Niebuhr Versus Niebuhr: The Tragic Nature of History

by John D. Barbour

John D. Barbour teaches religion at Saint Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. He is the author of Tragedy as a Critique of Virtue: The Novel and Ethical Reflection (Scholars Press 1984).

This article appeared in The Christian Century November 21, 1984, pp. 1096 – 1099. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at


An intriguing debate took place on the pages of The Christian Century in 1932 between brothers H. Richard Niebuhr and Reinhold Niebuhr. The immediate occasion for the publication of their articles was Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, and the concrete issue that the brothers addressed was the proper response of the United States to that invasion. Both appeal to the tragic character of human history to support their views, yet each draws a radically different conclusion.

An intriguing debate took place on the pages of The Christian Century in 1932 between brothers H. Richard Niebuhr and Reinhold Niebuhr. The immediate occasion for the publication of their articles was Japan's invasion of Manchuria, and the concrete issue that the brothers addressed was the proper response of the United States to that invasion. Both appeal to the tragic character of human history to support their views, yet each draws a radically different conclusion.

H. Richard advocated noninvolvement and repentance for our own sins; Reinhold, though agreeing on the need for the United States to acknowledge its own wrongs, asserted the necessity of our being ready to act, with force if necessary, to curb Japanese aggression. I want to consider not which of the two theologians was right in this situation, but the different ways they used the idea of tragedy in reflecting on a moral issue.

The exchange consists of three short articles published in March and April of 1932. H. Richard's article "The Grace of Doing Nothing" (March 23) introduces his perspective: "It may be that the greatest moral problems of the individual or a society arise when there is nothing to be done." He specifies several different "ways of being inactive": the inactivity of "the conservative believer in things as they are," the inactivity of "the pessimist who watches a world go to pieces," and the inactivity of the communists who see current struggles as convolutions preceding the ultimate establishment of a classless society. Against these kinds of inactivity, H. Richard contrasts the useful inactivity of Christians who believe that, even when they cannot act meaningfully in history, God is nonetheless working to being about justice and peace.

H. Richard Niebuhr grounds his argument about the proper U.S. response to the Japanese invasion in his understanding of the relationship between the Christian believer and God. He claims that from a Christian point of view, the present world conflict represents God's judgement. Given God's involvement in history, human attempts to change history's course can do little to alter its outcome. Yet the Christian believes that ultimately God is working in history for the good of humankind.

In preparation for the future, Christians should "divorce themselves from the program of nationalism and capitalism, and unite in a higher loyalty which transcends national and classs lines of division." Most important, Christians in the United States should repent for their own nation's sins, for H. Richard believed, Japan was following the example set by the United States and European nations in their imperialist expansion.

Because in its criticism of Japan the U.S. was not wholly disinterested (it was basically protecting its own interests in Asia), that criticism could only seem selfrighteous and hypocritical to the Japanese. What was needed instead was "rigid self-analysis" -- what "the old Christians called repentance. " Niebuhr concludes:

The inactivity of radical Christianity is not the inactivity of those who call evil good; it is the inaction of those who do not judge their neighbors because they cannot fool themselves into a sense of superior righteousness. It is not the inactivity of a resigned patience, but of a patience that is full of hope, and is based on faith.

Though American Christians could do nothing overtly to stop the suffering, they should have faith that, despite all appearances, God was involved in these historical events and that a deeper process of healing was at work.

In a response requested by the editors, Reinhold Niebuhr argues in "Must We Do Nothing?" (March 30) that his brother is wrong in claiming that one should act in history only from what he calls a "pure love ethic. Reinhold agrees that America's concern about Japanese aggression is not completely disinterested, but, he disagrees with H. Richard's claim that it is better not to act at all than to act from motives that are not wholly free from all self-interest. If such purity of motive were always required, Reinhold argues, a nation would never act at all, for no nation can act in strict accord with a perfectionistic moral standard.

Reinhold's article makes many of the main points argued in his Moral Man and Immoral Society, also published in 1932. Since groups cannot live according to the same ethical standards as individuals, justice, not love, is the highest ideal to which groups can realistically. Justice is a norm based on balancing various conflicting claims. Justice presupposes assertion of the rights of different parties and the establishment of some kind of tolerable harmony. Reinhold asserts that H. Richard's idealistic moral position leads to withdrawal, and is irrelevant to history's power struggles.

What is Reinhold's alternative?

It would be better to come to ethical terms with the forces of nature in history, and try to use ethically directed coercion in order that violence may be avoided . . . . In practice, specific and contemporary terms this means that we must try to dissuade Japan from her military venture, but must use coercion to frustrate her designs if necessary, must reduce coercion to a minimum and prevent it from issuing in violence, must engage in constant self-analysis in order to reduce the moral conceit of Japan's critics and judges to a minimum, and must try in every social situation to maximize the ethical forces and yet not sacrifice the possibility of achieving an ethical goal because we are afraid to use any but purely ethical means.

Reinhold does not specify just what concrete measures the United States should take, or how much coercion may permissibly be used, but he calls on his country-even with its mixed motives-to be prepared to confront Japan.

Reinhold concludes his article by articulating his theological beliefs about the perennial tragedy of human history. "To say all this is really to confess that the history of mankind is a perennial tragedy; for the highest ideals which the individual may project are ideals which he can never realize in social and collective terms." The religious imagination sets goals beyond history because humankind can never achieve its highest ethical goals in history. For Reinhold, the tragic character of human history lies in the gap between the cooperation that we know ought to be the norm and the reality of bitter conflicts between different human interests.

In the last installment of the "fraternal war between my brother and me," titled "The Only Way Into the Kingdom of God," H. Richard says that the most significant issue between himself and his brother is not inactivity versus activity, as the essays' titles misleadingly imply. Rather, the real question is about what sort of activity is most appropriate for Christian believers in this particular situation. Now H. Richard, too, supports his position by setting forth his understanding of tragedy. He writes that, unlike Reinhold, he does not think "'the history of mankind is a perennial tragedy' which can derive meaning only from a goal which lies beyond history? For the Christian, "tragedy is only a prelude to fulfillment."

Yet H. Richard recognizes that for particular individuals -- and even for entire nations -- history can have a tragic character. He makes the puzzling assertion that "history is not a perennial tragedy but a road to fulfillment and that fulfillment requires the tragic outcome of every self-assertion." H. Richard thus seems to distinguish between the good of the whole and the good of each individual part of the whole. He sees God as "the structure in things," giving ultimate meaning to history even through the suffering of the innocent. History has "created fellowship in atoms and organisms, at bitter cost to electrons and cells; history is creating something better than human selfhood but at bitter cost to that selfhood."

To H. Richard, Reinhold's attempt to reconcile Christian love with assertions of self-interest only "makes Christian love an ambulance driver in the wars of interested and clashing parties. " The Christian faces an ultimate either - or choice: the way of self-assertion -- which can only bring counter assertion and conflict -- or the way of repentance and forgiveness. The choice of repentance, he maintains, is as valid for entire societies as it is for individuals, and it is the only way to avoid the ceaseless cycle of assertion and counter assertion that leads to war.

For both Niebuhrs, certain fundamental experiences of limitation suggest that human existence is tragic. But each brother sees limitation in a different sphere. H. Richard emphasizes the experience of being limited in power: a self's or a nation's sense of dependence and finitude in having to undergo what is beyond its control. He holds that any actions the United States could take in the Japanese situation would have little effect on the deeper forces and movements of history. H. Richard's view of human limitation is expressed in his understanding of God as the structure in all things, "the rock against which we beat in vain, that which bruises and overwhelms us when we wish to impose our wishes, contrary to his, upon him."

Though he insists that history as a whole is not a tragedy, H. Richard says the fates of individuals may well be tragic. In fact, the fate of any given individual probably will be tragic, since he believes that all self-assertions end in destructive conflict. H. Richard locates the source of tragedy in the fact that the good of the whole comes about at the expense of the individual parts of the whole -- hence the analogy he makes comparing history to any to the evolution of atoms and organisms at a "bitter cost" to electrons and cells.

While H. Richard focuses on the limits of power, Reinhold concentrates on the limits of human righteousness. He discovers tragedy not so much in human finitude as in pride. Reinhold stresses not the contrast between the good of the whole and defeat of the self-assertive individual parts, but rather the gap between the ideal and actuality -- between the absolute ethical ideals that humans conceive and the limited goals that can actually be achieved by collective action. For Reinhold, life is tragic because "man cannot live without a sense of the absolute, but neither can he achieve the absolute."

In his 1937 collection of sermons Beyond Tragedy and in his classic work The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold details his understanding of the source of tragedy in human pride and sin. He insightfully detects sin in the form of moral self-righteousness, in our deep human tendency to believe that we are morally better than we really are. When humans overestimate their moral stature, pretension leads to smug self-righteousness, then to a sort of moral imperialism that causes conflict with others, and finally to downfall-a collapse of pretension.

This sense of the tragic should, Reinhold contends, qualify both our individual and national actions. While nations must act in their own self-interest, their actions will be more clear sighted, and probably more effective in the long run, if two things that guard against moral self-righteousness guide them: Christian repentance for sin and a sense of the "perennial tragedy" of human history.

H. Richard finds tragedy in the limits of human power: Reinhold sees it in the limits of human righteousness. These two views of tragedy correspond to and illuminate two kinds of moral situation which are extremely perplexing to ethical thought. H. Richard recognizes that in some situations no direct action is appropriate. Sometimes overt action against one evil is a futile effort- or produces a greater evil. However, H. Richard believes that Christian faith provides invaluable resources for helping people face the tragic sense engendered by this frustrating inactivity. We must, he says (1) critically analyze our past actions, (2) interpret the present suffering as a judgment on us, (3) repent of our own sins and (4) prepare for a future reconciliation. Above all, Christians should be sustained by their trust that God is at work in history even when history seems to defeat their deepest longings and hopes.

In The Responsible Self, H. Richard calls attention to the importance of suffering as a neglected idea needing reappropriation in moral thinking. The 1932 incident in China illustrates how the concept of suffering may help Christians face their sense of helplessness and passivity when they cannot act directly. The United States was forced to watch a tragedy: not an aesthetic tragedy -- a work of art -- but a historical event that caused tremendous undeserved suffering. H. Richard did not really call Christians to inaction; instead, he called them to certain forms of inner work and reflection.

H. Richard's view of tragedy, in sum, may help people deal with the frustration of not being able to ease the suffering of others, while trying to find some meaning in suffering. This is the same sense of tragedy as work in Stanley Hauerwas's The Peaceable Kingdom (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), the last chapter of which offers reflections on the exchange between the Niebuhrs. Hauerwas explains how the virtues of patience and hope and peaceableness are necessary to sustain the Christian attempting to live joyfully in the presence of the tragic.

Reinhold's view of tragedy, on the other hand, helps to interpret the moral situation in which some good result cannot be achieved without morally ambiguous actions. Reinhold asserts that when a moral agent (or a nation) cannot avoid some great evil except by producing what it hopes will be a lesser evil, we must "not sacrifice the possibility of achieving an ethical goal because we are afraid to use any but purely ethical means." The Christian is called to engage actively in political decision-making, asserting his or her religious perspective while recognizing that all human groups are limited in their moral goodness. Reinhold claims that a tragic view of history is necessary to help the Christian negotiate the gap between the ethical ideal and the possibilities attainable by human collective action. Reinhold thought U.S. political and economic interests had stakes in keeping China free of Japanese domination, and that this self-interest qualified our claim to impartiality in our denunciations of Japan. Yet for him the Japanese invasion was clearly a political crime and a moral evil that had to be opposed. Despite our mixed motives, he argues in his Century article, the United States had to be prepared to use force if necessary to curb Japanese aggression. America could act with the necessary courage and humility in this situation only if we recognized the tragic gap between our nation's lofty moral ideals and its actual achievements in history. Reinhold's sense of tragedy, then, by understanding the limits of human righteousness, helps illuminate moral situations in which one cannot act with ideal disinterest and pure motives, but believes some evil must be resisted, even though that action -- especially when force is used-- risks producing some other evil.

If both Niebuhrs' views of tragedy can shed light on certain moral situations, both also have their potential dangers. H. Richard's understanding has the danger of leading to passivity and fatalism. His theology has been criticized for subordinating God's redemptive work to his creative and ordering work. This tendency is noticeable in H. Richard's view that human attempts to alter the structure of things in the world inevitably result in tragedy. From this perspective the moral life seems to involved only adaptation or accommodation to existing structures or relationships. And if all assertions of human interest share a common guilt. Moral discrimination and choice seem to lose their significance. The assumption that all acts of human self assertion are identical forms of sinful rebellion against God and are fated to destruction would paralyze moral life. The only meaningful role for the Christian then seems to be inner reflection and repentance. These internal processes are not seen as leading to overt action in the world. Such an understanding could lead the Christian to believe that there is "nothing to be done" directly in historical situations when in fact creative action could decisively affect the outcome of events.

Against H. Richard's emphasis on human finitude and dependence, Reinhold's awareness of human freedom and the Christian's political responsibility seems better to acknowledge the creative and liberating possibilities of moral action and of God's work in history. Yet Reinhold's view of tragedy as an inescapable aspect of life also poses moral dangers. For his view of tragedy as the result of the inevitable gap between the ideal and the actual in human conduct could also be applied indiscriminately to other situations. If we act with the belief that all our actions may bring aboutevil, we may deceive ourselves into justifying actions that we suspect we should not do. The real crux of the issue is not that we will deceive others, but that we will deceive ourselves. We may commit evil intentionally, thinking that because we recognize our mixed motives, we are permitted to get our hands as dirty as necessary to achieve our noble goals. If we are all enmeshed in evil anyway, what difference can a little more make, so long as our intentions and the outcome are good? We may, by such reasoning, justify our use of any means to achieve what we think are good ends on the assumption that -- since history is a perennial tragedy, and collective actions are always on a lower ethical level than individual actions -- we are not obligated to strive for the highest ideals possible, or to present an alternative to the usual way of the world. If H. Richard's view of tragedy poses danger of passivity, Reinhold's leads to the danger of "sinning bravely," by employing the concept of tragedy to justify the use of evil means to some supposedly good end.

The danger in both men's analysis stems from their common view that all of life is tragic. Because neither brother defines "tragedy" carefully, each fails to distinguish between a tragic moral situation and a view of life itself as tragic. Christians do not need a tragic view of all of life, but rather a moral and theological perspective hat accounts for tragic moral situations and that helps believers deal with them creatively and faithfully. Such a perspective would enable us to deal responsibly and creatively without own involvement and complicity in evil, without claiming that all actions are equally guilty. It would account for the perplexing situation in which a moral agent must intentionally will evil as part of a moral act, or allow some evil to take place through a refusal to take action.

Such an account of tragedy probably cannot be systematized or translated into an ethical theory or method. Perhaps the most we can hope for is a "sense" of tragedy that discerns the tragic dimensions of particular moral conflicts, and faces the resulting pain and guilt, refusing to rationalize them away.

Yet the danger of this sense of tragedy is that it will be generalized into a sweeping claim about all of human experience, and applied mechanically and indiscriminately to every moral problem. Furthermore, as we have seen, there are at least two meanings underlying references to tragedy. That the two Niebuhrs could each interpret the Manchurian situation in 1932 as tragic and yet come to differing conclusions about the proper American response shows that using the concept of tragedy in ethical reflection hardly resolves disagreements, but may simply shift them to a deeper level. The concept of tragedy seems indispensable to refer to certain fundamental aspects of human moral experience, and yet it poses many perplexities for theological and ethical thought. The work of both Niebuhrs holds promise for further reflection on the crucial yet elusive concept of tragedy.