Thursday, 28 January 2010

Obama and Afghanistan: the poverty of Niebuhrian ethics

by Kim Fabricius (originally printed in this month's Reform magazine, as a response to Ron Buford)

Jesus said, “Love your Niebuhr.” Or so Ron Buford would have us believe in his standing ovation for Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam – oops, I mean Afghanistan. (Sorry about that: we Americans have a lousy sense of world geography, not to mention an inexhaustible ignorance about regional cultures and histories. Which is why wherever our expeditionary forces go, even as they blow away one demon, there are always plenty more to take its place). Certainly, as Mr Buford notes, Obama loves his Niebuhr – his Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the president liberally deployed the language of the influential American theologian.

The appeal of Niebuhr’s social ethics is clear: it’s the Yankee pragmatism and “realism”. But its rich pickings for Obama cannot disguise its profound theological poverty. A loyal two-kingdoms Lutheran, Niebuhr was completely candid that the ethics of Jesus has no moral purchase in the realm of power politics.

That the gospel redefines what is “real”, and what is possible and practical; that in his life, death, and resurrection Jesus has actually inaugurated the eschatological transformation of the world; and that the Holy Spirit is now present and active in bringing God’s new creation to perfection – these facts of faith simply do not factor in the moral calculus of Niebuhr’s finally quite pagan and pessimistic reading of geopolitics. Hence the cynical reduction of the option for Christians, in the face of evil rulers, repeated by Mr Buford, to either blessing US military interventions or “doing nothing”. As if the way of non-violence were unreal, as if radical pacifists were political layabouts! On the contrary, as Niebuhr’s theological nemesis, the radical Christian pacifist John Howard Yoder, acutely observed, it is not the wielders of swords but the bearers of crosses who are ultimately “working with the grain of the universe.”

Of course even on the grounds of Niebuhrian realism the war in Afghanistan is widely, expertly contested as not only unjust but also tragically self-defeating. Obama’s Vietnam? Interestingly, Niebuhr himself, always ambivalent about President Johnson’s war in southeast Asia, ultimately confessed, in 1967, that “For the first time I fear I am ashamed of our beloved nation.” However the essential theological point for Christians is this. The central premise of Niebuhr’s social ethics is that the nation is the bearer of history. But the premise is false (a point made by Lawrence Moore in his splendid January Bible study on the “wilderness”). According to the New Testament, it is the church, the body of Christ, which transcends all national identities and loyalties; the church, however impotent it may seem, that is the true bearer of history. Unsurprisingly, Niebuhr is deafeningly silent on the subject of ecclesiology. For Mr Buford too, it would seem, the church is here, not to be a counter-political community, but, at best, to tweak the conscience of the state.

Even when Caesar is a good guy – and I take Obama to be a good guy, despite his idleness over Israel and his hyperactivity in Afghanistan – it is always a bad idea for the church to hitch its wagon to his military-industrial express, and to concede that, when push comes to shove, Christians may have to behave in ways that contradict the commands of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And there you have the ultimate tragedy of mainstream American Christianity, liberal as well as conservative: it thinks it can serve two masters. In that respect, even Obama remains mesmerised by the heathen myth of American exceptionalism.

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