Do We Lack the Will to Control Our Destiny?

06/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

To what extent can we still believe in the ideal of Jeffersonian democracy as America treads through its current series of crisis, economically and militarily?

Our public discourse seems to be dominated by a distrust of elected officials and a collective apathy on our part fueled by a sense of powerlessness because a few ruling elite have ultimate say over our destiny.

As I grapple with these realities, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr has been on my mind. Niebuhr, in my opinion, was the 20th century's most important theological voice.

Niebuhr's public theology was the standard for how those with a "realistic" faith would confront the challenges of the 20th century. A broad coalition ranging from Martin Luther King to former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles cite Niebuhr as having profound influence on their thinking and subsequent actions.

Niebuhr's thinking became particularly noteworthy when David Brooks of The New York Times, in a 2006 column, marveled at then Sen. Barack Obama's understanding and appreciation for Niebuhr's work.

In Niebuhr's Christian Realism, he offers a Christian ethic that combines a dose of pragmatism staking out a middle ground between Christian idealism and hubris to challenge both the church and society to reflect deeper about its role in a post-World War II world.

As Hans Morgenthau once opined, "His influence is all around us. Many Americans who never read a word Reinhold Niebuhr wrote have been altered by his ideas."

Niebuhr's "Serenity Prayer," a staple with Alcoholic's Anonymous, may provide the strongest evidence to Morgenthau's observation.

In the post-9/11 world, Niebuhr's thought has made a limited resurgence. Several columnists on the left and right cited Niebuhr to justify their preconceived notions about America's future direction. This approach, though convenient, oversimplifies our current realities.

I have always opposed those who seek a "strict constructionist" perspective toward the Constitution. It assumes a stagnant world, which is the antithesis of our history. I feel similar about many of those citing Niebuhr today.

One of the dangers in thinking about Niebuhr in relation to our current times is the temptation to simply apply his thinking onto a landscape that he would hardly recognize. To my knowledge, Niebuhr has no position on the AIDS pandemic, global warming, or how to engage in war against an enemy who is not part of a nation state.

Niebuhr's lasting contribution is not realized in the final conclusions but, rather, in the approach his analysis offers. According to Niebuhr we exist within the elusive contours of paradox, nuance, and irony -- a far cry from so much of our contemporary discourse that relies on certainty and absolutes.

Our two major political parties, seemingly unaware that neither doctrine is beholden to an absolute truth, view each other as warring factions rather than differing perspectives.

The same holds true for much of today's theological discourse, where answers are more important than questions and the linear reliance on ancient texts void of any historical context is ultimately inadequate to confront complexities of the contemporary human condition.

The Niebuhrian critique also applies to the corrupting nature of power and powerlessness.

We are perhaps more adept at recognizing how power contaminates society. Democrats and Republicans alike have historically struggled with the abuse of power, as have corporate CEOs.

But powerlessness offers an equally corrupting agent. Some of the cruelest acts of dehumanization have originated from those whose lack of power has embittered them to the point that they misuse power against others to compensate for their frustrations. And it has been those times when those in power have aligned with the powerless that we've witness barbarism at its worst.

Invariably, those who reminisce about Niebuhr's thinking conclude with a longing for a "new" Niebuhr to help us in our present day crisis. A noble and understandable thought, but great people tend to be greater in hindsight.

In fact, we have all the Niebuhr we need to navigate through the irony, paradox, and nuance of the human condition. For in the words of Victor Hugo, "people don't lack strength; they lack will."

The tension lies, not in policy, but in people. As Niebuhr wrote in his book, "The Nature and Destiny of Man," we continue to be our most vexing problem.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist and blog-talk radio host. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at or visit his website: