ESR graduate Scot Miller is currently working to complete a Doctorate of Ministry at Western Theological Seminary. This is the first of a series of essays that are meant to contribute to that project. You can learn more about Scot and his work here: http://www.sandhillcommunity.blogspot.com and here: http://waitingworship.wordpress.com/.
Imagine standing on the sidewalk at 11 Wall Street. There is a large group of passionate radicals that have gathered to hold the New York Stock Exchange responsible for an economic downturn that has left much of the nation in financial dire straits. Whether the charges levied against the Stock Exchange are reflective of real or perceived malfeasance, the mood of the crowd, and much of the United States citizenry, is one of insurrection. Often repeated by the lips of more than a few activist is a quote from Thomas Jefferson.
"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
This quote originates with a letter sent by Jefferson to William Smith, a diplomat in London. It is in reference to the conscripting of government militias to put down a Massachusetts armed uprising in 1987 know as Shay's Rebellion. “God forbid,” wrote Jefferson, “we should ever be 20 years without a rebellion. Let them take arms.”
Many individuals were making speeches and exhorting the crowds to take political matters into their own hands. “The ballot box is failing us,” one of the speakers says. “It is time to restore power to the people.” At that time, a rather unkempt individual walked through the crowd and stood at the foot of the Golden Bull of Wall Street. The crowd sat at the foot of the stage, and men and women who were apparently “comrades” of this speaker were passing out leaflets that declared a new age of politics was dawning.
This man stood apart from the other speakers, however, as he did not use the aggressive language of the revolutionaries that spoke before him. You listen to the speaker. He sounds more like a preacher, and his references to God make you uncomfortable. Few people in this crowd of radicals had time for gods of any kind. They wanted to change and tear down everything. Yet, something he says catches your ear, though no one else seems to be moved by it despite the fact they hear the same words.
“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be the children of your Father in heaven.” The speaker continued and you hear yet another statement that seems directed at you inner being. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
It is evident that there are two very different narratives at work in the above act. Both, however, are easily identifiable to most Americans, whether they believe them to represent basic truths or otherwise. Despite evidence that each saying represents “polar opposite” points-of-view, many Americans have been comfortable collapsing the two historic responses to human conflict into a single, uniquely American, narrative. For many, it is the ideals of democracy that places the commandments of Jesus beyond the contemporary context. In the 21st Century, militarism is often considered noble, especially when it is undertaken in defense of innocents. As such, to oppose what the culture decides is a “just war,” one risks being a traitor to America. Hauerwas proposes that American civil religion demands of the faithful that “whatever kind of Christian they may be or not be, their faith should be in harmony with what it means to be a American.”
Such civil religion has led Christendom to assuming the following: Democracy is a political system that is divinely wrought so that differing religious beliefs are “subordinated to their common loyalty to America.” As the story above points out, it has been rather easy for Americans to dismiss such biblical tenets as love for enemy in favor of the canon of American democracy. Hauerwas writes “War is a moral necessity for Americans... [it is] America's central liturgical act necessary to renew our sense that we are a nation unlike other nations.” And, as is commonly said, and perhaps just as commonly believed, the United States identifies itself as a “Christian nation.” In this sense, war can always be legitimized as a righteous undertaking. Can it be possible to understand the gospel in a manner that does not underwrite the policies and actions of Western democracies?
The relationship between American democracy and Christendom has produced a critical error in the project of constructing a contemporary biblical ethic. Presently, much of what is presented as Christian ethics fails to reflect, both the manner in which God has worked through Jesus the Christ, and just as importantly, how Christians should act in order to reflect God's call to embody the life of the Christ. Such an ethic has proven to be a difficult task provided the Enlightenment and Modernist assumptions that continue to under-gird American Christendom's subjugation to the demands of liberal democracy. The difficulty stems from what I identify as a core inconsistency between the an ethic centered in Scripture and the very nature of democratic republicanism.
The beginning of the Twentieth Century provides an example of how Modernist philosophical thought and politically liberal religion were combined to overcome the problems that the Bible apparently created for the articulation of Christian ethics.The Second Great Awakening had much to contribute to social progress during the first half of the Nineteenth Century. Yet, the church's support of women's rights and suffrage, the abolition of slavery, the temperance movement, and care for the poor ebbed after the Civil War. Modernism heightened the level of skepticism concerning the credibility of Christian claims, and secular movements were growing in numbers and began to replace religious organizations as champions for social change. Socialist and communist movements gained footholds in American cities following the Civil War, and anarchists such as Emma Goldman were both highly sought after political speakers, as well as candidates for exile or imprisonment. In the case of Goldman and many others, an all-out attack on Christianity was thought by them to be necessary to the liberation of humankind. Christian 'activists” were either deemed too naive and lacking in reasoned approaches, or their theology was attacked by many churches who did not want to be suspected as anti-American socialists or union supporters.
There was an additional problem for Christian ethics at the turn of the century, and it was identified as Scripture itself. The problem of the Bible was that content which was interpreted to underwrite slavery, subservience to rulers, war, and the continuing subjugation of women. Such issues made up the bulk of leftist criticism. Conservative Christian congregations preached wholesale the themes of patriarchy, the righteousness of American war efforts, segregation, and the elimination of socialism.
Walter Rauschenbusch inaugurated a response to this apparent problem of Scripture. He re-prioritized Scripture, and made it more appetizing for many Christian liberals through the application of historical and literary criticism. He consistently promoted the “modern” literary and interpretive concepts of hermeneutics as a manner in which references to the Bible's authority could coincide with contemporary advances in the social sciences. As such, reading his work can often make one feel as though she is reading a Marxist treatise or an early volume of Liberation Theology.
"Walter Rauschenbusch" by Unknown - http://spider.georgetowncollege.edu/htallant/courses/his338/students/kpotter/walter.jpg. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Walter_Rauschenbusch.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Walter_Rauschenbusch.jpg
That said, the “Social Gospel” movement was not only successful in winning over many Christians who might otherwise leave a religion that apparently had little to say about the matters of poverty, class, and gender; but it initiated an attempt to legitimize the Gospel as a contributor to the discussions of ethics and politics within the realm of modernist discourse. Whether or not Rauschenbusch succeeded in this, he certainly pioneered attempts to make Christian ethics relevant to public moral discourse. He interpreted the Bible as the main informant of American democracy. “Where religion and intellect combine,” he wrote in Theology for the Social Gospel, “the foundation is laid for political democracy." What followed was an implicit proposition that democracy is in some way a divine construct and thus carries out the will of God – and perhaps, resulted in a preference to articulate the will of God in the more private confines of ballot boxes. This reduced the use of the Bible to those proof-texts that seemed to underwrite the nation-state's priorities, or at the very least, the priorities of those Christians who were most invested in the manner in which the nation-state was to be governed.
It may be suggested that Rauschenbusch should be credited for establishing an American religious concern for the poor and exploited, and there is most likely little interest in highlighting his work as representative of negative contributions to Christian theology. However, the work he dedicated to the social gospel movement initiated a epistemological move that resulted in the need for Christian ethics to prioritize political power and acquiescence and consider the supremacy of American narratives of individualism and democratic ideals, and later, free-market economics over and against self-sufficient communities.
One of Rauschenbusch's biggest critics is in fact indebted to his work. Reinhold Niebuhr was a proponent of the social gospel while pastoring in Detroit. After growing a small congregation into one of the city's larger and more influential churches, he became well known for his commitment to the labor movement, the plight of the working class, and his pacifism. However, While Rauschenbusch maintained his commitment to non-violence, Niebuhr’s pacifism was challenged during World War I, and he supported the war effort against Germany as possible step toward a lasting peace. Niebuhr naturally followed Rauschenbush closely in his thinking about democratic ideals, yet later called the social gospel movement naive and utopian, writing in 1944 at the height of World War II that American democracy was more realistic. “Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
"Reinhold niebuhr" by http://watersbroken.files.wordpress.com/2009/06/. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Reinhold Niebuhr via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Reinhold_niebuhr.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Reinhold_niebuhr.jpg
Reinhold Niebuhr bears witness to Rauschenbusch in two equally important ways. A concern for the social gospel, and a commitment to liberal democracy as the primary vehicle through which the good intentions of the church could be realized. Hauerwas writes that “ironically, Niebuhr's justification of democracy turns out to be a legitimization of Protestant liberalism. His views appear less religiously specific than those of Rauschenbusch, but that is only because his account of Christianity had already been well policed by the requirements of sustaining democracy as a universal achievement.”
Another aspect of Niebuhr’s theology bears mentioning. The more one explores Niebuhr’s writing, the less it becomes possible to find references to the Bible as an informant of Niebuhr’s ethics. In his quest for realism and relevancy to the American political system, the former proponent of the social gospel ostensibly found Scripture to be less than helpful. He was vague concerning the importance of the Bible to ethics other than the text's capacity to articulate universal truths and assist in providing religious metaphors for reality.
Niebuhr's prioritizing of democratic ideals and what he termed to be “Christian realism,” is evident in his work concerning the American civil rights movement of the 1950's and 60's. One can observe the concern for relevance within the context of the ongoing discussions of civil rights and the mobilization of resources in the pursuit of the movement's goals, as Niebuhr's writing increasingly lacked references to the biblical text. Siker writes that “when one examines Niebuhr's work as a whole, one finds that he tends to make more frequent references to specific Bible texts in overtly theological writings, even if often in passing... in his more socially and politically oriented writings, however, Niebuhr rarely cites scripture, perhaps because of the more public forum he was seeking to influence.” Siker goes on to state that Niebuhr's primary community “was not so much the church as it was the forum of national and international policy debates addressed in light of his Christian convictions.”
Though Niebuhr was not alone in his decision to rely on the nation state to exact or promote justice during the 60's, I consider him representative of what the white establishment came to be during this time of “crisis.” The answer to the question of what it is that “we ought to do” tends toward finding ways to legislate and enforce justice. The question of “how we ought to do it” is less clear. A quick (perhaps unfairly so) read of some of Niebuhr's essays in the 1960's reveals that he strayed from articulating faith-based responses to what he referred to as the “racial crisis” and relied instead on the ability of the nation state to resolve the issue of injustice as it related to segregation and voting rights. His writing suggested that political power is the appropriate means for achieving preferred outcomes, and he can be interpreted as believing that appropriate use of such power occurs when the state has the monopoly on enforcing morality. “It has been said” wrote Niebuhr in The Crisis in American Protestantism, “that perhaps the weakness of American Protestantism reveals itself in the fact that it is 'captive to the power structure'.”
It is Niebuhr, as we read through some of his work in the mid-60's, that favors political and military power. He avoided the suggestion that it is the imbalance of power and the human tendency toward domination that makes his own, and often our own, understandings or moral crisis captive to the power structure. Just as when he could see no alternative to the fascist threat outside of militarism, Niebuhr could see no response to the racial injustices without supporting the use of power by the American government to enforce civil rights laws at gun-point. He wrote in 1965 that it was necessary for Lyndon Johnson to federalize the Alabama National Guard so that Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on Birmingham could receive appropriate protection. In a brief column entitled Civil Rights Climax in Alabama, he adds a telling observation concerning revolution and the matter of hope.
Niebuhr believed Marx had it all wrong; that Marx believed revolution is motivated by “pure desperation.” Niebuhr quoted Proverbs 13:12 to make his point. “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick [but when desire cometh it is a tree of life]” suggesting that having hope, yet not seeing it realized, is the greater motivator. That may be true, yet there is something troubling here. While he quotes Proverbs, Niebuhr did not suggest that hope for African Americans comes from the gospel narratives or from an experience of the risen Christ. Niebuhr used Scripture to locate the hope of the black cause in the Supreme Court, and its deferment in the unrealized implementation of desegregation laws.
Whether Christ gives hope of any justice or not is not so much the issue, however, but instead that hope is placed elsewhere, which indicates a failure of Christian ethics to be Christian any more. Niebuhr published his article in a Christian journal. The level of writing suggests that the readership has some academic training. In this context he implicitly states that hope and justice as being found solely within the realm of government, government courts, and government military force. Niebuhr's only mention of the church comes with his possibly condescending affirmation of the black church. He identified white protestantism as a problem rather than a solution to the civil rights struggle, rightfully indicating the black church as a locus of the movement. He singled out King for honors as a contributor to rectifying wrongs. Yet, in his articles during the mid-60's, identifying the black church as the response to racism is lacking. He seemed to find the solutions originating with the federal government. Did he believe the black church to be powerless in the struggle for anything outside of the moral support it might supply to activists? He certainly found white protestantism to be lacking, outside of a few prophetic voices.
An observer might believe Niebuhr had no room for particularly Christian or Christ-centered propositions to provide foundation for his ethic, even though he wrote as a Christian. He did not write with an eye toward reforming Christian congregations other than rightfully stating that white churches were lagging behind in the cause of civil rights. “We may all be racists at heart” he wrote, “but we have some limits of humane concern that distinguish us from the Nazis.” Who is the “we” that Niebuhr writes of, and how could he overlook the very real “master race” organizations that existed all over the north and the south? Racial superiority was at the heart of slavery and Jim Crow, and was prevalent even among those whites who supported abolition before the American Civil War.
Instead of proposing a well-interpreted scriptural mandate for justice by appealing to Galatians 3:27-29 as a warrant for participation in justice movements, Niebuhr in effect overlooked the truly racist realities of the American democracy in order to commend hope to American institutions. He seemed to be saying, “at least we're not Nazis.” He seemed to relax any tensions that could be realized with encouraging white Protestants to participate in marches, civil disobedience, or boycotts, though he must have somehow supported such action. It appears in the limited scope of my reading that he simply trusted whites to acquiesce to the federal government as the legitimators of black civil rights claims, and not command participation from those who need to be most changed – white protestants. It is remarkable that he calls for federal troops to protect participants in a non-violent movement.
Siker sums Niebuhr's nod to realism as such: “With regard to the love ethic, it is... crucial for Niebuhr to argue that the love ethic of Jesus is an impossible ethical ideal.” Thus, the apparent trust on his part in the coercive abilities of government over the biblical mandate to love one's enemy distinguishes the Bible as a text from more authoritative civil laws, and the ethic of Christ as inadequate for Christian contributions to moral discourse. This seems to be an important manner in which Christian ethicists could have prioritized both the Bible, and the life of Christ, as the primary informants of Christian ethics. The leading theologian of the time chose a different road to hoe.
I believe Niebuhr is truly on the side of justice. It is more likely that, especially in light of the crisis of World War II, Niebuhr could not see the power that is inherent in the weakness – in lovingly changing the heart of your neighbor and enemy – of the cross. He interpreted Christ through the lenses of democracy because he could only interpret the achieving of justice as occurring through the gears of power and control. And, because he trusted solely in the power of democracy, he initiates an ethic that renders the Christian narrative and its canonical texts peripheral contributors, because, it otherwise has the ability to challenge democracy's assumed truth of righteous coerciveness.
Even with the civil rights victories that so many like Niebuhr worked for, there has been no real change in theological perspective. We still have an overwhelmingly racist and sexist society, and church, that pretends incremental achievement will someday bring us to that final, overarching moral perfection. In the end, there seems to be a general rejection the cross as a means of realizing justice. Why would white Christians experience marginalization en-mass – like those experiences of the Freedom Riders or participants in lunch-counter sit-ins – if government can enforce desegregation at gun point? Niebuhr refused the messianic challenge toward cross-bearing in favor of the what Yoder and others call Constantinian option.
This essay is not to be misunderstood as a criticism of civil rights legislation. It is to point out that, in the process of seeking justice with as little effort or self-reflection as possible, we lose sight of the biblical mandate to love our neighbors and enemies. It is not that the nation state should resist enforcing legislation – the question is far different. The question is: what are Christians called to do differently? Niebuhr did not ask white folks to sit at lunch counters or march on Birmingham, though he knows that some did. He did not ask them to walk away from their congregations to start new ones that supported justice through the embodiment of a Galatians 3. He instead called for the support of militarism; and Jesus, no matter how you nail him to the cross, rejects that notion.
As such, there is no real christocentric contribution to the discussion – no non-violent alternative - for even though the marchers and demonstrators are non-violent, Niebuhr cannot help but to call for their defense at gun-point instead of sitting down next to them. He simply must dictate the terms, the time, and the means despite the best arguments of those he supports. I am sure Niebuhr comments consistently on the righteousness of non-violence. It seems he didn't believe it would work, which was a wholesale exclusion of faith.
My alternative is to explore how we answer the question of Christian ethics from a biblical standpoint instead of a perspective that prioritizes liberal democracy and electoral politics. The question of what we ought to do can be answered with “we ought to reflect the love of Jesus Christ, if we call ourselves Christians.” The answer to “how we ought to do it” must be framed much differently than has been since World War II. Yet, perhaps the question simply needs to be qualified: “How can we reflect the voluntary suffering of the cross in our pursuit of a justice that may be unlike anything we can describe?”
In this we may find our response to the dichotomy between the options presented in the introduction, and we can find it in the Gospel of John, Chapter 6. Consider the following:
Many of the young folks that were demonstrating on Wall Street came from, or met at, Columbia University in the heart of Manhattan. It was at this college where revolutionaries on both the faculty, and from the surrounding urban chaos, made plans for the overthrow of the Stock Exchange and the realization of true democracy.
The preacher from Wall Street walked over to Columbia intending to preach to the revolutionaries, who were forming themselves into affinity groups in order to carry out their next action.
The followers of this preacher who was taught love of enemies noticed that many in the crowd of revolutionaries were hungry, and some of them had not eaten in days. The people had no money, as many had lost their jobs. Others were students, and still others simply left their jobs to join the movement. The preacher of love had called upon his followers to do the very same, and he understood the angry masses before him.
His followers said to him, “how can we feed these hungry people? We have no more than $200.” The preacher calmed them and instructed the entire mass of people to sit and be fed. Together, the disciples went to urban gardens, outdoor markets, pushcarts, and around the mass of people themselves, and collecting enough food that everyone could have second helpings. The preacher told his students, “you need not spend the money of the Stock Exchange when we have resources in our own community. We need not spend what is valued over people when we can provide an alternative that renders the money of Wall Street valueless.”
Yet, the people in the crowd could not understand. They wanted to elect this preacher as a leader and creator of consensus. They decided to march to Wall Street and declare him as the new face of the movement. But the preacher knew that they still planned to use force, and he would not give up his love ethic. Feeding people from the resources available was preferable to killing and redistributing mammon. He withdrew to a nearby building, away from the crowds, in order to pray. During prayer, he knew other sacrifices would be necessary to show the masses what God expected of the to bring about a new realm on Earth. He asked for guidance, yet set his face toward Wall Street to preach love yet again. What is it that your ears will hear in these competing narratives?
Josh Horwitz, “Thomas Jefferson and the 'Blood of Tyrants',” HuffingtonPost.com, September 1, 2009, (Accessed July 19, 2014), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/josh-horwitz/thomas-jefferson-and-the_b_273800.html.
Matthew 5.43; 48 NRSV
Stanley Hauerwas. War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 4.
For an example of this view as related to conservative American political claims, especially in light of Hauerwas's assumptions, see the following essay: Todd Starnes, “Are we still one nation under God?” FoxNews.com. July 2, 2012, (Accessed July 19, 2014), http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2010/07/02/todd-starnes-barack-obama-united-states-christian-nation/. The article takes issue with a statement by President Barack H. Obama during a speech in which the author assumes that Obama declared that the United States in no longer “just a Christian nation” Starnes cites President George Washington to support his claim: “'While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished character of Patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian'.” Sterns himself adds quotable statements to his essay: “And while the winds of change may sweep across the nation’s capital - there stands a beacon of hope - a reminder that this nation of immigrants was built, not on sinking sand, but on a firm foundation, girded by Almighty God,” followed with, “on this Fourth of July, the first ray’s(sic) of morning light will shine down upon these United States of America -- illuminating an eternal truth and a grateful nation’s prayer - praise be to God!”
This statement is based on the work of a number of theological writers. The following list is intended to provide a cross-section of theological thinking that has been critical of Enlightenment and Modernity as it relates to Christian ethics and the biblical text. See John Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction and the Hermeneutic Project (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987). John E. Thiel, Nonfoundationalism, in “Guides to Theological Inquiry,” edit. by Kathryn Tanner, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1991. Henry Ruff, Postmodern Rationality, Social Criticism, and Religion, in “Paragon Issues in Philosophy” edit. by John K. Roth and Frederich Sontag, (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2005). Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983). Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984). John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).
For an excellent example of the relationship between religiously conservative Christians, the socialist movement in the United States, and union struggles, see the movie Matewan. Written and directed by John Sayles, (New York City: Cinecom Pictures, 1987). Based on a coal mining strike and union organizing in 1930's West Virginia, stock characters reflect the attitudes of conservative Baptists, social gospel Baptists, socialist union organizers, and an exploited working class. Interestingly, the socialist organizer is portrayed as an atheist, while the workers are portrayed as rather ambivalent toward religion.
Michael G. Cartwright, Practices, Politics, and Performance: Toward a Communal Hermeneutic for Christian Ethics, Vol. 57 Princeton Theological Monograph (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2006), 8.
Richard Gid Powers, Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism (New York: The Free Press, 1995), 51.
Rauschenbusch quotes Freidrich Engels' Condition of the Working Class in England in 1848. Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis, (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1908) 216. https://archive.org/stream/christianityand01rausgoog#page/n5/mode/2up, ( Accessed July 19, 2014). See also the first chapter of Rauschenbusch's Christianizing the Social Order (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1912), 1-6, https://archive.org/stream/christianizings01rausgoog#page/n14/mode/2up, (Accessed July 19, 2014).
Hauerwas, “The Democratic Policing of Christianity” Pro Ecclesia III, no. 2, (Summer 1994, 215-231), 219. He writes “According to Rauschenbusch the new social sciences have discovered the plasticity of human society as well as the inherent organic character of social relations. For example, through the new biblical sciences and historical method we are being put in the position of the original readers of each book, thus making the Bible more life-like and social. 'We used to see the sacred landscape through allegorical interpretation as through a piece of yellow bottle-glass. It was very golden and wonderful, but very much apart from our everyday modern life. The Bible hereafter will be 'the people's book' in a new sense. For the first time in religious history we have the possibility of so directing religious energy by scientific knowledge that a comprehensive and continuous reconstruction of social life in the name of God is within the bounds of human possibility'. In short, as he says in Theology for The Social Gospel, 'Where religion and intellect combine, the foundation is laid for political democracy'," citing Rauschenbusch, (New York: Abington Press, 1917).
I here follow Cartwright, 59. He quotes Rauschenbush's Christianity and the Social Order “Democracy aids in Christianizing the social order by giving political and economic expression to” Christianity's “fundamental view of the worth of man.” Rauschenbusch uses the Bible as providing historical legitimacy for the claim that Jesus is representative of the Christian ethic, and tends to view American liberalism as the natural extension of Jesus' unchallengeable authority: Read Gary Dorrien's “Rauschenbusch's Christianity and Social Crisis” which states in an generally positive review that Rauschenbusch's supporters were “sentimental, moralistic, idealistic and politically naive. [The book] preached a gospel of cultural optimism and a Jesus of middle-class idealism. It was culturally chauvinist and thoroughly late-Victorian. It spoke the language of triumphal missionary religion, sometimes baptized the Anglo-Saxon ideology of Manifest Destiny, and usually claimed that American imperialism was not really imperialism, since it had good intentions... It created the ecumenical movement in the U.S., but it had a strongly Protestant, anti-Catholic idea of ecumenism, and Rauschenbusch was especially harsh on this topic. Most social gospel leaders vigorously opposed World War I until the U.S. intervened, whereupon they promptly ditched their opposition to war (with the brave exception of Rauschenbusch). “Rauschenbush's Christianity and Social Crisis, Religion-online.org, (1997), http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3501 (Accessed July 19, 2014).
William G. Chrystal, “Reinhold Neibuhr and the First World War,” Journal of Presbyterian History, 1977, 55 no. 3, 285-298.
Reinhold Niebuhr, Children of Light and Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defense. (New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1944), XI.
Hauerwas, “The Democratic Policing of Christianity” Pro Ecclesia III, no. 2, (Summer 1994, 215-231), 228.
Reinhold Niebuhr, Children of Light and Children of Darkness.
Jeffrey Siker, Scripture and Ethics: Twentieth-Century Portraits, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 10.
Ibid. See also the editorial note in The Christian Century which identifies Niebuhr as “one of Protestantism's most renowned figures, 1498. Stanley Hauerwas identifies this manner of “doing Christian ethics” as rooted in the church's insistence on being taken seriously in an increasingly secular American society. He writes “Christian ethicists [have] come to think that, if they wish to remain political actors, they must translate their convictions into nontheological idiom. But once such translation is accomplished, why is the theological idiom needed at all?” Furthermore, Hauerwas states that this secularism has presented theological ethicists with an irresistible temptation. Even if theologians cannot “demonstrate the truth of theological clams,” Christians attempt to insist on maintaining a place in ethical discourse by making the argument that religious “attitudes” are necessary “to the maintenance of our culture... If religion is to deserve allegiance, so the thinking goes, it must be based on what can be agreed upon universally.” Such is the case for Niebuhrian ethics that indicate a trajectory moving from pacifist to militaristic, and from sacrificial kenosis to dependence on the coercive forces of the government. Hauerwas, “On Keeping Ethics Theological,” in The Hauerwas Reader,” edit. by John Berkman and Michael Cartwright, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 68, 52.
Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Crisis in American Protestantism,” The Christian Century, (December 4, 1963), 1498-1501.
Niebuhr, “Civil Rights Climax in Alabama,” Christianity in Crisis, XXIII, no. 5, (April 5, 1965), 61
Niebuhr, “The Mounting Racial Climax,” Christianity in Crisis, XXIII, no. 12, (July 8, 1963), 121-22.
Niebuhr, “Civil Rights Climax in Alabama,” 61. While this assumption may be somewhat unfair, it can be considered a summary of much of Neibuhr's work in the 60's. He wrote, “the martyr’s death of the Unitarian minister James Reeb, done in by cruel racists, and the nation-wide sympathy and horror over his death vivify two additional themes. One is the increasing moral isolation of the white oligarchy by the nation. We may all be racists at heart, but we have some limits of humane concern that distinguish us from the Nazis.” (italics added).
Siker, Scripture and Ethics, 13. also, see Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994), 4-8. Yoder writes that there are six assumptions that are argued in opposition to the credibility of the so-called “love ethic” as a normative Christian ethic. Those assumptions are; 1) “The ethic of Jesus is an ethic for an “Interim” which Jesus thought would be very brief.” 2) “Jesus was, as his Franciscan and Tolstoyan imitators have said, a simple rural figure...” and he had no intention of speaking to the “complex problems of complex organizations” etc. 3) “Jesus and his early followers lived in a world over which they had no control... they could not conceive of the exercise of social responsibility in any form other than being a faithful witnessing minority.” 4) Jesus “dealt with spiritual and not social matters, with the existential and not the concrete.” 5) Jesus “pointed people away from the local and finite values to which they had been giving their attention and proclaimed the sovereignty of the only One worthy of being worshiped.” 6) “Jesus came to give his life for the sins of humankind...but should never be correlated with ethics.” In The Priestly Kingdom, Yoder adds to his list of common errors concerning a Christ-centered and biblical ethic a list of arguments that are often invoked to cut any discussion of radical ethics short. They are the tendency of mainstream pastors or church members to ask “'how far' should we go, or 'at what point' it needs to be buffered or diluted by 'realistic,' or 'pastoral' or 'ecumenical' considerations.” 16.
Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom, 135ff.