Longtime readers should know that much of the early impetus for Providence emerged from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christianity & Crisis, a publication Niebuhr put together in 1941 to encourage American intervention in the war against Nazism. As he put it, the journal exemplified the conviction that “the Christian faith offered no easy escape from the hard and sometimes cruel choices of such a world as ours; but that it did offer resources and insights by which our decisions could be made wisely and our responsibilities borne courageously.”
In early January seventy-five years ago, shortly after Japanese zeros had dropped from the December skies over Hawaii and accomplished his editorial aims, Niebuhr gathered those resources of the Christian faith to reflect on “Our Responsibilities in 1942.” Niebuhr begins by noting that what he calls the “logic of history” had finally caught with the United States, propelling the nation into a war it had so intently tried to avoid. For Niebuhr, this had always been an impossible aspiration. As he wrote it then, because the “tyrannies which have grown up in Europe and Asia” mean to dominate those two continents, they would need, by simple necessity, to also “dominate Africa and America.” History, not to be denied, had inexorably drawn the world into conflict.
To Niebuhr’s mind, this wasn’t entirely to be lamented:
The fact that we could not decide whether we had any responsibilities for the preservation of civilization and that our indecision was overruled by historical events ought to fill us with a sense of grateful reverence for the fact that God know how to make the wrath of man to praise Him.
Like History, God also will not be denied. America, Niebuhr judged, had for too long been rendered morally insensible by its own “egoistic corruption”, manifest in the refusal “to fulfill its duties toward a system of justice” until driven to do so by the “impulse of survival.” Niebuhr thought it to our good that we were “finally forced to be loyal to interests beyond our own.” National threat, compelling us finally to do what we ought to have done on our own, “strengthened our reluctant will and overruled our recalcitrant will.” In this way, Niebuhr suggested, “we have been thrown into a community of common responsibility by being engulfed in a community of common sorrow.”
However much Niebuhr rejoiced in the moral rousing of American power, he did not rejoice in the need to be roused. He had few illusions that the “very grim” task ahead would be characterized by anything other than “blood, sweat, and tears.” He knew that if the tyrannies arrayed against the allies were to be defeated, it would require “every area and every resource” of the free world to gather against them.
Considering the struggle ahead, Niebuhr pledged to his readers that it would remain his journal’s task “to continue to interpret the world in which we are living in the light of our common faith.” He anticipated five points that would require continued emphasis.
First, he insisted the “responsibilities which have been thrust upon us as citizens” of a nation at war are just as compatible to our Christian faith as are the duties of a citizen in a nation not at war. Niebuhr recognized that while our conscience would not rest easy in war, it would not have more easily rested by avoiding a fight that needed to be fought. That Niebuhr grounded martial responsibility in the soil of moral necessity rather than, as I would have it, of love is a critique for another occasion, and one that I have made elsewhere. That salient point is that Niebuhr believed a Christian could be prompted to belligerence as a Christian. Christianity is, in the last resort, a fighting faith.
Second, Niebuhr stressed that “to love our enemies cannot mean that we must connive with their injustice.” Rather, it means that even as we resist our enemies—and do so even unto their deaths—we must never forget that we “know ourselves one with our enemies not only in the bonds of a common humanity but also in the bonds of a common guilt.” The human condition is at play in the hearts of the contenders on both sides of the conflict. “The Christian faith,” therefore, “must persuade us to be humble rather than self-righteous in carrying out our historic tasks.”
Third, the evangelical witness of the church must, even in wartime—especially in wartime—proceed apace. As Niebuhr put it, “The Church has a priestly as well a prophetic function.” The means of grace, therefore, must be both proclaimed and administered so that all men, particularly those who vie in the combat zone, might find moral example, comfort, and even salutary challenge in the knowledge of God through Christ. While Niebuhr doesn’t make the point, we find here underlined the purpose and power of the military chaplaincy. In revealing faith’s ability to provide motivation and resiliency to warfighters, chaplains play a unique role as force multipliers.
Fourth, even as the smoke of war obscures the faces of our enemies, we must remember that they carry the image of God. For those, especially, with whom we share membership in a “community of grace” defined not by “blood or nation” but by confession, we must discipline our focus forward to the day when our “momentary…divisions and conflicts” will end and we can once again join hands as the “universal church alive among all Christians.”
Finally, we must remember that to defeat the enemy is the purpose of war only in the first degree. The ultimate end of conflict is peace. Niebuhr puts, to my mind, a bit too sharp a point to it when he insists, “we must find a way to just relations between the nations or we shall have fought the war in vain.” A justly waged war that ends in the rescue of the innocent, the requiting of an injustice, or the punishment of a sufficiently grave evil—which are, after all, the conditions under which one goes to war in the first place—is a war that has been well fought. It is too much to say that such a war, even if reconciliation with the enemy seems elusive, can ever have been fought in vain. To be sure, our ultimate aspiration has been denied us—at least in the immediate moment. But such things take time, and efforts toward reconciliation can always be continued. Moreover, the fullness of peace is never entirely up to us—our defeated adversary always has a say. So while Niebuhr is right to center our attention on a desire for peace, he ought not to allow our enemy’s continued animus to exercise a veto over the quality of our victory.
But Niebuhr also has in mind something that is up to us. He anticipates the need for America, even after the war, to commit to arrangements that make clear that our commitment to the community of free nations will endure and be characterized by “continuing rather than fitful responsibly.” Against the Utopians, Niebuhr declares that this responsibility includes America remaining America. To belong to the community of nations does not mean that anyone, including ourselves, will be permitted to “try to make a European nation out of us.” God forbid, says Niebuhr. God forbid, echoes I!
Now, in January of 1942, we should recall, neither Niebuhr nor anyone else could possibly imagine the extraordinary struggle, horror, and heartache about to commence. Still, Niebuhr was no fool and he concludes his essay where he began, by acknowledging that nothing would be easy. His words, appropriate for our own day’s struggles, are also an appropriate way to make a (penultimate) end:
The problems which we face are so tremendous that they can be met only if we use all resources of mind and soul which God has given us and at the same time trust Him for strength for those tasks which lie beyond our powers. In this, as in every great crisis in the life of men and nations, we must “work out our own salvation in fear and trembling״, and yet be grateful for the assurance that “it is God who worketh in you both to will and to do His good pleasure״.
Amen and amen. To make an (ultimate) end, I commend to your attention Niebuhr’s original essay, available here. Over the next few years (D.V.!), roughly corresponding to the 75th anniversary dates on which they were originally published, we will post and reflect on various other essays drawn from the journal, and will house them all here at providencemag.com. Regarding the present essay, you’ll find it’s a quick and stimulating read and carries the bonus joys of fact-checking me and of reading a brief, and wonderfully snarky, post-script in which Niebuhr takes a few swipes at a pacifist who had, apparently, been needling Niebuhr for his unfaithful belligerence only to abandon his own pacifism when those Japanese zeros dropped from that December sky. Such a post-haste conversion leaves Niebuhr skeptical of his interlocutor’s original zeal. Such calls to mind the old quip about the Mennonite who, confronting a burglar in his home in the dark of night, points his rifle at the intruder and declares, “Excuse me brother, but thou standeth where I am about to shoot!”
Marc LiVecche is managing editor of Providence