Acts Of Violence Niebuhr essay example

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Brian Drake Sociology of Religion Professor Brown October 17, 2001 Reinhold Niebuhr Theologian, ethicist, and political analyst, Reinhold Niebuhr was a towering figure of twentieth century religious thought. He is well known and is appreciated for many reasons among American theologians. Niebuhr had a very strong opinion and much to say when it came down to man and violence in regards to peace and war. Although he thought of himself as a preacher and social activist, the influence of his theological thought on the field of social ethics and on society made him a significant figure. Reinhold Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Missouri, on June 21, 1892 as the son of Gustav and Lydia Niebuhr.

His father, Gustav was an immigrant from Germany and became an ordained minister of the German Evangelical Synod after graduating from Eden Seminary at St. Louis, the training school for ministers of the Deutsche Evangelical Synod of North America. His mother was a daughter of German Evangelical Synod missionary, Edward Hos to. Gustav and Lydia had four children, Hula, Walter, Reinhold, and Helmut Richard (who is as famous as Reinhold in theological circles). Thus Reinhold grew up in a religious atmosphere in his parents' parish of St. John in Lincoln, Illinois. His father considered himself as an American and a liberal. It is not surprising that Reinhold aspired to have such liberal values and follow in his father's footsteps to Eden Seminary in 1912.

With a strong impression from his father's ministry, Reinhold, the favorite child of his father, decided to be a minister. By his decision, Reinhold studied in the Evangelical pro-seminar, Elmhurst College, near Chicago, which provided him with foundations of liberal arts and languages, from 1907 to 1910, and then he moved to Eden Seminary at St. Louis, following his father's path. After graduating from Eden Seminary, he encountered a serious money problem because of his father's sudden death in the spring of 1913. In the same year, Niebuhr became an ordained minister of the German Evangelical Synod.

Then he attended Yale Divinity School with a scholarship and received a Bachelor of Divinity in 1914 and his final degree of Master of Arts from Yale University in 1915. His professional life began with the ministry. In 1915, the mission board of his denomination sent him to Detroit as pastor where he served for thirteen years. The congregation numbered sixty-five when he arrived and grew to nearly seven hundred when he left. His witness of working class life in his ministry with American automobile industry laborers in Detroit gave him a critical view of capitalism and made him an advocator of socialism concerning social and economic reality. Socialism: is a theory or system of social reform, which contemplates a complete reconstruction of society, with a more just and equitable distribution of property and labor.

In Leaves from the Notebook of A Tamed Cynic (1929), he shows this tragedy of laborers' lives by means of challenging his parishioners through passionate sermons to wake up, to see the real world where they live, and to be responsible in it: We went through one of the big automobile factories today. So artificial is life that these factories are like a strange world to me though I have lived close to them for many years. The foundry interested me particularly. The heat was terrific. The men seemed weary. Here manual labor is drudgery and toil is slavery.

The men cannot possibly find any satisfaction in their work. They simply work to make a living. Their sweat and dull pain are part of the price paid for the fine cars we all run. And most of us run the cars without knowing what price is being paid for them' (Reinhold Niebuhr 1925, 78). From this experience in Detroit, Reinhold criticized the inhumane treatment of workers in Henry Ford's factory. In 1923 Niebuhr visited Europe to meet with intellectuals and theologians.

The conditions he saw in Germany under the French occupation dismayed him and reinforced the pacifistic views he adopted in disgust after World War I. Another point of fact is that Niebuhr was deeply alarmed by the accounts of Chamberlain's meeting with Hitler. This also caused Niebuhr to agonize over what he should say to the churches and the nation. Well-intentioned friends urged him to give peace a chance. After all this he wondered if this was really peace or just an appeasement that would only lead to a war.

Being a witness to all the chaos soon caused him to become an advocator of socialism. Reinhold Niebuhr's second professional life was started as a professor. He taught applied Christianity (later Ethics and Theology) at Union Theological Seminary at New York City from 1928 to 1960, when he retired. During his lifetime, Reinhold Niebuhr had seen many true realities of human nature, that is, the tragic life of working class in Detroit, the evil nature of human beings through two World Wars, the Cold War, and the nuclear age he always challenged these realities with his eager insight, which was shown in his untiring activities. His industrious lifestyle is obvious in his offerings to religious and social reality. During the Great Depression, Niebuhr became a leading spokesman for 'religious socialism.

' Religious socialists were Christian social activists drawn from both clergy and laity who took seriously both the 'prophetic' moral values of the Bible and the apparently insoluble contradictions of the capitalist system. Reinhold realized his work, the work of serving God was unending: (web fun 6) "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing, which is true or beautiful or good, makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness".

As the 30's continued he supported many socialist groups, including the Fellowship of Socialist Christians and many socialist presidential candidates. However his support of socialist politics began to waver near the end of the decade as he voted for Roosevelt, a liberal democrat, in 1940. By the end of World War II Niebuhr had completely abandoned his socialist and pacifist views. This was directly related to the horrors seen in WWII and the state of Western Civilization, which he felt, was at stake. At this point in Niebuhr's career he was realizing that some violence was necessary to preserve justice. He even went so far as to form a "left-wing" political organization dedicated to supporting the Allies called the Americans for Democratic Actions.

The party bonded together ideas to stop future groups from unjust behavior. Niebuhr's first significant writing was called Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932). In 1952, he wrote The Irony of American History in which he shared with his readers the various struggles (political, ideological, moral and religious) in which he participated. By and large, his writings reflect a penetrating criticism of the Social Gospel liberalism of his youth and his search for alternatives. For a while he tried to synthesize various elements of Marxism and Christianity. Both his political experience and his deepening Christian values, however, caused him to abandon the work in favor of an ideology he called 'Christian Realism'.

These views meshed the Augustinian ism of the Reformation with his own hard-won political wisdom. His views were formulated in The Nature and Destiny of Man a book that is considered the magnum opus and comes as close as he ever came to a systematic presentation of his practical theology (McCann, 12). Niebuhr made insightful observations on the human condition, emphasizing its social and political aspects. No other theologian has made such a deep impact upon the social sciences.

For two decades his ideas were the most important influence on theology in American seminaries. Niebuhr's theology was not something thought up in the quiet of an academic environment. Rather, it grew out of his efforts to apply Christianity to the social, economic, and political spheres. For example, the cross of Christ was a particularly important theme for Niebuhr since it revealed the great paradox of powerlessness turned into power, of a love in justice that overcame the sinful world. (Elwell, 777) Indeed, he gave his life to the application of theology in the ethical and political arena. It 'focused more on the doctrine of man than on the doctrine of God, and it showed more concern for life in society than for life in the church.

' (Elwell, 776-7) This would lead to much criticism for having and showing more interest in the paradoxes of human life than in the salvation offered through Christ. Niebuhr most wanted that the people should see his theology as simply a rediscovery of the lost wisdom of Christian orthodoxy. He criticizes orthodox Christianity, modern liberal Christianity and Marxism. For Niebuhr, myth is meaningful in the sense that it involves the paradox between the Infinite and the finite, and it should be considered seriously, not literally.

For example, the story of Adam and Eve was not historical, rather a mythical statement of the situation on every man and woman. The ethic of Jesus shows the pure form of God's love so that it cannot be realized in this present human existe nce, but only when God changes this world to the perfect harmony of the Kingdom of God. Therefore, he understands love as an 'impossible possibility". Men living in nature and in the body will never be capable of the sublimation of egoism and the attainment of the sacrificial passion, the complete disinterestedness which the ethic of Jesus demands.

Some commentators believe that Niebuhr did more to introduce Barth ian neo-orthodoxy to America than anyone did. While he did reject Barth's overly Christo centric emphasis (because it ignored the basic questions of human society), his adherence to the majority of Barth's views can be seen in the following definitions: (King, 195-198) WRATH OF GOD-The wrath of God is the world in its essential structure reacting against the sinful corruption of that structure. JUSTIFICATION-All men who live with any degree of serenity live by some assurance of grace. In every life there must be at least be times and seasons when the good is felt as a present possession and not as a far-off goal.

The sinner must feel himself "justified", appreciated as well as challenged. CHRIST THE JUDGE OF THE WORLD -- Christ as judge means that when the historical confronts the eternal it is judged by its own ideal possibility, and not by the contrast between the finite and the eternal character of God. These are just a few definitions that demonstrate the way Niebuhr viewed society along with religion and Christ. He believed that in any case of violence it was allowed as the sinner was justified in his actions. This is in the situation where something good would over come the evil and everything would be justified. Reinhold believed that men were corrupted by sin.

All he had witnessed while being a pacifist would cause his views to change extremely. Niebuhr states that man "changes the glory of the incorruptible God into the image of corruptible man. He always usurps God's place and claims to be the final judge of human actions". To make violence moral through the eyes of Niebuhr it is okay for citizens to sacrifice themselves for the state and put their lives at risk when otherwise the same act would be considered immoral. But since the act is fundamentally immoral, self-seeking, violent, the citizens remain prisoners of a sort of tribal egoism, even when they serve the collectivity.

There is no state that has been created or which maintains itself without the use of force. Therefore, Niebuhr stands strongly by his opinion that it is the corruption of man by sin that is manifest in the violent course of history. And which the philosophers of the contract, those who believe in a peace by law or those who condemn all recourse to force, persist in ignoring. In today's society most are still following the beliefs of Niebuhr when it comes to war and violence.

There are many questions crossing Americans' minds over the United States, about what is right or "just" in the attacks on Afghanistan. What would cause these acts to be considered in a "just war" when innocent people are getting killed? 'Make no mistake about it, there is nothing glorious about war,' Good News said. 'Nevertheless, there are those moments, as President Bush has pointed out, when civilized people must confront 'the outlaws and killers of innocents.

' In this instance, overcoming evil with good will take force - even deadly force. ' (web) As Niebuhr once gathered, 'We believe that loving the neighbor - a commandment from Jesus - sometimes involves using military force for reasons of defending the defenseless, protecting the innocent and promoting justice". After reading the quote stated by Good News, one can somewhat begin to understand the true meaning of a just war situation: (web) 'In accordance with historic just war teaching, we believe that the United States has a just cause and right intentions: to bring a just peace to Afghanistan, destroy the scourge of terrorism and punish evildoers. Furthermore, we believe that the good produced from victory will be greater than the evil that would be suffered if nothing were done. ' If Niebuhr were still alive today he would be in total agreement with the attacks on Afghanistan. Many situations in one's lifetime may change their minds forever, as the acts of violence Niebuhr witnessed changed his pacifist ideas to his activist ideas. Another important idea that would be similar to what Niebuhr would say if he were alive today is what was said in Good News: (web) However, war may be necessary in some situations, the church states.

'We... acknowledge that most Christians regretfully realize that, when peaceful alternatives have failed, the force of arms may be preferable to unchecked aggression, tyranny and genocide. We honor the witness of pacifists who will not allow us to become complacent about war and violence. We also respect those who support the use of force, but only in extreme situations and only when the need is clear beyond reasonable doubt, and through appropriate international organizations. ' Although all this violence and terrorist attacks are going on in the past month in 2001, Niebuhr would still stand firm with his opinion about fighting for a righteous cause.

These acts of violence would really overtake his pacifist views. Niebuhr believed that we should never sit quietly in the midst of an evil situation that is why he would be against the attacks by the terrorist today in 2001. Niebuhr's life was always about religion and with age and being witness to such evil situations caused him to change his views. Niebuhr's Christianity was one that demanded action as well as faith. He worked tirelessly to improve the lives of the down trodden, and in so doing improved his corner of the world.

He held tightly to Christ and his belief that man could accomplish tremendous feats, discounting cynics who stated otherwise. Niebuhr was a strong, Christian man who was dedicated to his goal of advancing the Kingdom of God and society. When he found another way might be better to achieve his ends, he tried it. He was not so static that he could not be changed. Many believed that Niebuhr made his biggest impact on society from 1914 to 1941 by expressing a realistic view of the world's power structure and criticizing pacifists, who by seeking impossible perfection are prevented from doing that which is merely good and right, though not perfect.

The experience of World War II and Reinhold Niebuhr's theological critique destroyed the liberal pacifist movement in North America. Niebuhr was disgusted by all the violence going on and he had to change his pacifist views, along with changing other's. He no longer would believe in trying to solve problems through peace where innocent people's lives were at stake. He believed that one must fight for what they believe in and if a righteous cause use force or violence. He believed good would overcome evil, but in some cases it would be best to use violence because too much evil would out weigh the peace and goodness of people. Reinhold Niebuhr was an important religious figure in the twentieth century.

While others either preached perfection or actions he preached just cause and justice. The bible and God taught us codes and values to live by and it was up to each individual to hold up to those that were inherently good. This train of thought really hits home to me because I am not one who preaches the bible or follows a religion precisely. To me following an exact religion makes me follow many hypocrites who say they are doing God's work and are true Religious believers but break their laws all the time. I look to be a good person to my family, friends, and those around while also being a good American citizen. I feel it is more important to strive to be good than follow a religion, even though I am actually following most of their views.

Niebuhr would support my views and others as long as they were inherently good, a subject that passes many other so called religious people by. It is good to understand a great religious mind and see a connection between my own thoughts. In conclusion, Niebuhr's ideas are important ones to follow in the present crisis on terrorism. We do not need to band together under our religions and fight against that what teaches us all to be good. Rather we must look at doing good at all costs to preserve human kindness.

Religion in a time of war can be a dangerous topic that can incite more horrors than necessary and thus Christians, Muslims, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, and others must follow the teaching of Niebuhr and others to get through this ordeal in a timely fashion.


D. B Robertson. "Reinhold Niebuhr". web Walter A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984.
King, Rachel Hadley. The Omission of the Holy Spirit from Reinhold Niebuhr's Theology. New York, NY: Philosophical Library, 1964.
McCann, Dennis P. Christian Realism and Liberation Theology: Practical Theologies in Creative Conflict. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1982.
Niebuhr, Reinhold. Christianity and Power Politics. Archon Books, 1969 Niebuhr, Reinhold.
Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. Chicago and New York: Willett, Clark & Colby, 1929.