, and Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism.