Chapter 5: Love and Justice
There is still a widespread impression abroad in religious circles that although Niebuhr was effective in destroying illusions, he failed to provide adequate positive direction. It is my conviction, however, that out of the resources of the Christian faith he provided a responsible approach to concrete social issues. One of the most fruitful dimensions of his thought is the way he used the resources of faith for achieving a responsible society. His test for true religion was social relevance. Those who claim that there is no basis in his theology for social action either have not read him with care or do not understand the depths of life.
The relation of God’s love (agape) to individual and collective life in terms of justice was close to the heart of Niebuhr’s thought. He explored intensely the problem of love and justice, and many parts of his theology developed or changed as a result of this exploration. He rescued his theology from the abstract by constantly applying it to specific human problems. It was his conviction that only a Christian, informed and empowered by God’s grace, could continue to struggle for a better world without illusions about human nature and the historic process. Niebuhr put it this way in a memorable paragraph:
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.1
The perfect expression of God’s grace is the sacrificial love demonstrated by Christ on the Cross. Grace as sacrificial love is the pinnacle of the ethical norm of the Kingdom of God, the moral ideal of the Kingdom. Consequently, grace as the perfect agape of the Cross deals not with static legal norms but with moral dynamics. Assuming that the sinful self has accepted by faith God’s grace as Truth (Incarnation and Atonement) and received God’s grace as Power (Justification and Sanctification), how is the new self to apply Kingdom ethics (the ethic of the Cross) to secular social structures? Niebuhr answered this question by relating love to the structures of justice. Niebuhr considered the relation of agape to the struggle for justice to be as profound a revelation of the possibilities of God’s grace and the limitations imposed by man’s sin as any facet of existence. He believed the basic presuppositions of the Christian faith are political on the side of their application. "To deny this," he said, "is to be oblivious of one aspect of historic existence which the Renaissance understood so well: that life represents an indeterminate series of possibilities and therefore of obligations to fulfill them."2 His theology flowed naturally toward political reflection and action.
He was concerned that love be defined in such a way that it had meaning for the structures of justice. He said that the church is responsible for relating God’s love in a realistic way to the moral problems of an industrial civilization, but, unfortunately, modern Christianity is characterized by a lack of ethical relevancy.
The fact is that more men in our modern era are irreligious because religion has failed to make civilization ethical than because it has failed to maintain its intellectual respectability. For every person who disavows religion because some ancient and unrevised dogma outrages his intelligence, several become irreligious because the social impotence of religion outrages their conscience.3
The church and individual Christians are too often guilty of substituting benevolence for justice in the basic organizations of life. Love is frequently defined by Christians only in terms of personal relations.
THE AGAPE OF THE CROSS
The unmeasured love of Christ the Truth (sacrificial, heedless, uncalculating) sets the norm for man’s life. This love judges man’s actions and finds them to be lacking. Because of the atoning sacrifice of Christ, God’s grace as Power both forgives man for falling short of love and provides the moral undergirding for him to remain faithful to love. Justification releases man to a life of love, and sanctification empowers him with grace to reach levels of love that would otherwise be impossible. This is the relationship of love to the moral life of the regenerate Christian.
Niebuhr’s social ethics grew out of this love of the Cross. Because of man’s indeterminate freedom, only love can be the norm for his social nature. Man is free in order that he might love. However, any realistic approach to social issues must recognize the power struggle that pervades society and the resulting necessity of force. When moral achievements in the social order are judged on the basis of the divine perfection of love, they are shown to be inadequate. Niebuhr was able to relate love to the social struggle by the original relation of God’s love to his justice in the paradox of the Atonement. In the Cross God reveals both his wrath and his love. God’s love is revealed by his taking wrath upon himself. This original source of the relation of love to justice in the Atonement was used by Niebuhr in all of his ethical constructions for the social order.
Niebuhr viewed the application of love to social relations as an "impossible possibility." This phrase expressed Niebuhr’s way of saying that love is always relevant, but its perfect attainment in social life is difficult. (He later abandoned this phrase, not because of its inaccuracy, but because it was so easily misunderstood.) The transcendence of the love ideal makes it an impossibility, while the constant improvement of every human achievement by the love ethic makes it a possibility. Love is relevant in that it provides judgment for man’s actions and the spring for ethical motives. At the same time, love is impossible as a wholly adequate social ethic. When love is most fully attained, at that moment it is in danger of corruption. The insights derived from the soul’s encounter with God must be incorporated into institutions which can know nothing of such an encounter. Insights from individual religious experience must provide the collective man with proper inspiration for action.4
Niebuhr felt that love is not a simple possibility in social relations because perfect love is always crucified in history. He held that the primary meaning of love is to be found in self-sacrifice (and was accused by his brother Richard, among others, of defining love too narrowly). He said that it is the failure to take account of this crucifixion that has brought confusion into the modern application of love to the social structure. Without this love, however, progress would be impossible. Some degree of heedless love must always be present, or else the giver of love will end in resentment about the possible absence of perfect reciprocity in the recipient of his love. Every form of moral advance is ultimately dependent upon love for its direction and motive. Religious faith is the motive for seeking the moral life. Although the relationship between the ethic of love (or the Kingdom of God) and concrete social action was viewed uneasily by Niebuhr, he nevertheless struggled to relate the two.
THE RELATION OF LOVE AND JUSTICE
Agape is related to social action in terms of dynamic ethical principles. Niebuhr maintained that love is under obligation to accept the best principles it can for the ordering of society. Often it is necessary to give priority to one principle over another. One such general principle is justice. Justice is not distinctively Christian, but agape cannot repeal it or work apart from it. Love commonly means the self’s active care for another; justice commonly means the impartial consideration of all parties concerned without special interest or personal preferences. Justice is the mediating principle between absolute love and the power principles of society — the relative embodiment of love in social structures. For large groups the highest goal is justice rather than love.
The relation between love and justice is dialectical. Justice is love in realizable action. God’s love for us (agape) leads us to love one another (mutual love). Mutual love needs agape to keep it from selfishness. Mutual love is one notch below the level of agape, while one notch below mutual love is justice (the only reachable norm for society). The minimal level of justice is the life needs of the neighbor that speak to the self as "claims" and "rights." Justice is a moral concept that is used by reason to discriminate the needs due the neighbor. Justice is the attempt to institutionalize the moral demands of love. Niebuhr put the relation this way:
Systems and principles of justice are the servants and instruments of the spirit of brotherhood in so far as they extend the sense of obligation towards the other, (a) from an immediately felt obligation, prompted by obvious need, to a continued obligation expressed in fixed principles of mutual support; (b) from a simple relation of the self and one "other" to the complex relations of the self and the "others"; and (c) finally from the obligations . . . which the community defines from its more impartial perspective.5
When justice is applied to the community, it becomes a principle of balance between competing groups within the community. For Niebuhr, equal justice, an inexact term covering a wide range of ideas, was generally defined as a decent equilibrium of power.
Niebuhr’s insistence on the balance of power was important for his community policy. This idea is well presented in the following passage:
Justification by faith in the realm of justice means that we will not regard the pressures and counterpressures, the tensions, the overt and covert conflicts by which justice is achieved and maintained as normative in the absolute sense; but neither will we ease our conscience by seeking to escape from involvement in them. We will know that we cannot purge ourselves of the sin and guilt in which we are involved by the moral ambiguities of politics without also disavowing responsibility for creative possibilities of justice.6
Equality, then, governs the idea of justice. Moral pragmatism is inevitable in righting social wrongs. Since community relations have limited morality and reason (self-interest is the primary datum of groups), power must be countered by power. Thus Niebuhr backed the formation of trade unions because he felt that workers had to organize to protect themselves against the exploitive tendencies of a laissez-faire economy and its power wielders. He also backed Roosevelt’s New Deal because he felt that basic social security required the assistance of government, that is, political power checking economic power. Or again, he saw the black citizens’ human rights fight making a wise use of social and political power to gain equal dignity and redress old grievances. But the government, as an instrument of distributive justice, was also a power that had to be watched and corrected.
On the international level, the same pragmatic balance of power was necessary for Niebuhr. Communist Russia and China, doggedly hauling peasant societies into a twentieth-century technological age with a totalitarian grip, were in the hands of political elites vulnerable to the abuse of their power. Communist evil, Niebuhr said, resulted from its monopoly of power (absolute power over other men producing evils worse than injustice), its utopianism (attribution of the source of evil to something outside man — private property), its faith in revolution (a substitute religion), and its dogmatism (ideology masquerading as science). For example, in the autumn 1956 Suez crisis, Niebuhr objected to the Eisenhower-Dulles policy because he felt its "legalistic-moralistic approach" played into the hands of the Soviets and strengthened Nasser’s intransigence. Communist ideology, claiming righteous purity with religious zeal, generated an imperialism dangerous to the West and its protector, the United States. Niebuhr felt that it was necessary for U.S. foreign policy to place limits on the expansionist zeal of Communist nations. At the same time America was too eager to impose its democratic traditions on developing countries not yet ready for them, Niebuhr said. Add to this zeal other major miscalculations, and the anguish of Vietnam was the result. Since the struggle between the major powers will be with us for decades to come, he felt that a wise statecraft must take into account the collective egoisms of nations and the ideal of a tolerable mutuality. The major world powers must exercise their responsibility for world order while refraining from exploiting their advantaged position.
When love goes into action in society, it gives rise to specific schemes or principles of justice. Justice is a second best to prevent one life from taking advantage of another. A realistic approach will take into account the tendency of man to think more highly of himself than he ought to think. Love cannot be an alternative to the "pushing and shoving" which justice requires. Political structures and pressures remain necessary. Although justice may be the approximation of brotherhood under conditions of sin, Niebuhr said that we need a great deal of this "second-rate" Christianity.
Niebuhr said that modern culture too easily assumes that the level of sanctification in the life of the individual can be regarded as a simple possibility for social groups. He contended that the will to power is a threat to the sanctification of even the most intimate groups. This celebrated "moral man and immoral society" theme runs through his writings, as already noted. It argues that a sharp distinction must be drawn between "the moral and social behavior of individuals and of social groups, national, racial, and economic; and that this distinction justifies and necessitates political policies which a purely individualistic ethic must always find embarrassing."7 The larger the group, the greater the difficulty in attaining justice.
Niebuhr said that the question of what is right in love and justice is usually clear. The real problem is what is possible in the light of man’s self-centeredness and intransigence. Hence Niebuhr argued for the principle of prudence. The application of love to schemes of justice must prudently take account of the human factor. Where group loyalties are involved, for example, coercion is often the only means of attaining justice. This holds true even for those men who most adequately embody agape. Love, persuasion, reason, and insight may mitigate and transcend the social struggle, but they cannot eliminate it. He said that this "is the very heart of the problem of Christian politics: the readiness to use power and interest in the service of an end dictated by love and yet an absence of complacency about the evil inherent in them."8
Niebuhr’s application of love to the social struggle came by way of a long and searching criticism of four major approaches. These positions are: (1) Protestant pietistic individualism. This position sees no necessity of applying love to justice. (2) A vague Christian or secular moralism (both Marxism and liberalism). This group tries to apply love directly to justice without taking account of original sin.
(3) Roman Catholicism’s natural law theory. This view relegates love to the realm of perfection while the church rationally defines the nature of Christian justice. The error here is an uncritical regard for the purity of reason. (4) The socialist Christian position. This position applies the insights of socialism to society, but submits them to the criticism of the law of love. Niebuhr found in these positions the way that love should not be related to justice; he excluded these various alternatives.
Love is related to justice in that it partly fulfills and partly negates justice. Niebuhr developed this relationship on three levels. (1) Love is the source of the norms of justice. From the love of Christ come suggested possibilities for improving justice. Equality is a significant principle of justice deduced, from the law of love and implicit within the love command: "Thus equality is love in terms of logic."9 Or again, the ability to enter sympathetically into the experience of another turns out to be another form of love that is close to agape. This Niebuhr called "imaginative justice." Forms of justice can never attain to agape, but they can approximate it. (2) Love is the dynamic motive for the establishment of justice. Love is constantly suggesting means to raise justice to higher levels of purity by the inspiration of agape. Reason cannot do this because it is subject to the corruptions of self-interest. How does love inspire justice? When the self encounters the agape of God, it responds in contrition and gratitude. Man’s contrite recognition of his sinfulness enhances justice because it establishes a foundation for better harmony in communal life. When man encounters agape he is grateful for the goodness of life. It is good because God created it, and this in turn validates the devoted efforts to achieve higher forms of justice. This gratitude springing from agape is a powerful dynamic. (3) Love is an end, while justice is a means. Love is the final goal toward which justice moves. Justice is not a fully satisfactory goal in itself because it falls short of love, being dependent upon coercive power on the one hand, and requiring rational calculations in the balancing of rights against rights on the other. In comparison, love is free, creative, and redemptive.
Niebuhr’s position may be summarized by saying that love is the operating motive in seeking the best possible social order, while justice is the instrument of love’s application. Justice may approximate love, but it is always capable of being corrected by love and raised to a higher level. Love fulfills justice insofar as it draws justice into greater and greater achievements of brotherhood. Love negates justice in that justice has elements which contradict love on each new level of achievement. Love can always raise justice to new heights; its possibility of transforming justice is indeterminate. Thus love requires, negates, and fulfills justice.
JUSTICE AND THE PARADOX OF GRACE
Niebuhr felt that the struggle for justice reveals the limitations of sin and the possibilities of progress by God’s grace in society. Love is the norm for individual life; brotherhood is the norm for social existence. Progress can be made from one generation to another although progress is fraught with danger. Because man is a free creature there are no limits to the purity of brotherhood he may reach; but because of man’s freedom his brotherhood is never safe from corruption on each new level of achievement. Brotherhood is faced with the indeterminate character of both good and evil (thus making society dynamic).
Niebuhr’s doctrine of human nature determined his views of what can be accomplished in attaining brotherhood in society. His view of man caused him to seek proximate solutions rather than absolute ones. This approach avoided the idolatrous fanaticisms which accompany absolute solutions and released constructive elements. His vocation was to clear the path for hopeful solutions by first destroying the illusions which flourished among religious and secular liberals and intellectuals. Events largely helped him to win this battle, and it is now easier to see the constructive side of his thought.
Original sin and the paradox of grace are as true expressions of social life and the struggle for justice as they are of the life of the individual. Niebuhr’s doctrine of justification indicated his awareness of the difficulty of relating agape to social action. (1) Justification points to the source of motive and morale for ethical living amidst the sinfulness of the human situation; it permits the Christian to participate in struggles for justice without making the struggle the norm. Justification enables the Christian to act morally in a sinful world even though this act involves participation in the evil which produces conflicts of conscience. The Christian is never satisfied that a particular strategy is the will of God. (2) Further, by making man conscious of his ethical responsibilities, the doctrine of justification keeps man from having a self-righteous conscience. The righteous and the idealists, secure in their own virtue, are those most in need of justification. Because they feel no need of justification they are unbending and uncreative in their approach to the unrighteous. (3) All efforts at justice are equally far from the Kingdom of God because they involve coercive efforts and coercion is foreign to the brotherhood of love. In this sense, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). Here Niebuhr’s doctrine of the "equality of sin and the inequality of guilt" is transferred from the individual to the group.10 When man’s righteousness is set over against God’s righteousness, the need for justification in the social struggle is obvious.
Justification, and its resultant humility, is the step prior to sanctification in social life just as it is in individual life. In the area of the relatively good and evil it is important to recognize that there are always higher possibilities of sanctification in every historic situation. Christians are under obligation to establish "indeterminate degrees" of justice in the social order, but they must do so in the light of the doctrine of justification. The recognition of the need for justification in the social order leads to greater degrees of sanctification. Niebuhr said that sanctification "in the realm of social relations demands recognition of the impossibility of perfect sanctification."11
Human society as well as the individual can know the sanctifying power of grace. Niebuhr ascribed to human communities and social institutions the possibility of renewal through grace. Although sanctification in the life of communities and social institutions is not so clearly defined an experience as it is in the individual, Niebuhr said that old forms and structures of life may be renewed rather than destroyed by the vicissitudes of history. This possibility, he held, "establishes the validity of the Christian doctrine of life through death for the collective, as well as for the individual, organism."12
The Renaissance insight of the possibility of indefinite moral improvement does not mean that Niebuhr returned to a liberal philosophy of progress for the social order. He saw an apocalyptic pattern in history in which good does not overcome evil in history but grows alongside it to the end. Both Renaissance and Reformation possibilities form a constant tension throughout history; sanctification is possible, but never without justification. At the same time, the "paradox of grace" saves the Christian from pessimism. To point out the limits of man’s existence does not mean a negation of that existence. Pessimism is just as much a result of expecting too much as of expecting too little. The same mind that is given the grace to know its sin is also given the grace to know its possibilities. Niebuhr’s analysis may perplex, but it does not lead to despair.
Niebuhr was a critic of the pessimist and cynic. From his earliest writings he warned against a too consistent realism. He was vocal in his criticism of those who recognize only man’s limitations and do not do justice to man’s indeterminate possibilities. He put it this way:
The cynic who discounts the moral potentialities of human nature seems always to verify his critical appraisal of human nature for the reason that his very skepticism lowers the moral potentialities of the individuals and groups with which he deals. On the other hand, the faith that assumes generosity in the fellow man is also verified because it tends to create what it assumes.13
He was critical of both cynicism and utopianism; he attempted to take a position between the two. When the illusions of cynicism and utopianism are stripped away, there are endless possibilities for perfecting the justice of social institutions.
The conclusion most abhorrent to Niebuhr’s critics was his idea that the growth of man’s possibilities for good carries with it the possibility of growth in evil. This conclusion leaves no room for a perfect society. But contrary to the opinion of Niebuhr’s critics, his thought was as far from cynicism as it was from utopianism. He said that it is wrong to interpret reality in the terms of either approach. He wrote:
An attitude which avoids both sentimentality and cynicism must obviously be grounded in a Christian view of human nature which is schooled by the Gospel not to take the pretensions of men at their face value, on the one hand, and, on the other, not to deny the residual capacity for justice among even sinful men.14
Niebuhr attempted to arrive at an operating optimism, a balanced position between extremes. There was no defeatism for Niebuhr in the Christian faith. The Christian faith sees man realistically in his sinfulness; but it also sees God’s grace giving man the power to meet life’s needs in a confident, victorious spirit. He said that mankind "will finally find political instruments and moral resources adequate for a wholesome communal life on a world-wide scale."15
Far from being a defeatist, Niebuhr may even have had underlying strains of utopianism or perfectionism in his thought. Utopians are buoyed up by their expectations; Niebuhr’s hopeful expectations were more sober, but they were important for his thought on moral conduct. John Bennett said it is probably true "that the vigor of Niebuhr’s attacks on perfectionism comes partly from the fact that he has always been much tempted by it."16 Niebuhr preserved certain perfectionist elements in his statement of the gospel: in his interpretation of love and of Christ’s "powerlessness" in history and in the tribute he paid to perfectionistic pacifism. On the other hand, he never gave a final picture of society — no complete vision of the world order, no "brave new world" — because of the tragic character of the political act.
LOVE, JUSTICE, AND THE COMMUNITY OF GRACE
Niebuhr loved the church (and made no apology for being critical of it), gave it devoted service (from pastor in Detroit to leader in the ecumenical movement), and wrote extensively for and about it in his periodical writings. He had a great deal to say about the functions of the church in its worship, sacraments, polity, etc., but here we are interested in how he viewed the church in relation to the social order. The first business of the church in society, he said, is "to raise and answer religious questions within the framework of which . . . the moral issues must be solved."17 His concern led him to deliver some withering blasts at churchmen who neglected the problem of social justice. His controversy with the European theologian Karl Barth was an evidence of his feeling. He thought (1) that Barth’s theology insulated the church from the world, (2) that Barth was too eschatological for calculated political decisions, (3) that Barth was so pragmatic that he disavowed all moral principles, and (4) that Barth isolated Christianity from the effects of philosophical and scientific speculation.
Niebuhr had a continuously growing appreciation for the church, but he did not want this appreciation to betray him into complacency about the new evil that could come into being through the church. Reminding the church that it was still subject to the judgment of God, he said that "every vehicle of God’s grace, the preacher of the word, the prince of the church, the teacher of theology, the historic institution, the written word, the sacred canon, all these are in danger of being revered as if they were themselves divine."18 He never hesitated to catalog the sins of the church, but his primary accusation was that the church had failed to render a service in the cause of social justice. He wrote that the church "maintains ethical attitudes in the interstices of our civilization, but does not build them into its structure. It embroiders life with its little amenities, but it does not change the pattern."19 The church is frequently indifferent to the immediate problems of relative justice. Christian leaders flee their daily responsibilities and decisions of justice in human affairs. "Yesterday they discovered that the church may be an ark in which to survive a flood. Today they seem so enamored of this special function of the church that they have decided to turn the ark into a home on Mount Ararat and live in it perpetually."20 Niebuhr said it is a tragedy that the church cultivates its spirituality by divorcing itself from an understanding of the brutal elements of collective life. He felt that the orthodox church convicts men of only the secondary sins of society, while the liberal church is unable to convict men of sin at all because of its romantic view of human nature.
Ideally, the church offers both diagnosis and healing to a sub-Christian culture. Why, then, has the church failed to grapple with the real moral problems of life? Niebuhr maintained that dozens of reasons may be given, but he settled on one "real case." He said that there seems to be a natural incompatibility between every high cause and the agency which advances it. Even the church cannot escape this paradox. The chief example of the error of "regarding the historic church as the unqualified representative of Christ on earth so that the enemies of the church become the enemies of God"21 was called by Niebuhr the "Catholic heresy." The Catholic church considers itself the extension of the Incarnation and assures men of their salvation if they can climb a "ladder of merit." At the same time Niebuhr said that the evangelical churches, coupling pietism and perfectionist illusions, are tempted to disregard the moral ambiguity in the life of the redeemed. The less democratic churches have an inherent danger of pride and the abuse of power. On the other hand, the sectarian churches are not powerful and resourceful enough to maintain a Christian witness in the struggle for justice in the social situation.
Niebuhr singled out Billy Graham as a personable and honorable exponent of pietistic evangelicalism. Niebuhr had a high appreciation of Graham as a Christian and as an evangelist. But, said Niebuhr, Graham’s representative pietistic moralism does not bring the Christian faith into correspondence with our social obligations, nor does it recognize the precariousness of the virtues of the redeemed. This pietism, ignoring the perplexities of guilt and responsibility which Christians must face, thinks that the problems of an atomic age can be solved simply by converting people to Christ; it lacks the grace to measure the distance between man’s fragmentary righteousness and the divine holiness. Niebuhr felt that this individualistic approach to faith and commitment was in danger of obscuring the highly complex task of justice in the community. On the other hand, he said that the message of Billy Graham, despite its simple pietism and obscurantist framework of "The Bible says. . . ," has "preserved something of the biblical sense of a divine judgment and mercy before which all human strivings and ambitions are convicted of guilt and reduced to their proper proportions."22
For Niebuhr the first business of the church was to raise and answer the religious question about the meaning of existence. Within this framework the moral-political issues which man faces must be solved. He had a firm conviction that the church can take its gospel of love seriously and apply it to the basic problems of life in this world. He affirmed that the church is always a genuine source of grace, whatever might be its corruptions. The church is founded upon faith in God; in spite of the historical corruptions into which it has fallen it bears the "oracles of God." It is the community where "the Kingdom of God impinges most unmistakably upon history because it is the community where the judgment and the mercy of God are known, piercing through all the pride and pretensions of men and transforming their lives."23
The church, when it combines two qualities, makes the gospel effective in moral-political life. These qualities are spiritual vigor and social intelligence. By the grace of God in man the new creature is given a powerful religious devotion that keeps the strong forces of the self in check. A genuine "crucifixion" of the self, a new birth, gives spiritual vigor. The humble person who arises as a result of this regenerating experience has a good chance of being a mediator of the divine grace and presenting the gospel in its full dimensions to the social order. Religious fervor creates the will to live the Christian life in all its ramifications. The full substance of the new life in Christ "and of the church as a community of grace is maintained by the continual renewal of the faith through the Scriptures."24 A spiritual rebirth combined with educated guidance make a potent working force for a realistic approach.
What is this realistic approach? Niebuhr said that it is the recognition of original sin and the paradox of grace in society as well as in the individual. It is the recognition that recurring love eases and qualifies but does not destroy the relative injustices of society. The church’s effort in the cause of reconciliation is advanced when it creates Christian realists who know that justice requires conflict. There are plenty of moral idealists in the church who confuse the issue by thinking that they can establish justice in a simple manner.
This approach demands that the church make a twofold honest analysis: (1) The church must help people make a self-analysis through the preaching of judgment. Men know how selfish they are when they are scrutinized from the perspective of the absolute, and this must come before society can be healed by grace.25 Such preaching involves a pitiless analysis of the motives and self-justification of man. (2) The church must also make a rigorous analysis of society for its members because most Christians do not know the kind of world they live in. Niebuhr said that it "is only in rare cases that moral good-will makes itself effective automatically. It must be directed." 26
What are the consequences of this realistic approach? On the one hand the church can mitigate the social struggle; on the other hand it may transcend the social struggle by destroying conceit. The gospel produces a spirit of humility and repentance. For Niebuhr, nothing was more socially relevant than humility born of faith’s encounter. Humility, rooted in repentance, expresses itself in the spirit of forgiveness. The righteousness of any just cause, though real, is not absolute. The church can make an invaluable gift to society by presenting to the community a greater number of contrite souls who express their redemption partly in the recognition of the remnant of pride that remains in the soul of every redeemed person. "Mercy to the foe is possible only to those who know themselves to be sinners." 27
The church may also transcend the social struggle. As well as creating a spirit of love, the church can create an attitude of trust and faith toward other human beings, thus stressing the potentialities of man rather than the immediate realities. "Through such imagination the needs of the social foe are appreciated, his inadequacies are understood in the light of his situation, and his possibilities for higher and more moral action are recognized." 28
Niebuhr’s discussion of the church and social justice assumed the doctrines of sin and grace in all of their ramifications. The church is composed of repentant sinners who have been born again through the grace of God. "The church is created not by the righteousness of the pharisee but the contrition of the publican; not by the achievement of pure goodness but by the recognition of the sinfulness of all human goodness."29 Part of the message of the church is a message of repentance, but it must be repentance for the saints as well as for those who deny the Lord.
The church, then, is composed of those persons who have recognized their sinfulness in the light of Christ the Truth. These persons have, through repentance and faith, been given grace as Power to live the new life in Christ. These saints remain in need of justifying grace because they are not perfectly sanctified. The church as an institution shares in this paradox. The problem of the church is to retain the paradox of grace. The church must absorb what is valid in the Renaissance attitude toward history and yet retain the Reformation emphasis on the equal need of all men for divine forgiveness. This attitude will not cause the church to encourage simple answers to the complex problems of society.
In the final analysis, then, the message of the church must be eschatological. The church is the eschatological community because it knows that its consummation is at the end of history. When the church is not sufficiently eschatological, it is in danger of becoming an Antichrist. This is not to exclude the redemptive act of God; but the church must keep eyes fixed steadfastly on the final goal, for in that goal is found the criterion for the message of the church to society. The most relevant task of the church is to proclaim the classical Christian gospel.
1. Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, p. 63.
2. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2:190.
3. Niebuhr, Does Civilization Need Religion?, p. 12.
4. Reinhold Niebuhr, "Christian Faith and Social Action," in Christian Faith and Social Action, ed. I. A. Hutchison (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), pp. 238-39 (hereafter cited as Niebuhr, "Christian Faith and Social Action").
5. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2: 24.8.
6. Ibid., p. 284.
7. Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, p. xi.
8. Niebuhr, "Christian Faith and Social Action," p. 241.
9. Niebuhr, Faith and History, p. 189.
10. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 1: 219ff.
11. Ibid., 2: 247.
12. Niebuhr, Faith and History, p. 226.
13. Reinhold Niebuhr, "The Ethic of Jesus and the Social Problem," in Love and Justice, p. 253 (hereafter cited as Niebuhr, "The Ethic of Jesus and the Social Problem").
14. Niebuhr, "Christian Faith and Social Action," p. 230.
15. Niebuhr, Discerning the Signs of the Times, p. 56.
16. Bennett, "Reinhold Niebuhr’s Social Ethics," in Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social, and Political Thought, pp. 50-51.
17. Reinhold Niebuhr, "Which Question Comes First for the Church?," in Essays in Applied Christianity, p. 88.
18. Niebuhr, Christianity and Power Politics, p. 219.
19. Reinhold Niebuhr, "The Weakness of the Modern Church," Essays in Applied Christianity, pp. 69-70 (hereafter cited as Niebuhr, "The Weakness of the Modern Church").
20. Reinhold Niebuhr, "We Are Men and Not God," in Essays Applied Christianity, pp. 172-73.
21. Reinhold Niebuhr, "The Oxford Conference on Church State," in Essays in Applied Christianity, p. 296.
22. Niebuhr, Pious and Secular America, pp. 20-21.
23. Niebuhr, Faith and History, p. 239.
24. Reinhold Niebuhr, "The Ecumenical Issue in the United States,’ in Essays in Applied Christianity, p. 275.
25. Reinhold Niebuhr, "The Idolatry of America," in Love and Justice, p. 97.
26. Reinhold Niebuhr, "The Weakness of the Modern Church," p.76.
27. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2: 217.
28. Niebuhr, "The Ethic of Jesus and the Social Problem," p. 38.
29. Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy, p. 60.