Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr (June 21, 1892 – June 1, 1971) was an American theologian, ethicist, public intellectual, commentator on politics and public affairs, and professor at Union Theological Seminary for more than 30 years [Wikipedia summary]. The brother of another prominent theological ethicist, H. Richard Niebuhr, he is also known for authoring the Serenity Prayer:
“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
courage to change the things we can,
and wisdom to know the difference.”
He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. Among his most influential books are Moral Man and Immoral Society and The Nature and Destiny of Man, the second of which Modern Library ranked one of the top 20 nonfiction books of the twentieth century.
Starting as a minister with working-class and labor class sympathies in the 1920s oriented to theological pacifism, he shifted to neo-orthodox realist theology in the 1930s and developed the theo-philosophical perspective known as Christian realism. He attacked utopianism as ineffectual for dealing with reality, writing in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944):
“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
Niebuhr’s realism deepened after 1945 and led him to support American efforts to confront Soviet communism around the world. A powerful speaker, he was one of the most influential thinkers of the 1940s and 1950s in public affairs.
Niebuhr battled with religious liberals over what he called their naïve views of the contradictions of human nature and the optimism of the Social Gospel, and battled with the religious conservatives over what he viewed as their naïve view of scripture and their narrow definition of “true religion”. During this time he was viewed by many as the intellectual rival of John Dewey. Niebuhr was also one of the founders of Americans for Democratic Action and spent time at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
Niebuhr’s long-term impact on political philosophy and political theology involve his utilizing the resources of the Christian faith to argue for political realism and his contributions to modern just war thinking. His work has also significantly influenced international relations theory, leading many scholars to move away from idealism and embrace realism. Many leading political scientists, such as George F. Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz, and political historians, such as Richard Hofstadter, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Christopher Lasch, have noted his influence on their thinking. Andrew Bacevich labelled Niebuhr’s book The Irony of American History “the most important book ever written on U.S. foreign policy”.
As a young pastor in Detroit, he favored conversion of Jews to Christianity, scolding evangelical Christians who were anti-Semitic or ignoring them. He spoke out against “the unchristlike attitude of Christians” and what he described as his fellow Christians’ “Jewish bigotry”. His 1933 article in the Christian Century was an attempt to sound the alarm within the Christian community over Hitler’s “cultural annihilation of the Jews”. Eventually his theology evolved to the point where he was the first prominent Christian theologian to argue it was inappropriate for Christians to seek to convert Jews to their faith.
As a preacher, writer, leader, and adviser to political figures, Niebuhr supported Zionism and the development of Israel. His solution to anti-Semitism was a combination of a Jewish homeland, greater tolerance, and assimilation in other countries. As early as 1942, he advocated the expulsion of Arabs from Palestine and their resettlement in other Arab countries. His position may have related to his religious conviction that life on earth is imperfect, and his concern about German anti-Semitism.
Prayer: Lord, we thank you for the prophetic life, voice and ministry of the Niebuhr brothers. Help us to ‘understand the times’ and stand alongside the Church and Israel in the pursuit of justice, peace and reconciliation. In Yeshua’s name we pray. Amen.