It's a better fit than Anabaptist theology.
Liberation theology could be an option, but I'm unclear what liberationist praxis looks like within liberal democracies. We could here describe a revolutionary rather than a democratic praxis, at which point we might introduce a split between radical and progressive Christians, the former agitating for revolutionary change and the latter advocating for energetic and forceful participation in democracy. I suspect that most liberal Christians would be progressive rather than radical.
Which brings us back to Niebuhr.
Despite my suggestions, let me confess that I think many progressive Christians, if they investigate Niebuhr, perhaps prompted by these posts, will balk at embracing Christian realism.
The sticking point will be the issue of war.
Again, in the story I told in yesterday's post, many progressive Christians gravitated to and welded Anabaptist theology, with great effect, to level criticisms at the Bush administration during the Iraq war. This, coupled with other anti-war impulses on the political left, caused many progressive Christians to strongly identify with pacifism. This is a location where progressive Christianity and Anabaptist thought are comfortable with each other.
And it's precisely here where progressive Christianity and Niebuhr's Christian realism might be uncomfortable with each other.
Because evil exists in the world Christian realism admits that war is a tragic choice we sometimes have to make. War is never good, it's always the lesser of two evils. But sometimes that's the tragic choice you have to make.
An example of progressive Christian discomfort with Christian realism was seen in the disillusionment many progressives felt with how Obama conducted the war on terror, drone strikes in particular.
Again, Obama is Niebuhrian. Evil exists and nations sometimes have to use force to combat evil. The influence of Niebuhr on Obama was on full display in his Oslo speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. The speech was largely an apology for the use of force to fight evil. And yet, the apology is tinged with Niebuhrian pessimism: war is always tragic and largely ineffective, still, it's the lesser of two evils.
If you're a progressive Christian, read Obama's Oslo speech. I think it will be diagnostic.
If you accept the speech, even if regretfully, then you're Niebuhrian.
But many of us, I'm guessing, will struggle with parts of the speech. Like this part:
I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war. What I do know is that meeting these challenges will require the same vision, hard work, and persistence of those men and women who acted so boldly decades ago. And it will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace.Classic Niebuhr. Realistic. Pessimistic. War is a tragic and ineffective necessity.
We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.
I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak – nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
The Anabaptist strain among progressive Christians, well-honed from the Bush years, will balk at Obama's position. Personally, I'm torn. Torn between my idealism and my realism. Between my inner MLK and my inner Obama. Between the cross and my weakness.
Which brings us back to the paradoxes of progressive Christian theology, the questions that kicked off all these posts.
What is progressive Christian political theology, and is it coherent?
Many of us want to be Anabaptist, but not really.
Many of us want to be liberationists, but not really.
And many of us want to be Niebuhrian.
But not really.