Thursday, July 14, 2005

"Thus society is in a perpetual state of war."--Reinhold Niebuhr

Harry Shearer:

Despite the admirable cloaking of all this in the garment of "the American public," the White House press corp's anger is based on one thing: Scott McClellan lied to the Whitte House press corps. The President, the Vice President, the Army and Navy football teams, the Secretary of State--all of them can lie to any or all of the planets in the solar system, and hey, that's politics. But, stand at that podium, and lie to those people, and let them eventually find out about it, and, brother, you got trouble.

Reinhold Niebuhr:

While it is possible for intelligence to increase the range of benevolent impulse, and thus prompt a human being to consider the needs and rights of other than those to whom he is bound by organic and physical relationship, there are definite limits in the capacity of ordinary mortals which makes it impossible for them to grant to others what they claim for themselves. Though educators ever since the eighteenth century have given themselves to the fond illusion that justice through voluntary co-operation waited only upon a more universal or a more adequate educational enterprise, there is good reason to believe that the sentiments of benevolence and social goodwill will never be so pure or powerful, and the rational capacity to consider the rights and needs of others in fair competition with our own will never be so fully developed as to create the possibility for the anarchistic millennium which is the social utopia, either explicit or implicit, of all intellectual or religious moralists.

All social co-operation on a larger scale than the most intimate social group requires a measure of coercion. While no state can maintain its unity purely by coercion neither can it preserve itself without coercion. Where the factor of mutual consent is strongly developed, and where standardised and approximately fair methods of adjudicating and resolving conflicting interests within an organised group have been established, the coercive factor in social life is frequently covert, and becomes apparent only in moments of crisis and in the group's policy toward recalcitrant individuals. Yet it is never absent. Divergence of interest, based upon geographic and functional differences within a society, is bound to create different social philosophies and political attitudes which goodwill and intelligence may partly, but never completely, harmonise. Ultimately, unity within an organised social group, or within a federation of such groups, is created by the ability of a dominant group to impose its will.


The limitations of the human mind and imagination, the inability of human beings to transcend their own interests sufficiently to envisage the interests of their fellowmen as clearly as they do their own makes force an inevitable part of the process of social cohesion. But the same force which guarantees peace also makes for injustice. "Power," said Henry Adams, "is poison"; and it is a poison which blinds the eyes of moral insight and lames the will of moral purpose. The individual or the group which organises any society, however social its intentions or pretensions, arrogates an inordinate portion of social privilege to itself.
Niebuhr had pastored a church by the time he wrote those words. No one who has ever pastored a church can be truly surprised by the press corp's reaction, or by Shearer's analysis.

First, recognize in Niebuhr's analysis the same reasoning used by the Romantics: that which creates, also destroys. As Blake put it:

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm.
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

In another context, I've called this the mysterium tremendums that shakes the core of any religious community: that which calls the community together is also that which remains mysterious, unknown, undefined and undefinable. It makes the community tremble because, while it makes the community, it also refuses to identify itself fully to the community. And while the community is called into being by this mysterium tremendum, it can never be sure it is faithfully serving that which calls it, and "there are definite limits in the capacity of ordinary mortals which makes it impossible for them to grant to others what they claim for themselves." You cannot fully cede authority to an authority that is not there, can neither be fully known nor fully apprehended. So you must take some authority for yourself. And that's only part of where the problem begins.

The problem begins with the fact that people need a community to belong to, to gain their identity from. And, as Niebuhr points out, we are limited in our empathy, our ability to rise above our own interests and consider the interest of others. We may act on an individual basis (this is the issue that fired Levinas' imagination: he saw a man dart into traffic to save the life of a child unrelated to the rescuer, and pondered the "why" of that act), but in a group we inevitably act for it, and expect it to act for us. The more the group reflects our self-interest, the more cohesive the group is and the more we yield to it. But the issue always comes back to self-interest: "ideals" like "the American public" sound well and good in our ears, but only when our interests are synonymous with the interests of this amorphous and ill-defined standard. If the standard doesn't affect our immediate well-being, we are content merely to pay lip service to it.

The same analysis applies to congregations. Any pastor who is honest, will admit that in any congregation there is a group convinced that what is in the best interests of that group, is also in the best interests of the congregation. They will cloak themselves in the garment of "the church's best traditions, ideals, practices," even "the will of God." But all of those reasons are the mysterium tremendums that they cannot adequately name, define, or adopt. So they reach for the standard they know: what is best for them. Such are the "limitations of the human mind and imagination [which make]... force an inevitable part of the process of social cohesion. But the same force which guarantees peace also makes for injustice."

We are driven, then, in the most hopeful circumstances, by injustice toward greater justice. "Thus society is in a perpetual state of war. Lacking moral and rational resources to organise its life, without resort to coercion, except in the most immediate and intimate social groups, men remain the victims of the individuals, classes and nations by whose force a momentary coerced unity is achieved, and further conflicts are as certainly created. The fact that the coercive factor in society is both necessary and dangerous complicates the whole task of securing both peace and justice." It is precisely here that Niebuhr's brother, Richard, critiqued him; and I do, too.

But the critique must first take account of the validity of the observation. Human society is not built on grand ideals, nor has it ever achieved anything higher than a stalemate in the struggle of perpetual war for perpetual peace. As I say: no pastor who has spent any time being responsible for a congregation, can have any illusions that he or she has been dealing with implementing, not the highest of ideals, or even the "will of God," but merely the the self-interests of one, or several, groups: trying to turn a small injustice toward a greater goal of justice.

Sometimes you just take it where you can get it.

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