Niebuhr Study Guide: Section VI

Niebuhr Study Guide: Section VI

Introduction | Section I | Section II | Section III | Section IV | Section V | Section VI

Section VI: War and Peace

Related Web Elements

Radio Program
Listen to the online version of the radio broadcast and read the complete transcript of the show.

Interview with Elisabeth Sifton
Listen to and read the complete transcript of the conversation with Niebuhr's daughter Elisabeth, who describes her father's approach to international politics and war.

Interview with Jean Bethke Elshtain
Listen to and read the transcript of Krista's conversation with this political ethicist who discusses how Niebuhr might have responded to the contemporary issues regarding the war in Iraq and the role of terrorism in our society.

"Reinhold Niebuhr: Does His Legacy Have a Future?"
In this essay, Robin Lovin addresses contemporary critics of Niebuhr by arguing his idea of Christian realism is as relevant in our times as they were in Niebuhr's.

The Gifford Lectures
A copy of the program distributed before his lectures in 1939.

Correspondence with Samuel Press
In a 1915 letter to his former professor, Niebuhr expresses his uneasiness with the oncoming war and the devotion of his German-American congregants.

Views on Vietnam
Niebuhr writes Bishop Scarlett about his disdain for American policies that got America in "this mess."


Issues of war and peace largely framed Niebuhr's life. As a young pastor and an American of German heritage, Niebuhr had to come to terms with World War I, wrestling with both overt bias directed against those of German stock and the sheer devastation of the war itself in terms of loss of life and destruction. As a result, Niebuhr never embraced war as a necessity, although he was sensitive to issues of power and conflict among nations. At the same time, while he was drawn to pacifism as a position more compatible with Christian profession, he was by no means uncritical of pacifism itself. An ardent supporter of American entry into World War II because of the evil that he thought Hitler and Fascism represented, Niebuhr was equally suspicious and critical of Communism in the years after the war when Korea and Cold War dominated public life. American engagement in southeast Asia, especially Vietnam, brought forth fresh criticism from Niebuhr in his final years, however, for he found no justice in the American position in that conflict.

Study Questions
1| On what grounds did Niebuhr reject pacifism as an absolute position for Christians? How did Niebuhr's understanding of the reality of tyranny and its evil potential temper his appreciation for rejecting war as a method for resolving international conflict?

2| Niebuhr reaped considerable criticism from ardent pacifists when he published Christianity and Power Politics in 1940 when he wrote in that work about how pacifism could actually be destructive of peace among nations, although he also insisted that world peace was an ideal to be pursued even as that pursuit remained an elusive ideal in terms of its concrete manifestation in human life. How did Niebuhr himself resolve the paradox that critics found in this position? Can we understand his position when we recall that in the Gifford Lectures, published as The Nature and Destiny of Man, he also wrote that humans are "confronted with endless possibilities" and therefore "can set no limit to what [they] ought to be, short of the character of ultimate reality"?

3| In Christianity and Power Politics Niebuhr observed: "Whatever may be the moral ambiguities of the so-called democratic nations, and however serious may be their failure to conform perfectly to their democratic ideals, it is sheer perversity to equate the inconsistencies of a democratic civilization with the brutalities which modern tyrannical states practise." How and why, then, did he become an outspoken critic of U.S. policy in southeast Asia in the 1960s, claiming in a 1969 interview that the Vietnam War failed to meet the criteria for a just war and also violated the principle that "the means must be proportionate to the ends. Well, the means were not proportionate to the ends, either in blood or in money, in Vietnam"?

4| Because Niebuhr supported some war (e.g., the Allied cause in World War II) and opposed some war (e.g., American involvement in Vietnam), some regard him as inconsistent. How would Niebuhr respond to that charge? Is his posture a reflection of what biographer June Bingham called the "courage to change"?

5| Additional understanding of Niebuhr's position may come from comparing what he said about pacifism and what he wrote about utopianism, work that was influenced by the psychologist Erik Erikson. For example, Niebuhr dismissed Stalinist communism as an expression of hard utopianism that justified enormous cruelty in its efforts to create its own morally ideal utopia. At the same time, he called American engagement in Vietnam another example of hard utopianism. Does his awareness of pride and the inevitability of sin illuminate his criticism of hard utopianism? Likewise, Niebuhr rejected what he called soft utopianism, the idea that the ideal society would come only through changing the hearts of every individual one at a time, as overly sentimental and naive. On what basis did Niebuhr make this judgment?

6| How do you think Niebuhr would respond to the international conflicts that have marked the years since his death, especially American military engagement in Iraq, the confrontation between western democracies and terrorism (especially in the period since September 11, 2001), and the continuing strife between Israelis/Jews and Palestinians/Muslims?

Talking Points
1| At one time, Niebuhr was very active in the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a leading pacifist organization in the years between the two world wars. But his realistic perspective meant that absolute pacifism was unrealistic in a world where human sin prevailed. Some, though, thought Niebuhr had sold out to the ethical enemy when he abandoned pacifism. What do you think?

2| When you think about Niebuhr's seeming ambivalence on issues of war and peace, recall that many who espoused a pacifist perspective in the 1920s and 1930s truly believed that World War I — the Great War — was one that should have made the world "safe for democracy" and that those who lived through its horrors would almost instinctively recognize the futility of resorting to war to resolve international disputes. For Niebuhr, though, such a position overlooked the downside of human finitude, the way in which individuals and nations would act on the basis of arrogant and misguided self-interest. In theological terms, Niebuhr believed that the depth of human sin prevented pacifism from finally being a viable, absolute posture.

3| As you talk about Niebuhr's concern for American involvement in Vietnam, look at his letter to Bishop Will Scarlett, in which he indicated that despite his long friendship with Hubert Humphrey and agreement on many issues, he could not support Humphrey's 1968 presidential candidacy because of Humphrey's support for the Vietnam War. After Humphrey lost the election, Niebuhr wrote him a letter expressing his condolence, for he did believe Humphrey would have made a better president than Richard Nixon when it came to advancing policies that reflected the principles of Christian realism.

4| Here it may be helpful to consider some of Jean Elshtain's comments about Niebuhr's support for American entry into World War II. And, in thinking about Niebuhr's support for war against the Axis powers, one should also recall that he strongly opposed the use of the atomic bomb against Japan.

5| As you talk about Niebuhr's rejection of anything that smacked of utopianism, you may find it helpul to review the analysis in Robin Lovin's article in the section subtitled "Realism and Imagination." Think especially about how Niebuhr would have distinguished between speculating about an ideal world and any claims that what was ideal had actually come into being in concrete form in any single society or political order.

6| Jean Elshtain, in her interview, offers some insights into how a Niebuhrian perspective might have relevance for the "war on terror" than has been so prominent in public policy since the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. Her views may be useful in stimulating conversation about how Niebuhr's stance can apply to current events today.

Further Reading
"The Problem of Evil in Human History"
by Crane Brinton
from New York Herald Tribune Book Review, April 6, 1952, page 5.

Courage to Change:
An Introduction to the Life and Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr

by June Bingham
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961. 2nd ed., 1972. Reissued, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1992.

Christianity and Power Politics
by Reinhold Niebuhr
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1940.

Man's Nature and His Communities:
Essays on the Dynamics and Enigmas of Man's Personal and Social Existence

by Reinhold Niebuhr
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1965.

The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation
by Reinhold Niebuhr
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1941, 1943.

"Two Forms of Utopianism" from Christianity and Society 12, 4 (Autumn 1947).
by Reinhold Niebuhr

"Realism, Radicalism, and Eschatology in Reinhold Niebuhr: A Reassessment"
Roger L. Shinn and edited by Nathan A. Scott, Jr.
from In The Legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr, pages 85-99.
University of Chicago Press, 1975.

"An Interview with Reinhold Niebuhr"
by Ronald H. Stone
from Christianity and Crisis, 29 (March 17, 1969).

"Niebuhr as Thinker and Doer"
by Kenneth W. Thompson and edited by Nathan A. Scott, Jr.
from In The Legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr, pages 100-110. University of Chicago Press, 1975.

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Paul Elie

is senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.

Jean Bethke Elshtain

is an author and Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Robin Lovin

is Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, and the author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism.