When he delivered what we now call "The Serenity Prayer" at a worship service, he was asked for a copy. "Take it," he reportedly said, handing over the slip of paper, "I have no further use for it."
Niebuhr was not at all a sentimentalist. He stood for labor unions in their struggles in Detroit. He tells the story of preaching a fiery sermon against management one Sunday morning, following a round of particular brutal lay-offs and firings. One of his church members, as he left, looked Niebuhr in the eye, and told him of the week he, a manager, had had: having to call people into his office and fire them. The manager was well aware of the families he was hurting, of the lives he was touching. He made it clear to his pastor that this hadn't been an easy or painless task, and Niebuhr realized such situations are always complex, that there are human beings on all sides.
Elisabeth Sifton, Niebuhr's daughter, has written an excellent memoir of her father's life: The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War. Niebuhr was a friend and advisor and counselor to many of the Democrats in power under FDR. He worked hard for "liberal" political causes, was very concerned about the reconstruction of Germany, about the nature of evil and how it affects international as well as human relationships. I say this because he was a theologian as much as a political scientist, but he blended the two, and even added insights into sociology, in his long career.
But when the war ended, as his daughter makes clear, so did many of his hopes. WWII gave way to the "Red Scare," to Republican presidents and McCarthyism, the ethical questions of the use of nuclear power, to the problems of race relations (which the Republicans worked hard to avoid confronting, even then).
I admire Niebuhr, because he understood things like this:
Democracy has a more compelling justification and requires a more realistic vindication than is given it by the liberal culture with which it has been associated in modern history. The excessively optimistic estimates of human nature and history with which the democratic credo is linked are a source of peril to democratic society, for our contemporary experience refutes this optimism and there is danger that it will seem to refute the democratic ideal as well. Modern democracy requires a more realistic philosophical and religious basis.Given our recent experience, those words could have been written today.
But there is a warning in Niebuhr's life, too. His daughter paints a picture of a man deeply, almost physically, nearly spiritually, disappointed by events. Again, what Ms. Sifton writes of, could be taken from the events of today:
Ministers all over America might have been pounding the lecterns and delivering fire-and-brimstone sermons, but their social conformism was pretty complete. Little changed in their privileged lives. They pussyfooted around feel-good mega-preachers like Norman Vincent Peale or Billy Graham-who like so many of their successors never risked their tremendous personal popularity by broaching a difficult spiritual subject, and rarely lifted a finger to help a social cause. They checked up on their pension funds and ignored their parishioners' lives. It's easy enough to assert today, as I do, that Tillich and Niebuhr, or Dun and Temple, or Horton and McConnell were vital presences in the modern life of the Gospel. But they weren't acknowledged as such by most American parsons, and I doubt that they would be today. Freedom and democracy, meanwhile, were being traduced or betrayed. (The Serenity Prayer, Elisabeth Sifton, W.W. Norton, New York, 2003, p. 317)
The more things change. And, unfortunately, they keep changing. Ms. Sifton also records a conversation with her father, shortly after Eisenhower wins the Presidency. "You poor girl," he says, without an apparent trace of irony, "you've never lived under a Republican administration. You don't know how terrible this is going to be." (Sifton, p. 328)
Why am I telling you this? As a warning, in part; a bit of advice about where to put your treasure. The picture of Niebuhr painted by this daughter, wittingly or not, is of a man disappointed in his struggle, who ends perhaps pondering Pound's famous statement about his life's work: "Wrong from the start." Not that Niebuhr despaired as deeply as the poet. But a great deal of what he worked for simply evaporated; if it was ever noticed at all. A great deal of what he tried to do, was aimed at events simply beyond his control. But he wasn't wrong to do it. It's more a question of emphasis, of wisdom, of, if you will, "serenity." Because of one other thing she says, one other thing that was true about her father. This is, as they say, the "money quote." Or at least it is for me:
Is it implicit in virtually everything Pa wrote on the subject that there's little point in having a foreign policy, or an arms policy, unless, as a nation, you know who you are, what sort of nation you are or imagine yourself to be. I don't mean in the narrow sense of an instrumentally calculated "national interest" but in the larger spiritual and cultural sense. Pa's constant gripe was that American political leaders imagined a diminished America and presented it falsely, that they themselves were stupider, prouder, more self-righteous, more moralistic, more vain-glorious than the American people on whose behalf they spoke. (Sifton, pp. 329-330)And we never have to settle for that.