During the 1930s, some nonviolence advocates in the U.S. were encouraged by the news of Gandhi’s successes in India. Others, however, paid more attention to the declining fortunes of the working class and the rise of totalitarian communism and fascism. They found it hard to sustain their faith in the efficacy of nonviolence as a means for social change. There was a growing body of opinion saying that conflicts are never resolved without some degree of coercion. This view was promoted especially by those who saw all conflict rooted in the gap between rich and poor. They were convinced that the rich would never give up any of their riches and privileges unless they were forced to. That would take a revolution. And successful revolutions always require violence. By 1932, those who took this view were eagerly reading its most profound theoretical statement, Reinhold Niebuhr's classic book, Moral Man and Immoral Society.
Niebuhr (1892 – 1971) was one of the young Protestant ministers who committed himself to nonviolence and socialism in the wake of World War I. His brilliant mind and many talents soon made him a leader in the Fellowship of Reconciliation. But during the 1920s he devoted most of his energy to the church that he served as pastor, in Detroit. As the decade went on, more and more of his congregation consisted of assembly line workers in the rapidly expanded automobile factories. So he saw first hand how the new system of industrial mass production worked. Henry Ford and the other company owners grew fabulously wealthy. Middle managers and technical professional lived comfortable suburban lives. Meanwhile, the vast majority of workers, the people who actually made the cars, were overworked and underpaid. They spent their days sweating in dangerous factories. They spent their nights and Sundays crowded into substandard housing. Their efforts to unionize, so that they could have the power to demand a fair share of the wealth, met constant resistance from the bosses.
As Niebuhr grew more and more sympathetic to the workers he served, he grew more and more doubtful that they could attain power through strictly nonviolent means. He began to suspect that he would have to choose between economic justice and nonviolence. He had always harbored some doubts about nonviolence. He had adopted the position largely because he was repelled by the senseless slaughter of World War I; the principled arguments were not his main motive. Through the 1920s, he continued to see nonviolence as the better alternative, but by no means ideal. One hallmark of Niebuhr's thinking throughout his life was skepticism about ideals and absolutes. He was always quick to see the dangers in any viewpoint or action, no matter how good it might seem. He did not deny that absolute ideals could be found; he denied only that they could be acted out consistently in the real world. Every effort to act out ideals brought with it unintended ironic consequences. So, for example, he pointed out that the widespread pacifism of the '20s helped to maintain the status quo, which served U.S. political and economic interests. The FOR, by supporting the broader pacifist agenda, unwittingly served the same interests.
As early as 1923, Niebuhr said that principled nonviolence was too ideal for this sinful world. By the early 1930s, when he had become a professor at New York's Union Theological Seminary, he chose the world over the principle. Justice for the workers was the most important goal, he affirmed. To get justice, some violence would inevitably be necessary, since the rich would never be peacefully persuaded to share their riches. But if violence was the way to justice, so be it. Niebuhr resigned from the FOR and set about explaining his new direction in theological terms.
The result was his classic book, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932). That book remains the most influential, and probably the most trenchant, critique of nonviolence ever written in the United States. Many people who are strongly committed to nonviolence will agree that no one should make the commitment without seriously considering Niebuhr's arguments against it. Anyone who works through his arguments carefully and still opts for nonviolence will have a stronger intellectual (and probably emotional) commitment for having done so.
Niebuhr did not write his book primarily to criticize nonviolence. He saw Christian nonviolence in the U.S. as merely one part of a larger trend of liberal Christianity, typified by the Social Gospel movement. That larger trend was his principal target. Liberal Christianity, at its most extreme, trusted that people could learn to become so reasonable that they would work together for the good of all, and create the Kingdom of God on earth. Niebuhr vigorously rejected this faith. As always, he argued on both practical and theological grounds. Practically speaking, he saw no grounds for utopian hope. With liberal democratic capitalism so imperiled by economic depression and rising totalitarianism, the optimism of liberal Christianity struck him as totally unrealistic. He wanted Christians to take a more "realistic" approach to getting justice for the working class. The commandment to love must be acted out in real history, he asserted, in organized efforts to get justice for the oppressed. That means using the political system, which means pitting power against power, rather than always treating the powerful with perfect love.
Theologically, he pointed out that, while the New Testament commands Christians to perfect love, it also assumes that no one will follow this commandment perfectly. So there is no Christian basis for such utopian hope. To support his argument, he went back to the most influential of all Christian theologians, Augustine of Hippo (who wrote in the early 5th century). Augustine's ideas had fallen out of fashion among liberal intellectual Christians. In the history of U.S. Christianity, Niebuhr's greatest achievement was to bring Augustinian theology back to center stage. He created a modernized version of Augustinian thought, informed by current intellectual trends like existentialism and psychoanalysis.
HUMAN NATURE AND THE LIMITS OF REASON
Niebuhr's theory, as presented in Moral Man and Immoral Society, is based on Augustine's understanding of human nature. It begins with the fact that human beings are both similar to and different from other animal species. Like other species, we have an innate will to survive; we will do whatever it takes to fend off challenges to our survival. (Here he drew on the rather simplistic view of Darwin's theory, still popular in his day, as "tooth-and-claw" survival of the fittest.) Unlike other species, though, we are consciously aware of ourselves. We can think about our place in the universe. As soon as we do, we immediately recognize the vast gulf between the infinite scope of the cosmos and our finite individual selves: "Self-consciousness means the recognition of finiteness within infinity. The mind recognizes the ego as an insignificant point amidst the immensities of the world." This humbling realization is disturbing, perhaps even unendurable, Niebuhr assumes. Therefore, "in all vital self-consciousness there is a note of protest against this finiteness."
There are two ways to cope with our radical finitude. One is the mystical path: "the desire to be absorbed in the infinite." Niebuhr mentions this option in one brief sentence and then forgets about it. The other way of coping, which is the foundation of his entire theory, is "man's effort to universalize himself and give his life a significance beyond himself." In short, this is the human condition. We all know we are insignificant, and so we look for ways to enlarge and aggrandize our sense of self, so that we can feel more significant.
This is the root of selfish desire (Augustine called it original sin), which is the mainspring of most human activity. We may try to feel more significant by getting more power, wealth, prestige, or sensual pleasure. We may do it in more socially constructive ways, by creating some great work or building some social institution that improves the lives of others. Perhaps the most common way is simply to get married and raise a family; we imagine our lives extending forever in an endless chain of descendants. All the ways in which we struggle to survive can easily become ways of making ourselves feel greater. "There is therefore no possibility of drawing a sharp line between the will-to-live and the will-to-power."
The selfish desire that motivates all these efforts begins in the mere fact of self-consciousness. It grows through the other uniquely human endowment: imagination. Once we start desiring, we can imagine our desires being fulfilled. But we can also imagine going beyond that to have even more, and more. In imagination, there is no end; that is where we get a sense of infinitude, which is always what we really desire. "Man's lusts are fed by his imagination, and he will not be satisfied until the universal objectives which the imagination envisages are attained. His protest against finiteness makes the universal character of his imperialism inevitable." Sometimes we imagine getting more for ourselves by getting more than our neighbors. Sometimes we imagine getting more for ourselves by joining with our neighbors to get more than another tribe, or another nation. Indeed, we feel bigger when we join with others in pursuit of a shared desire. So the larger the group, the more our selfish desire and imagination come to dominate us. On every scale, from the household up to the whole world, desires come into conflict. Because each of us is driven to self-aggrandizement, we resist compromise as much as we can. We would rather fight¾ if we see some chance of winning.
Fighting is irrational, because we need each other. Humans must live in groups in order to survive. We can hardly afford to tear apart the social fabric that sustains us. It would make more sense to take only as much as we need of the material, social, and psychological resources available to the group. Then others could have what they need too. Then we could all live together harmoniously. We are all somewhat rational, so we are not totally oblivious to this fact. When we think reasonably about any conflict situation, we usually see that compromise is the best solution. When we think reasonably about material goods, we usually realize that it makes no sense for some to starve while others stuff themselves; it makes no sense for millions to be desperately poor, while a relative handful grow fabulously wealthy. The more rational we are, the more we recognize that justice demands an equitable distribution of goods. "There is a general tendency of increasing social intelligence to withdraw its support from the claims of social privilege and give it to the disinherited. In this sense reason itself tends to establish a more even balance of power." (When he wrote Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr still viewed the Marxist ideal of equality as the most rational of all social goals. He would abandon this view a few years later.)
The problem is that selfish desire and imagination are nearly always stronger than reason. "In his sanest moments [man] sees his life fulfilled as an organic part of a harmonious whole. But he has few sane moments.…There is no miracle by which men can achieve a rationality high enough to give them as vivid an understanding of general interests as of their own." And when people get together with others, they are even less likely to be reasonable. Crowds amplify emotion and crowd out reason.
If reason is not strong enough to teach us how to get along with each other, what is to prevent our conflicts from tearing society apart? Niebuhr's answer is that this is why every group is structured in a social hierarchy. "Unity within an organized social group, or within a federation of such groups, is created by the ability of the dominant group to impose its will." Leaders often take the desires that individuals might turn on each other and divert them to a common enemy. But that is never enough to quell brewing conflicts within the group. Ultimately, the leaders must impose their rules on the members of the group by force. If people are going to get along, they must accept the authority of leaders.
In return, the leaders typically get the lion's share of political power or material wealth (and often both). "The same force which guarantees peace also makes for injustice." But this is the price we must pay in order to live together. The alternative is anarchy, which means there are no constraints on the struggle for power. That is always a recipe for greater injustice. An orderly society has a chance to move toward greater justice. But an anarchic society, no matter how just at the moment, is bound to degenerate into rule by the most powerful.
No matter how orderly a society, the masses who are ruled are never very happy about the arrangement. If they can, they will oust the leaders, even if they have to do it violently. Naturally, the leaders will fight back. Or they will try to divert the masses' anger on to some other group (foreigners, minorities, etc). But if the masses succeed in getting rid of their rulers, some of the masses will have to become the new rulers and use force to suppress the others. There is no end to the cycle. (In 1932, Niebuhr already saw the Soviet revolution as an obvious example of this cycle in action.) "The selfishness of human communities must be regarded as an inevitability. Where it is inordinate it can be checked only by competing assertions of interest; and these can be effective only if coercive methods are added to moral and rational persuasion." "Thus society is in a perpetual state of war."
This argument leads to a conclusion that was, in Niebuhr's view, the book's most important point. The liberal Christian ideal of a society where everyone is reasonable, and therefore all live together harmoniously working for the good of all, is utterly unrealistic. So is the hope of getting justice for the workers by redistributing the wealth nonviolently. The facts of human nature doom these efforts to failure. Conflict, force, and injustice are permanent facts of life. The best to hope for is to reduce these enough that society can survive. The only "realistic" goal is "a society in which there is enough justice, and in which coercion will be sufficiently non-violent, to prevent [humanity's] common enterprise from issuing into complete disaster." Again, it is important to remember that, in the United States of 1932, the complete collapse of all social structures seemed to many a very real possibility.
THE LIMITS OF RELIGION
Niebuhr's analysis surprises many readers in one respect. They assume that our concern for the poor and oppressed comes less from reason than from emotional feelings of love, empathy, and human connectedness. Niebuhr said just the opposite. He was suspicious of emotion, because it is so wrapped up with desire and imagination, which are the sources of injustice and violence. He found reason, not emotion, to be the way to justice. As a Christian minister, though, he could not deny that love must play some role in human life. After all, the Gospel that he preached proclaims love as the highest Christian value. So he analyzed the role of love, and of religion in general, to show both its possibilities and its limits.
Taking Christianity as his model for all religion, Niebuhr asserted that the highest value in religion is always a perfectly good will; i.e., perfect selflessness. Religion moves people to set aside their own desires and give to others through its emphasis upon love of others. Because love sees the infinite divine value of every individual, it sees every individual as equally valuable. So it protests against inhumane treatment of any person.
However, religion can actually undermine efforts to improve society, for at least two reasons. First, religion often makes people feel attached to an infinitely powerful God or perfect being who is still a person, much like ourselves except greater in every way. Religious people believe that this absolutely powerful person gives them special care and support. So religion can encourage people to assert themselves in extremely powerful ways. This can be especially dangerous when whole nations believe they have God on their side.
Second, religious people may be so focused on their ideal of perfect goodness that they see everything in the world as evil. So they may not protest against particular evils in the world. The classic source for this idea in Christian theology is Augustine's idea that human life is divided into two realms, the heavenly "city of God" and the earthly "city of man." These are totally opposed to each other, he said: "Self-love in contempt of God created the earthly [city of man]; love of God in contempt of one's self created the heavenly [city of God]. The first seeks the glory of man, and the latter desires God only, as the greatest glory." Since everything that we call human society is part of the "city of man," it is all inherently evil. It is "regarded as too involved in the sins of the earth to be capable of salvation in any moral sense. Usually the individual is saved by the grace of God while society is consigned to the devil; that is, the social problem is declared to be insoluble on any ethical basis. Thus Augustine concludes that the city of this world is 'compact [made up of] injustice,' that its ruler is the devil, that it was built by Cain [the first murderer, in the Bible] and that its peace is secured by strife. That is a very realistic interpretation of the realities of social life." The last sentence in this quotation shows Niebuhr's sympathy with Augustine.
But Niebuhr immediately adds that there is a problem with this view: it can lead people to despair of doing anything good in this world. Since everyone has some degree of selfishness in all their actions, every action falls short of God's standard of perfection. From this point of view, for example, building shelters for the homeless is no better than building overpriced mansions for the rich. This can easily create defeatism; people feel defeated in their efforts to improve the world before they even try, so they don't bother to try. This can lead people who love individuals very much to accept unjust social institutions as inevitable.
The other quality of religion, its ideal of love and good will, also has serious limits in our efforts to create a more moral society. We can easily love members of our families and other intimate small groups, people we have direct ties to. Paradoxically, we can also love total strangers, because they exist purely in our imagination, so we never have to deal with their reality. But when we are dealing with the real people in our society who are not intimate with us, we have to use our cold reasoning rather than our feelings and imagination. Then love, which is a warm feeling, has distinct limits.
In fact, love can also lead us to give up in our efforts to improve society. Love is concerned with pure motives, not results. So it can end up supporting actions that lead to bad results, because the motives are good. And the pure motives it demands may be unrealistic: "The demand of religious moralists that nations subject themselves to 'the law of Christ' is an unrealistic demand, and the hope that they will do so is a sentimental one. Even a nation composed of individuals who possessed the highest degree of religious goodwill would be less than loving in its relation to other nations." The same goes for other groups, especially economic classes. Again, religious idealists can easily fall into defeatism; they may say that since perfect love can't be realized in society, no social efforts are worth anything.
This kind of defeatism is not good, because it accepts injustice. But "there is a certain realism in this defeatism, and it has its own virtues." People with a high ideal of love, trying to make the world live by their ideal, may easily convince themselves that their efforts are having more effect than they really are. They then become too sentimental or tender-hearted, believing that everyone is really pure and good. This is the trend that Niebuhr saw in liberal Christianity and set out to combat, since it was the most common trend in his day. To point up what he saw as its dangers, he stressed the virtues he saw in Augustinian "realism," despite its defeatism.
Sentimental liberals are dangerous, Niebuhr says, because they are unrealistic. Since they think they are improving society more than they really are, they may be content with rather feeble efforts at reform and never get at the real injustices in society. In fact, they may never even see the real injustices, since their view is so unrealistic. If they do see the problems, they won't do anything effective to solve them because they misunderstand their causes. They mistakenly think that society is made up of loving people. So they don't see that social problems arise from unavoidable conflicts and require radical solutions. This same mistaken idea leads to perhaps the greatest danger, in Niebuhr's view: sentimentalists think they can change society without using any coercion. Naturally, he argues, their efforts at change are ineffective, since all change requires some degree of coercion.
Still another danger is that the wealthy and powerful will attach themselves to the liberal reformers and support their efforts. In this way they will use religion to legitimate their own power and oppression. The poor and powerless will correctly see this as hypocrisy and reject the religious reformers' efforts completely. In Niebuhr's opinion, these dangers of sentimentalism are so great that it is necessary to make Augustine's view central in Christian thought. He wanted a movement for social change that would be hopeful, avoiding Augustine's defeatism, yet be based on Augustine's supposedly "realistic" idea of human society.
Niebuhr finds great value in religion, despite this subtle critique. It can move individuals, families, and small groups to the highest levels of moral behavior. Because religious love demands absolute goodness and perfection, it leads people to imagine an absolutely good and loving society. This can motivate people to work for a better society, even when it seems most hopeless. "Religion is always a citadel of hope" for achieving that moral ideal. But it is a citadel "built on the edge of despair," and with good reason. "In their most unqualified forms, these hopes [for a perfect society] are vain." "As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic, and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command."
Thus the highest levels of morality may be attainable by individuals, but never by large groups. There may be a moral man or woman, but they will always live in an immoral society. For the individual, the highest value is the religious ideal of selfless love: all for you, nothing for me. But for a society the highest value is the rational ideal of justice: the same for you and for me. Perfect justice is unattainable. The best society can hope for is that it will be sufficiently rational to mitigates the worst injustices and maintain some minimal level of justice as well as harmony.
COERCION AND VIOLENCE
Even to attain that minimal level of justice and social harmony, society must accept the use of force, according to Niebuhr's view. Those who say force, compulsion, and violence are always immoral are misguided. They are applying the standard of individual and religious life¾ the law of love¾ to the group's social, political, and economic life. In the group's life, the law of love can never be fulfilled, so it is more reasonable to be governed by the law of justice. In group life, "the good motive is judged by its social goal. Does it have the general welfare as its objective?" If it does, it aims at greater justice. Therefore it is rational and good to follow that policy, even though it will require some kind of force. "There is no moral value which may be regarded as absolute." "Immediate consequences must be weighed against ultimate consequences." So it may be rational to sacrifice any value for the sake of another value that seems, at the moment, more important. Even killing a human being may sometimes be justified, if it can be proven that a greater good will result. No matter what people say, when it comes down to actual decisions, society always acts on the maxim that "the end justifies the means."
Once again, the individual's religious values are clearly different from the group's social values. Individuals may be right in following the absolute principle of selfless love at every moment, even though their efforts probably will not improve their society very much. But the group must be more practical, more concerned about seeking the relative advantage of greater justice.
Individuals may aspire to the absolute with more justification and less peril than societies. If the price which they must pay is high, the probable futility of their effort involves only their own losses.…But societies risk the welfare of millions when they gamble for the attainment of the absolute. And, since coercion is an invariable instrument of their policy, absolutism transmutes this instrument into unbearable tyrannies and cruelties.
Therefore, when it comes to policies for the whole society, it is safer to stop chasing absolute values like love or nonviolence. It is wiser to admit that we must always compromise, always let the ends justify the means, always use some force, and therefore always live in conflict. "Equality is a higher social goal than peace." Although perfect equality will never be achieved, a rational society will keep moving toward it and keep employing force against anyone who resists equality. People resist equality because they want to preserve their own special privilege and superior status; they will not give this up unless they are forced to. It is rational, and therefore perfectly ethical, to force them, because nothing else works. "Every effort to transfer a pure morality of disinterestedness to group relations has resulted in failure."
"Once we admit the factor of coercion as ethically justified, though we concede that it is always morally dangerous, we cannot draw any absolute line of demarcation between violent and non-violent coercion." Every action that works to break down inequality is coercive. "As long as it enters the field of social and physical relations and places physical restraints upon the desires and activities of others, it is a form of physical coercion." According to Niebuhr, even Gandhi found that in order to change an unjust social situation, one must use force. There is such a thing as pure non-resistance, the spiritual virtue taught by Jesus. That is the path chosen by the historic peace churches, and it is one logically consistent way to be Christian. But it does not fulfill the Christian duty to help others who are suffering. Precisely because it does not resist the existing situation, including all its evils, it makes no improvement in the situation. In order to combat injustice, it is necessary to use force.
It is not necessary, in every case, to use violence. For Niebuhr, violence is a specific kind of coercive force, the kind that results in intentional destruction of life or property. "Non-violent conflict and coercion may also result in the destruction of life or property and they usually do. The difference is that destruction is not the intended but the inevitable consequence of non-violent coercion." Some people confuse non-violent resistance with spiritual non-resistance, because they use the word nonviolence to denote the religious ideal of selfless love. But as soon as nonviolence becomes a tactic in the service of social change, it is a means to an end and therefore a form of coercion. And then someone ends up getting hurt, either physically, economically, or psychologically.
As long as the hurt moves the whole society toward greater justice, it is rational and therefore morally acceptable. In Niebuhr's view, even Gandhi was willing to cause harm to others because it served a greater good. For example, his boycott of British textiles cause many British workers to lose their jobs. Niebuhr saw nothing wrong with this. He objected only to Gandhi's claim that the boycott was not coercion and intended no harm, a claim he found dishonest and hypocritical. If Gandhi had read Niebuhr's book, he might well have objected that the author took a few passages from Gandhi's voluminous writing, tore them out of context, and misinterpreted their meaning. It does seem that Niebuhr first decided that every leader must be coercive and then went looking in Gandhi's writings for evidence to support his preconceived belief. This does not necessarily mean that Niebuhr was wrong, however.
Nor does it negate Niebuhr's warning that principled nonviolence can always entail a risk of self-righteousness. Those who believe in the possibility of perfectly loving political action may be tempted to identify their own cause with perfect love and their opponents with absolute evil. They may forget that all parties to any struggle are equally involved in the same web of good and evil, so that none are sinless.
Niebuhr was not against nonviolence. Having devoted over a decade to the cause, he understood its value very well. In Moral Man and Immoral Society, he very insightfully explained its advantages as a tactic to reach a goal. Nonviolence "protects the agent against the resentments which violent conflict always cretes in both parties to a conflict." It also "proves this freedom of resentment and ill-will to the contending party in the dispute by enduring more suffering than it causes." This allows nonviolent resistors to see things more objectively. They can "discriminate between the evils of a social system and situation and the individuals who are involved in it." This reduces animosities even more, because the individuals doing the evils may not feel personally attacked.
Nonviolence also makes it clear that people who want to promote justice are not attacking the peace and order of their society. In fact, it improves chances for peace and order during the conflict: "It preserves moral, rational and co-operative attitudes within an area of conflict and thus augments the moral forces without destroying them." "Non-violence is a particularly strategic instrument for an oppressed group which is hopelessly in the minority and has no possibility of developing sufficient power to set against its oppressors. The emancipation of the Negro race in America probably waits upon the adequate development of this kind of social and political strategy," Niebuhr wrote prophetically.
Niebuhr mentioned in passing that, if there are ever enough "religiously inspired pacifists," they "might affect the policy of government." And if their example spread to opposing groups, it might "mitigate the impact of the conflict without weakening the comparative strength of their own community." But he did not see much hope for this development to be significant in group relationships, especially in his own time. The trends in industrial society "aggravate the injustices from which men have perennially suffered.…They obsess us therefore with the brutal aspects of man's collective behavior.…We can no longer buy the highest satisfactions of the individual life at he expense of social injustice. We cannot build our individual ladders to heaven and leave the total human enterprise unredeemed of its excesses and corruptions."
Having analyzed both individual religious morality and group social morality, Niebuhr concluded that there is no realistic way to blend or harmonize the two. "It would therefore seem better to accept a frank dualism in morals.…It would make a distinction between the moral judgments applied to the self and to others; and it would distinguish between what we expect of individuals and of groups." We should still expect selfless love of individuals. But of groups we should expect coercive force, even violent force when it seems justified, to move society toward greater justice.
In the last paragraph of his book, Niebuhr returned to his primary target: the liberal Christians who believe that they are leading their society toward perfect justice. His whole argument aimed to persuade them that their unrealistic beliefs and aspirations make it harder to get the small victories that the working class needs to improve their lives even a little bit. At the very end, he acknowledged that the unrealistic illusion of perfect justice is useful, because it inspires religious people to work for justice. But it is also "dangerous because it encourages terrible fanaticisms. It must therefore be brought under the control of reason. One can only hope that reason will not destroy it before its work is done."
NIEBUHR'S LATER CAREER
Moral Man and Immoral Society made Niebuhr one of the most influential U.S. theologians of his day. Over the next two decades, he produced a series of books and essays that made his influence preeminent. In these writings, he developed more insights to support the fundamental position he had announced in 1932. He extended his Augustinian explanation for the innate selfishness of all human beings, and he cast it in a more psychological mode.
The innate dignity and worth of every human being is based not on the capacity for reason but on the fact of human freedom, he now argued. Humans are radically free to choose either good or evil. Reason tells us what is good, but it does not necessarily lead us to choose the good. Life is always uncertain. Evil is an ever-present possibility and thus always part of everyone's life. And we are responsible for every choice we make. Awareness of all this naturally makes us anxious. The anxiety is compounded because we are finite beings aware of infinitude. We must deal with the concrete particularity of each moment, having no fixed structures to restrict us. So we have no way of knowing our own limits, for evil as well as good.
One way to avoid this anxiety is to accept our finitude and the fact that God loves us despite our finitude. But precisely because we are finite, we never trust God's love perfectly. So we look to other sources for security. We take the finite values that give meaning to our lives and treat them as if they were infinite. In this way, we pretend to be self-sufficient, as if we had no need of God. In other words, we try to become God. To sustain this fiction, we try to wield infinite power. Of course everyone else is doing the same. So we want more power to protect ourselves against others. The resulting conflicts are bound to make us feel less secure. And the more power we amass, the more we have to lose, so the less secure we feel. Then we seek more power. The vicious cycle just goes on, making the liberal Christian hope of a genuinely good society impossible.
All of these ideas fit perfectly well with Niebuhr's analysis in Moral Man and Immoral Society. But by the late 1930s he had renounced one of the crucial premises of that book. He no longer believed that the industrial working class have any special value or a special claim on the concern of Christians. He no longer believed that socialism's aspiration to equal distribution of resources is the most rational ideal. He no longer believed that people can be motivated by a desire for economic justice, rather than their own power. By 1940, he had quit the Socialist Party, for a variety of reasons. He was distressed by the reports of Stalin's atrocities and by Stalin's nonagression pact with Hitler, which made the world communist movement oppose a war to stop Hitler. Convinced that only power could stop power, Niebuhr was equally convinced that Hitler could be stopped only by war. He chastised pacifists and socialists, as well as communists, for evading the political responsibility to fight the fascist evil.
There was also a theoretical reason for his political change. In Moral Man and Immoral Society, there was an unresolved tension between the lines. On the one hand, the book clearly argued against the possibility of resolving conflicts and ending injustice by human means. On the other hand, it showed the author's fervent wish that human problems could be resolved, or at least mitigated, so that a general framework of justice would prevail. Occasionally that wish was even expressed as a genuine hope. A thinker as rigorously logical as Niebuhr could not long sustain such a contradiction. Under the press of historical events, he opted for pessimistic "realism." Socialism was too utopian, he decided. Instead, he embraced the political theory of democratic liberalism, which had become popular during the New Deal era. According to this theory, it is a misunderstanding to view politics as the rational pursuit of ideals. Rather, politics is an arena of competing pressure groups. Of course all of these groups have sinful motives. And the best they can produce is an imperfect, somewhat unjust arrangement. But each counterbalances the others, so that no one group can permanently prevail. That is why liberal democracy is preferable to the totalitarian tyranny of fascism or communism.
This theory fit well with the ideas in Moral Man and Immoral Society, where Niebuhr argued that even the most loving person must make compromises. The Christian commandment of perfect love cannot be a guide for political action. Precisely because the ideal of perfect love cannot be fulfilled in society, it can remind everyone that they are sinners and that the societal structures they create are always imperfect. It can judge every human ideal and condemn it as less than absolute. Thus it can produce humility and avoid the self-righteousness that breeds fanaticism. In politics, a true Christian will accept the kind of pragmatic compromises and small improvements that liberal democracy offers, rather than trying for an impossible perfection.
Niebuhr's opposition to socialism and embrace of liberal democracy was a fateful step, because it was directly related to the origins of the cold war. During and after World War II, U.S. foreign policy was shaped by men like Dean Acheson, George Kennan, and John Foster Dulles, who took Christianity seriously and were greatly influenced by Niebuhr. (Kennan called Niebuhr "the father of us all.") They took his writings as a religious seal of approval on their "realist," uncompromising stance against the Soviet Union. By the late 1940s, they were creating a permanent national security state dedicated to an all-out war against communism. They justified this transformation of American life with Niebuhrian arguments. An intelligent Christian would realize that the world’s two superpowers would inevitably seek preeminence, and that meant they were bound to fight each other. A devout Christian would fight on behalf of the democratic capitalist superpower, which allowed individual freedoms including freedom of religion, against an atheistic totalitarianism that denied individual freedom for the sake of absolutist ideals.
The cold warriors’ theological mentor soon began to complain that they had missed his point. They viewed themselves as representatives of absolute good, acting as if the U.S. were somehow set apart from the world's sin. So they felt perfectly entitled to create the most powerful military machine in world history, with a nuclear arsenal that would soon grow beyond all rational bounds. Niebuhr protested that his ideas were being used to justify the kind of self-righteousness that he most opposed. He pointed out "the irony of American history" (the title of one of his best-know books): the U.S., claiming a mission to purify the world of sin, often acted sinfully; in its effort to protect the "free world," the U.S. often perpetrated injustices as bad as those it was opposing. In the last years of his life, he criticized the Vietnam war as the most egregious example of U.S. good intentions gone awry.
But it was too late. Niebuhr’s words had helped to set in motion political changes that he could not control. Ironically, his own theories could explain why this would happen and why it would be inevitable. He always appreciated the ironies of human life. For him, they were the clearest evidence that we are all finite, fallible creatures whose best efforts for good are always mixed with evil, beyond our control. Yet he could never accept the irony that his Christian "realism" and his rejection of nonviolence, however well-intentioned, had helped to bring the U.S. to moral disasters like the Vietnam war, and the world to the brink of nuclear destruction.
However, this outcome may be less ironic than it appears. There is a clear logical line leading from Niebuhr's initial premises to the horrors of the cold war and the nuclear age. Niebuhr's thinking starts out from a world divided between one transcendent, infinite Creator and many lowly, finite creatures. It is a hierarchical world, with an inevitable tension between the ruler and the ruled.
The same kinds of divisions and tensions mark the relationships among the creatures. They experience themselves as essentially separate from each other. They are like the separate pots produced by the potter, all lined up one by one on the shelf. They have no pre-existing connections as part of their essential being. So they must struggle to make connections. But precisely because they feel so small and isolated, each creature tries to aggrandize itself at the expense of others. So the struggle to make connections becomes an arena of conflict and domination. The hierarchical structure of the cosmos is replicated in every human society, from the nuclear family on up to the family of nations making nuclear weapons. The ruler dominates, hoping to preserve at least a minimal degree of order. The ruled resist domination. The cycle of conflict and violence has no end.
What is to prevent such a world from degenerating into all-out chaos? The only answer Niebuhr could offer is some combination of a bit of reason and a bit of humility, as preached by religious leaders like himself. But his own theory predicts that reason and humility will always be overwhelmed by human passions. The only real limit to the destructiveness of social conflict is the limit set by the state of destructive technology. Unfortunately for Niebuhr, during his lifetime technology surpassed all limits in its ability to destroy. The specter of nations threatening each other with total obliteration, using weapons on hair-trigger alert, was actually Niebuhr's own picture of human society as a jungle, taken to its extreme.
From the viewpoint of the nonviolence tradition, this tragedy flows inexorably from Niebuhr's premises. If the basic fact of reality is not connectedness but separation, if the basic structure of reality is not freedom but subjection to hierarchical authority, then there is no way to escape from conflict, violence, and destruction. Niebuhr often described the human condition as "tragic." The nonviolence tradition would suggest that the tragedy is not in some unalterable human condition, but in a description of human life that makes tragedy the only possible outcome. The fate of Niebuhr's writings, leading to results he neither expected nor approved, shows that every view of human life can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Any words that describe human life and human society help to create the kind of life and the kind of society that they describe. The nonviolence tradition is based on descriptions of human life quite different from Niebuhr's. They allow the possibility of escaping from tragedy into a more cooperative, harmonious, and peaceful life. And precisely because they allow for that possibility, they may make it more possible.
Notes to Chapter 8: Reinhold Niebuhr