This week the editors discuss a 1946 article by H. Richard Niebuhr on “Utilitarian Christianity,” responses to that article, and a recent discussion about “Integral Disarmament.”

Tooley: Hello and welcome to another episode of Marksism, with my fellow editors and fellow Mark(c)s, Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton. I, of course, am Mark Tooley, and we are with Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, reviewing several pieces from this week, starting with an article from not Reinhold Niebuhr, but his brother Richard Niebuhr, who unusually published a piece in Reinhold’s Christianity & Crisis in 1946. It’s unusual because Reinhold and Richard disagree on I think the underlying premises of Christianity & Crisis, and Richard, although the Mark(c)s can correct me, was mostly pacifist, unlike his brother Reinhold who disavowed pacifism before World War II. But in this piece, Richard warns against pragmatic utilitarian Christianity. We’ll also take a look at a piece on the anniversary of the explosion in Beirut, whose implications continue to ripple out in unpleasant ways in Lebanon. And finally, a piece by Marc LiVecche on what’s called incremental disarmament, suggested in an online conversation hosted by a Vatican Commission, with some potentially concerning applications. So, starting out with Richard Niebuhr, my recollection of Richard is that in response to the Japanese invasion and occupation of Manchuria, his counsel was essentially hands off, Christians simply need to be patient and not interventionist, with which his brother Reinhold strongly disagreed. In this 1946 piece, Richard argues against, as I mentioned, a pragmatic Christianity that seems to be simply for its social utility. There are several responses to Richard warning that Christians are not just focused on eternity but also the historical relativity of Christianity, and what can be practically accomplished according to the dictates of the faith, and to ignore the pragmatic applications is a form of escapism. So, Marc LiVecche, your thoughts?

LiVecche: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I mean, I’ll split the hair a little bit and say that both Richard and Reinhold, as a set of brothers, were both in principle pacifists. Reinhold Niebuhr, sort of our founding father, went beyond that because of the historic necessities and a realistic assessment of what it meant to be a Christian in the world. So, I still believe that Reinhold, I don’t believe, I assert, Reinhold thinks that Christians ought to be pacifist because the ethic of Jesus was pacifistic. He just believes that that ethic collides with another ethic, which is an ethic of responsibility, and that we can’t do both ethics in this world, so we should be responsible rather than faithful to the love ethic, or at least 100% faithful to the love ethic. Simply because if we strive for love, we’ll get neither love nor responsibility. If we strive for responsibility, we might get a little responsibility and maybe a bit of love. You can qualify the responsibility. Which is why it’s Reinhold, not Richard, who is the founding father of Providence. The article in question is interesting because Richard complains about the very thing that I think makes Reinhold so strong, and it’s what he says as a pejorative, a realistic assessment of history. And in one of the responses to him, I think it’s something of a defense of the realist assessment of history, but it’s also done so in a sort of maybe grudging way where they talk about how the pacifist might scorn consequence, but the pragmatist, in response to this, believes in judgment by consequences. But then he sort of takes a sidestep and notes, he says look, the realist assessment of history goes in the direction that says well, we’re responsible for resisting tyranny. But he asserts if they assessed that a different way and thought that pacifism or non-resistance was an effective hedge against tyranny, well, then they would just go that direction. It’s if, I think, to argue the pragmatist is only concerned about consequences. And so, if I have a critique of the critique of Richard Niebuhr, then the critique would be that this idea of pragmatism, being a judgment by consequences, is fine so long as we don’t think, I think the author suggests, that these are somehow like freestanding consequences. Like the Christian ethicist is like a single-cell organism that has either an “ah” response to stimulation or an “uh” response to stimulation. The Christian ethicist goes somewhere beyond that. Our judgment of consequences aren’t freestanding consequences, but it’s a recognition that these consequences have to be set against an azimuth, a fixed point on a very particular moral horizon that we do not determine, that is determined for us by the will of God and the word of God, and against which we assess consequences. So, one of those marks might be stewardship. We talked about how stewardship is the proper exercise of dominion, which is part of what it means to be made in the image of God, and that this dominion is providential care over creation. So, he’s sovereign authority who has his own set of moral responsibilities for the preservation, the justice, the peace, and the order of the political polity has a fixed standard against which to assess consequences. And this isn’t consequentialism in terms of sort of the “c” word of consequentialism. This is simply how ethics work. We have to be concerned about outcomes, and certain outcomes bring us closer toward shalom than other outcomes. That’s not an idolatry of consequence; that’s simply recognizing that responsibilities conflict in this world. And when we have to evaluate which responsibility to meet, one good way to do that is an assessment of consequences and where our actions bring circumstances. So, in that sense, great response to Richard, but I would want to put a fine point on what it means to judge by consequence.

Tooley: Mark Melton, Richard advocates to the church endure all utilitarianism and move forward with quietness and confidence, which almost sounds rather passive. You were not satisfied with some of the responses to Richard; you thought they partly misunderstood him. Your thoughts?

Melton: Well, yeah, that’s partially just my understanding of what I think Richard is kind of getting at, because on the one hand, he’s known at this point as already being a critic of social gospel, and I think some of the people who were responding were supporters of the social gospel, or some version of it. And so, to me when I read Richard, though he is talking about kind of like social gospel, I think he’s talking about something broader that can be applied to either the left or the right and also individuals or churches and organizations on a more social scale. So, in other words, like the point of utilitarian is using religion for an end that is not religious, and to me, my understanding of religion or the religious ends are kind of twofold. One, to help Christians love God more honestly and sincerely, and then to loving neighbors the way Christ loves us. In other words, laying down your life for your neighbors. Now within that there’s a lot of broad stuff, but he was criticizing specifically the FCC, the Federal Council of Churches, which was actually an organization that Christianity & Crisis reports on a good bit. And so, I’m assuming they’re kind of favorable to it. So, he’s criticizing them. And basically, they were saying like during this moment, post-World War II when we have so much conflict in the world, Christianity can be used to help people have the fullness of life, to help people create better peace and better order. And his argument is basically that’s not how the religion works. Spreading Christianity doesn’t guarantee a more peaceful world by itself. Now, there can be byproducts of that, and he talks about some of those. And to me when I read this, I can think of one, how individuals can have a utilitarian faith. In other words, I give the example of sending your kids to church not primarily out of love of God, but primarily because you want them to be well behaved. It doesn’t always work out that way, and if it doesn’t work out that way, then they can challenge people’s faith. And I’ve seen people kind of use this utilitarian Christianity in my own life, where they’re disappointed with the results, because I thought, if I am good, then I will get X, Y, and Z, and sometimes you get X, Y, and Z, but sometimes you don’t. At least not in this lifetime. And so, that’s where I think he’s coming from. And then on the broader scale, I still think we see both on the left and the right a desire to use Christianity for this or that purpose. For instance, a Senate candidate in Ohio recently talked about instilling God in the workplace. To me, it to me is using religion for a non-religious end, and I think Richard is right for that critique. And so, the critiques hit on some points, but I think they missed the broader point that he’s trying to make. I think they’re kind of qualifying with what he’s saying, but overall, I think he is saying that there are good ends that Christianity can lead to. I give a couple of examples. For instance, during the troubles of Northern Ireland, a Christian, I think it was a Catholic priest, who helped the communities kind of come together, and basically the church was the only organ that could facilitate this, the conflict between the Protestants and the Catholics, and kind of bring these groups together to create the peace accords. Now that doesn’t mean that if you want to create peace in society, you put everyone in a church pew. It’s not going to work out that way. So, there can be positive by products, but to expect that is misunderstanding what the purpose of the religion is and what the religion can do. And I think the reason why the church isn’t going to be able to guarantee peace if you put everyone into the pew is because of depravity. Like even once you become Christian, you’re still a sinner, and you still have sinful desires. And so, just becoming a Christian or making sure everyone around you is Christian isn’t going to lead to the utopia or the non-religious ends that you may desire. So, that to me is how I primarily understood Richard, and then when I read these other responses, I think they’re coming from more of a defending a social gospel, considering they’ve written books about that perspective.

Tooley: Marc LiVecche, turning to incremental disarmament, that suggestion that came out of a webinar…

LiVecche: Integral.

Tooley: Integral disarmament, pardon me. You’ll have to explain exactly what that means. It was suggested during a webinar co-hosted by a Vatican Commission and seems to be part of the trajectory under the current papacy, rejecting the church’s traditional Just War teaching in favor of alternatives.
What are these alternatives?

LiVecche: Bad. The alternatives are bad. Integral disarmament, I don’t know quite what work integral is doing there, but integral disarmament apparently is not a terribly new idea. It’s a coalescence of several ideas that suggest, for instance, that weapons, military weapons, are inherently evil, that they always do more evil than they are intended to prevent, and that Christians, therefore, should simply have no part in them. And that the best thing for all of humanity is to disarm completely. They don’t touch on whether or not it should be a unilateral disarmament, like should the good guys, should the West, disarm first and then just sort of hope that the sole force of that moral example is enough to dissuade, or persuade, our enemies to disarm. They don’t really get into the nitty gritty, but that’s the statement: weapons are bad, they do no good, cause more harm than they prevent, and Christians should have nothing to do with them. Therefore, we should all disarm. I respond to this by suggesting that it’s a great idea, except that it goes against Christian tradition. It goes against reason, and it leads to the abandonment of one’s flock. So, other than that, it’s grand scheme, Pope Francis, God bless his soul, seems to want several things that he cannot have, given the way that reality functions. So, on the one hand, I use the example in the article where he condemns Western leaders’ response to the Holocaust, using the example of aerial photos that we have of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps that were being certainly taken when we were probably doing reconnaissance photos of a nearby rubber plant. He laments that the Allied leaders did not drop bombs on those railway road lines to try to stop the Holocaust. In the same breath almost, he’s denouncing weapons entirely. So, he seems to recognize that weapons have a function in these tasks and he recognizes this, and at the same time, he laments that we even have them. And it’s not even lament that we have them; like we can lament that we have them, that’s fine. But because we have to have them, we ought not to lament the fact that we invest in arms and we use them. I do know that it goes against tradition, as you’ve already suggested. His position and the position of the integral disarmament advocates goes against Just War teaching, which is to say that it goes against the bulk of Christian intelligence since the early church forward.

Tooley: This term integral disarmament, is that the first you’ve heard of this term, and is it only used in this webinar or has it come from any official Vatican statement?

LiVecche: Not that I recall. Like I said, I don’t know what work integral is doing. I don’t know how those two terms come together. When you sent me the link, that was the first time I’d ever heard of it, which means nothing. I mean, it might be something that’s very well-known, but it goes against the tradition. There’s no way that they can find coherence between that and anything that’s been said within the Just War tradition. It goes against reason. As I’ve suggested, weapons are not inherently evil. This is contentious, but I think you could push that all the way down to even the most gas-like weapons, poison gas, things like that, any kind of weapon system that we presently have or have had can have a practical function that can be used immorally. Poison gas is heinous and ghastly, but maybe it was the only thing that could have pushed the Japanese out of their tunnel systems on those Pacific Islands, and maybe would have prevented, probably not, but maybe, would have prevented some of the mass slaughter that happened. Because we can only do so much conventionally. And then I suggest it’s an abandonment of your flock, because if the Pope is serious about the West disarming, the only people who benefit from that are the people who mean to destroy the West. So, I mean, it’s incoherent and it’s an abdication of the moral responsibility of political leadership. It’s, frustratingly, yet one more thing that leads too many people to call Francis the “Hippie Pope.”

Tooley: Well, on that somewhat sarcastic note, we will conclude this episode of Marksism. I should mention that Providence plans to host a conversation in person at our Washington office later this month with Marc LiVecche reflecting on the anniversaries of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Japan’s surrender, hopefully with a respondent to flush out these issues further. And possibly related to the topic of integral disarmament. So, stay tuned. And Mark Melton, tell us what you’re doing for the rest of the summer. Anything fun and exciting?

Melton: I might take a week off, so that’s going to be fun.

Tooley: Can you tell us what you’re going to do during that week, or is that confidential?

Melton: Oh, my mom is in town, so I don’t know what we’re going to be doing.

LiVecche: Bring her by the office.

Melton: What’s that?

LiVecche: Bring her by the office.

Tooley: Yes, we’d love to meet her.

Melton: Y’all have. She came to a dinner once.

Tooley: Oh, I forgot. That’s been several years now. And Marc LiVecche, you’re at an undisclosed location somewhere on the Atlantic?

LiVecche: I’m at a satellite campus of Providence and IRD on the coast.

Tooley: Watching for German submarines?

LiVecche: Watching for German submarines and whatnot. Yeah, somebody’s got to do it.

Tooley: Well, very good. Thank you, gentlemen, for another provocative conversation and this episode of Marksism. Until next week, bye-bye.