Monday, May 22, 2017

Reinhold Niebuhr -- An American Conscience

As I watch the news, I am deeply disturbed by the chaotic nature of our political situation. Many Americans chose to throw a monkey-wrench into a broken system, perhaps hoping that it might reset things. In reality, that monkey-wrench has only made things worse. I watch as the nation I live in and love, becomes increasingly polarized. Partisans on both sides of the spectrum speak of the other in terms of good and evil. Perhaps it's my recent reading of 1 John with my Bible study group that has made me increasingly sensitive to this dualistic vision that is present in that letter, but is also present in our political debate. 

So where do we turn for guidance? I wish I could say that there were public theologians who could help us discern a better way, but there is no one with the stature today of a Reinhold Niebuhr. Whether you agree with him or not, he spoke to the great issues of his day, and his voice continues to echo into the present. The very fact, that we're learning that the now fired FBI director, James Comey, wrote his senior thesis at William and Mary College about Niebuhr, comparing his political philosophy with that of Jerry Falwell, is a good indication that maybe we should pay attention to his voice?

I finally got to watch the documentary that explores Niebuhr's life and message that has been broadcast on PBS stations. Ironically, it never got broadcast in Detroit, where Niebuhr got his start as a pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church. It was from Detroit that Niebuhr moved to Union Theological Seminary, 

In many ways Niebuhr is like Bonhoeffer, in whom one can find whatever one wishes to enhance one's position. While this is true, I believe that Niebuhr's realism is needed. Am I a Niebuhrite? I don't know. What I can say is that for sure, but I am paying greater attention to this former Detroiter! 

I direct your attention to the link below, which will take you to a full-screening video of the documentary An American Conscience at PBS. It should be available between now and September. Listen to figures such as Cornel West, Stanley Hauerwas, Jimmy Carter, Susannah Heschel, and David Brooks, among others speak of his legacy. Cornel West notes that Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society remains the most important book on religious social ethics to this day (and I've yet to read it -- I shall soon rectify that deficit).  Please take some time to view and then reflect on the legacy of this man who spoke to the reality of sin in human life. Then we might make better sense of our situation and find better ways of responding.  

http://www.pbs.org/video/2365984011/

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