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Image credit: Taken by Flickr user Number10, September 25, 2014. Used under a Creative Commons license.

The Peril and Promise of World Community (Jeremy Sabella)

See the previous installment of this post here.

As Niebuhr put the finishing touches on The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (CLCD) in 1944, it was unclear just what sort of world would emerge from the ashes of two world wars. The only seeming certainty was that it would bear little resemblance to the global order that preceded it. In this context, it comes as no surprise that issue of what sorts of relations between people and nations would emerge in the postwar world weighed on Niebuhr’s mind.

The international arena as Niebuhr saw it was both fraught with challenges and brimming with possibility. It was in global politics, after all, that the creative and destructive capacities of human nature are thrown into sharpest relief. The world wars attested to this destructive capacity in spectacular fashion. Yet for Niebuhr they also bore ironic witness to human potential for genuine global community. The very technologies of transportation, communication, and coordination that made it feasible to execute war on a worldwide scale could be creatively repurposed to foster harmonious relations across the globe. Whether human beings would succeed at creating global community was far from certain, both on account of the sheer complexity that such community involves, and on account of the propensity in human nature for sabotaging these efforts. But by the argument’s conclusion, Niebuhr manages to sound a note of hard-won hope that resonates in our time.

Before delving in to his thinking on world community, let’s briefly revisit the understanding of human nature Niebuhr outlines in CLCD:

Man [sic] requires freedom in his social organization because he is “essentially” free, which is to say, that he has the capacity for indeterminate transcendence over the processes and limitations of nature. This freedom enables him to make history and to elaborate communal organizations in boundless variety and in endless breadth and extent. But he also requires community because he is by nature social. He cannot fulfill his life within himself but only in responsible and mutual relations with his fellows (358).

Human flourishing, then, requires both individual freedom and robust communities. What is more, individual freedom and communal fulfillment are co-constitutive: one cannot be achieved independently of the other. Consequently, “the community requires freedom as much as the individual; and the individual requires order as much as does the community” (358). Every level of human life thus involves a dynamic and intricate interplay between the need for freedom and the need for order.

This simultaneous need for autonomy and community makes the building and maintenance of communities a complicated process. For one, the ideal freedom/order balance for individuals changes over time. The proper balance for a toddler, for instance, is different than what it is for a teenager or a senior citizen. It also changes from one individual to the next: a single mother struggling to make due with minimum wage will have a different sense of the degree and type of social structure necessary to achieving an ideal freedom/order balance than an investment banker. This variance in the ideal freedom/order balance results in something of a conundrum: individuals need communities to be fulfilled; but communities can never be in perfect sync with what they need. As Niebuhr notes, “Since freedom and community are partially contradictory and partially complementary values in human life, there is… no perfect solution for the relation of the two values to each other.” (437). Achieving a workable balance requires societies to commit to perpetual calibration, negotiation, and compromise.

Compounding the complications involved in finding this balance is the self-aggrandizing character of human nature. As mentioned, for Niebuhr human beings could were inextricably social, and could only find their ultimate fulfillment in community. Yet achieving this fulfillment is risky, as it requires individuals to give of themselves in relationship with others. Rather than undergo the vulnerability that self-gift requires, individuals strive to achieve security through aggrandizing the self at the exclusion of the other. This fundamental mistrust of the other is at the root of original sin, which manifests politically as the will-to-power (365-67). In the final analysis, the security achieved through the will-to-power is illusory: shutting out the other both prevents the individual from finding fulfillment and sows the seeds of conflict. Yet the sheer terror that vulnerability engenders in the human will is such that all people choose illusory security over vulnerability to some degree. Hence Niebuhr’s claim that “there is no level of human moral or social achievement in which there is not some corruption of inordinate self-love” (367).

The way that the will-to-power shapes international politics is evident in how people are drawn to ideologies, groups, and political leaders who promise a degree of security that is ultimately beyond human capacity to achieve. Yet the appeal of this promise is so potent that, under the right circumstances, people will say and do virtually anything to perpetuate the illusion that their particular group—be it defined by ideology, national boundaries, political party, political leader, etc.— has achieved, will achieve, or at the very least, is entitled to strive for this security over and against other groups. The world wars illustrated just how catastrophic the results of this sort of thinking had become in an era of global interdependence and technological sophistication. In the twentieth century context, the choice was stark: either assume the risk involved in creating a viable world community, or remain trapped in catastrophic cycles of global war.


Building a Viable World Community

For Niebuhr, two forces conspired to make the attempt at building community on a global scale all but inevitable. The first of these is the ethical sense, manifested particularly clearly in the social vision of the Hebrew prophets, that moral obligations between human beings transcended national boundaries. Second, technologies of communication and transportation created de facto global interdependence even if the structures to help manage this interdependence had yet to be put in place (439). Moral vision, technological development, and political necessity all pointed toward community on a global scale.

Yet the process of building such community posed an unprecedented challenge. The sorts of structures capable of managing such community could not simply be legislated into existence: the collapse of the League of Nations was a painful reminder that a “touching faith in the power of a formula over the raw stuff of human history” was insufficient (444). Rather, such structures would have to develop organically: they must grow out of careful attention to the power dynamics and interests of nations and cultivate political power of their own. They would also need to develop gradually: getting nations to cede the power necessary to building cooperative arrangements with others would require cajoling, persuasion, and above all, patience. Finally, these structures would require flexibility: they would need to pivot between consolidating the “preponderant collective power” necessary to be effective, and limiting their power to avoid becoming tyrannical (452). The children of light building these structures would, in effect, need to “borrow some of the wisdom of the children of darkness; and yet be careful not to borrow too much.” (451).

Building world community was a highly contingent process. For one, it depended on the cooperation of the great powers, which at any moment may choose to establish security on their own terms rather than participate in community-building efforts. Furthermore, the structures of world community would be just as vulnerable as any other structure to the mistrust that so easily poisons politics. Conflicts were bound to derail what seemed to be promising forms of international collaboration. This prompts Niebuhr to conclude, “the task of building a world community requires a faith which is not too easily destroyed by frustration” (457). From the standpoint of such faith, world community may very well be “mankind’s final possibility and impossibility;” but we find the strength to continue because it knows the completion of humanity’s flawed achievements to “be in the hands of a Divine Power” that can “overcome the corruptions of [human] achievements without negating the significance of our striving” (458).


World Community Today

“The more things change,” the saying goes, “the more things stay the same.” This certainly applies to the promise and peril of world community in our time. On the one hand, our technologies of communication have outstripped the wildest expectations of Niebuhr’s generation. Our ability to instantaneously broadcast and access information about global events gives us the tools necessary to build intimate communal ties the world over. Through our communications technologies, the dream of world community is quite literally at our fingertips.

And yet, collective action on even basic issues seems harder than ever. This might have puzzled our mid-twentieth century forebears: theirs, after all, was a world nearly destroyed by tragically decisive action. Ours, by contrast, is a world paralyzed by inaction. Niebuhr was concerned over the way that societies vacillated between overoptimism and despair. In our day, we might replace overoptimism with complacency. Rather than risk the vulnerability that cooperative relationships entail, we choose retreat into virtual worlds that enable us to ignore the problems around us indefinitely. Our forebears found their illusory security through the will-to-power; we can just as easily find our illusory security through perpetual distraction.

Which raises the question: how do we cut through the haze of complacency without triggering despair? How do we collaborate effectively on issues of global concern, such as nuclear disarmament, rising sea levels, or humanitarian crises, before having to cope with the catastrophic consequences of inaction?

The cynic in me fears that by the time we shake off our complacency it will be too late. We will already be in the throes of worldwide economic collapse, spiraling nuclear conflict, or irreversible environmental catastrophe before we begin to collaborate in a meaningful way. Yet if I give in to this cynicism, I have failed to learn my Niebuhrian lesson. Yes, human beings are tainted by inordinate self-love; but they are also wonderfully creative. Yes, they tend to opt for illusory security over true fulfillment; but their social character can push them to seek out relationships in surprising ways and at unexpected times. We cannot let our clear-eyed view of the destructive potential of human beings negate our hope in their capacity to create genuine community. And we safeguard this hope through trust in a God who can “overcome the corruptions of [human] achievements without negating the significance of our striving” (458).

Jeremy Sabella teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut. He completed his Ph.D at Boston College with a dissertation on Reinhold Niebuhr in 2013 and has written the article “Establishment Radical: Assessing the Legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr’s *Reflections on the End of an Era*” forthcoming in the journal Political Theology.

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