Christian Realism in an Election Year
I must confess that I miss the electoral system in Canada, with the election occurring eight weeks after it is called, after the expenditure of a fraction of the campaign money. Be that as it may, the remarkable past few months make me feel obliged to offer some comment.
The last time there was what one might think of as a public theologian, particularly in the political realm were the 1950's and 60's. The figure I have in mind was the ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr of Union Seminary. He had been a major voice opposing the isolationism of the late 1930's, and went on to address the Cold War. While he has more recently been exposed to strong critiques, he is worth listening to in our own time.
At the heart of Niebuhr's approach is the Christian doctrine of the human person. We are at once made in the image of God and fallen. We exist between these two poles. As a result we easily lurch between an excessive optimism and pessimism, between an undue sense of our powers for good and despair. Niebuhr sees this playing out in American history in swings between interventionism and isolationism.
One might describe certain virtues which follow from his basic insight. We do have a responsibility to act when we can, but always with humility about the limits of our capacity, unforeseen consequences, and our own mixed motives. We need to see our neighbors and opponents as caught between the same poles of human nature, as essentially like ourselves. We also need to make room for the idealism of a distinctly Christian witness even in a broken world. I would attribute much of this to Niebuhr's Lutheranism, with its strong sense of the role of the law to restrain evil, and of the 'two swords' of the gospel and of legitimate but limited secular power.
Humility, a sense of our own flaws as well as our calling, the distinct role of the Gospel, all of it what Niebuhr called 'Christian realism': I think our society could use a strong dose of these, as well as the dignity and seriousness he exhibited, in our present moment.