The Intractability of Racism: Niebuhr on Race Problems and Solutions

When Reinhold Niebuhr considered the ordeals of school integration in the 1950s, he pointed to an important lesson: “This whole chapter in our national history is instructive because it reveals that the group pride of men is one of the most ineradicable of human weaknesses” (Christianity & Crisis XVI, October 1, 1956, p. 122). This intractability was all the more surprising because the Western tradition contained so many elements that would commend a universalist perspective on human nature. “Despite all traditions of human universalism inherited from Stoic, Prophetic, and Christian sources, Western man—in common with all men—remains an unregenerate tribalist” (Christianity & Crisis, XXIV, no. 12, July 6, 1964, p. 133). Niebuhr believed that events like Southern resistance to integration could demonstrate the “intractability” of race problems. However, Niebuhr also believed that an understanding of human nature, particularly as set forth in the Christian faith, could help illuminate why racial problems were so difficult and point toward real though imperfect solutions to the problems.

In Niebuhr’s thinking, there are four important aspects of human nature that can illuminate the intractability of the race problem: the created tendency to value those closest to us, the anxiety over their maintenance and survival, the excessive pride and overvaluing of our groups, and the aggravation of individual sinful tendencies in group dynamics.

Christian Faith and the Illumination of the Race Problem
The first element is a created tendency to value those closest to us. The Christian view of human beings is that they are not created evil but that they become evil by the misuse of created good. Thus, in all evils there is an element of good. Valuing our own countries and families is good. This is seen most obviously in the care that parents have for their children and their desire that they would live, survive, and thrive. Thus, the race problem is to some degree rooted in our nature as biological and ethnic beings.

What smacks up against our desire for the survival of our families or races is our tenuous and finite position. Other groups oppose ours. Disasters can overtake us. We are small, but we can to some degree see the whole. In other words, “man is a finite spirit, lacking identity with the whole, yet [he is] capable in some sense of envisaging the whole. . .” (The Nature & Destiny of Man [NDM 1], Vol. 1, p. 181). This includes potential pitfalls, struggles, and disasters. The gap between what we want to see happen and the many challenges to making it happen is anxiety. Continue reading “The Intractability of Racism: Niebuhr on Race Problems and Solutions”

Amazingly, Our Democracy Works . . .

Amazingly, our democracy works. It works somewhat like the free market. The free market employs the profit interest of human beings to get goods where they want to be. Amazingly, this process is better at getting goods and services where I want them than any central planning could be. It’s messy, competitive, and random, but it works. Democracy works in a similar way.

Democracy is a rough and tumble process that gradually moves nations in a better direction. This progress is not because the side that wins is competent and good. It is because each faction watches the other like a hawk ready to pounce on its prey. This keeps each side on their toes and gradually removes the dross.

People like to hear that we are all in this together and above power politics, but we all know this is not true. Each side loves to claim a purity for themselves, even though they are enmeshed in the fray. Each side sees very clearly the hypocrisy of the assertion of this purity . . . in the other side. Continue reading “Amazingly, Our Democracy Works . . .”

Justification and Sanctification: God’s Gifts to Faith

The goal of grace is to re-engage humanity in service to the glory of God and the life of the human community. To do this, the human pride that seeks to make ourselves or our nations the center of the universe must be shattered. This requires a humble acceptance of God’s verdict and our sinfulness and a reception of His offer of security, love, and forgiveness. This acceptance frees us from the burden of anxiety and so releases us for the adventure of love.

Here we consider this same event from God’s perspective. God offers power and grace, sanctification and justification, as the solution to human pride and misery. From God’s standpoint, the gifts given to faith are justification and sanctification. This is grace shown to man and power working in man. It is forgiveness and transformation, a new status and a new character. God forgives, and He transforms. For Niebuhr, it is important to see that God does both, and that these are two distinct gifts.

When someone believes in Christ, they achieve a perfect righteousness. However, this righteousness is not theirs internally. It is only theirs by imputation. “The Christ who is apprehended by faith, i.e., to whom the soul is obedient in principle, ‘imputes’ his righteousness to it. It is not an actual possession except ‘by faith’” (The Nature & Destiny of Man, 2.103). “Impute” means to consider, to think, to reckon. God counts the righteousness of Christ as ours, so that God sees us as if we had never sinned nor been a sinner, indeed, as if we had accomplished what Christ Himself did. Continue reading “Justification and Sanctification: God’s Gifts to Faith”