Is Christian Realism a Non Sequitur?

In light of the inauguration of Barack Obama who cites Reinhold Niebuhr as one of the most influential theologians on his way of thinking about politics, and in light of the fact that my students have been studying Reinhold Niebuhr, I have been thinking a lot about Christian realism recently. Lots of people, it turns out, have been pondering the meaning, scope, and contemporary relevance of Christian realism. I was assigned a question on my comprehensive exams examining the theological coherence of Reinhold Niebuhr’s political stances, and last week Boston College hosted a conference with Jean Bethke Elshtain, Andrew Bacevich, and Bryan Hehir on the subject of Realism, Ethics, and US Public Policy. So it seems a fitting time for Everydaythomist to explain what Christian realism is, delineate a little bit of its history, and raise a few questions about just how “Christian” it is.

First, we must understand what realism is. Realism is a political theory that views politics as a realm shorn of all moral and ethical constraints. Sometimes called “power politics,” a realist politics is not motivated by concerns for the common good or virtue, but rather by self-interest, necessity, and most of all, maximization of power. According to realism, politics is seen as limited only by power constraints, not by ethical constraints about what may or may not be just. As Michael Walzer puts it, who dedicates the first chapter of his book Just and Unjust Wars to arguing “Against Realism,” realism can be summed up as “they that have odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get.”

Some big names are attached to a realist ethos: Thucydides, who wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thomas Hobbes, and Machiavelli. In some ways, realism is a kind of pre-Christian philosophy. It is the politics of Athens and Sparta and Rome, not of Christendom. In fact, pre-modern and modern advocates of reviving realism have seen Christianity as a threat. Rousseau, for example, said that Christians were wretched citizens, that politically, they were like lambs being led to the slaughter. In the public square, Rousseau wanted Christianity replaced with a hearty civic religion, which espoused virtues more in line with a realist agenda than a Christian one. Christian virtues, of which Nietzsche was so critical, were effeminizing virtues that encouraged citizens to be weak, passive, and unfit for civic life or political leadership.

So how do we get from Christianity being the enemy of realism, to a political theory called “Christian realism?” The first place to look is in the political theory and public theology of Augustine. According to Augustine, the moral vision of Jesus could not provide the basis for a viable political and social ethic. Rather, Augustine argued that the gospel ethic such as found in the Sermon on the Mount (love of enemies, non-resistance, etc.) were rather intended for an interior ethic that would no doubt influence Christian behavior but not wholly dictate Christian participation in the world. In other words, Christian morality sets certain limits on behavior, but the moral vision of Jesus was considered an impossible ideal, not achievable in this world.

The place we see this form of Christian realism playing itself out is in the doctrine of just war. Although it seems as if Jesus’ ethic, and Paul’s as well, would prohibit Christians from participating in war, or any form of violent resistance, Augustine argued against the pacifists of his day that Jesus was actually only talking about one’s inner intention, not one’s behavior when he said to “resist not an enemy.” Augustine thought that Christians could participate in war and kill enemies of Rome, but they had to do so with a inner disposition of love, not of revenge or hatred. Christian realism thus becomes a kind of “ethic of compromise” between the strong realism of the secular order and the non-violent perfectionist ethic of Jesus.

In the contemporary period, the phrase “Christian realism” immediately brings to mind the Protestant Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. According to Niebuhr, conflict and violence are pervasive features of human life. The ethics of Jesus, what Niebuhr called an ethic of agape or Christian love can never provide the basis for a political or social ethic, but an ethic of agape can inform the social and political realm, curbing the inevitable conflict and violence and providing the baseline for a minimal ethic of justice. Like Augustine, Niebuhr thought that Christian ethics could set limits on a stronger realist ethic based solely on power, but Christian ethics could not expect to totally obliterate violent struggles for power. In fact, Niebuhr strongly supported certain struggles for power, such as those between the USSR and the USA as the “lesser of two evils.”

Christian realists are unanimously convinced that Jesus’ standard of morality is an impossible ideal. You simply cannot love your enemy, resist all evil, or go the extra mile in our sinful world. Moreover, Christian realists are unanimously terrified that if Christians did try and live out Jesus’ ethics, the consequences would be horrible. Luther thought, for example, that if Christians tried to live as pacifists, the “ravenous wolves” of the world would take over the Christian church and herald in the reign of Satan. Augustine was terrified of the chaos that accompanied war and other social upheaval and considered such chaos to be antithetical to the Christian life. Thus it was better for Christians to compromise their ethic in order to prevent the greater evil of social chaos than it was for them to live out the moral vision of Jesus. Reinhold Niebuhr was a little more fatalistic. He thought that human beings simply could not live as Jesus had commanded them and to try to do so, like the liberal Protestant followers of the Social Gospel in his day were doing, were setting themselves up for disaster.

In an oft-cited David Brooks’ op-ed from the New York Times, then presidential candidate Barack Obama listed his reasons for loving the realism of Reinhold Niebuhr. When asked what he takes from Niebuhr, Obama responded,

I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.

The idea is that you cannot rid the world from evil, but you also cannot be afraid of getting your hands a little dirty (as Michael Walzer) says fighting what evil you can. Moral compromises are necessary if you expect to achieve any sort of moral victory, however small it might be.

This all sounds fine and good, except for the fact that it really does not seem consistent with what Jesus expected of his disciples. Reading the Sermon on the Mount, for example, I do not get the impression that Jesus was laying out an impossible ideal for Christian morality, but really and truly telling his followers how to behave. Moreover, Jesus seems to acknowledge that his ethic, while not impossible to live out, will not be an ethics of power, that is, a realist ethic. We see this especially in the reading from Mark 8:27-9:1 where Jesus asks the question, “Who do men say that I am?” Peter gives the correct answer, that Jesus is the Messiah, but errs in assuming that Jesus will be a powerful Messiah, indicated by Jesus’ harsh rebuke to “Get behind me, Satan. For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” As Stanley Hauerwas, one of the most famous Christian advocates of non-violence alive today, writes, “Jesus insists it is possible, if God’s rule is acknowledged and trusted, to serve without power.”

The coercive struggles for power that form the status quo for the world’s political activity, which we have defined here as realism, are not the ways of the Christian. Rather, the cross is the only basis for a Christian realism. The cross reveals the reality of the world, namely, that sin is real and that sin has usurped the rule of God. And the cross also reveals what Christians can expect from the world if they are faithful to their call of discipleship. Faithful Christian disciples have to be prepared to sacrifice themselves, to stretch out their arms and say “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”

But as Stanley Hauerwas notes,

Jesus’ cross . . . is not merely a general symbol of the moral significance of self-sacrifice. The cross is not the confirmation of the facile assumption that it is better to give than receive. Rather, the cross is Jesus’ ultimate dispossession through which God has conquered the powers of this world. The cross is not just a symbol of God’s kingdom; it is that kingdom come.”

Jesus does not play power politics. He does not fight the evil of the world on evil’s terms. He does not use violence, power, and coercion to fulfill his mission. Nor does he expect his disciples to. Jesus invites his disciples to his own non-violent love, a love that will indeed overcome the powers of the world, but not through coercion and force.


5 comments so far

  1. ksw on

    Very well stated.

    It seems that in about any position with direct authority over others or responsibility for the well-being of others forces us to make choices between the way of the cross (which will lead to our destruction / vindication) or some form of compromise.

    I think that one way to look at it is making a distinction between life in the church and life outside of the church. That is, it’s great to follow the way of the cross in business, gov’t, and even academic committees, but don’t be surprised if you are destroyed in the process. Ultimately you will be vindicated. Others seek faithfulness, even in the midst of conscious compromise from the way of the cross for the sake of others. To what degree a person can compromise and still consider themselves Christian can be difficult to discern.

    I would prefer any day a politician who is a Christian realist to one who misinterprets their political leanings as an unsoiled extension of their Christian faith. In fact, I wonder maybe Christian realism is the best we can hope for from elected officials, even if as we question it’s validity.


    • everydaythomist on

      Thanks for your comments. You rightly identify my conflict–to what extent can a person compromise and still consider themselves Christian? You could set the bar sort of low, like Augustine or Luther and say, “whatever you do as a Christian, do with love, do your best, and always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within you.” The problem with that position is the one Luther ends up with, supporting not only the Christian soldier, but also the Christian judge and hangman. In order to support his position that Christians should fully participate in politics and social life against the Anabaptists of the day, who wanted to withdraw totally from political affairs, Luther had to totally bifurcate the spheres of church and world. That position was dangerous to begin with but ended up leading to the Lutheran church in the 1930s thinking they could be good Christians and good Nazis, Sunday churchgoers and weekly executioners. So where do we draw the line? Where is a Christian not allowed to compromise?

      Another thing that Christian realists fear is the people who think they can bring about the kingdom of God on earth through political means or “misinterpret their political leanings as an unsoiled extension of their Christian faith,” as you point out. One danger from such people is the danger of crusade, that we can become an army for Christ, knocking out the evil in the world. I don’t think this position is a Christian one either, and you’re right, I would rather have a Christian realist in office than a Christian idealist.

      The question I raise in my mind when I look at the problem of Christian idealism and its compatibility with the morality of Jesus is not how one can participate in politics, but whether one can be a Christian politician. Rather than playing into power politics, which you have to do as a politician, at least in this country, I think Christians are called to resist injustice in a radically different way. For example, rather than supporting the Cold War struggles for power as Reinhold Niebuhr did, a more Christian response might be found in the actions of the late Karol Wojtyla who became Pope John Paul II. Wojtyla wrote and self-published a book in 1953 called “Catholic Social Ethics” which outlined a policy of nonviolence as well as criticizing Western capitalism and European communism. Wojtyla put his theory into practice as a priest in Poland, encouraging discussion groups, the organization of workers’ unions, and underground newspapers criticizing the Communists. As pope, he continued to visit Poland and support non-violent resistance to communism, and has been credited with helping to bring down communism in Eastern Europe through his support of a peaceful revolution.

      Now, to bring up Wojtyla is idealistic of me, and I know it, because he was in a special position as the first non-Italian pope in centuries from a country under Communist occupation that needed some sign of hope, but what Wojtyla did that I think Christians can do is find ways to resist injustice without resorting to violence or coercive power politics. Christians might vote for a leader who espouses a position of “Christian realism,” but they should not confuse that position with the demands of Christian morality and allow for compromise in their own life. Moreover, the Christian church needs to bear witness as a reminder that Christian realism, while maybe the lesser of two evils, is still a far cry from what Jesus demands of his followers.

      Jim Childress argues that Christian pacifists, for example, are perfectly compatible with Christian realist politicians who support just war theory. Christian pacifists remind just war theorists of the strong presumption against violence found in Christian morality so that the supporters of just war are reminded always that war should be a last resort, not something we rush foolishly into. And just war theorists remind Christian pacifists that there is serious evil in the world, that the kingdom is not yet come, and that in some cases, the bloodshed of war is the only way to prevent an even greater bloodshed.

      I like this position, but I don’t see the Christian churches bearing witness to the moral vision of Jesus as a corrective to the dangers of Christian realism. I see Christian churches bearing witness to Christian realism, to compromise. We don’t even ask the question any more, “is it just for a Christian to be a soldier” or more apt for our day, “is it just for a Christian to be an investment banker or a CEO or a Wall Street executive?” We just assume that it is. It seems to me that Christians should look and act differently from the world around them. I want to hear more of Rousseau’s complaints about Christians in politics in our time, that Christians make horrible citizens, that they are like lambs being led to the slaughter, that the morality of Christians can never provide the basis of the morality for the state. That sort of criticism, I think, is a sign that Christians are living in the right way.

  2. ksw on

    I don’t think we are not far apart at all on this, even if we’re looking at it slightly differently.

    I think the challenge is that churches that have the direct kinds of public conversations that you mention, quickly become one sided conversations, as like minded people gravitate to faith communities that will affirm their positions.

    Healthy churches might be having these conversations all the time, just not bluntly from the pulpit. Us preachers would love to have a few Zaccheus moments, with tax collectors coming out of trees, the rich divesting themselves for the poor etc . . . more likely (and challenging enough) is how to develop safe spaces for us to individually discern our Christian calling, and then respectfully articulate that in the broader community as part of an ongoing conversation. This is how a community can welcome both pacifists and soldiers in the same. Both wrestle with the same issues of how to address evil in the world . . . I believe one of them is wrong, but I’m going to respect the persons process of coming to terms with how Christian faith is worked out in their lives. Me telling parishioners that I openly disagree, or that I don’t think they are Christian because of the position they take, will send them to a community where their practices aren’t questioned at all.

    I think what I’m describing is more in line with your thinking even than PJP2 (i’m a fan BTW) . . . he had a vast network of resources and financial authority to call on to work through. He demonstrated how the Roman Catholic Church could work in an area of the world to facilitate change. Radically congregational churches are by definition discussion groups, since they have no official organizational edifice on which to rest their decision making processes.

    Luther was wrong from a starting point of thinking that the peasants had few rights worth protecting. Perhaps on this, if his views toward his fellow human beings had changed, his theology might have followed along.

    Am I understanding you correctly?

  3. Christoph Rohde on

    Did Jesus ask the centurion to finish his service in the military? Not at all. I think Augustin is right in seperating these two realms….

    (Matthew 8):
    5When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 6″Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.”
    7Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.”

    8The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

    10When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

    13Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that very hour.

  4. […] Fighting Realism with the Anabaptist Vision Posted December 16, 2009 Filed under: Christianity, Non-violence, Politics, just war | Tags: Anabaptist, Christian realism, David Brooks, Harold Bender, Reinhold Niebuhr | When Barack Obama was elected, I wrote a post on his connection with Christian realism of the Reinhold Niebuhr variety, which you can read about here. […]

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