Europe’s Migration and Refugee Crisis: In Defense of Realistic Idealism
Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian and ethicist whom Hans Morgenthau described as “perhaps the greatest living political philosopher in America,” about whom Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said that “No man has had as much influence as a preacher in this generation; no preacher has had as much influence in the secular world,” and whom former President Barack Obama called “one of my favorite philosophers,” wrote the book The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness in 1944, which was his only work to be translated into Czech (none of Niebuhr’s works have been translated into Slovak) 70 years ago under the title Synové světla a synové tmy (The Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness). The main thesis of Niebuhr’s book is inspired by Jesus’ enigmatic saying, recorded in one of the canonical gospels: “And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.”
Niebuhr describes the “children of light” (a more accurate and appropriate translation of the title of his work) as moral idealists who believe that self-interest should be subordinate to a higher law, while the “children of darkness” are moral cynics for whom the only law is arbitrariness and the pursuit of self-interest. According to Niebuhr, the children of darkness are evil because they do not recognize any moral law higher than themselves, but at the same time are wise because they do not underestimate the power of individual and collective selfish interest. The children of light are distinguished by virtue; however, they are foolish because they have underestimated the power of self-interest in their and others’ lives. In short, Niebuhr appears to juxtapose mutually competing and conflicting approaches—idealism and realism—as a basic point of reference for interpreting the world and implementing solutions for problems confronting its inhabitants.
If we apply Niebuhr’s contrasting model to the European migration and refugee crisis, the children of light are those who tend to be designated by the children of darkness as eternal optimists, naive dreamers, goody-goodies, or Pollyannas. Supposedly they do not understand how the world really works. Perhaps they do believe in the importance of ideals and values but at best lack contact with reality and at worst have become instruments in geopolitical warfare and anti-national interests. At the risk of oversimplification, we may say that in 2015 the fate of people in flight from death and suffering or those in search of a better life was decided by the “daughter of light” in Germany and the “sons of darkness” in Slovakia or Hungary. On the one hand, we have the politics of open doors emphasizing our common humanity and necessity of solidarity, while on the other hand, we have the politics of walls and fences defending the protection of national identity, security, and interests. These two approaches seem irreconcilable, and their proponents appear to be separated by an unbridgeable chasm caused by ideological antagonism or even mutual animosity, resulting in an overly polarized society.
To further illustrate this typology and for a better understanding of the metaphors employed, I would also add that in relation to the European Union, the children of light are “Euro-optimists” who underestimate the power of national interests, and the children of darkness are “Euro-skeptics” who often overweigh such interests. The children of darkness reject multiculturalism, reminding the children of light that integration of people of various religions, cultures, and customs is easier in theory than in practice, while the children of light point to examples of harmonious coexistence. The children of light—particularly those who believe in linear historical progress—were shocked by Brexit, the results of the American presidential election, and the entry of some political parties into the Slovak parliament. To some degree, the children of darkness expected such developments and try to use them for their own benefit. Of course, there are shades among the children of light and the children of darkness that are manifested by extreme to moderate positions.
The children of light—secular or religious—do not always adequately understand reality, might underestimate security and other risks, and are constantly tempted to see the world not as it is but as they would like it to be. Niebuhr criticizes this approach and prompts the children of light to learn from the caution and shrewdness of the children of darkness. However, if Christian children of light resemble the children of darkness too much and nobody labels them as “goody goodies” anymore, from the point of view of Christianity, it is a tragedy because they thereby deny the very essence of the faith they profess with their mouths. When the attitudes of church leaders towards people in flight more closely resemble those of political leaders who offer citizens a false choice between safety and compassion than Pope Francis’ attitude, it is a serious problem from the standpoint of Christian theology and ethics.
Although Niebuhr mainly criticizes the children of light in his book, which is to some degree relevant for present-day Slovakia, I believe the country is struggling with the opposite problem—above all in the political and partially also in the religious arena. High ideals and moral values are often mistrusted in social and political life, and society is rife with deep mutual distrust, endemic pessimism, and moral cynicism, which if it were not somehow contained would give rise to a new totalitarianism or might resurrect the old totalitarianism in new garb. The subject of the children of darkness portraying themselves as children of light and using moral language to mask their intentions and aims is worth considering in its own right. These are those people whom Jesus described as those “who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” and Karel Kryl called “devils, serving mass” or “murderers, preaching about morality.”
If it appears to the reader that the dualistic thinking presented so far in this essay lacks the necessary nuance, it is not only a matter of appearance. However, public discussion has developed in a similar vein: only children of light and children of darkness seem to live in Slovakia, neither listening to the other and both shouting the other down like children. Fortunately, we do not have to choose only between Hobbes and Rousseau, Huntington and Fukuyama, realism and idealism, pragmatism and perfectionism, authoritarianism and anarchy, or Armageddon and Utopia. We do not have to perceive the world in Machiavellian binary categories of “either/or.” Therefore, we do not have to choose whether we want to be children of light or children of darkness. There is an alternative: we can be what I permit myself to classify as “children of the dawn.”
Children of the dawn are realistic idealists who see in each person and themselves both the image of God and sinner—or, in non-religious language, human potential and limitations. They have neither an overly optimistic nor unduly pessimistic view of humankind, and their political thinking develops from this basic anthropological assumption. They do not give up their ideals and values under pressure from the children of darkness, but they are willing to learn shrewdness from them and not assume a patina of moral superiority, as the children of light do so often. They are what I elsewhere described as “principled pragmatists” who hold to ideals and values but at the same time are capable of compromise because they refuse to forfeit the better that is within reach for the sake of the perfect that is beyond reach.
This essay is a defense of realistic idealism as a basic approach to the refugee and migration crisis. It is an appeal to reject both naïve idealism and the cynical realism that separates ethical and moral questions from political theory and practice. It insists that taking both interests and ideals into consideration is necessary in the search for solutions to any humanitarian crisis, and it confronts the extreme possibilities that either of these two pillars ignores or seriously underestimates to the other’s detriment. A realistic idealist does not view realism and idealism just as contradictory, but also complementary approaches, holding them in creative dialectic tension. Transformational leaders have this ability: they can dream big dreams and yet stand firmly with both feet on the ground.
Realistic idealism as I understand it is characterized by three main traits: a perception of limits, an acceptance of responsibility, and a life in hope as an alternative to excessive optimism or undue pessimism. The children of light—although they are often sentimental and naïve—are better than the children of darkness, because they are willing to accept moral responsibility. The children of the dawn, whom we can also perceive as shrewd children of light, are also able to recognize the limits. Their realistic idealism is firmly anchored in Christian tradition or, to be more precise, one of its interpretations: Augustinian realism—one does not have to be a Christian to adopt this approach. A realistic idealist is a person who follows or can at least learn from Jesus’ words, which urge his followers to be as “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” On the one hand, they show sympathy, demonstrate solidarity, and overcome fear, but on the other hand, they do not confuse sympathy with sentimentality, solidarity with a system of obligatory quotas, and fear with an effort to ensure security and order.
This essay is a translated, abridged, and slightly revised version of a paper delivered by the author at an international conference called Migration: Religions without Borders. European and American Perspectives that was recently held under the auspices of the Minister of Culture of the Slovak Republic in Trnava, Slovakia.
Lubomir Martin Ondrasek is the president and co-founder of Acta Sanctorum, a Chicago-based Christian non-profit that works for positive transformation in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe. He holds graduate degrees from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Harvard University, and the University of Chicago and is presently pursuing his D.Min. in Transformational Leadership at Boston University.
Feature Photo Credit: Refugees protest at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station in Budapest, Hungary, on September 4, 2015. By Mstyslav Chernov, via Wikimedia Commons.