A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Some Reflections on Syria, Or Why the Niebuhr Brothers Got It Wrong

The current discussion over whether the United States (and its allies?) should take military action in Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons by Syria's President, Bashar Hafez al-Assad on the Syrian people sounds reminiscent of an earlier debate that took place decades ago.

It is reminiscent of a disagreement that took place in the spring of 1932 between Reinhold Niebuhr and his brother, H. Richard on whether the United States should intervene in the Sino-Japanese conflict. Richard's editorial was published on March 23, 1932. In making the case for non-intervention, he writes on the grace to do nothing:
The inactivity of radical Christianity is not the inactivity of those who call evil good: it is the
inaction of those who do not judge their neighbors because they cannot fool themselves into a sense of superior righteousness. It is not the inactivity of a resigned patience, but of a patience that is full of hope and is based on faith. It is not the inactivity of the noncombatant, for it knows that there are no noncombatants, that everyone is involved, that China is being crucified (though the term is very inaccurate) by our sins and those of the whole world. It is not the inactivity of the merciless, for works of mercy must be performed though they are only palliates to ease present pain while the process of healing depends on deeper, more actual and urgent forces.
Reinhold wrote a response that was published a few days later in the Christian Century asking, "must we do nothing?"

A truly religious man ought to distinguish himself from the moral man by recognizing the fact that his is not moral, that he remains a sinner to the end. The sense of sin is more central to religion than is any other attitude.... this does not prove, however, that we ought to apply the words Jesus, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone," literally. If we do we will never be able to act. There will never by a wholly disinterested nation. Pure disinterestedness is an ideal which even individuals cannot fully achieve, and human groups are bound always to express themselves in lower ethical forms than individuals. It follows that no nation can ever be good
enough to save another nation purely by the power of love. The relation of nations and of economic groups can never be brought into terms of pure love. Justice is probably the highest ideal toward which human groups can aspire. And justice, with its goal of adjustment of right to right, inevitably involves the assertion of right against right and interests against interest until some kind of harmony is achieved. If a measure of humility and of love does not enter this conflict of interest it will of course degenerate into violence. A rational society will be able to develop a measure of the kind of imagination which knows who to appreciate the virtues of an opponent's position and the weakness in one's own. But the ethical and spiritual note of love and repentance can do no more than qualify the social struggle in history. It will never abolish it.
There is much more in Richard's editorial and Reinhold's response and both should be read in their entirety. Their debate a little over eighty years ago, frames well the current debates Christians have over intervention vs. non-intervention in world affairs.

I must say that I lean much more toward Richard than Reinhold, at least in conclusion. I think if the nations had taken more of the posture of the former instead of the latter, there would have been less death and bloodshed and tragedy in the midst of a world filled with death and bloodshed and tragedy. But the larger issue that has clear implications for the witness of the Church of Jesus Christ in the 21st century is how both brothers reveal more similarities than differences, particularly in reference to their ecclesiology. In short, America is the focus of the Niebuhr brother's ecclesiology. When both brothers use the pronoun "we," they assume the "we" refers to "American Christians" with little to no distinction between the two terms.

Stanley Hauerwas likes to illustrate the point by telling the story of the Lone Ranger and Tonto surrounded by 60,000 Sioux warriors. The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says, "Gee, Tonto, this is a difficult situation. What do you think we should do?" Tonto responds, "What do you mean 'we,' white man."

In other words, ecclesiologically speaking, it matters what we mean by "we" when we speak as Christians. And Hauerwas is clear that we need to make a clear distinction between "we Christians" and "we Americans." But because we have largely lost the robust political ecclesiology of the New Testament by embracing the assumptions of Christendom and modernity we Christians forget that the church and not the nation state is God's politic. When the term "Christian" is too closely connected with the citizenship of any nation, church is separated from kingdom and the understanding of God's kingdom is distorted. As my friend, Michael Gorman posted on Facebook last night,
The first spiritual and moral duty of Christians in times of great international crisis, especially during a call for war, is to listen to their brothers and sisters (and their spiritual leaders) most likely to be affected by the violence-- not to the appointed or elected leaders in the countries where they happen to live. This, for Christians, is true patriotism-- loyalty to the body of Christ and the kingdom of God, for we are ultimately citizens of every country and of no country.
Prior to the rise of Christendom, Christians believed that God centrally and decisively was working in the world through the church. That did not mean that God did not utilize the nations to work God's will, but the church was centrally where the divine action took place. But after Christendom, that perspective fundamentally changes. God now does his work in the world mainly through the nation, the empire. While God does move in the church, that work is primarily spiritual and individual. The church goes from witnessing in its life to the truth of the gospel to counseling the state on the ways of God and utilizing the state to bear witness to a gospel that frankly Jesus would not recognize. As I argue in my book, The Politics of WitnessChristendom undermines the church's distinctiveness as its own nation, its own polis. It is Peter who reminds the early believers that, after the fashion of God's people Israel, they are a royal priesthood, a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9). Now the church no longer views itself as its own entity with its own integrity; it now becomes a prop for the state. As Hauerwas notes in his work, the church is now defined primarily by its relationship to the state.

Moreover, Christendom undermines the church/world distinction. Whereas the church's task previously was to bear witness to the world as to what God wanted the world to be (the church was to be the church) without resorting to the utilization of the power structures of the dominant culture, now the church utilizes those very power structures to fashion a state that favors and even promotes Christianity. 

Christendom also gives divine legitimacy to the state. St. Paul tells the Romans that God desires that there be the order of government and that there is a legitimate place for government to so order society (Romans 13:1-7). But such an understanding of the state is a far cry from the belief that God has called the empire into existence and that God wants this or that particular emperor on the throne. As John Howard Yoder reminds us, it is one thing to believe that God uses the empire in spite of itself. It is quite another matter to give the empire divine legitimacy. Romans 13 cannot be correctly understood apart from Romans 12, which begins with a call to nonconformity (Yoder, The Politics of Jesus).

Christendom also undermines Jesus' teaching on the nature of the Kingdom of God and divorces King Jesus from his Kingdom, which allows Christians to define all good work apart from the church as kingdom work. Once the fortunes of the ecclesia are intrinsically bound to the success of the powers, the kingdom ethic of Jesus is marginalized as Christians seek non-Christian sources to inform the ethic of believers as they serve the empire (in modernity those non-Christian sources involve the appeal to rights). The kingdom is revealed, not through the mission and witness of the church, but through the political maneuverings and policies of the state. Christendom makes the Sermon on the Mount irrelevant (as Reinhold Niebuhr rightly saw and which many Christendom Christians refuse to admit). The cross is no longer relevant as a political model for a church that now has a stake in power of the state. The cross no longer represents how God would have his people make their way in this world. Indeed, it is by the sign of the cross that Emperor Constantine justifies his conquests with the blessing of the church, God's upside-down kingdom that no longer operates as such. The cross no longer represents God's suffering presence in this world through the church but the victorious conquest of the empire in the name of the risen Christ, whose resurrection no longer means the conquest of the powers (Colossians 2:14), but the utilization of the powers to spread the domain of Christ through the empire. In the conversion of Caesar, when the nation state is viewed as "Christian" the church is converted to the ways of the nations. The church is edged out because it is no longer needed if the nation is now "Christian."

This is what the Niebuhr brothers missed in their historic debate. Even though they both reached very different conclusions, they both suffered from a Christendom ecclesiology that assumed that God was primarily working through the nation. The church was irrelevant. Instead of Jesus bringing the kingdom and founding the church, the foretaste of the kingdom, Jesus brought the kingdom, but unfortunately we ended up with the church. In the politics of the modern world, it was now time to leave the church behind because the real action of God was taking place in Washington D.C., not at the local church down the street. At least the Niebuhr brothers drew honest conclusions from their Christendom ecclesiology about the irrelevance of Jesus and his ethic for the complexities of the modern world. (And for those who believe that Richard did not embrace such an ecclesiology, they need to read his book, Christ and Culture.) Their intellectual children on the left and the right continue in their denial. Such denial can be seen in the current debate Christians are having on whether to intervene in the Syrian conflict. And that denial is clear regardless of the differing conclusions. And as long a Christendom ecclesiology is embraced by the majority of Christians, they will fail to offer a distinctive peacemaking voice on the Syrian conflict or any other moral problem that confronts the world of our day.

And, yes... this is not just an issue for the religious right, but it is also the same for the rising religious (progressive) left. Both the right and the left simply reflect a continuum along the Christendom/modern spectrum. Both lack a robust political ecclesiology that functionally makes the nation their church.

More on that in a future post.


Morgan Guyton said...

The Christians from Syria are saying that an attack would be devastating for their community's safety.

Bob MacDonald said...

I wonder how we can govern ourselves. I wonder how we understand the psychological extremes of absolute monarchy and terrorist. I wrote a little on it yesterday here - we could pray that prayer of Moses - it fits our situation.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Yes, indeed... and we need to heed their words.

I have a blog post on the matter set to be published tomorrow morning.

Allan R. Bevere said...


There are many things to wonder in all of this... and thanks for your posted thoughts.

Tobias Winright said...

This is a good post, especially your point about the Niebuhr brothers' assumption about God working through the nation state rather than the church. I also wrote about the Niebuhr brothers' exchange in The Tablet last week (available here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18959) and again this week (available here: http://catholicmoraltheology.com/the-grace-of-doing-something-in-syria/).