Can a Hindu and a Christian both be considered “religious realists?”  Here is a tale of two men who “experimented with truth,” trying to find a religious ideal to respond to an unjust real world.  It is the tale of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), and Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948).  In their unique ways each was a “religious realist,” insofar as they offered compelling religious solutions to real-world problems.  Their realism is reflected in their confrontations with socialism and pacifism and, for Niebuhr, fascism.

Reinhold Niebuhr was younger, closer in age to India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964).  Niebuhr and Nehru were the same generation, and each had an appetite for socialism.  Niebuhr outgrew socialism; Nehru did not.  Niebuhr’s book Reflections at the End of An Era (1934) was his most Marxist-inspired work.  In it he came close to affirming a coming Marxist apocalypse.  Niebuhr was so critical of big capital that, at one point, he suggested “when private property ceases to be private, it ought no longer to be private.” In short, when corporations become so massive they intrude on market and personal freedom everywhere, he implied that they should come under public control.  Niebuhr joined the Fellowship for Socialist Christians, practicing self-taxation of high income.  Seeing the corrupt politics of Stalinist tyranny, however, Niebuhr eventually broke with socialism.  He adopted a view critical of the extremes of laissez-faire capitalism and socialism, writing: “A society can destroy liberty in its search for equality; it can annul the spirit of equal justice by a too consistent devotion to liberty.”  Elsewhere, this author has argued that Niebuhr was right; that a market which is both free and fair is necessary.

Though Reinhold Niebuhr was always a Christian, he was tempted by differing viewpoints within and outside Christianity.  He once wrote, “Even while imagining myself to be preaching the Gospel, I had really experimented with many modern alternatives to Christian faith, until one by one they proved unavailing.”   Tempted by socialism, Niebuhr soon found it unworkable.  Yet his Christian sense of egalitarian justice remained.  He never abandoned the model of a more balanced economic standard than laissez-faire allows.  Perhaps it was the parable of Jesus’ confrontation with the rich man (Matthew 19:24) that is instructive:  riches, amassed in selfish spite of the poor are no key to God’s Kingdom.

Niebuhr had also experimented with pacifism.  At the end of World War I, he wrote in Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic that he was “done with the war business.”  Frankly, the horrors of war should make us all express this sentiment at some point in our lives.  Yet pacifism is something neither Niebuhr, nor we can really make stick because it is a dangerous and sinful world.  Niebuhr was a member of the Christian pacifist Fellowship for Reconciliation until it proved untenable.  Publishing Moral Man Immoral Society, he argued that the potential use of force to attain domestic justice was unavoidable.  As Hitler threatened and World War II encroached, Niebuhr rejected American isolationism; a view which curiously haunts us today.  He wisely decided to be done with the pacifist business.  Peace and non-violence are indeed Christian goals to which we us must aspire, but to pretend that by adopting a peaceful mindset that an equally non-violent world will ensue, is to harbor a dangerous delusion.

How then was Niebuhr a Christian Realist?  Christ’s message was undoubtedly to love, to turn the other cheek, and to direct wealth towards the needs of the poor.  To do this in a world that is free and fair, and avoids totalitarian politics, however, we must embrace a market that is free and fair, and a limited government which is cognizant that it must sometimes use force to preserve peace and justice.  Niebuhr’s “experiments” with socialism and pacifism were both set aside in favor of a wiser Christian Realism.

Turning to Gandhi, the subtitle of his autobiography was “The Story of My Experiments with Truth.”  Not everyone appreciates that Gandhi was not born a Mahatma.  Like Niebuhr, Gandhi too tested different philosophies, until he found his non-violent Hindu solution.  That Gandhi’s programs worked and could be exported to other countries, is clearly demonstrated by Martin Luther King Jr., who said of Gandhi’s place in Civil Rights: “Nonviolent resistance had emerged as the technique of the movement, while love stood as the regulating ideal.  In other words, Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method.”

Gandhi too had been tempted by socialism.  He said, “Socialism is a beautiful word, and, so far as I am aware in socialism all the members of society are equal  – none low, none high.”  Gandhi fought for the equality of the untouchables and against caste discrimination.  However, Gandhi believed that Nehru was mistaken to think that socialism would bring equality.  “Machine civilization” was the basis of inequality, and socialism would not fix it.  Gandhi in fact echoed concerns about socialism which Niebuhr also had, condemning it potential for tyranny.  Gandhi wrote:

The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form.  The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence.  I look upon an increase of the power of the State with the greatest fear, because although while apparently doing good by minimizing exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality, which lies at the root of all progress.

Gandhi further agreed with Niebuhr, however, that greater equality was needed.  Gandhi explained: “Economic equality must never be supposed to mean possession of an equal amount of worldly goods by everyone.  It does mean, however, that everyone will have a proper house to live in, sufficient and balanced food to eat, and sufficient Khadi (home-spun clothing) with which to cover himself.”   

The world remembers Gandhi as a pacifist.  He was a pacifist to the end of his days, but what is little understood is how pragmatic the Mahatma could be about it.  He stated, “I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence … But I believe that non-violence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment.”  Gandhi allowed for the killing of poisonous snakes at his ashram, or home dwelling, and that rabid dogs (a public threat) could be put down.  Gandhi was even convinced, during World War I, that it would be just to recruit for the war effort to defend Britain.  Gandhi did not evidence this sensible pragmatism at all times.  As has been argued before, his non-violence would not have worked against Adolf Hitler, as he had once hoped.  Gandhi, like Niebuhr, wrestled with stratagems of social justice until he had found his Hindu truth; but it was a truth he saw confirmed in other religions, like Christianity and Islam.

Was Gandhi a “Hindu Realist,” and how so?  He was not a realist in the same way that Niebuhr was a Christian realist, no doubt.  Gandhi was ever a perfectionist, trying to be the Mahatma or “Great Soul,” sinless and perfect.  This was a part of his Hindu philosophy and runs contrary to Christian Realism’s idea of sin.  Yet in Gandhi’s political context, one must argue that what he was doing was in many ways realistic, because it produced results.  It worked.  India had tried to violently throw off British Imperial might with the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, but that had failed.  Unable to defeat British imperialism by force of arms, Gandhi chose to defeat them by the moral might or satyagraha.  This Sanskrit word means something like “truth force,” and for Gandhi it was non-violent civil disobedience which was most effective against the British.  It proved so effective, so “realistic,” that decades later Martin Luther King Jr. adopted the same strategy to fight racial injustice in the United States.

What is the “religious realism” which binds Niebuhr and Gandhi?  It was not in their view of pacifism and sin, for there they disagreed.  Neither was it in their refutation of socialism, though there they had some common accord.  Rather, their realism was affirming religious ideals against entrenched social injustice.  For Niebuhr, it was Christian love of God and neighbor against tyranny and inequality.  For Gandhi, it was “ahimsa” or non-violence against the dominance of British imperialism.  Instead of seeking refuge in secular reason, both men found it in religion.  They explored every option they could before finding a religious “right” to confront unjust political “might.”  The lesson from Gandhi and Niebuhr’s “experiments with truth” is that a realist must engage other religions and philosophies as competing schemes of social justice, and be able find in them what is realistic, true, and compelling, and be equally capable of differentiating what is sheer folly.