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Which Niebuhr, President Obama?

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In 2007, New York Times columnist David Brooks asked Barack Obama if he had ever read the Christian ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr. "I love him," the then-senator replied. "He's one of my favorite philosophers."

Reinhold Niebuhr, whose career spanned the mid-twentieth century, was an influential theologian when public theology mattered to a largely Protestant church-going population. Niebuhr taught at New York's Union Theological Seminary and articulated a theological and political position known as Christian Realism. In 1932, his most famous book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, argued that when collective powers (such as a tyrannical state) harm the weak, then other states (especially states indebted to Christian religion) can or must use force to combat them.

When it comes to Syria, President Obama seems to be channeling Reinhold Niebuhr as he presses for U.S. military action to punish the atrocity of a nation gassing its own citizens. Syrian violence must be met with forceful coercion from moral nations, and America must use its military power toward the ethical goal of eliminating chemical weapons. This echoes Niebuhr's assertion, "As long as the world of man remains a place where nature and God, the real and the ideal, meet, human progress will depend upon the judicious use of the forces of nature in the service of the ideal." Thus, violence is justified to end violence.

If President Obama had fully followed Reinhold Niebuhr, the strike would have surely commenced by now. However, something odd happened on the way to retaliation -- a pause. To talk, argue, reflect, and vote? Our politics-obsessed culture depicts this as waffling or weakness or presidential second thoughts based on bad polling numbers.

But what if something else is at work?

There was another Niebuhr, Reinhold's younger brother H. Richard, who taught at Yale. In 1932, the year Moral Man was published, the two brothers held a debate in the pages of the Christian Century on an important political question of the day -- whether or not the United States should intervene on behalf of China in light of atrocities inflicted on them by a Japanese invasion.

The elder Niebuhr argued to "dissuade Japan from her military venture" by whatever means necessary. Contra his brother, H. Richard Niebuhr suggested that doing nothing was the way toward peace. H. Richard outlined a theology of moral "inactivity." Against the rush of events, an ethical nation must reflect upon the causes of the problem, form potential courses of action, and discern self-interest in the conflict -- all within a framework of God's intentions in history. This constructive inactivity is the moral opposite of immediate reaction, a response akin to what H. Richard compared to an angry parent who corrects bad behavior with a "verbal, physical, or economic spanking." Unlike his brother, H. Richard thought that violence could not be reconciled with any sort of meaningful faith or "radical trust" in God.

For H. Richard, inactivity made space for "self-analysis," and only this introspective approach could result in creating a just and more loving community. The hope for human society rests with "those who do not judge their neighbors because they cannot fool themselves into a sense of superior righteousness."

With the "pause" in the Syrian response, it is worth accepting H. Richard Niebuhr's invitation to reflect on some important concerns: Where are we culpable? Are our hands free of guilt in this situation? Is there a meaningful difference between our use of torture at Abu Gharib and the use of sarin gas in Syria? Or what is the difference between killing our citizens with drones and the Assad regime gassing theirs? Is it moral to use chemicals to kill prisoners on death row in America but not children on the streets of Damascus? What example do we, as Americans, offer to the rest of the world? Do we model the ethics we seek to foster abroad? Do we appear as hypocrites to our foes? Is our indignation the sound and fury of a people not willing to look in the mirror to examine their national moral failings?

If he were alive, these would be the questions of H. Richard, the other Niebuhr brother.

H. Richard Niebuhr insisted, based on Christian theology, that we are all guilty. There are no "non-combatants, everyone is involved" in the evils of oppression across the globe. This very lack of innocence that opens the possibility to empathy and mutual dependence, in shared human suffering we might be able to truly care for one another in mercy and justice. According to H. Richard, love is always the "emergent" potential in the midst of human community, a creative process drawing men and women of all nations and faiths to together to "sow the seeds" of peace.

Reinhold Niebuhr influenced two or three generations of American ethicists, religious leaders, and politicians. H. Richard, while remembered in theological circles, never influenced American public policy quite as widely as did Reinhold. Yet there were two brothers. Taken together, the Niebuhrs represent a tension at the heart of American liberal democracy: the desire to stand against evil decisively versus the need for self-reflection central to a moral community. President Obama has admitted partiality toward Reinhold Niebuhr's realism, the use of imperfect means to achieve ethical ends. But, by slowing down the process of a response to Syria, he opened space for H. Richard's vision for a larger peace. Maybe the pause will enable us to act differently, more wisely in Syria and at home -- that is a worthwhile hope for a great nation. Must we choose which Niebuhr? Perhaps the American soul needs both.

Mr. President, have you ever read H. Richard Niebuhr?

The full debate between Reinhold Niebuhr and H. Richard Niebuhr from 1932 can be found here.