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Letter to a Friend reading Reinhold Niebuhr

A friend recently wrote that he had been reading essays that Reinhold Niebuhr wrote for various periodicals in the 1920s and ‘30s, and was impressed by Niebuhr’s sensitivity to injustice and his detailed knowledge of the injustices uncovered in that period. These injustices were often both the result of violence and the seeds of further violence. Is not Niebuhr’s work in this respect similar to that of Quakers? As Lucretia Mott once said, “There can be no true peace without justice.”

No, Niebuhr was not a pacifist. He was rather, in his day, the most prominent Christian apologist for force and violence. And though he is thoughtful and remains worth reading today, he resorts to the same intellectual tricks as others. One such trick is to appeal to a general theory of “human nature.” Anyone who speaks of human nature is likely to be abstracting from circumstances and thinking in terms of universal laws—he or she then attributes such a view to her or his adversary and produces counter‐examples to what that adversary never said. The Quaker view that there is a sense of Truth and Divinity (“that of God”) in every person does not allow expression of universal laws, although a scientific conception of human nature normally does.

The second trick is to invoke justice, which always appears different from different perspectives, so that an action that corrects some injustice from one perspective— really corrects it, not just appears to—probably imposes some other injustice from another perspective.

Niebuhr was interested in politics, that is, in exercising political power and dominance, whereas a Quaker leader needs to refrain from exercising such power—as happened in Penn’s Holy Experiment until it was undone by the citizens voting to establish a militia, which served explicitly to exercise power and dominance, no doubt in the name of justice. A Quaker conscience is nonpolitical—for which Niebuhr would condemn it—but seeks instead to put limits on power and dominance and to care for and nurture those who are oppressed by it. Government may from time to time be improved by the exercise of Quaker conscience, but politics, as the drive of power and dominance, is an entirely different game, and it is therefore no accident that there are no Quakers in Congress.

Christianity has been political since at least the fourth century, with the conversion of Constantine and the suppression of the texts known as the Gnostic Gospels. That is to say, a concern for power and dominance has been present, often primary, and has led Christian churches to work hand in glove with civil authorities. Niebuhr stands in this tradition, as does the “Just War” doctrine. Quakers stand outside it.

Justice is more often used to justify violence than to oppose or reject it. It is certainly a part of Quaker conscience to be alert of instances of injustice and to correct them, where it is possible to do so without force or violence.

Nonetheless the concept of justice is treacherous for Friends. George Fox and the early Quakers taught us to rely on experience, and we have no experience of justice—only of injustices.

The problem with injustices is that they lead to misery and oppression, and I find it more useful to focus on the misery and oppression, as Jesus does in Matthew 25, and to try to relieve those conditions without mentioning justice.

Relatively few people make a sharp distinction between politics and government, or stop to question the clarity of the concept of justice, but I find that clear thinking on these matters is impossible without doing so. That is, otherwise one begins to think like Niebuhr.

Newton Garver
East Concord, N.Y.

Posted in: Features

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