Last night I watched a wonderful PBS special about the life and ministry of Reinhold Niebuhr (for many years a Professor at Union Theological Seminary here in New York). His was once virtually a household name in America, with his portrait even appearing on the cover of Time Magazine. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., called Niebuhr “the most influential American theologian of the 20th century.” Now, sadly, he is primarily remembered only by professional theologians. In fact, most who pray The Serenity Prayer (“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”) do not remember it was written by Niebuhr. Still, for those who attend seminary, some of his works remain required reading, as well they should be. The Nature and Destiny of Man and The Irony of American History are timeless masterpieces. But perhaps heading the list of the brilliant books he wrote (and, I think, the most important) is Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics. Written in 1932, its lessons are still fresh and relevant.
Niebuhr was convinced that good people allow themselves to be led off path by evil forces. He had witnessed such in WWI and, even while writing Moral Man and Immoral Society, was observing a replay as Hitler gained momentum heading toward WWII. He believed that basically decent people, even people of faith, were vulnerable to powers greater than themselves and often allied with those powers by making faith purely personal (with no societal ramifications).
For a number of years, Niebuhr was Pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit. During his tenure there of just over a decade, the congregation grew from sixty -six members to well over six hundred. Niebuhr loved his people, and they loved their pastor. As individuals, he witnessed their Christlikeness. He saw them honor personal morals, respond with compassion to individual or neighborhood crises, be faithful to church, and seek to instill the right principles in their children. But, he also saw those same kind and decent people support candidates or systems that defied kindness, equality, and decency. By observing a phenomenon both global and local, he decided that moral people often contribute to creating an immoral society. Sometimes we do so, he believed, through acquiescence. Sometimes through silence. Sometimes through blind partisan loyalty that places the well-being of one’s party above the claims of the Messiah. Grass roots Germans, he believed, allowed the shadowy side to dominate simply by choosing not to apply personal morals and faith principles to the activities of the state. At home in Detroit, he believed, grass roots church people likewise allowed racism to dominate and blue collar workers to be abused by choosing not to apply personal morals and faith principles to activities of the state. In short, Niebuhr believed what later generations coined as a phrase about discipleship: “It’s not a matter of talking the talk. It’s a matter of walking the walk.”
Cornel West says that Martin Luther King, Jr., was initially spurred to taking action as a leader in the Civil Rights movement after reading and reflecting on Moral Man and Immoral Society. King realized that morality can never be merely personal. We are called to be like Jesus. On the Mount of the Transfiguration in a moment of indescribable personal spiritual revelation, the temptation would have been strong simply to stay there. In fact, that is what Simon Peter suggested: “Lord, it is well that we remain here.” But Jesus knew that our inner spirits are fed so that we may give outward expression to the Faith. In short, we are fed to feed, blessed to bless others, saved to serve. So, Jesus took Simon Peter, James, and John back down the mountain to heal the hurts of those in need.
Okay, what does any of this have to do with us? As disciples, it has almost everything to do with us. We are placed in an immoral society (not just this contemporary historical moment, but the general condition of society throughout history) as moral agents. It is not enough to say, “It is well with my soul.” Instead, we are always called to ask, “And how is it with my neighbor?” If society at-large does not step forward to help and heal those who hurt, then we people of faith step forward ourselves. If society does not acknowledge the inherent dignity of all persons, we lift our voices more loudly so that none can deny the Divine fingerprint on all lives. If society is hate-driven, then we become unfailingly love-driven. If society judges or demeans classes of individuals, we proclaim with increasing energy that those people are creations of God. If society places economics over environmentalism, we become Genesis chapter 1 people. If society softens its stands against racism, sexism, ageism, or any of the other isms that contribute to prejudice or abuse, we strengthen our stand that God’s rules (not the world’s) are always our first priorities. We do so with prayer, but also with public voice. You and I are the ones who are divinely appointed to be God’s weathervane for the world, clearly showing and saying which direction the winds of The Spirit take.
It was a great documentary. It’s called An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story. I suspect PBS will show it again. Find it if you can. Watch it. Pray about it. His insights provide timeless wisdom for the ages, clear calls to place Faith first.