Director’s note: On this third day of our conversation, we discuss political prophets and evangelists, pragmatic prophets, and whether withdrawal from the public sphere is a valid, faithful Christian stance.
CHR: There is a section of the book where you employ a lot of faith language – you talk of prophets and evangelists. I found this fascinating. Is being a prophet, or an evangelist, a model of being a president? How so? And, how do you define the way you are using the term “evangelist”?
RWH: Evangelist is a term pulled straight out of scripture. We use it, meaning “political evangelist”. The political evangelist is one who tends to marry the goals of America with the desires of the deity. Thus, the political evangelist talks about how righteous American goals are. Our foremost example of a political evangelist is Ronald Reagan. There might be no less paradoxical president in the history of American presidents! Reagan was certain of American virtue, certain that God was on our side, and thus, certain that to engage in the American project on the world stage and the American project ehre at home were both absolutely righteous, good tasks.
In part, the American or political evangelist is brought into sharp relief in the comparison with the prophet. Again, we draw the inspiration out of scripture, particularly from the Hebrew prophets. The Hebrew prophet comes to the nation and says, “God is unhappy – God hates your solemn assemblies – bring me no more of your sacrifices, I cannot abide them.” That’s not abnormal prophet-talk. The prophet looks at the present and compares it to what God wants, and always finds it falling short. So the prophet in a sense stands over and apart from the nation and says, “I have a word from the Lord.” Political prophets, in a sense, stand over and apart from the nation and say, “Nation, you have fallen short of your own best ideals.” One of our most significant political prophets is Martin Luther King, Jr.
You can see that these two roles are almost diametrically opposed. It doesn’t take a lot of experience in American political life to see which one of these tends to get votes.
CHR: It tends to get votes from people with power. Martin Luther King never campaigned for political office, but if he had, many African-Americans, given the opportunity to vote for him, would have done so – even though he was criticizing the nation, because they agreed with his critique. It’s probably true that King was a political prophet. He was also a theological prophet, and a Christian prophet – he never gave up the faith stance which provided foundation for his work and his speech. In this section, you speak of Niebuhr as a “pragmatic prophet”. Can prophets be pragmatic? Certainly Martin Luther King was not pragmatic in the way you use this term of Niebuhr. His prophecy was very different than Niebuhr’s – and of course King got killed for his.
PJ: That’s of course true. Just a side note – when King was at Boston University and was writing his doctoral thesis, he began a correspondence with Niebuhr to ask Niebuhr to read what he wrote and comment on it. So they did have a relationship of sorts, at least at the correspondence level.
Niebuhr is a different kind of prophet than King – he is a pragmatic prophet. To be a pragmatic prophet is to be a Christian realist. The Christian realist is not only a realist – he’s also a prophet, and also a Christian. I don’t know that someone can be both Christian and a realist at precisely the same moment on the same thing in the same way. I don’t know if one can be pragmatic and prophetic in precisely the same way at the same moment on the same subject. But in some sense, there is in Niebuhr a quick alteration between the Niebuhr who can say, for example, “America as a nation is failing in the following ways” – in the production of social justice, for example – and the Niebuhr who can say, “Well of course we are failing – all political communities fail.” The prophetic call then is a call to do better – to fail better, if you will. I suppose that’s the pragmatic prophet – the one who can issue a profound critique of the community and realize the realistic limits of what can be accomplished, and yet maintain the critique.
RWH: Niebuhr, in his career, got the difference. There’s a very important passage from Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, that he was writing when he was, say, 25-27 years old – long before he left to go to Union Seminary (in New York). He said something like, “Prophets are wonderful in their purity. But pastors have to deal with the facts that are actually on the ground.” Prophets can come and say, “Here’s the word of the Lord – now I’m leaving.” Pastors have to say, “Here’s the word of the Lord, and I still love you – I will be here tomorrow. And yes, I understand and will still love you, no matter what problems are ongoing in this relationship.”
Of course, we’re dancing on the place where Stanley Hauerwas (in With The Grain of the Universe) would suggest that Niebuhr isn’t really a Christian, because he refuses the truth of prophecy. Hauerwas asks, what do we have in Niebuhr but secularism in another form? I don’t believe this is the case. That’s part of what we’re saying here – Niebuhr says, “here’s the prophetic model – what can we do with that with the world we have right now?”.
CHR: It occurs to me that the pastor is not in a different place than God, in the quote you cited from Niebuhr. In a continuing fashion, whether or not people get with the program, God continues to love us, and stay with us – which is really good news, as we never get with the program! God continues, however, to call us to something different.
Niebuhr’s take is interesting then, because he suggests (I think as you interpret it) that to love people where they are, is to deny the possibility of being prophetic. Is that how you understand it? And can you talk about your understanding of the intersection of Christianity – a faith based in belief that the key figure died and was raised from the dead, and in power beyond that which is realistically, rationally seen – and realism?
RWH: Niebuhr was, by the time of Moral Man and Immoral Society, a pretty strong critic of the Social Gospel movement. He moved away from the Social Gospel – and in The Nature and Destiny of Man, he discusses how Christianity, as itself, has no other goal. There is no other “I am Christian, so…” – there is no other end to that statement. Christianity is its own goal. The following of Jesus, the Christ, must be simply that. He occasionally would put forth an understanding of that, which would, say, really conflict with the teaching and writings of Walter Wink. Walter has a piece on Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount, which Wink turns into a political project. For Niebuhr, the interpretation of that is the exact opposite. You accept this to follow the Lord, and the political calculation is off the table, because Jesus did not say, “Put away your swords so the bad guys will also put away theirs”; he simply said, “Do this, because this is the kingdom.” So I think Niebuhr recognizes that that is Christianity in its pure form.
Having said that, the Christian model of engagement with the world, which is not simply a question of, oh, what should we do now? But is something that is commanded by the Lord. “Did you clothe the naked? Did you feed the hungry?” Those efforts embroil the believer in where the world is, and thus you get two different models. One is the kind of Anabaptist, radical Mennonite model which says, “Pull away from the world.” The other says, “Engage with the world, and like Jesus – the doctor does not come to heal with those who are well.” In this model, you have to deal with the issues that are there. In doing so, you’ll get mud and blood on your hands. So Niebuhr is always clear that there’s another Christian option here, which is the Mennonite option – absolutely withdraw.
PJ: To sharpen Niebuhr’s political ethical point – the question is, why should Christians be political? One option is that they could be radically private and withdraw. Another option is that they could find non-political but still public ways to act – like Habitat for Humanity, outreach by local churches, and so on. Niebuhr is critical of both of those things, actually. In part, he’s critical of the radical withdrawal because it’s too easy. Of course, in reality, it’s really difficult, which is why so few people do it – which might also make it attractive. But in one sense, it is easy because of its evasion of public responsibility. Niebuhr always realizes that we always have public responsibility – that private goods are always insufficient. Even the private charity is insufficient. There’s a wonderful passage in The Irony of American History, which points out that one of the benefits of public, governmental assistance programs is that they have an ethical advantage over private charity – as they require us to care about people who are not in our communities. They really do require us to think beyond ourselves. For Niebuhr, that is a Christian value as well, but it can’t be accomplished through private charity – it can only be accomplished through political work.
CHR: I wonder about one of the issues you are raising on the nature of what it is to be Christian. Ward, you mentioned Menno Simons and what you called a radical, Anabaptist approach. There are Christians, however, who engage, who are pacifists who are not withdrawing. I don’t think Niebuhr reflects awareness of that in his writing – that a Christian could engage without going to what some might call his level of extremism.
In the book you refer to the Serenity Prayer. Do you see Niebuhr as understanding God as powerful? The prayer seems to be pretty set on the individual rather than God. Do you read Niebuhr as one who understands God as the One who works for change?
W: Yes. I would disagree with your reading of the Prayer – which leaves off the first two words, “God grant” – it is a theocentric prayer. The actor is God.
I believe Niebuhr sees the transformative policies of God’s providential action, but does not prescribe policy around it. There have been many critics of Niebuhr’s work who have seen him as giving up the Gospel because they did not see sufficient evidence in his writing of an awareness of the transcendent and transforming power of God. Niebuhr worried about that in his lifetime. But it is clear that when we look at Niebuhr’s idea of history, there is no question that history only makes sense when the appearance of the Messiah who judges history is the quintessential moment in history, and the One who makes history make sense. To radical Christian communities, Niebuhr would say that no one can make the pacifist call for anyone from him or herself. If you are withdrawing from voting, from life in the public sphere, then why should the political community allow you a place at the table and a voice?
CHR: You are right; and yet, there are many people who understand themselves as called to pacifism who are not on that end of the spectrum, who do not withdraw from the public sphere. Some of them might even be Presbyterian!
W: Of course. Then, the big question is, what do you do when facing radical evil? I don’t mean generic evil – what do you do when the Nazis knock on the door?
C: People of faith who were in that situation had a variety of responses to that question – some fought using violence, and others found a variety of ways to respond faithfully and nonviolently.
W: Of course they did – the issue for Niebuhr is that from his perspective and his reading of history, withdrawal is not a faithful response.