Why Mandela Forgave the Butchers

Mandela with Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Mandela with Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Back in the early 1960s, black South African lawyer and activist Oliver Tambo was asked to describe a colleague who had just gone to prison for resisting white minority rule in that country. He replied that this man is “passionate, emotional, sensitive, quickly stung to bitterness and retaliation by insult and patronage.” Tambo was talking about his law-firm partner, Nelson Mandela—remembered today for his grace, humor, and empathy, as well as his remarkable courage and leadership.

What happened to Mandela in prison, what changed him so radically, is still a bit of mystery in my mind. He was often asked about a slice of this question—how he let go of the anger he felt specifically toward whites—and his responses were usually of a fairly standard therapeutic variety. Bill Clinton, in an interview aired last night by CBS Evening Newsrelated one such exchange with Mandela.

I said, “Now, Mandela, you’re a great man but you’re a wily politician. It was good politics to put your jailers in your inauguration and put the heads of the parties that imprisoned you in your government. But tell me the truth, when you were walking to freedom the last time, didn’t you hate ‘em?” He said, “Yes. Briefly I did. I hated them and I was afraid. I hadn’t been free in so long. And then I realized if I still hated them after I left, they would still have me. I wanted to be free. And so I let it go.” He said, “That’s what you have to do. That’s what we all have to do. We have to let it go.” I mean, that’s the kind of thing he would say to me just in ordinary conversation.

“They would still have me.” How true. But does this explain the difference between the petulant man sized up by Oliver Tambo, circa 1963, and the Nelson Mandela we came to know and revere? Former Time managing editor Richard Stengel, author of Mandela’s Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage, has offered some further insight into Mandela’s personal transformation during his 27 years locked up in a tiny cell. Asked in an interview if prison was one of Mandela’s great teachers, he said:

Yes. Because prison changed that young man, and it burned away a lot of the extraneous parts of his character. And again, part of it was through his own self-analysis, but part of it is through this imposed control that prison has on you. I mean, the only thing you could control when you were in prison for all those years was yourself.

I mean, I remember when I first went to his cell in Robben Island. And I walked in, I walked—nearly walked in, but I gasped when I saw it, because—I mean, Nelson Mandela, as you know, is a big man. He’s 6’2″ inches tall, he has big hands and a big head. And he is larger than life in a literally and figurative way.

And this prison cell—I mean, he couldn’t even lie down and stretch out his legs. I mean, it could barely contain him. But what he learned and what he taught himself was how to contain himself, how to practice the self control that he actually didn’t have before he went into prison.

I don’t know if even this explains how someone becomes a strikingly different human being, although prison has been known to bring about extraordinary changes in people. What’s clear is that Mandela left prison with forgiveness in his heart—but there’s no getting around the politics.

Mandela’s Politics of Forgiveness

Mandela understood the difference between personal forgiveness and forgiveness in politics. In one of many symbolic and deeply personal gestures, he made his white jailer an honored guest at his presidential inauguration in 1994. But he knew that something else was needed in dealing with the larger ranks of white South Africans (often in the police and military) who had committed terrible human-rights violations. Mandela did not, as is widely believed, simply let those people go free, unconditionally. They had to do something in return for political amnesty. And that something was enshrined in the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he set up with Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu as its chairman.

Human-rights abusers had to go before this tribunal, whose proceedings were televised, and tell the whole truth about their atrocities. They had to reveal, in some cases literally, where the bodies were buried, and they did so often in grisly detail. Or else, they faced criminal prosecution.

This is not garden-variety forgiveness. It is not a single, unconditional act of letting bygones be bygones. Political forgiveness is different. It is a process, usually a negotiated one. It calls for truth and acknowledgment, if not necessarily repentance, and there are trade-offs and conditions. Without the conditionality, forgiveness loses a vital link to justice and restitution. It ceases to have a reason for being in politics.

Mandela knew this. At the same time, he realized that justice alone (investigations and prosecutions) was not the answer. For one thing, there might not have been a negotiated settlement with the apartheid regime, without clear provisions for amnesty. In other words, there might have been the bloodbath between white and black South Africans that many had predicted.

Beyond that, Mandela had other pragmatic considerations that didn’t arise simply from the goodness of his heart. His clear-eyed view was that the stability of the New South Africa depended on a well-calibrated process of reconciliation. He went down this road at least partly because there was no real alternative. As a politician as much as a person, Nelson Mandela knew there was no future without forgiveness.

Posted today also at Tikkun Daily. …read more

Was the March on Washington Really Part of a Violent Struggle?

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

There have been many threads of coverage and commentary surrounding the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary, and one of them is naturally about nonviolence: The nation’s leadership had assumed that the march would turn violent, but August 28, 1963, turned out to be one of the most notably peaceful days in the history of the District of Columbia.

Still, the nonviolent character of the movement that the march defined is being questioned. There has been some interesting historical revisionism surrounding Rosa Parks and other civil rights figures who, unlike Martin Luther King, were less-than devoted to nonviolence as an abiding moral principle. (For my take on that, go here.) And now comes a book that, among other provocations, makes the case that King’s struggle was arguably a violent one.

The author is Benjamin Ginsberg, and his forthcoming title is The Value of Violence (Prometheus Books). This month, the Johns Hopkins University political science professor summarized his thesis in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Ginsberg declares in the article that the tactics used by proponents of nonviolence (he names King and Gandhi) “were far from nonviolent.” How so? Because they were “designed to provoke violent responses” from local authorities and thus elicit sympathy from the public.

He cites the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama (though a much better example would be the Birmingham crusade in the spring of ’63, which was clearly aimed at getting Bull Connor to respond with brutal force). He also points out that the Selma action led to the Voting Rights Act passed five months later and—more significantly in his mind—to an “army” of federal law-enforcement officials in the South. These authorities “wielded the power to suppress white resistance to the registration of black voters.”

Ginsberg contends that “in essence,” the Selma protest succeeded because “the protesters’ allies”—meaning the feds—“had an even greater capacity for violence than their foes.” (A bold assertion, considering the foes included men who had a capacity for lynching.)

It’s not a new idea. During the movement’s early years, the representatives of respectable opinion, including those in the Kennedy administration, argued similarly. They worried that the civil rights campaigners were fomenting violence in reaction to their confrontational brand of nonviolence. For his part, King explained in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail that those who engage in such resistance merely “bring to the surface” and shine a light on the violence inherent in an unjust system. It’s a long stretch to call this violence.

The confusion was understandable at the time. Those were the days before people had any real grasp of nonviolence as a strategy of social change. Circa 1963, you were either a pure pacifist (passive, in other words) or someone who preferred the violent approach. There was no separate category for active nonviolent resistance, as there has been since not only the civil rights victories but also other great nonviolent struggles, notably the ones that toppled Communism in Eastern Europe.

Now there is such a well-known category, although not quite in Ginsberg’s thinking. Police dogs, peaceful (though provocative) protests—they’re all the same. They’re all part of the scheme of political violence, as he sees it.

I should quickly add that Ginsberg, who chairs the Center for Advanced Governmental Studies at Johns Hopkins, isn’t critical of the historic civil rights movement, on that score. He has a broader agenda—to debunk the now-familiar view in some quarters that violence is “not the answer” to our problems. It is very often the answer, he asserts. “Violence and the threat of violence are the most potent forces in political life,” he writes contrarily, in a challenging thesis that bears revisiting when the book comes out. …read more

In the NSA Debate, Where’s the Common Good?

TheoPol is off its weekly schedule, running occasionally during the summer.

As I scan the headlines and hear the radio talk about the federal surveillance program, one thought keeps coming to me: Why don’t I give a poop about any of this?

Maybe it’s because I don’t understand the implications of collecting domestic telephone data. Or maybe it’s because I cling to the rustic notion of the common good, in which personal liberties are of course balanced with the needs of community. That would basically mean balancing my right not to be surveilled with our need not to be bombed.

There’s a chance I’d react differently if the NSA’s algorithms were to spit out a particular innocent person—me. And I guess there are real questions that need to be answered about the NSA program, questions framed well by the Times today. But I don’t feel that the government is necessarily trampling upon my liberty, by scanning for networks and patterns of telephone use. Google already knows more about me than I know about me.

And then there’s that quaint idea of the common good. What is it, anyway? Someone in the field of Catholic social ethics once said that defining the common good is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. But that hasn’t stopped theologians and church authorities from hammering away at it.

For instance, the Second Vatican Council defined the common good as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members ready access to their own fulfillment.” There goes the gelatin, dribbling from the wall.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tried to get more of a handle on the concept, by breaking it up into pieces. The Catechism cited three components of the common good: 1) “respect for the person” (including individual freedom and liberties); 2) “social well-being and development” (including rights to basic things like food and housing); and 3) peace—“that is, the stability and security of a just order,” the Catechism said.

It’s abstract, but I like it. The Catechism’s rendering makes it clear that this principle is about balancing, not choosing between, various personal and social goods.

But I think the common good will always be subject to the Potter Stewart rule of knowing it when you see it. I see it in a raft of initiatives like gun control and progressive taxation, and yes, maybe even in Obama’s surveillance program. The critics of that program have real concerns about personal liberties, but these ought to be balanced with “social well-being” and “the stability and security of a just order.” The common good would seem to call for that. …read more

Sacred Space, at the Corner of Boylston and Berkeley

At Boylston and Berkeley, 8:00 a.m., Monday April 22

At Boylston and Berkeley, 8:00 a.m., Monday April 22 

Prepared for today’s edition of Tikkun Daily.

Two days after the Boston Marathon bombings, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick was asked in a public radio interview if there would be a permanent memorial to the victims of that horrific act. Patrick understandably felt it was too early to speculate about such a memorial—this was before the dramatic lockdown of Boston and surrounding communities. He went further to say that the most fitting tribute would be to return next year with the biggest and best marathon ever.

That surely would be a testimony to the city’s spirit, but it seems the governor, as a good technocrat, was missing the point. Fact is, people were already finding makeshift ways to memorialize the event. And if past atrocities are a guide, they’ll eventually find a permanent space for that solemn purpose.

If I didn’t know this already, I’d have found out just by standing for a few minutes near Copley Square this past Monday morning, at the intersection of Boylston and Berkeley streets.

Boylston, a crime scene, was still closed at the time. But people stood silently on a sidewalk at the corner, leaning against a police barricade in front of a popup memorial. They gazed at the flowers, flags, candles, handwritten notes, and other items left by anonymous people. They stared at three white crosses in the center of that growing memorial—in remembrance of the three who perished in the twin bombings of April 15. The shrine to eight-year-old Martin Richard was teeming with Teddy Bears, balloons, and children’s books.

People will memorialize, because they know hallowed ground when they see it. It’s extraordinary, when you think about it—how the heinous and the hallowed can share the same space, how a site of evil can be transfigured as holy. But this seems to happen every time. It happened at the Twin Towers, at the Murrah Federal Building at Oklahoma City, at Pearl Harbor, and most profoundly, at Auschwitz. Each of those names marks out a distinct space in the timeless realm of evil. And each space is inviolable.

But how about Boylston Street, or a consecrated corner of it? Is it now part of this geography of the sacred? It is, if you think of such space the way historian Edward Linenthal does. In an interview adapted in a book I did some years ago with Bob Abernethy of PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, he said:

My definition of a sacred space is a simple one. Any place that’s capable of being defiled is by definition sacred. You can’t defile ordinary space. Any place that for a group of people is so special that a certain way of being there would be an act of disrespect means that that place is charged with a particular kind of meaning.

Linenthal, who now teaches religious studies at Indiana University, continued:

I tell my students, if they were sitting in the parking lot at K-Mart with a boom box, no one’s going to really care. They might be irritated that the noise is too loud. But if they had a boom box at Gettysburg or in the grove of trees at Shanksville [into which United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on September 11, 2001, in Pennsylvania] or in a church, a mosque, or a temple, it would be considered an act of defilement.

This is why questions about what to do with these places fraught with meaning can be so vexing and contentious. Consider the 9/11 memorial in Manhattan. The decision to store the unidentified remains of victims in an underground repository—rather than a more visible place of tribute—stirred resistance from victims’ families.

Sure enough, a debate erupted this past week over the impromptu memorial at Boylston Street—how to preserve it, where to move it. Such a discussion would have been ludicrous, if this were ordinary space. If it were incapable of being defiled.

And that’s just a prelude. A few days ago, Boston Mayor Tom Menino’s office let it be known that the process of figuring out how to permanently memorialize the bloodshed at Boylston has begun. …read more

Fumbling and Fallibility at the Vatican

One of the many questions being asked about Pope Francis is whether he’ll be able to get a handle on the unruly and unpredictable Roman curia, the central administration of the Catholic Church. In the past year, that governing body has delivered such spectacles as the case of the pope’s butler, the so-called “Vatileaks” affair, and a continuing corruption scandal at the highest levels of the Vatican bank. Infighting and skullduggery have made it clear that Vatican politics, like the secular variety, can be all too human and at times brutish.

Partly with that in mind, a number of Vatican experts are saying that the new successor of St. Peter needs to have the skill set of a CEO, to manage the unmanageable. I don’t know if that’s necessary (or sufficient). Pope John Paul II was not especially noted for his managerial brilliance, but he was able to transcend the bureaucracy and project a global presence that overshadowed it. The curia was generally trying to keep up with him, not the other way around.

But now, many are asking an oddly necessary question about the most famously hierarchical organization on earth: Who’s in charge there? John Thavis, a longtime Rome correspondent, digs deeply into the paradox in his new book, The Vatican Diaries (Viking). My review of the memoir appears in the current edition of America magazine, and here it is, in full:

After turning the last pages of The Vatican Diaries, I noticed an Associated Press item that began, “The Vatican praised President Barack Obama’s proposals for curbing gun violence.” The report was based on a radio commentary by the Vatican press secretary, Frederico Lombardi, S.J., on Jan. 19. Those who read John Thavis’s vivid recollections in The Vatican Diaries will have cause to be at least initially skeptical whenever they hear that “the Vatican” said this or that definitively about anything.

Recently retired as the longtime Rome bureau chief of Catholic News Service, Thavis argues that the popular image of the Vatican as a monolith, eternally on message, is a myth. On the contrary, it “remains predominantly a world of individuals, most of whom have a surprising amount of freedom to operate—and, therefore, to make mistakes,” he writes.

Re-enter Father Lombardi.

The author tells of an incident when Lombardi, during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Jerusalem in 2009, lashed out at “lies” circulating about the young Joseph Ratzinger in Nazi Germany. “The pope was never in the Hitler Youth, never, never, never!” the Vatican spokesman declared to an incredulous press. The problem was that Ratzinger’s Hitler Youth involvement was a matter of historical record. As Thavis explains, Lombardi (whom he describes otherwise as “a gentle soul with a sharp mind”) had overheard the papal secretary remark offhandedly at breakfast that Ratzinger was never an “active” Hitler Youth member. By lunch, the misconstrued comment had become the Holy See’s “latest media fiasco.”

Thavis points to the “fragmented chain of command in what is arguably the world’s most hierarchical organization,” and he relishes the irony. For him, the fumbling and fallibility humanize the institution. But not even the bureau chief was charmed by another episode he recounts that revealed both bungling and deception.

Thavis unfolds the story in a riveting chapter titled “Cat and Mouse,” about negotiations between Rome and the ultra-traditional Society of St. Pius X. Some at the Vatican sympathized with the breakaway order and saw no need to inform top officials that one of four traditionalist bishops whose excommunications were being lifted as part of a reconciliation effort, Richard Williamson, was a Holocaust denier. But most of those who could have averted this particular fiasco—the Williamson affair became one of the biggest religion stories of 2009—were not scheming. They were just snoozing. In the end, the pope admitted publicly that anyone with an Internet connection could have known of the bishop’s bizarre anti-Semitism.

In recent years I haven’t followed Catholic News Service closely, so I’m not sure how much of the book would have been politically incorrect and therefore not publishable in that official news outlet. But I’m guessing Thavis did not often portray Benedict unflatteringly alongside his immediate predecessor, as he does in this memoir.

Here is how the author, with help from Bob Dylan, teases out one contrast at the start of his last chapter, “The Real Benedict”:

The first thing I noticed was the twitching leg. It was dark backstage, but I could make out the slight figure standing at the edge of the platform. He wore a black suit with a white stripe running down the side, and his right leg was jerking up and down involuntarily. It had to be Dylan. And he must be nervous, I thought. Singing for the pope was not an everyday thing.

The performance took place at a Eucharistic congress in Bologna in 1997. Pope John Paul II followed with some reflective riffs on “Blowin’ in the Wind,” evoking the Holy Spirit in motion. Meanwhile, back at the Roman Curia, Cardinal Ratzinger was exuding disapproval, openly disparaging Dylan and other pop icons as “false prophets.” As Thavis writes in another chapter, John Paul traveled to remote lands to be with “tribal dancers in feathered headdresses.” Benedict prefers sitting “in a concert hall filled with dignitaries like himself, listening to Mozart.” John Paul projected a spirit of openness to the wide world. Benedict? Not so much.

Thavis also looks probingly at how the AIDS pandemic has provoked genuine debate within the Vatican about the use of condoms to prevent transmission of the disease. That aside, I was surprised to find little in the book that throws light on global justice issues. During Thavis’s 29 years in Rome, Communism imploded in Eastern Europe, Jesuits and others were massacred in El Salvador, and two popes issued encyclical letters refreshing Catholic social teaching—to mention a few developments. But hardly any of that is recalled in these pages.

Then again, income stratification does not make the most scintillating subject matter for a book subtitled A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities, and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church. And I’m glad Thavis has offered this rare, perceptive and highly readable glimpse into a power structure that is less in control than many would have us believe. …read more

Rosa, We Hardly Knew Ye

Rosa Parks and Jeanne Theoharis, author of the first scholarly biography of the civil rights legend.

Nonviolence as a tool of social change has often been underestimated and misunderstood. The British thought Gandhi was nuts when he predicted they would simply pick up and leave India without the Indians firing a shot. Black militants sneered at Martin Luther King’s program of nonviolent direct action. And many southern whites assumed African Americans were too undisciplined to collectively turn the other cheek. Or they reasoned curiously that King’s approach was actually violent because it provoked violence in response.

During this Black History Month, new questions about nonviolence and the Civil Rights Movement have bubbled up, thanks to an important new book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Beacon Press), by Brooklyn College political scientist Jeanne Theoharis. Her subject is the presumably quiet, unassuming seamstress who refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a white passenger because her feet were tired. But aside from her act of resistance, Parks was not that person, according to Theoharis.

For one thing, Parks often dismissed the fabled narrative about how she remained seated because of her tired feet. “I didn’t move, because I was tired of being pushed around,” she clarified. As Theoharis shows, black radicalism ran deeply in her family, and she came to sympathize with the Black Power movement that challenged King’s ethic of love and nonviolence.

This storied figure of nonviolent struggle always believed in what she called “self protection.” Like most blacks at the time (including King, very early in the movement), Parks and her husband owned guns. But once the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, she knew many whites were wishing it would turn violent. That would give them “an excuse to dramatically crush the protest,” Theoharis relates.

Parks took a both/and approach:

For her, collective power could be found in organized nonviolence, while self-respect, at times, required self-defense: “As far back as I remember, I could never think in terms of accepting physical abuse without some form of retaliation if possible”…. Parks saw nonviolent direct action and self-defense as interlinked, both key to achieving black rights and maintaining black dignity.

Still, she felt that nonviolent resistance during the bus boycott served as a rebuke to white citizens who regarded blacks as too feckless and “emotional” to carry out such a disciplined strategy. “Parks had delighted in the power of it,” her biographer writes.

The ultimate message about nonviolence is mixed, in the book. Both the author’s narrative and Parks’s own words years later (she died in 2005) suggest a historical revision—a sense that nonviolence was, in the end, not so effective. Here’s Parks:

Dr. King was criticized because he tried to bring about change through the nonviolent movement. It didn’t accomplish what it should have because the white establishment would not accept his philosophy of nonviolence and respond to it positively. When the resistance grew, it created a hostility and bitterness among the younger people, who worked with him in the early days, when there was some hope that change could be accomplished through his means.

This sounds just a little odd to me—as though all hope of racial justice and equality was quickly dashed. There certainly was and remains much unfinished work. But in view of the remarkable social change that took place during the King years, you have to wonder: If he wasn’t successful in effecting change, then who was?

From Montgomery to Cairo

In his Times column on the revised Rosa, Charles M. Blow treated her militancy as a stunning revelation. And it might well be, as far as her children’s-book image goes. Echoing Theoharis, he wrote on February 1, “The Rosa Parks in this book is as much Malcolm X as she is Martin Luther King Jr.”

But does this compelling biography demand a larger retelling of the role of nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement? Not really.

What it does is throw light on the distinction between nonviolence as an absolute principle and nonviolence as a useful strategy. As his biographers make clear, King knew that African Americans (and people in general) were far more likely to embrace the tactic than the belief system. In King those two perspectives—the practical and the philosophical—merged. More recently they blended also in the witness of other moral and spiritual figures. These included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who convinced his fellow black South Africans that they and their country had “no future without forgiveness,” and Pope John Paul II, who inspired armless resistance in his native Poland and who spoke of war as an “adventure with no return.”

But it’s fair to say that most who have taken to the streets peacefully—in places ranging from the Philippines to Poland to Egypt—have not been true believers in the gospel of pure nonviolence. They’ve merely delighted “in the power of it.” …read more

Resembling Religion

The secular movement: Here to stay. But what will it become?

In the continuing saga of the seculars in 21st century America, one question keeps occurring to me: Whose particular path might we be following, among the societies that have lessened their attachments to organized religion?

Are we going the gradual way of Western Europe, which began devolving religiously in the late 19th century and secularized slowly? Are we lurching toward Quebec, which went from being one of the more churchy regions of the Western world to one of the most anticlerical, in the space of little more than a decade (roughly the 1960s)? Or are we finding our own way in America, toward a religious future that’s hard to predict but will be exceptional in any case?

Another theoretical possibility is that the rise of the so-called “nones” is a passing fad. By way of his must-read Faith Matters blog, Bill Tammeus brings my attention to a commentary in the current Psychology Today that rejects this scenario. Titled “Why the secular movement is here to stay,” the article by attorney and secular activist David Niose offers several reasons, having to do partly with motive (a deep aversion to the politics of the religious right) and opportunity (secularists everywhere are now able to link up with each other through the Internet). Niose is president of the Secular Coalition for America, an anti-religious-right organization.

In other words, the seculars from this point on shall always be with us. “I think the author is right about that,” Tammeus argues, “but I don’t see any impending collapse of the number of Americans who say they believe in God (still above 90 percent in most polls) or who claim to be adherents of this or that religion.”

The award-winning religion writer continues:

In many ways—most good, some awful—religion is at the core of the American soul. Yes, its influence has waned and/or changed over time and some of that change has been for the better. (Tossing out prayer in public schools led by people whose salaries come from taxpayers is an example of a good change.)

But America is a landslide for religion, and it’s going to take a long, long time to undo that. My guess is that if it ever happens (doubtful) it won’t happen in the next several generations.

That said, it would behoove people of faith to listen to and learn from the secularists and to respect them as a legitimate subgroup of Americans.

I think Tammeus is right when he says Niose is right that the secular movement isn’t going away. And I don’t doubt religion is here to stay as well. But I’m not ready to predict that America will remain an overwhelmingly religious nation, for at least several generations and probably forever. There’s still the question of where we are, on the broad historical map of faith. Are we simply arriving late to the secular party, as England and Quebec did in the 1960s and ‘70s, following France, Holland, etc. Or will the turnout remain relatively small for that new social gathering space in the United States? Will religion keep a clear upper hand?

I don’t know. I don’t even know if those questions will be meaningful a decade from now. Maybe the lines between belief and unbelief, the secular and the religious, will be less stark than they seem today.

It’s possible that the seculars will eventually find a fairly ordinary place in the grand and vital scheme of (if you will) faith life in America. They’ll have their own communities, perhaps even denominations of sorts with differing perspectives on truth, ultimate reality, and the good life. They’ll have their own rituals. They’ll attend interfaith potluck suppers with the Hindus or Methodists down the street. They’ll come to resemble, not resent, religion.

Now that would be exceptional. …read more

The God Who Could Not

Last week, NPR’s Morning Edition presented a thoughtful, in-depth series titled “Losing Our Religion.” Reporters tracked down an interesting array of people who had turned away from organized religion, though not necessarily from spirituality and prayer. I was struck by how many of them had lost faith as a result of a personal tragedy, especially the death of a loved one. I was even more struck by an assumption they seemed to share with the most fervent religious believers.

The assumption is that any deity worth its salt must be omnipotent. God (if there is one) must be able to stop a deranged gunman from storming an elementary school in Connecticut, or catch a falling tree just in time to spare the lives of a young couple walking their dog in Brooklyn at the onset of Hurricane Sandy. But what happens if God could not?

One person who has agonized over this is Rabbi Irving Greenberg, former chair of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. He has peered at the question continually through the horrific lens of the Shoah. “In the presence of burning children, how could one talk of a loving God? I once wrote that no theological statement should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children,” Greenberg said of its victims, in an interview adapted in The Life of Meaning, by Bob Abernethy (and me).

Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Greenberg recalled that as a young Orthodox rabbi, at times he could barely speak the words of the prayers recited daily by observant Jews. “It would be almost a mockery of the children to speak of the God who—as we do in our central prayer—redeems the children and saves them for the sake of his great name,” he explained. “How could you say that in a generation where there was no liberation?”

Between Belief and Unbelief

Greenberg’s message to those interviewed by NPR would be, to start with: I hear you. “Even for the most devout people, there are moments when the ashes of the smoke of Auschwitz choke off any contact with God or heaven. Therefore, I came to see that the line between the believer and the doubter is much thinner than I once thought,” he said (in what was originally an on-air interview conducted by Susan Grandis Goldstein for Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly).

But he has kept his faith, partly with a fresh appraisal of covenant. In his interpretation of that biblical concept, God enters into a partnership with humans—and “self-limits,” as Greenberg puts it. God surrenders power, so that his/her Creation would have it.

Elie Wiesel … once suggested that the messiah, the all-powerful, deus ex machina God who saves us against our own will and ability—if that kind of messiah would come again now, it would be an outrage. It’s too late for such a messiah to come. It would have been a moral monster that could have come to save those children or to save those people and didn’t come.

But a God who wanted to intervene, and could not—that’s different, says Greenberg.

In a sense, to me, that’s the starkest, ultimate outcome. The fairy tale, the God of the white beard in heaven, all’s well with the world, the one who does it all for us, I think, is no longer credible, no longer possible. But a mature understanding of God who loves us in our freedom, who has called us to responsibility, who is with us at every moment—I think such a God is, if anything, more present and more close, and maybe, having suffered together and having shared our pain infinitely, is more beloved and maybe more inspiring to follow.

I don’t dismiss the perpetual question: If there’s an all-powerful God, how can such terrible things happen to the most innocent people? I just think the “if” could use some careful attention. …read more

Even Less Moral

Niebuhr on Time’s cover, March 8, 1948

In December 1932, a 40-year-old theology professor who had recently left his Michigan pastorate drew nationwide attention with his book, Moral Man and Immoral Society. Two sentences into the introduction, the author, Reinhold Niebuhr, was already walking back the title, saying the distinction it suggested was too unqualified. Reflecting on his classic work of social ethics three decades later, Niebuhr wrote that a better encapsulation of his thesis would have been, “Not So Moral Man and Even Less Moral Society.” By then he had become one of the principal definers of 20th century American liberalism.

The notion behind the title was that while individuals might be able to muster sympathy “for their kind,” human groups and societies have little such capacity for self-transcendence. It might have been the least emphatic argument of this unsettlingly unsentimental book, which can be as startling today as it was 80 years ago, in the throes of the Great Depression.

Niebuhr wrote Moral Man in a time arguably not unlike our own, when both economic and political power had concentrated in fewer hands. The wealthiest Americans had succeeded in making government “more pliant to their needs,” he argued. But the professor at New York’s Union Theological Seminary did not unleash his brash analytical power on plutocrats alone. He aimed squarely at his fellow liberals, who believed in the efficacy of moral suasion and rational argument, and who imagined that “men of power will immediately check their exactions and pretensions in society, as soon as they have been apprised by the social scientists that their actions and attitudes are anti-social.” Niebuhr’s intent was to disabuse them of these illusions.

One essay in this volume that seems to especially evoke our situation today is titled, “The Ethical Attitudes of the Privileged Classes.”

The attitudes have largely to do with economic inequalities. The chapter starts with a bow to the truism that such gaps are inevitable and stem partly from different levels of talent and skill. Niebuhr’s clear-eyed view of human nature and destiny could hardly make him suppose that inequality, along with a fair bit of misery, is unnatural. But he quickly adds that personal attributes never explain extraordinary degrees of wealth inequality. These are due chiefly to “disproportions of power,” he says, alluding in part to money’s grip on politics.

For Niebuhr, the task of plutocracy or government by the wealthy is to justify this power and privilege. Plutocrats do so by identifying their special interests with the general good. “Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold,” he observes.

Such thinking requires a certain amount of self-deception, according to Niebuhr. But he says it also involves hypocrisy—in that the privileged often salute one thing (the good of all) and engineer something else (narrow self-interests). He continues:

The most common form of hypocrisy among the privileged classes is to assume that their privileges are the just payments with which society rewards specially useful or meritorious functions. As long as society regards special rewards for important services as ethically just and socially necessary … it is always possible for social privilege to justify itself, at least in its own eyes, in terms of social function, which it renders. If the argument is to be plausible … it must be proved or assumed that the underprivileged classes would not have the capacity for rendering the same service if given the same opportunity. This assumption is invariably made by privileged classes.

As Niebuhr further limns this mind, he points to its understanding that the masses of people are economically unfit not simply because of their lesser intellects or purported lack of opportunity. They are also seen as succumbing to character flaws, namely their inclination toward what the Puritans (his spiritual ancestors in the Calvinist fold) styled as “laziness and improvidence.”

Plutocracy Revisited

Niebuhr’s analysis echoes in current debates. For instance, Chrystia Freeland, author of Plutocrats, notes a tendency among the super rich to “confuse their own self-interests with the common good.” Niebuhr’s plutocrat, though at times a cardboard figure, finds voice in billionaire activists such as Leon Cooperman (quoted in Freeland’s book), who wrote a open letter a year ago to President Obama, enumerating services rendered by his class: “As a group we employ many millions of taxpaying people … fill store shelves at Christmas … and keep the wheels of commerce and progress … moving.”

The “special rewards” today might include Wall Street bailouts, preferential tax rates for capital gains, and the carried-interest loophole that withers tax bills for hedge fund managers like Cooperman. “Specious proofs” abound with the notion, for example, that half of all Americans will never “take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” as Mitt Romney declared in his famous behind-closed-doors remarks about the 47 percent.

Yet few commentators would match Niebuhr’s unrelievedly unsentimental view.

Most decent people would hope to see different parties and factions engage in good-faith dialogue about the common good. Niebuhr would say: Don’t count on it. Because he saw reason as largely subservient to self-interests, he felt that relations between groups must always be “predominantly political rather than ethical,” meaning that those who favor greater equality should rely on sheer power and political mobilization, not just cogent arguments and appeals to conscience. The clear message: Expect little from conversations with plutocrats.

Among the many who found little uplift in Niebuhr’s critique was Niebuhr himself. “All this is rather tragic,” he said at the end of the book. He was speaking of unpalatable means toward the goal of greater equality, such as appealing to raw emotion and even resentment.

At times it’s hard to tell if Niebuhr is endorsing such behavior or trying to whip up an air of crisis. He certainly preferred loftier means such as civil discourse—provided they were effective. But a word he used favorably in this context is “coercion,” directed at the powerful, by the people through their government; he also saw an eternal need for power blocs such as labor unions and the pressures they apply. This would be “class warfare” by today’s squeamish standards.

Niebuhr Now

Moral Man and Immoral Society was Niebuhr’s first major work. At the time, many readers and reviewers (including his fellow liberal Protestant clergy) were understandably alarmed by what they saw as his cynicism, and Niebuhr’s response was characteristically defiant. Gradually, however, he gave a little more due to the possibilities of grace and goodness in political life. He also turned a scornful eye to self-righteousness on the left as well as right.

At the same time, Niebuhr applied his thoughts about the “brutal character of all human collectives” to an increasingly dangerous world. He inspired many a liberal Cold Warrior—and a latter-day adherent, Barack Obama, who calls Niebuhr his favorite philosopher. In recent decades the Niebuhr brigades have arguably been filled with neoconservatives more than liberals, animated by their interpretation of Niebuhrian realism, the idea that the search for perfect justice is dangerously utopian.

Still, Niebuhr was always a creature of the left. He cofounded the liberal Americans for Democratic Action in 1947 and opposed the Vietnam War, which was still raging when he died in 1971. And he remained a sober prognosticator of the human condition. He often said that the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine was Original Sin, which he found more steadily reliable than any belief in human perfectibility.

With his acute sense of tragedy and paradox, Niebuhr would not put full faith in grand designs of economic justice (if those existed today). But he would also doubt there could be even proximate justice, apart from a confrontation with privilege and an unabashed plying of worldly power. …read more

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