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  • Toward a Realistic, Public, Christian Pacifism
  • Daniel J. Ott (bio)

I. Introduction

In a 2007 interview, then senator and presidential candidate, Barack Obama, called Reinhold Niebuhr, “one of my favorite philosophers.” When his interviewer, David Brooks, followed by asking, “What do you take away from him?” Obama answered, “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away . . . the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”1 One part of Niebuhr’s political theology that Obama has clearly embraced is Niebuhr’s justification of war and violent coercion. The question remains, though, whether Niebuhr’s own “realist” rejection of pacifism and nonviolence avoided cynicism and did not itself slip in to a kind of “bitter realism.”

As Brooks’s and Obama’s attention points up, Niebuhr’s justification of war still holds currency both in political and theological circles. Often the debate about Christian pacifism is framed pitting this great public theologian of the 1930s–1960s against what may be the closest thing we have today to a prominent public theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, who offers a kind of sectarian and perhaps somewhat idealist defense of pacifism. The consequence of conceiving Christian pacifism in this frame is that Niebuhr’s justification of war is understood as the only wholly realistic view and counter-cultural and doctrinaire reasons for pacifism like those put forward by Hauerwas are seen as the only properly Christian reasons. This essay intends to show that Niebuhr’s realism is in fact a bitter one and Hauerwas’s sectarian pacifism is, while perhaps not naively idealistic, not public and pragmatic enough to be effectual. This essay also intends to move toward a constructive alternative. The reasons given here, then, will need to be rooted in Christian tradition and theology but publicly accessible and applicable. These reasons will also need to be pragmatic and practicable enough to be deemed “realistic” both within Christian discourse and a larger public discourse. [End Page 245]

II. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Attack on Pacifism

In his 1940 essay “Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist,” Reinhold Niebuhr applied his understanding of the law of love as an “impossible possibility” to the question of Christian pacifism. He there declares the “ethic of Jesus as finally and ultimately normative, but as not immediately applicable to the task of securing justice in a sinful world.”2 He condemns two versions of Christian pacifism. First, he condemns the perfectionisms of medieval asceticism and sectarian radical reformers like Menno Simons. In both cases, the problem is that there is a disavowal of the political task and thereby responsibility of Christians for social justice. He then focuses his attention throughout much of the rest of the essay on “modern forms of Christian pacifism,” which he judges to be mostly heretical. The problem with these modern forms lies mostly in their implicit humanism that denies the reality of human sin and their lack of understanding of the complexity and messiness of the quest for justice in a fallen world. He contends that pacifists “merely assert that if only men (sic) loved one another, all the complex, and sometimes horrible, realities of the political order could be dispensed with.”3 Their “if ” raises the red flag for Niebuhr, though, since it is his conviction that human sin inevitably cuts persons off from loving one another as they should. And since we are so cut off from the possibility of a realization of pure love socially, we are left with a pursuit of justice that necessarily involves the use of some measure of coercion in response to sinful human tendencies toward tyranny and injustice.

As Niebuhr insists, even the pacifist must acknowledge that true nonresistance simply sidesteps the problem of inevitable political conflict. Niebuhr presses his argument further by caricaturing the pacifist’s appeal to nonviolent resistance. First, Niebuhr rather baldly proclaims that “there is not the slightest support in...


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