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Reinhold Niebuhr's Critique of Pacifism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2009


Most of the recent attempts to demonstrate the poverty of liberalism and political realism have accepted the realist interpretation of violence with few reservations. For example, few political theologians, theologians of hope, and theologians of revolution have reconsidered or modified this component of the realist perspective even as they have tried to dismantle realism. It is now time to splash what Holmes called “cynical acid” on this assumed orthodoxy, especially but not only in Protestantism. The pacifist perspective on war and violence deserves a hearing which this stacked jury of realists and their critics have refused to grant. This refusal results in part from Reinhold Niebuhr's critique of pacifism, widely considered even by pacifists to be trenchant and compelling.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 1974

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1 Even Paul Ramsey's emphasis on ius in bello falls within a realist framework for dealing with violence and nonviolence, war and pacifism. See Ramsey's, War and the Christian Conscience: How Shall Modern War Be Conducted Justly? (Durham, N.C., 1961)Google Scholar and The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility (New York, 1968)Google Scholar. Some of the current defenders of revolution have adopted a stance that Niebuhr held at one time: war is wrong but revolutionary violence is right. See the discussion in Christianity and Crisis, xxxii (07 10, 1972)Google Scholar.

2 See Yoder, John Howard, Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Pacifism (Scottdale, Pa., 1968)Google Scholar and MacGregor, G. H. C., The New Testament Basis of Pacifism and The Relevance of an Impossible Ideal (Nyack, N.Y., 1968)Google Scholar.

3 Niebuhr, Reinhold, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (New York, 1960)Google Scholar. See Stone, Ronald, Reinhold Niebuhr: Prophet to Politicians (New York, 1972)Google Scholar for the dangers of abstracting Niebuhr's thought from its contexts (pp. 8, 177, passim). But when Stone discusses Niebuhr's, “ethic” (p. 231)Google Scholar, he suggests some of this continuity.

4 For a fuller treatment of these transitions, see Stone, Reinhold Niebuhr, from which some of this sketch is drawn. See also Meyer, Donald B., The Protestant Search for Political Realism, 1919–1941 (Berkeley, 1961)Google Scholar.

5 Robertson, D. B., ed., Love and Justice: Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr (New York, 1967), pp. 254–59Google Scholar.

6 Niebuhr, , Moral Man, pp. 173, passimGoogle Scholar.

7 Ibid., pp. 172–73. I shall return to this issue below.

8 Ibid., pp. 171, 237–38, and Robertson, , Love and Justice, p. 257Google Scholar.

9 For an excellent discussion of the language of ideals, law, and norms, see Gustafson, James M., Christ and the Moral Life (New York, 1968)Google Scholar which analyzes Niebuhr's position in terms of the logic of norms, rather than ideals or laws.

10 Niebuhr, Reinhold, Christian Realism and Political Problems (New York, 1953), p. 119Google Scholar.

11 Niebuhr, , Moral Man, p. 170Google Scholar, and idem, , The Nature and Destiny of Man (New York, 1949), vol. IGoogle Scholar.

12 Robertson, , Love and Justice, p. 247 (from the year 1928)Google Scholar.

13 Ibid., p. 256. My italics.

14 For a similar ambiguity see Rasmussen, Larry, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance (New York, 1972), pp. 94126Google Scholar. It is not clear whether his definition of the pacifist as one who views violent coercion as evil and who “rules out war even as a necessary evil” includes only those who view war as unjustified for everyone and not those who view their own participation as unjustified. In the United States legal system, a person is considered a pacifist for purposes of the draft (conscientious objection) if he “rules out” his own participation. Jan Narveson contends that a person who says that only he ought not to meet force with force does not hold pacifism “as a moral principle or, indeed, as a principle at all,” even if we continue to call him a pacifist in a loose sense. See Narveson's, “Pacifism: A Philosophical Analysis,” in War and Morality, ed. Wasserstrom, Richard (Belmont, Cal., 1970), pp. 6377Google Scholar. More work is needed on pacifism and nonviolence in relation to different levels or aspects of morality.

15 See also Kegley, Charles W. and Bretall, Robert W., eds., Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social, and Political Thought (New York, 1961), p. 8Google Scholar.

16 Niebuhr, , Moral Man, p. 252Google Scholar.

17 Quoted in Stone, , Reinhold Niebuhr, p. 251, note 49Google Scholar.

18 Yoder, John Howard, Nevertheless (Scottdale, Pa., 1972)Google Scholar.

19 Niebuhr, Reinhold, Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist (Student Christian Movement Press, second edition, 07 1940), p. 10;Google Scholaridem, Christianity and Power Politics by Niebuhr (New York, 1940).

20 Niebuhr, , Christianity and Power, p. 11Google Scholar.

21 Yoder's critique of Niebuhr's notions of impossibility, responsibility, and necessity concentrates on their use as alternative sources of revelation beyond and over against Scripture, but he does not adequately deal with the elements of Niebuhr's thought that permit and even require him to use such notions: e.g., Niebuhr's view of the dialectical relation of faith and experience. See Yoder, Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Pacifism.

22 See Davis, Harry R. and Good, Robert C., eds., Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics (New York, 1960), p. 151Google Scholar. Much of Niebuhr's attack focused on the pacifist's alleged self-righteousness.

23 Robertson, , Love and Justice, p. 260Google Scholar.

24 Niebuhr recognized some value in both the religious and the political approaches to pacifism, especially religious pacifism, but he contended that their combination could only result in confusion. See Kegley, and Bretall, , eds., Reinhold Niebuhr, p. 8Google Scholar.

25 See Niebuhr, , Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist, p. 18, which directs this charge at Richard Gregg's The Power of Non-ViolenceGoogle Scholar.

26 Ibid., p. 12.

27 Ibid., p. 20, and Robertson, , Love and Justice, pp. 254 and 263Google Scholar.

28 Robertson, , Love and Justice, p. 248Google Scholar. Cf. Niebuhr, , Nature and Destiny, Vol. I, Chapter 9Google Scholar.

29 Davis, and Good, , eds., Reinhold Niebuhr, xGoogle Scholar.

30 Niebuhr, , Nature and Destiny, Vol. I, Chapter 9Google Scholar.

31 Reinhold Niebuhr, “Toward New Intra-Christian Endeavors,” The Christian Century (Dec. 31, 1969): 1662. Niebuhr conceded that his early international pacifism was inconsistent but right. Robertson, , Love and Justice, p. 248Google Scholar.

32 See Niebuhr, Reinhold, “The Problem of a Protestant Political Ethic,” The Christian Century,” 77 (09. 21, 1960): 1085Google Scholar, and Weber, Max, “Politics as a Vocation,” Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. by Gerth, H. H. and Mills, C. Wright (New York, 1958), pp. 77128Google Scholar.

33 Niebuhr, Reinhold, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (New York, 1956), p. 170Google Scholar. My italics.

34 Niebuhr, Reinhold, “Ten Years That Shook My World,” The Christian Century, LVI (04 26, 1939), 542Google Scholar.

35 Niebuhr, Reinhold and Dun, Angus, “God Wills Both Justice and Peace,” Christianity and Crisis, XV (06 13, 1955), 76Google Scholar.

36 Ibid., my italics.

37 Niebuhr, Reinhold, “The Problem of a Protestant Political Ethic,” The Christian Century 77 (09. 21, 1960): 1086Google Scholar. Yoder writes, “Of course, according to pacifist belief, there exists a real Christian responsibility for the social order, but that responsibility is a derivative of Christian love, not a contradictory and self-defining ethical norm” (Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Pacifism, p. 18).

38 Niebuhr, and Dun, , “God Wills Both Justice and Peace,” 75Google Scholar; Robertson, , Love and Justice, p. 270Google Scholar; Niebuhr, , Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist, pp. 2425Google Scholar.

39 Harris, John, “The Marxist Conception of Violence,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, III (Winter 1974), 192–93Google Scholar.

40 Robertson, , Love and Justice, p. 257Google Scholar.

41 Yoder, , Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Pacifism, p. 18Google Scholar.

42 Robertson, , Love and Justice, p. 223Google Scholar. He suggests that although a nation cannot disavow the hydrogen bomb, it can renounce its first use (p. 237).

43 There are at least two versions of necessity, for example, in the military context. In the first version, a nation is on its knees with no other chance of survival; in the second version, a nation is concerned to hasten victory and to end the war with less cost. The first version should be taken as a paradigm of necessity. See the discussion by Falk, Richard A., “The Shimoda Case: A Legal Appraisal of the Atomic Attacks Upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” The American Journal of International Law, LIX (1965), 785Google Scholar.

44 Niebuhr, , Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist, p. 19Google Scholar.

45 Niebuhr, Reinhold, “What the War Did to My Mind,” The Christian Century XLV (09. 27, 1928), 1163Google Scholar.

46 Maritain, Jacques, Man and the State (Chicago, 1956), p. 58Google Scholar.

47 Niebuhr, , Moral Man, p. 173Google Scholar.

48 Haring, Bernard, Theology of Protest (New York, 1970)Google Scholar.

49 At this point, Niebuhr works with a definition of violence that is more neutral and definite than nonneutral and elastic. See Evans, Donald, “Paul Ramsey on Exceptionless Moral Rules,” The American Journal of Jurisprudence, XVI (1971), 193Google Scholar.

50 Robertson, , Love and Justice, pp. 218–21Google Scholar.

51 Ibid., p. 258.

52 Davis, and Good, , Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, p. 141Google Scholar, my italics. Cf. Niebuhr, , Moral Man, p. 240, passimGoogle Scholar.

53 Stone, , Reinhold Niebuhr, p. 56Google Scholar.

54 Wolff, Robert Paul, “Is Coercion 'Ethically Neutral'?” in Nomos XIV: Coercion, eds. Pennock, J. Roland and Chapman, John (Chicago, 1972), p. 146Google Scholar.

55 D'Arcy, Eric, Human Acts: An Essay in Their Moral Evaluation (Oxford, 1963), p. 38Google Scholar.

56 Ibid., pp. 25–26.

57 See Robertson, , Love and Justice, pp. 296, 300Google Scholar.

58 Robert Paul Wolff contends that the unfounded distinction between violence and nonviolence gains its limited plausibility from two other distinctions: a subjective distinction between uses of force—whether a use of force is regular and accepted or irregular and unexpected—and an objective distinction between interests—whether the interests are central or secondary to the individual or group in question. Thus, when two men want the same piece of property, it is considered nonviolent (because regular and accepted) to let money settle the issue but violent (because irregular and unexpected) to let a duel settle it. Or a group's central and vital interests, for example, in academic freedom or private property, may lead it to label attacks on those interests as violent. Wolffs analysis has many affinities with Niebuhr's although Wolff emphasizes the political concept of violence (as unauthorized force) and defends anarchism. Both defend act-utilitarian judgments and decisions about violence, and both deny the importance of the distinction between authorized and unauthorized force, or force for and force against the government. Niebuhr's view of man as sinner leads him to stress order and the Christian's responsibility for creating and maintaining it. But even Wolff has had some second thoughts about the applicability of his philosophical anarchism. See Wolff, , “On Violence,” Journal of Philosophy LXVI (10 1969), 601616CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Wolff, , ed., The Rule of Law (New York, 1971), pp. 243–52Google Scholar.

59 In developing this notion of prima facie duties I am indebted to various works by W. D. Ross and A. C. Ewing, among others. See also Holmes, Robert L., “Violence and Nonviolence,” in Violence, ed. Shaffer, Jerome A. (New York, 1971)Google Scholar.

60 Flew, Anthony, “Ends and Means,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edwards, Paul (New York, 1967), vol. 2: 509Google Scholar.

61 Zinn, Howard, “The Force of Nonviolence,” in Violence in America, ed. Rose, Thomas (New York, 1970), p. 20Google Scholar.

62 Most of the work on this article was done while I was a Fellow in Law and Religion at the Harvard Law School with support from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Center for Advanced Studies of the University of Virginia, for which I am very grateful.