Christian Faith and the World Crisis

by Reinhold Niebuhr

One of the foremost philsophers and theologians of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr was for many years a Professor at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. He is the author of many classics in their field, including The Nature and Destiny of Man, Moral Man and Immoral Society, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, and Discerning the Signs of Our Times. He was also the founding editor of the publication Christianity and Crisis.

This article appeared in the Journal Christianity and Crisis, February 10, 1941. Used by permission. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


We think it dangerous to allow religious sensitivity to obscure the fact that Nazi tyranny intends to annihilate the Jewish race, to subject the nations of Europe to the dominion of a “master” race, to extirpate the Christian religion, to annul the liberties and legal standards that are the priceless heritage of ages of Christian and humanistic culture, to make truth the prostitute of political power, to seek world dominion through its satraps and allies, and generally to destroy the very fabric of our western civilization.

It is our purpose to devote this modest journal to an exposition of our Christian faith in its relation to world events. This first article will seek, therefore, to offer a general introduction to the faith that is in us. We believe that many current interpretations have obscured important elements in that faith and have thereby confused the Christian conscience. This confusion has been brought into sharp relief by the world crisis; but it existed before the crisis, and it may well continue after the crisis is over. We therefore regard our task as one that transcends the urgent problems of the hour, though we do not deny that these problems are the immediate occasion for our enterprise.

At the present moment a basic difference of conviction with regard to what Christianity is and what it demands runs through the whole of American Protestantism and cuts across all the traditional denominational distinctions. There is, on the one hand, a school of Christian thought that believes war could be eliminated if only Christians and other men of good will refused resolutely enough to have anything to do with conflict. Another school of thought, while conceding that war is one of the most vivid revelations of sin in human history, does not find the disavowal of war so simple a matter. The proponents of the latter position believe that there are historic situations in which refusal to defend the inheritance of a civilization, however imperfect, against tyranny and aggression may result in consequences even worse than war.

This journal intends to express and, if possible, to clarify this second viewpoint. We do not believe that the Christian faith as expressed in the New Testament and as interpreted in historic Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, implies the confidence that evil and injustice in history can be overcome by such simple methods as are currently equated with Christianity. We believe that modern Christian perfectionism is tinctured with utopianism derived from a secular culture. In our opinion this utopianism contributed to the tardiness of the democracies in defending themselves against the perils of a new barbarism, and (in America at least) it is easily compounded with an irresponsible and selfish nationalism.

We intend this journal to be both polemic and irenic, as far as human frailty will permit the combination of these two qualities. It will be polemic in the sense that we shall combat what seem to us false interpretations of our faith, and consequent false analyses of our world and of our duties in it. It will be irenic in the sense that we shall seek to appreciate the extent to which perfectionist and pacifist interpretations of Christianity are derived from genuine and important elements in our common faith.

Perfectionists are right in their conviction that our civilization stands under the judgment of God; no one can have an easy conscience about the social and political anarchy out of which the horrible tyranny that now threatens us arose. But they are wrong in assuming that we have no right or duty to defend a civilization, despite its imperfections, against worse alternatives. They are right in insisting that love is the ultimate law of life. But they have failed to realize to what degree the sinfulness of all men, even the best, makes justice between competing interests and conflicting wills a perennial necessity of history.

The perfectionists rightly recognize that it may be very noble for an individual to sacrifice his life or interests rather than participate in the claims and counterclaims of the struggle for justice (of which war may always be the ultima ratio). They are wrong in making no distinction between an individual act of self-abnegation and a political policy of submission to injustice, whereby lives and interests other than our own are defrauded or destroyed. They seek erroneously to build a political platform upon individual perfection. Medieval perfectionism, whatever its limitations, wisely avoided these errors. It excluded even the family from the possible consequences of an individual’s absolute ethic, and it was profoundly aware of the impossibility of making its rigorous standards universal.

We believe that there are many Christians whose moral inclinations might persuade them to take the same view of current problems as our own, except for the fact that they are inhibited by religious presuppositions that they regard as more "purely" Christian than those represented by the consensus of the Church through all the ages. Therefore we will begin with an analysis of these religious presuppositions.

Christians are agreed that the God who is revealed in Christ is source and end of our existence and that therefore his character and will are the norm and standard of our conduct. It is only in recent decades, however, that it has been believed that the "gentleness" of Jesus was a sufficient and final revelation of the character of God, that this character was one of pure love and mercy, and that this revelation stood in contradiction to an alleged portrayal of a God of wrath in the Old Testament.

Both the Old and the New Testament take the wrath of God as well as the mercy of God seriously. The divine mercy, apprehended by Christian faith in the life and death of Christ, is not some simple kindness indifferent to good and evil. The whole point of the Christian doctrine of Atonement is that God cannot be merciful without fulfilling within himself, and on man’s behalf, the requirements of divine justice. However difficult it may be to give a fully rational account of what Christ’s atoning death upon the Cross means to Christian faith, this mystery, never fully comprehended by and yet not wholly incomprehensible to faith, speaks to us of a mercy that transcends but also satisfies the demands of Justice.

The biblical answer to the problem of evil in human history is a radical answer, precisely because human evil is recognized as a much more stubborn fact than is realized in some modern versions of the Christian faith. These versions do not take the problem of justice in history seriously, because they have obscured what the Bible has to say about the relation of justice to mercy in the very heart of God. Every sensitive Christian must feel a sense of unworthiness when he is compelled by historic destiny to act as an instrument of God’s justice. Recognition of the common guilt that makes him and his enemy kin must persuade him to imitate the mercy of God, even while he seeks to fulfill the demands of justice. But he will seek to elude such responsibilities only if he believes, as many modern Christians do, that he might, if he tried a little harder, achieve an individual or collective vantage point of guiltlessness from which to proceed against evil doers. There is no such vantage point.

Christians are agreed that Christ must be the norm of our human life as well as the revelation of the character of God. But many modern versions of Christianity have forgotten to what degree the perfect love of Christ was recognized both in the Bible and in the Christian ages as finally transcending all historic possibilities. The same St. Paul who admonishes us to grow into the stature of Christ insists again and again that we are ‘‘saved by faith’’ and not ‘‘by works’’; which is to say that our final peace is not the moral peace of having become what Christ defines as our true nature but is the religious peace of knowing that a divine mercy accepts our loyalty to Christ despite our continued betrayal of him.

It cannot be denied that these emphases are full of pitfalls for the faithful. On the one side there is always the possibility that we will not take Christ as our norm seriously enough, and that we will rest prematurely in the divine mercy. On the other hand an abstract perfectionism is tempted to obscure the most obvious facts about human nature and to fall into the fury of self-righteousness. The Protestant Reformation was in part a protest against what seemed to the Reformers an overly optimistic Catholic doctrine of human perfection through the infusion of divine grace. Yet modern Protestant interpretations of the same issue make the Catholic doctrine wise and prudent by comparison.

Once it is recognized that the stubbornness of human selfishness makes the achievement of justice in human society no easy matter, it ought to be possible to see that war is but a vivid revelation of certain perennial aspects of human history. Life is never related to life in terms of a perfect and loving conformity of will with will. Where there is sin and selfishness there must also be a struggle for justice; and this justice is always partially an achievement of our love for the other and partially a result of our yielding to his demands and pressures. The intermediate norm of justice is particularly important in the institutional and collective relationships of mankind. But even in individual and personal relations the ultimate level of sacrificial self-giving is not reached without an intermediate level of justice. On this level the first consideration is not that life should be related to life through the disinterested concern of each for the other, but that life should be prevented from exploiting, enslaving or taking advantage of other life. Sometimes this struggle takes very tragic forms.

It is important for Christians to remember that every structure of justice, as embodied in political and economic institutions, (a) contains elements of injustice that stand in contradiction to the law of love; (b) contains higher possibilities of justice that must be realized in terms of institutions and structures; and (c) that it must be supplemented by the graces of individual and personal generosity and mercy. Yet when the mind is not confused by utopian illusions it is not difficult to recognize genuine achievements of justice and to feel under obligation to defend them against the threats of tyranny and the negation of justice.

Love must be regarded as the final flower and fruit of justice. When it is substituted for justice it degenerates into sentimentality and may become the accomplice of tyranny.

Looking at the tragic contemporary scene within this frame of reference, we feel that American Christianity is all too prone to disavow its responsibilities for the preservation of our civilization against the perils of totalitarian aggression. We are well aware of the sins of all the nations, including our own, which have contributed to the chaos of our era. We know to what degree totalitarianism represents false answers to our own unsolved problems—political, economic, spiritual.

Yet we believe the task of defending the rich inheritance of our civilization to be an imperative one, however much we might desire that our social system were more worthy of defense. We believe that the possibility of correcting its faults and extending its gains may be annulled for centuries if this external peril is not resolutely faced. We do not find it particularly impressive to celebrate one’s sensitive conscience by enlarging upon all the well-known evils of our western world and equating them with the evils of the totalitarian systems. It is just as important for Christians to be discriminating in their judgments, as for them to recognize the element of sin in all human endeavors. We think it dangerous to allow religious sensitivity to obscure the fact that Nazi tyranny intends to annihilate the Jewish race, to subject the nations of Europe to the dominion of a "master" race, to extirpate the Christian religion, to annul the liberties and legal standards that are the priceless heritage of ages of Christian and humanistic culture, to make truth the prostitute of political power, to seek world dominion through its satraps and allies, and generally to destroy the very fabric of our western civilization.

Our own national tardiness in becoming fully alive to this peril has been compounded of national selfishness and religious confusion. In recent months American opinion has begun to respond to the actualities of the situation and to sense the fateful destiny that unites us with all free peoples, whether momentarily overrun by the aggressor or still offering heroic resistance. How far our assistance is to be carried is a matter of policy and strategy. It could be a matter of principle only if it were conceded that an absolute line could be drawn in terms of Christian principle between "measures short of war" and war itself. But those who think such a line can be drawn have nevertheless opposed measures short of war. They rightly have pointed out that such measures cannot be guaranteed against the risk of total involvement.

The measures now being taken for the support of the democracies are a logical expression of the unique conditions of America’s relation to the world. They do justice on the one hand to our responsibilities for a common civilization that transcends the hemispheres, and on the other hand to the fact that we are not as immediately imperiled as other nations. Whether our freedom from immediate peril will enable us to persevere in the reservations that we still maintain cannot be decided in the abstract. The exigencies of the future must determine the issue.

We cannot, of course, be certain that defeat of the Nazis will usher in a new order of international justice in Europe and the world. We do know what a Nazi victory would mean, and our first task must therefore be to prevent it. Yet it cannot be our only task, for the problem of organizing the technical civilization of the western world upon a new basis of economic and international justice, so that the anarchy and decay that have characterized our life in the past three decades will be arrested and our technical capacities will be made fruitful rather than suicidal, is one which must engage our best resources. We must give some thought and attention to this great issue even while we are forced to ward off a horrible alternative.

We believe that the Christian faith can and must make its own contribution to this issue. The task of building a new world, as well as the tragic duty of saving the present world from tyranny, will require resources of understanding and resolution which are inherent in the Christian faith. The profoundest insights of the Christian faith cannot be expressed by the simple counsel that men ought to be more loving, and that if they became so the problems of war and of international organization would solve themselves.

Yet there are times when hopes for the future, as well as contrition over past misdeeds, must be subordinated to the urgent, immediate task. In this instance, the immediate task is the defeat of Nazi tyranny. If this task does not engage us, both our repentance and our hope become luxuries in which we indulge while other men save us from an intolerable fate, or while our inaction betrays into disaster a cause to which we owe allegiance.