“Which Question Comes First for the Church?” by Reinhold Niebuhr
November 12, 1945
In both the religious and the secular world the question “What shall we do?” is raised with an urgency which sometimes rises to the pitch of hysteria. Its immediate forms are two: What shall we do about our relations with Russia? and What shall we do about the atomic bomb? These are important questions and must be answered. The fate of our civilization depends upon them. If relations with Russia continue to deteriorate, the mutual mistrust between the great centers of power may vitiate the hoped for efficacy of the United Nations Charter and make that instrument irrelevant. If a solution for the problem of the atomic bomb is not found the war which we will have failed to avert will most certainly destroy the last remnants of civilization. The moral-political issues which we face are, in other words, of unparalleled urgency
Despite that fact, the first business of the Christian church is not to find an answer to those questions. Its first business is to raise and answer religious questions within the framework of which these moral issues must be solved. Our generation is in a religious, as well as moral and political, confusion because the ultimate religious question: What does life mean? has been falsely solved. We thought that life’s meaning was guaranteed by the historical process. We believed in progress. Now we find that an atomic bomb stands at the end of the technical development. And at the end of the hoped for rational-moral progress we find little statesmen, representing little nations, drawing pretentions of omniscience from their military omnipotence, and playing with the powder which might blow up the world.
If we ask the question about the meaning of our existence, we must include in it the datum that we are unable to give a clear and decisive answer to the moral question: What shall we do? Not even the church, and perhaps least of all the church, can give a definitive answer to that question. Already sentiment in the church is divided between those who think we must first of all defend a “Christian civilization,” and those who think we ought to make every possible sacrifice, even of Christian values, for the sake of an accord with Russia. A conference of international idealists recently met in Dublin, New Hampshire, and immediately divided into two groups. One group called for a world government, but did not suggest how we are to achieve it from the present position of international mistrust. The other group called for an alliance of democratic states, which means, for an anti-Russian alliance. The conference thus presented the nation with the alternative of an impossible solution on the one hand, and an irresponsible one on the other. We can do better than this conference. But a part of the tragedy of our situation consists in the fact that there is no clear way out of the present impasse.
We can also do better on the problem of the atomic bomb than the present May Bill before Congress. That bill practically guarantees that we will enter an armament race on the atomic bomb issue. We had better do what we can to kill that bill. But there is still no clear and obvious method of solving the problem of the bomb; and certainly not an unmistakable “Christian answer” for this issue.
There is meanwhile a very great task for the church to help people to live sanely in a very insecure world. A religious faith which trusts no historic securities too much, but understands the ultimate security of the assurance that “neither life nor death are able to separate us from the love of God” can become a resource of sanity in an insecure world. A religious faith which understands the perpetual disappointments in human history and knows that no historical achievement can be identified with the Kingdom of God, can prevent the disillusionment, bordering upon despair, which those feel who had expected the post-war world to be at least the vestibule of the Kingdom of God.
A religious faith which prompts us to live our life in obedience to God, and to recognize the self- justifying character of the sacrifice which such obedience may require, will not become involved in the hysterical conclusion that the sacrifices of the men who died upon the fields of battle have been in vain, if we fail now to achieve a world government. “Sufficient unto the day are the evils thereof.” These men made their sacrifices, facing a horrible evil of their day. They destroyed that evil. New evils and new possibilities of world anarchy are arising, which may mean that, in terms of history, their sacrifices have only negative, and therefore only tragic, justification. But in God’s sight these sacrifices have a more absolute justification.
It is, in other words, not possible to work sanely upon historical tasks, with a religion which confines the meaning of human existence to the limits of historic achievements and frustrations. From such religions spring the alternate evils of “sleep and drunkenness,” which is to say, of complacency and hysteria. “Those that sleep, sleep in the night and they that are drunken are drunken in the night” declares St. Paul, but “let us who are of the day watch and be sober.”