You need to give me an A+ for being your preacher. That is because I have taken on the ominous task of studying some of Reinhold Niebuhr’s works— so that I can share some of his thoughts with you. Believe me, that deserves an A+ or maybe a special plaque on a wall here in the church?
Now, I know I should have studied Reinhold Niebuhr back in seminary. He is regarded as THE greatest Christian ethicist of the 20th century. Among the many religious and political thinkers who have been shaped by his writings are Martin Luther King, Jr and my favorite theologian, Walter Wink; also people who live and move and have their being in the political realm: Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, James Comey, Madeleine Albright, John McCain, David Brooks (he’s a political commentator) and many folks who worked in both the Regan and Bush administrations. He has been referred to as a public theologian. In his day he preached before great crowds of Americans—of all religious persuasions and even of no religion persuasion.
I am sure I must have read snippets of his work, in seminary, but I was never required to read an entire book by Niebuhr. So, I have decided, for love and my responsibility to YOU—I will at least slog through THE most celebrated of Niebuhr’s many celebrated books: Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics. I say slog, and slogging it is! The paragraphs are long. How long—well just opening the book at random, I hit on a paragraph that was two pages long. Two pages of sustained thought about….drum roll here--SIN! Depressing subject, Sin.
Not only that, those long paragraphs are packed full of concepts that take time to digest. So for example: Here’s one sentence from one of those long paragraphs, again, chosen at random:
“The introspective character of religion, which results in the spirit of contrition also contributes to its spirit of love.” Say that again?
A few weeks back I met a professor who teaches Christian ethics at UVA. I told her that after 20 years of ministry—I am finally getting around to reading Moral Man and Immoral Society. And her response was, “And you mean you choose to do that?”
It’s impossible to read more than a few pages without taking a break—and a break for me is synonymous with eating chocolate. I may weigh 300 pounds by the end of this project—again, all for you. I’m going to be disappointed if I don’t get that plaque when I’m done, I tell you!
As painful as it is, there’s an upside for me personally, though. This reading project is helping me to think through what is happening today—and put what is happening in this country into a faith framework. That is because what I have discovered in my reading so far is this—Niebuhr’s time in history is also our time in history.
Does history repeat itself? I hope not, but philosophers tell us it can, IF we don’t learn from the past. My hope is that over the course of this summer, and I am sure he will come up again in my preaching—over the course of this summer, we will have a Niebuhr frame for considering the unfolding events in the US. Though he be long dead, he died in 1971, it will be as if we are inhabiting Niebuhr’s skull and looking out at the world through his eye sockets.
As a way into this book, again, Moral Man, and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics, let’s consider the time in which it was written. The copyright is 1932. That says a lot. As you know, the US was suffering through the Great Depression. What brought about the Great Depression? Well, lack of controls on the banking system brought about the immediate crisis. It is interesting, though, that before the depression, peoples’ incomes in this country were grossly out of whack. Rich people just kept getting richer and poor people just kept getting poorer. Back then, the richest 1% of people in this country possessed 20 percent of the country’s wealth. Taxes unfairly advantaged the wealthy. Workers’ unions were almost non-existent, so blue collar workers were without voice in the industries they worked for.
Does some of this sound familiar?
Enter Reinhold Niebuhr. Now before Niebuhr came along and changed their minds—a lot of people thought about religion as being over here, and politics as being over there. For them, religion’s purpose was to comfort the afflicted—not inform politics. Reinhold Niebuhr disagreed. He thought that religion must influence politics—religion at its best keeps politics from merely becoming a tool for those in power.
That’s actually one of Niebuhr’s foundational concepts. Religion can and should inform our politics.
Here are some other foundational concepts in Niebuhr’s book, that I have discovered in my reading up to this point:
One: Human beings sin. No, really? Ok we know that already. But most of us, probably, me included, are inclined to think, “Well, I’m not THAT sinful.” One of the great mistakes of religious folks, says Niebuhr, is that we don’t give sin enough credit. WE are all heavily steeped in sin. And the kicker is WE CAN’T HELP IT!
Paul says as much in our scripture reading for today: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil that I do not want is what I do.”
According to Niebuhr, our greatest personal sin is selfishness. Selfishness is part of our human nature. We HAVE to look out for ourselves if we are to survive. But we go well beyond wanting that which keeps us alive. That is because we humans have imagination, says Niebuhr. We imagine that which is beyond our needs, and then we plan and strategize how we are going to get it. I need enough food to keep from starving, so, say, a rice dinner with some cabbage thrown in. But the little demon in the corner of my very imaginative brain whispers-- “It certainly would be nice to have a thick juicy steak, a baked potato, a fresh salad and some ice cream for dessert—umm.”
This, while there are children right here in our country who do not have enough to eat.
But maybe you say to yourself as I say to myself. “I deserve steak. I earned the money to buy steak.” Except if you follow that line of reasoning, then that child in Appalachia deserves to be sucking on her fingers because she has nothing else to put in her mouth. No child deserves to starve. So, I should choose the cabbage and rice and send the money I save on dinner, to that little girl in Appalachia. Do I do that? Don’t count on it! I do the very thing that I hate. I am greedy. Selfish.
That’s enough to make us turn from this whole subject of sin, but sorry. Not yet. There’s more. There’s a lot more actually. I will just share with you one other of Niebuhr’s depressing foundational principles as regards personal sin. Our other major personal sin is the will-to-power. We want to believe and we want others to believe that we are more significant than we actually are. AND we want to believe and we want others to believe that we have more power than the next guy. Power comes in different forms— political power, military power, financial power—most definitely money is a major power-gage today. So people collect, or shall we say “hoard,” way over the amount of money they need to survive. The more money, the more clout.
Just to review, our personal sins according to Niebuhr anyway, are selfishness and a will for power. What keeps us from just devolving into total sinfulness? Niebuhr says that we are saved by love and by faith.
We are saved by love. Our love for each other, our love for God, God’s love for us, makes us compassionate. Because we are compassionate, we share what we have with the people closest to us--our children and our church—but we also give to Meals on Wheels maybe, or the Boys and Girls Club, the Discovery School.
And we are saved by Faith. Because we have faith in God we are humble. We know that God is God, and we’re not. Humility counter-acts our will-to-power.
But we still have not finished with sin yet. Sorry. We move on to group sin. Remember the title of Niebuhr’s book, Moral Man and Immoral Society. Another idea foundational to Niebuhr, is that we as individuals may be somewhat moral (hand), but in groups, we are extremely immoral. Nations is his prime example. Nations are comprised of individuals, of course. But nations do not LOVE—The US does not send Valentines to France, or blow kisses to England.
Nations are merely a human concept (despite what the Supreme Court says). Human concepts (Nations) are immoral—unjust because many of the people who make the laws for our nation are not moral. In fact, they lead with selfishness and a will-to-power. They use the government as a tool to enhance their greed and power. Who loses out? People who are needy and who do not have power. Sad to say, but the evidence is all around us—as it was in 1932.
Ok. By now you should be feeling super awful. Yep. Join the club—my club and also the Apostle Paul’s club and also Niebuhr’s club. WE are slogging through Moral Man and Immoral Society. Are you thinking, “Is there no hope for us?” Well, there IS hope for us. Hope too, is foundational to Reinhold Niebuhr’s thinking and it is foundational to our faith.
I have not finished the book yet, so I can’t give you the entire scope of Reinhold Niebuhr’s hope. I know this much, though—Niebuhr hopes that our faith will inform us—and then we will hold our leaders accountable— We live in a democracy, still. We elect our leaders. Still, even in a democratic society, change is not easily achieved. It only comes after long struggle. The Civil Rights movement is an example.
I have to conclude this sermon, of course, with a quote from Niebuhr—I chose among many that are worth committing to memory—truly-- “The man on the cross turned defeat into victory and prophesied the day when love would be triumphant in the world.” Not possible entirely, maybe, but something to aim for. Amen and Amen
Live one day at a time,
Enjoy one moment at a time,
Accept hardship as a pathway to peace,
Take, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as we would have it.
Let us also trust that God will make all things right,
if we surrender to God’s will;
So that we may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with God forever in this world and the next. (Reinhold Niebuhr, with edits)