Reinhold Niebuhr, an inspiration for this journal, was a Christian Realist who renounced Social Gospel utopianism in favor of firmly recognizing humanity’s dark nature. He came to orthodox acceptance of the world’s fallenness. But did he ever come to affirm orthodoxy’s promise of full redemption in Christ?
Did Niebuhr affirm Christ’s bodily resurrection on Easter morning or did he cleave to his earlier Modernism? The answer is not entirely clear. Stanley Hauerwas critiqued Niebuhr’s reputedly low Christology. In this 2002 First Things piece, Gabriel Fackre countered that Niebuhr by his life’s end believed in resurrection, if not fully articulated.
But how does faith in Christ’s resurrection, as we celebrate today on Easter, affect Christian perspectives on global statecraft? Christian Realism, as Niebuhr conceived it, insists the world is corrupt and God’s Kingdom’s can’t be attained through virtuous politics. Niebuhr was and remains a vital rebuttal to dreamy American Christians across many decades, whether theological liberals or Evangelicals, who imagine Bible verses and concerted good intent will attain earthly peace with justice.
But Christian Realism, if it’s substantively Christian, cannot ignore or minimize the Resurrection, which forever defeated death and hell. God in Christ is redeeming the world. That redemption is not completed, of course, until the parousia, but it is unrelentingly ongoing.
So Christian Realists, if they affirm their faith’s full cosmology of fall and redemption, are neither chirpy optimists nor grim pessimists. They are instead confident and patient providentialists. Evil and folly will persist on the world stage until the final judgment. But God is sovereign, and all who work against His purposes are not only being defeated, their malevolent labors are being bent ultimately to serve His goals.
Sometimes divine justice moves slowly by earthly standards and other times it unfolds at a fast clip. This past week, after weeks of street protests, genocidal Sudanese despot Omar al-Bashir, after 20 years of monstrous misrule, was deposed. He now reputedly inhabits a prison long infamous for the sufferings of his many victims.
Will the successor regime in Sudan be morally superior to Bashir’s depraved dictatorship? Possibly not, but if not, its malefactors also will meet their divinely ordained fate. All the worlds tyrants and their agents, no matter their temporal powers, cannot defeat the eternal power of the resurrected Christ. This resurrected Savior, with Good Friday’s glorious scars ever visible, sits at His Father’s right hand, adjudicating the world.
China’s rulers, as they technologically refine their surveillance police state, may seem formidable. But the Christians whom they now torment, as their churches are destroyed, will some day sit in judgment against those rulers. Iran’s ruling mullahs may blasphemously claim God has ordained their corrupt theocracy, but God Himself has numbered their remaining days. The inmates of North Korea’s prison camps have an Advocate, who suffered no less than they, and Who will vindicate their plight.
Putin in Russia may exploit his nation’s chief church for his own domestic and global chicanery, but the Bridegroom of the Universal Church is neither impressed nor long mocked.
Of course, providential confidence is not passivity. Nations with regimes that aspire to justice are called to constant vigilance against despots and potential aggressors. Ideally such regimes also offer some earthly hope and sympathy to the oppressed victims of tyrants and, in their own governance, model what tyrannies are not.
Yet, as Niebuhr rightly reminded, none are sinless, and few if any political contests, domestic or international, array children of light against children of darkness. The resurrected Christ watches and judges all, singularly and collectively. Our own nation, with its uniquely lofty ideals, always stands under special judgement. To what extent do we exemplify those ideals?
The burden of such lofty ideals, rooted in biblical anthropology, could be overwhelming. But as Niebuhr noted, we are saved by hope. A providentialist who’s also a realist is guided by hope ultimately rooted in the Resurrection that redeems all creation. Such providential realism is not pessimistic, cynical, detached, fatalistic or amoral.
Christian realism, if it’s truly rooted in Easter’s victory, is expectant, joyful and serene. The resurrected Christ is redeeming the world and its nations. By His grace we are called to work out our own salvation and to participate in His advancing Kingdom. The tomb is forever empty, and a new world is emerging, on a schedule of His choosing. And He is with us always, until the very end of this age.