This column is part of our ongoing opinion commentary on faith, called Living our faith. Find the complete series here.
“Perhaps the greatest moral problems of an individual or a society arise when there is nothing to do. … The question is posed to us by the fighting in the East. We get irritated, we are in a hurry to do something constructive; but there is nothing constructive, it seems, that we can do.
These are the words of theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, published 90 years ago next month in the Christian centuryin an article titled “The Grace of Doing Nothing”.
“Fighting in the East” refers to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (China) in the fall of 1931. The invasion was part of Japan’s expansionist aspirations, and it was a test of the community’s resolve. international in the face of the expansionists. regimes around the world, a test that the international community has not exactly passed with flying colors. From our current perspective, the invasion was a major precursor to World War II.
In the years after March 1932, “The Grace of Doing Nothing” became a classic in the discipline of Christian ethics, as did his response, “Must We Do Nothing,” published a week later. by H. Richard’s brother, Reinhold Niebuhr. I regularly attribute these two papers to my students, not because the Japanese invasion of China has much to do with our lives now, but because the moral and theological issues and arguments are so clear. And, as the current case of Russia and Ukraine shows, the foreign policy issue is, unfortunately, perennial.
Theologians today tend to reproduce the intellectual vices of contemporary culture at large. We feel compelled to speak out on all topical issues with a searing gaze on Twitter, generally portraying our own position as pure and those who disagree with us as evil. Or, to put it bluntly, public theology is often little more than partisan posturing. The debate between the Niebuhrs was different. It was a real theological debate, centered on God’s relationship to the world and what that relationship means for responsible human action.
Following the Niebuhrs, it may be helpful for us to reflect on what our response to an international threat – in this case, the Russian invasion of Ukraine – teaches us about our own assumptions about God. The reason is that political questions are nothing more than an opportunity for theological speculation. These are real issues that threaten to cause large-scale loss of life, and they require our attention as such.
Rather, it is because rightly dealing with these difficult issues forces us to think clearly about the deep intellectual, moral, and religious commitments that guide us as we consider all possible responses to difficult and dangerous situations like these.
The larger debate among the brethren has to do with the purity of heart of those who would act to accomplish good in the world. For the two brothers, shares subscribed out of pure love, without any self-interest or hypocrisy, are largely beyond the reach of humans. We are a mixed bag, with mixed motivations, with an amazing capacity for self-deception. We possess the ability to fool ourselves into believing that we are acting on behalf of another when we act in a way that is almost completely self-serving. This is unfortunately all the more true when it comes to our most ambitious activities. Humans are the kind of creatures that build gulags to create societies of perfect equality.
For H. Richard, this suspicion of human self-deception was associated with what he called “the almost obsolete faith that there is a God – a true God”. He compared this faith with the “faith” of early Christians and contemporary communists. The core belief of both, he believed, was that the story would “inevitably and truly” conclude in a “world of lasting peace”. Early Christians believed that this future would come at the unique time of Christ’s return. The communists believed that this would be caused by the “processes of history”.
H. Richard’s point of view is different from the two. For him, the “true God” is already at work in history, and it is only the activity of this God that brings about the “world of lasting peace”. The best we can do is prepare for that future; we cannot cause it. This approach corresponds to H. Richard’s global vision of a God who is beyond humans, but who draws humans into the divine work.
For Reinhold, on the other hand, our moral frailty – including our hypocrisy, our blindness and even our attempt to take the place of God – does not free us from the burden of acting in history. While it is God who brings history to an end, we are responsible for its continuity.
Those who threaten to end history must be restrained, but such restrictive action is morally ally. The intention is good but probably misleading; the end is immediate justice; the means are barely bearable. So while we must take responsibility for maintaining history, we must do so in fear and trembling.
To put it in the language of Reinhold, in worldly affairs we can never achieve pure love, but we can – and must – work to bring immediate justice. But because such action is morally complicated, those who must undertake it must do so in fear and trembling. The God who brings history to its conclusion judges “victor and vanquished” alike, and as a theologian who lived long before either Niebuhr wrote in the book of Hebrews, “c It is a frightening thing to fall into the hands of a living God”.
Thus, the two brothers agreed that to act or to refrain from acting involves us in the moral drama of the difficult case which occupies us. There are no morally neutral positions to occupy here. Both agreed that the action in the story can only find its proper ending in – can only be resolved by – God.
They disagree on when certain types of action in the story are justified within the larger framework of action “beyond the story”. Or, to put it another way, if we can’t put off action indefinitely, we need to know when to move from inaction to action.
This knowledge is difficult to obtain. On the one hand, except in very rare cases of extreme evil and overwhelming existential threat, foreign policy intervention decisions are calls for judgment. On the other hand, these judgments are based on very real material facts, such as the number of soldiers, the possibility of escalation, the threat to civilians, etc.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that neither of the Niebuhr brothers makes a strong argument about what the United States should, in fact, do about the Japanese invasion of China. Reinhold, in particular, was always ready to make these points, especially during the run-up to World War II. Thus, the fact that he does not call for a particular action in this case stands out.
One reason may be that he simply did not know enough to be convinced that the United States should to act right away, only that – contrary to his brother’s assertion – there was no compelling reason to think that not to act was a requirement of grace. Reinhold knew more than anyone about the situation in Germany and he was ready to mobilize as many people as possible to deter and then defeat Hitler. But in March 1932, the material facts relating to the invasion of China were not so obvious to him.
I guess it’s the same for most of us here in the United States regarding the current situation in Ukraine. We simply don’t know enough about the material and political realities there to make strong calls for any particular kind of action. The coming days will clarify some of these realities – the extent of Putin’s expansionist ambitions, the obligations of international bodies like NATO and the UN, and the immediate impact of Western sanctions on Russia.
At the same time, we need clarity on our own foreign policy objectives. What are the objectives of our response? Are we trying to contain Putin’s advance? Are we acting to uphold established international norms, perhaps to set new norms? Do we act now to deter China? These foreign policy questions are almost as difficult to answer as questions about the realities on the ground in Ukraine and Russia.
The historical example of the Niebuhr context in the 1930s shows that if our next step is military action, we should be prepared for a war on the scale of World War II. This possibility should give us all pause before calling for particular actions. But that should not make us indifferent to the situation. By violating Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, Russia has threatened the very foundation of the international order, and we should be as concerned about this threat as we are about the threat of war.
In this complex situation, we can take inspiration from the Niebuhr brothers. The starting point for seeking clarity is within ourselves and our own deep beliefs about God and the world. This means that our immediate action must take the form of prayer more than politics.
We find ourselves in a situation where “there is nothing to be done”. But we could, in the next few days, be entrusted with the task of maintaining the story. We probably cannot know whether our action or inaction is pure or whether we truly love our neighbors, let alone our enemies. But what we can do is open ourselves to the true God, who at the same time judges all historical action and offers grace to those who must act.
Dallas Gingles is theological ethicist and site director of the Houston-Galveston Extension Program at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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