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Trading Scalpels For Guillotines – A Reader’s Response To Robin Lovin On Niebuhrian Prophets (Dallas Gingles)

I read with interest two new articles on Reinhold Niebuhr that came out over the Thanksgiving holiday. They were a joint response by Scott Paeth and Daniel A. Morris to Robin Lovin’s recent article on Reinhold Niebuhr’s reliance on the prophetic tradition.

They suggest that while Lovin is correct in his description of Niebuhr, he wrongly—or at least inadequately—interprets our current situation because he fails to recognize those “prophetic writers who are pushing Niebuhr’s project forward today” (Morris). Morris admits that those authors/activists he identifies as prophetic “would vigorously disagree with this connection [to Niebuhr].”

However, along with Paeth, Morris is confident that the “resistance” being formed from these disparate theological voices to “the current administration” (Paeth) and “patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, mass incarceration, and so on” (Morris) is where we see the Niebuhrian prophetic tradition at work today.

By contrast to the activist thinkers Paeth and Morris cite, Drew Christiansen argues (in the second article) that it is James Comey who “is perhaps a better Niebuhrian than Niebuhr himself.” Christiansen tells us, “that Comey understands the human potential for the abuse of power, the risks of unintended consequences and the downside of making decisions in conditions of uncertainty. Contrasted with most theorists and practitioners who invoke the Niebuhr name, Mr. Comey seems to be ‘the complete’ Niebuhrian.”

The contrast between Paeth/Morris and Christiansen isn’t just that the former are writing about the “prophetic” while Christiansen is writing about a more amorphous idea of what passes as “Niebuhrian.” It is, rather, that Paeth/Morris represent a trend in the reception of Niebuhr that celebrates Niebuhr’s insights into social injustices and the prophetic tradition that denounces them, but does not think about politics in the way that actual politicians think.

For politicians—and for political theorists with whom Niebuhr interacted—politics is certainly about more, but never about less than the pursuit and use of power within and over social bodies. Politics is thus a morally dangerous task because it is among the most human of moral tasks, that is, ordering our shared human life. Doing it well (i.e., in a way that better approximates justice) requires the politician to be as deft with aspiration as he or she is with coercion—without collapsing one into the other.

If Christiansen is right, Comey learned this lesson well, first from Niebuhr and then from his own pursuit and usage of power. Certainly Comey’s own story blurs the lines between pathos, tragedy, and irony, and on that front alone he deserves honorable mention in any ballot of would-be Niebuhrs in our day.

What of other would-be Niebuhrs? Paeth tells us of the “thousand Niebuhrs speaking woe from within their own situations, calling attention to their own injustices, and speaking their own word of woe against corruption, bigotry, and greed of the current regime.” Morris identifies Hauerwas, Kelly Brown Douglas, Traci West, Miguel De La Torre, James Cone, and others [including Cornel West]” as those currently inhabiting the prophetic space once occupied by Niebuhr.

There can be no denying the impact these thinkers have had on the disciplines in which they work, but their ability to describe and decry the injustices that plague our current politics bears as much resemblance to the Social Gospel as it does to Niebuhr. Another way to say this is that they have a great number of family resemblances to the early Niebuhr, and far fewer to the later.

I have argued here before that we would do well to look less for the potential Niebuhrs of our time, and to, instead, think more like Niebuhr did for his. That kind of thinking is as pragmatic as it is aspirational, as politically realistic as it is prophetically inflected. It, unfortunately, requires compromise, not simply resistance.

Put practically, if you want to speak in a way that moves President Trump to better approximate justice, you better have at least as much of a presence on Fox News as you do on MSNBC. The recent about face regarding trophy hunting wasn’t driven by sixties-style marches; it was because of the backlash he received from conservative media. That is only the practical side of a Niebuhrian approach, though. There is also a substantive argument.

The late Jean Bethke Elshtain made this very Niebuhrian argument with characteristic wit, erudition, and incisiveness in her underappreciated Sovereignty: God, State, and Self. For Elshtain, the genius of the American experiment lies less in its revolutionary impulse—an impulse to unbounded sovereignty—and more in its constitutional restraints: sovereignty bound.

All revolutions are aspirational; few revolutions are constitutional. “Sovereignty bound” might serve as a decent shorthand for the multiple ways “Christian Realism” interprets the infinite experiences of the interplay between human transcendence and human sinfulness—and thus for Niebuhr’s ceaseless praise for the doctrine of the balance of powers.

As its first and last vantage points, Christian Realism assumes the ultimate judgment of God. From the one end, that judgment frustrates the pretenses of all of our attempts at transcendence: binding our sovereignty.  From the other it serves as the springboard for the best of our aspirations to transcend the all-too-earthly bonds of our finitude: giving us sovereignty over the bondage of moral fatalism in which we would otherwise be trapped. Our finitude and transcendence are powers balanced over against one another. Real politics rightly reflects the real humans whose common life it organizes. Mirroring the bound sovereignty of individuals, the sovereignty of the state is rightly bound by the Constitution, and in turn, it is by the exercise of binding the state that the Constitution confers to the state its sovereignty.

For all of its weaknesses—and they are many—it is the Constitution, and the mechanisms that balance power against power (e.g., the free press) that are most successfully binding the pretentions to unrestrained will in our contemporary politics. That isn’t to say that protests and rallies aren’t worth engaging (and it isn’t to say that we shouldn’t do all we can to ensure the ongoing freedom of the press); it’s just to say that a few hours after the latest march on Washington there is another political event that eclipses the outrage of the day before.

Not to mention that there are marches from both sides on every conceivable issue, so that marching is less obviously a political tool than it ever has been. It’s more to say that Niebuhr’s prophets would probably be looking for the most effective way to restrain the pretenses of ultimacy with which we are (rightly) concerned—and that they would celebrate the work that the balance of powers approach is doing to restrain that pretension. We might do well to more readily celebrate—and cultivate—the achievements of the modern democratic state, and less to assume that it is we children of light who possess the virtues that foster the single-track approach of resistance to the state in which we find ourselves.

Both Paeth and Morris mention in passing Lovin’s more basic point: that Niebuhr’s best insight into the prophetic tradition is the way it confesses the sin of its own people as fully as it diagnoses the failures of other people’s (Niebuhr was familiar with specks and logs). The prophets cultivate this kind of public confession not primarily because they see injustices where others don’t (those under the thumb of an Ahab or a Caesar knew what injustice was, and spoke—or, without the aide of Twitter at least whispered—“woe from within their own situations”).

Rather it is because they see the injustice from the inside out. Given a God’s-eye view into the private chambers of the king and his court, they see with ultimate clarity the cause and effect—the moral failures—of particular political actions, and they confess them as such. It might seem from the outrage of their confessions that prophets work with sledgehammers, but, in reality, they wield scalpels. In our world, where the intricacies of global politics shroud even the most mundane political choices in the fog of moral ambiguity, it might be that to know what needs to be confessed—to see the injustice from the inside out—requires the insight of someone on the inside. Maybe Christiansen is right.

Maybe Comey is the most Niebuhrian of us, not because he most readily wields a sledgehammer of pure protest, but exactly because in his own attempts to walk the razor thin line between sovereignty and boundedness he’s done more than his fair share of cutting and being cut, and knows exactly what we need to grieve (and, like any decent politician, still retains a decent idea of where to acquire some new blades). I have a feeling that Niebuhr would want us all to be as politically realistic as we are prophetically inclined, not least because aspirations unbound trade scalpels for guillotines.

Dallas Gingles, PhD., is Campus Manager of the Houston-Galveston Extension Program of Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.  He is the author of the upcoming entry entitled “Christian Ethics and Narrative” in Companion to Christian Ethics (T&T Clark), edited by Tobias Winright.

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