Wednesday 27 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.


John Hobbins said...

Wow. Just wow. Hauerwas in comparison to Fabricius comes across as a meek moderate.

I admire the honesty: the purposeful conflation of Vietnam and Afghanistan; the abrupt dismissal of Obama's foreign policy initiatives with respect to Israel and Palestine, a dismissal in denial and rejection of the special relationship that obtains between the US and Israel; the frank disparagement of the cornerstone of American self-understanding, across the political spectrum, id est, the doctrine of exceptionalism, the sense of being the indispensable nation.

In the process of losing any foothold in the messy world of the actual political hour, and any understanding of that strange defect - in a theologian - of pragmatism, which F throws into Reinhold's face as an insult, the clarity gained in neurological space is enormous.

Bravo. Encore.

in said...

It's always easier being in opposition, that's the beauty of Christianity, it always insists (now) on being the party of opposition. What can Obama do Kim? Pull out and run and thus encourage increased anti-American hostility elsewhere. When the lion weakens the jackals dare.

Emerson said...

One indeed has to be ready to raise afresh the question of how the state is expected to relate to the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount?

Anonymous said...

I'd echo in's comments. If the gospel makes a difference to politics on this level, what is it?

Matt Mardis-LeCroy said...


This is a great post, but I have one little nit to pick -Niebhur was not a Lutheran; he was raised in the Evangelical Synod and attended their seminary--Eden--in St Louis. Within his lifetime, the Evangelical Synod joined first with the German Reformed Church (in 1934) and then the United Church of Christ (in 1957).

Kevin said...

Niebuhr insisted--rightly, I think--that when a state throws a cloak of righteousness over its policies and interventions, the church must stand up and say, "No." Niebuhr's political ethics, that is to say, is fundamentally a demythologization, a critical disrobing of the state's pretentions to set itself up as the fulfillment of Christ's promises. Yoder and Niebuhr are of one mind on this point, the key difference being that Yoder thinks the church can indeed be expected to embody that which the state cannot, namely, Christ's "impossible" love-ethic. From one point of view, then, Niebuhr and Yoder stand in stark opposition; from another, they stand quite close to one another. From the latter vantage-point, the relevant opposition is not between Niebuhr and Yoder, but between Niebuhr and Yoder, on the one hand, and (say) Paul Ramsey, on the other. As a matter of historical fact, at any rate, it was Ramsey who intervened when both Niebuhrian and peace-church "realists" seemed all-too-ready to see the state's "uses of power" as either necessarily wrong and/or as outside the purview of Christian ethics, thereby denying the church any critical purchase on these "uses." My point is this: when the issue at hand is whether Christ's love-ethic is practicable, the relevant opposition may well be Niebuhr vs. Yoder; on the other hand, when the issue is whether the church ought to take a critical stance toward some state policy or intervention, the opposition is not Niebuhr vs. Yoder, but Niebuhr and Yoder vs. (say) certain sectors of the Religious Right; and finally, when the issue is whether (and how) the state's uses of power should be held accountable to Christian ethical principles, the relevant opposition may well be Niebuhr and Yoder vs. Ramsey, though this last opposition may be better drawn between Ramsey and Niebuhrians/Yoderians (rather than Niebuhr/Yoder).

(I am well aware that this is overly schematic and simplified, neglecting important developments in the thought of Niebuhr, Yoder, and Ramsey alike--not least the developments spurred by their respective ascendence to "great man" status!--but it's true enough, I think, for a blog comment.)

kim fabricius said...

That's more than a nit, Matt. Thanks for correcting my shoddy scholarship.

It may be that Hans Morgenthau was right, contra Niebuhr, that "it is impossible to be a successful politician and a good Christian." On the other hand, while Yoder himself does not expect states (in distinction from the church) to be pacifist, he does expect governments, when they invoke just war theory, to be held to account by its conditions. Tellingly, in his Nobel speech, while Obama invoked the concept of the just war tradition, he was completely silent about its criteria. The president is sly, but he is not stupid.

Like any president, of course, Obama invokes the "national interest" in defence of foreign policy initiatives. But how is the national interest served, even on the terms of Niebuhrian realism, by the war in Afghanistan? The claim that it will stop terrorism is risible; just the reverse. Let's face it, the national interest in Afghanistan is the same as it was - is - in Iraq: it's just that the pipelines are going in a different direction. In a phrase, Bush shat on us, but it is only marginally excretively preferable for Obama to piss in our ears and tell us it's raining.

Christopher said...

For a more nuanced approach to the legacy of Niebuhr, I would recommend (for starters) the following article by Paul Elie from the November 2007 issue of The Atlantic Monthly:

Christopher said...

"In a phrase, Bush shat on us, but it is only marginally excretively preferable for Obama to piss in our ears and tell us it's raining."

How pithy. Though I take issue with this colorful image: as for the first, shit can be scraped off. The damage to one's hearing incurred by the second image could be irreversible.

John Hobbins said...

The reduction of American foreign policy around the world or in the Middle East to a question of pipelines is typical of leftist rhetoric of a certain kind, and is fine so long as it is understood that that is what it is, but it has no historical basis.

I suppose it tickles the ears of some to refer to Bush and Obama as shitters and pissers but should one want to think about geopolitics in a responsible fashion, inscribed as geopolitical positions are in long-standing national traditions which interact with each other in complex ways (rather than emerge from the orifices of specific Presidents), it might be wise to read widely on the subject before letting things emerge from one's own orifices.

Some background reading of authors "oppositionists" might consider:

Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Price of American Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004); John Lewis Gaddes, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004); Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century (New York: Vintage, 2000); Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Josh said...

Kim, I appreciate your bold post. I too found Obama's Nobel speech disappointing, and I agree that it was very Niebuhrian. My primary issue with Niebuhr's political thought is that it assumes a false dichotomy--that the only two realistic options in international conflicts are war-making or doing nothing. Also, a "two kingdoms" approach is evident in Niebuhr's political theology, despite the fact that Niebuhr was not Lutheran. This way of thinking arguably was one of the main reasons countless German Lutherans were able to fight for Hitler.

I have three questions for you:

(1) Is it fair to call Afghanistan "Obama's Vietnam" given the fact that he did not start this war but inherited it?

(2) Is Obama's Niebuhrian realism (which is not necessarily Christian realism) at least preferable to Bush's neoconservatism?

(3) Is Niebuhrian realism objectionable primarily because it is used by Christian leaders? (Put another way, Would Niebuhrian realism be less objectionable were it used by leaders who make no claims to the Christian faith?)

in said...

Rightly to be great is not to stir without great argument, but greatly to find quarrel in a straw when honour's at the stake - Hamlet

Glen Stassen said...

Glen Stassen said:

Truly nicely written, Kim Fabricus. I admire your style!

The responses rightly ask what is the alternative?

I take that in two senses: 1) what is the theological alternative to Niebuhr’s Luther-influenced two-realm split, which was based on his outdated 19th-century German idealistic and individualistic understanding of Jesus. The alternative can’t be Ramsey, who supported the Vietnam War until after the Tet offensive, by which other theological ethicists had long judged it to be unjust. The theological alternative needs a corrected and realistic understanding of Jesus, which I’m working on along with many NT scholars.

2) And the alternative needs to be a new paradigm of ethics that spells out the relation between faithfulness to Jesus and the ten practices that realistically do make for peace. We need an alternative ethic, not only critical opposition (which we do need also). The new ethic is Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm of the Ethics of Peace and War (Pilgrim Press). One practice that realistically makes for peace is sustainable economic development (which informed persons are saying needs to be the focus in Afghanistan). Another practice of just peacemaking is human rights and democracy (which Karzai needs to learn, with international prodding). Another just peacemaking practice is cooperative conflict resolution: (Karzai needs to be encouraged in his recent decision to negotiate with those in the Taliban who can be persuaded, and even more with the Pashtun elders, who have a more constructive loyalty than the Taliban militants). See David Cortright’s article on my website,

Another nitpick with Kim’s outstanding blogpost is that Obama did mention “just war” three times, and did advocate three criteria of just war.

But what is truly striking is that he mentioned “just peace” four times, and he advocated all ten practices of just peacemaking. I thought it would take a generation before the new paradigm of just peacemaking would spread so widely that a president would advocate it. Obama’s address called for all ten practices of just peacemaking. This gives me hope that he will support just peacemaking ways out of a militaristic approach to Afghanistan. Hope you can believe in. But I still join all you terrific bloggers in worrying he can end up being known as the Afghan War president, as Johnson ended up as the Vietnam War president.

Kaihsu Tai said...

Dear Kim, thanks for backing up my intuitive response (also published in the Letters pages in the same issue of Reform) with hard theological argument!

Kevin said...

Glen Stassen writes: "The alternative can’t be Ramsey, who supported the Vietnam War until after the Tet offensive, by which [time] other theological ethicists had long judged it to be unjust." The fact that he supported the Vietnam War may indeed be evidence that Ramsey himself cannot be the alternative, though not evidence that Ramsey's theological ethics cannot be. The key issue is whether Ramsey, by his own theological lights, should have condemned the War sooner, and the answer is clearly "Yes."

(This raises an obvious question: if Ramsey's ethics should have led him to oppose the War, why didn't he? I asked this very question of two persons in position to know--one of Ramsey's colleagues and one of his most accomplished students--and while I prefer not to recount their answer here, it's one of the reasons I included my "great man" remark above.)

For what it's worth, Professor Stassen's claim that "we need an alternative ethic, not only critical opposition" could very well serve as the slogan for Ramsey's defense of Just War criteria, at a historical moment when "realism" seemed poised to absolve politicians of their moral obligations. That's not to suggest that Ramsey's arguments should simply be repeated today, but to suggest that the "Just Peacemaking" movement--for which I am genuinely grateful--stands in a trajectory whose precedents include Ramsey's retrieval of the Just War tradition.

Josh said...

Glen, I've read your books on the subject of just peacemaking, and I've led a study of one of them with my church.

I agree with you that Christians need not only to criticize war but also to imagine creative alternatives to war. I also think that at least some of the ten just peacemaking practices have the potential to reduce violence in the world.

I think you are overly optimistic, however, about Obama's Afghanistan policy and his Nobel speech. (Lest my criticism of Obama be interpreted as a partisan attack, I add that I voted for him.) For many observers, Obama's approach to the war has been too Bush-like (the surge of troops there being the most obvious example)--it is disappointing because it does not seem to be "change." Even if the troop surge in Afghanistan is ultimately deemed successful (in the short term it is an escalation of the war), it will have the drawback of setting a terrible precedent--it will make future reliance on military might (militarism) more likely.

Also, I did notice Obama's use of the phrases "just war" and "just peace" in his Nobel speech. But one of the reasons many people were disappointed with this speech is that he used this language to repackage an old approach. I find his Niebuhrian language preferable to the language Bush used. Still, it seems to me that Obama used this language simply to make the continuation of Bush's war in Afghanistan more palatable. No one doubts that Obama knows how to use words well.

Finally, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on those parts of the speech that promoted the notion of American exceptionalism. At one point, Obama clearly claimed that the world was in great debt to the exercise of American military might over the last six decades (a period that includes the unjust Vietnam War). Was this assertion not nationalistic? And does nationalism not lead to war rather than peace? Bonhoeffer once observed that nationalism leads inevitably to war.

Anonymous said...

ahhhh theologians, what's that Wilco song?

Anonymous said...

Hello to everyone at this blog. This is my first time to comment here - I'm new to the blogosphere - but since stumbling upon this blog I have found to it be helpful and engaging. Given that this specific article has been dead for a while, I don’t imagine my comment will be answered, but I proceed nonetheless:
Kim, I was wondering if you could elaborate on your statement:
“A loyal two-kingdoms Lutheran, Niebuhr was completely candid that the ethics of Jesus has no moral purchase in the realm of power politics."
Could you possibly explain what you mean by Niebuhr being a two-kingdoms Lutheran? From my understanding of Niebuhr (an admittedly amateur and insufficient understanding), I haven’t seen a two-kingdoms theology expressed – at least not in any traditional Lutheran manner. In fact, he is very critical of Luther’s position in the the Nature and Destiny of Man. On the other hand, I’m also aware of Niebuhr’s idealization of Jesus’ ethical teachings (particularly those in the Sermon on the Mount), which I consider to be at the least theologically problematic, if not ultimately docetic.

The crux of what I am trying to get at it this: Is Niebuhr’s position really correctly cast in Mr. Buford’s article (one which I have not read) and in your response? From your brief retort here, I am inclined to believe that Niebuhr has been caught in the crossfire, and, as is currently fashionable, has become the man for all men – the whipping boy for the theologians and the intellectual go-to for the political ethicist. This is not to say there are not issues to be dealt with in Niebuhr, nor that you don’t have valid criticisms, but it is to note that an intellectual of Niebuhr’s caliber should not be lightly dismissed and thrown aside based on two-cent caricatures or misrepresented ethical positions. And perhaps even in humility the Yoderian Christian pacifist could, at the least, see a man who wrestled deeply with the issue of justice and love, and the uneasy moral conscience of the Christian who witnesses injustice in the fallen world and sought to establish justice -though through imperfect means. But again, I'll file my disclaimer that my knowledge of Niebuhr is no where near exhaustive, and that maybe I am the one who has misunderstood him.

Thanks for your help through this blog.

All the best from Scotland,

kim fabricius said...

Hi Tyler - and welcome.

Very briefly...

I certainly don't want to give the impression of dissing or lightly dismissing Niebuhr and his political theology. On the contrary, Niebuhr was a heavyweight with considerable and continuing clout - which is precisely why a Christological pacifist's counter-punching (gloved, not bare-knuckled - no blood!) must sting like a bee.

Although he denied it, I would still insist that Niebuhr was effectively a two kingdoms ethicist, inasmuch as for him the way of Jesus is both impractical and irresponsible in the poltical realm. For Niebuhr the very idea of "the politics of Jesus" (the title of Yoder's most famous book) is hopelessly utopian.

But the real problem here is the foundation of Niebuhr's political ethics. Niebuhr thinks as if the resurrection and ascension of Jesus are not eschatological events which go to the roots of what, in fact, constitutes reality. That is, the problem with Niebuhr's realism is that it is not realistic enough. And his idealism is further exposed in his wafer-thin pneumatology, ecclesiology, and understanding of regeneration. Or again, what a "two kingdoms" theology fails to do is to reckon with a "two ages" theology, two ages which, post Christum, overlap.

Meanwhile, as Niebuhrites are so keen on defending civilization and steering history - which is why, for Niebuhr, the state, not the church, is the axis around which his thinking turns - I would simply ask them not to be disingenous and dishonest when it comes to a rigorous application, in the case under discussion - i.e., Obama's policy in Afghanistan - about meeting the criteria for waging a "just war".

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your courteous and informative response. Looking forward to future dialogue.
All the best,

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