One way to assess a particular political theology involves attending to its case for human political responsibility, on the one hand, and its claims for critical independence, on the other. Inquiry into the first establishes why and how it is that human creatures ought to be concerned with political communities, and how that concern may be embodied in fitting political activities. Yet if the concern and the actions are, as features of our responsibility for political society, finally responsible to God, then political theology should acknowledge and make provision for its independence from specific political arrangements or ideals. Otherwise there is a danger that our concerns and activities on behalf of political society issue from a final responsibility to it, or to some idealized other, and not to its and our sovereign Lord (H. R. Niebuhr 1946: 123-5).
It is a matter, then, of free political responsibility. Karl Barth's reflections on politics, for example, sought to affirm Christian freedom for the "civil community" insofar as it is aligned with the divine summons to establish bonds of "fellow humanity" in human relations. This freedom for political life is misconstrued if it does not presuppose freedom in independence from any political ideology untested by the one Word of God in Jesus Christ. There is no political correlation between Christian faith and cultural and political perspectives exposed by "natural theology"; and the church "trusts and obeys no political system or reality but the power of the Word by which God upholds all things, including all political things" (Barth 1968: 161).
It seems that Reinhold Niebuhr's political ethics can match Barth's in setting a basis for free political responsibility. Niebuhr stood against forms of perfectionist idealism that either flee the conflicts of history in which work for justice takes place, or speak irrelevantly or dangerously to those conflicts. One must acknowledge the fragmentary, partial, and inevitably self-interested perspectives that characterize all political action. While these perspectives in competition foreclose any perfect realization of harmony among and between peoples, however, it is a fact that the norm of human existence is the law of love, which may still find indirect and imperfect expression in history through regulative principles prescribing social equality, liberty, and the like. A realistic political agency ought never to absorb the norm into the principles, since the former always exists in critical tension with embodiments of them, and because no limits approximating the goal of frictionless harmony can be set in advance. Just as the critical impossibility of the ideal of perfect, mutual self-giving in community protects against irresponsible sentimentality, so its critical relevance to every achievement for justice guards against an irresponsible social despair (R. Niebuhr 1979: 64).
There are dissenting voices. Stanley Hauerwas (2001a: 60-1) argues that Reinhold Niebuhr's ethics takes the subject of Christian ethics to be America, and not prophetic Christian faith, let alone the church in which it is formed. Hence "he never questioned the assumption that democracy was the most appropriate form of society and government for Christians" (p. 466). Hans Frei offers another, not unrelated worry in his comparison of the brothers Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr. For all of Reinhold's stress on the limits of human rationality and moral sensibility, Frei wonders whether his theological ethics remained adequately contained or contextualized, and therefore limited, on two fronts.
There is, first, the contrast between the brothers' ideas about political agency and human freedom. Reinhold finally maintained a "modern view of human freedom, where even the knowledge of ourselves as limited and not disinterested is simply a function of our originating exercise of agential freedom." This "uninterrupted moral and self-starting initiative on the part of individual persons and especially of human collectivities" may well be the "very opposite" of H. Richard's attempt to build an ethics "dependent on active, divine governance in history," in which our "independence" is "contingent" and our critical freedom is responsive to what God is doing in the world. The upshot for Frei is that Rein-hold's ethics more precariously pitches or swerves to an absence of moral restraint (and self-restraint) in political agency. It may become less qualified, less limited, and less dependent on other agencies acting upon us (as God acts upon us in and with and through all such agencies along with one's own). Hence it may become more one-sided as an expression of a particular or settled political stance (Frei 1993: 231).
On the second front, Frei says that for H. Richard Niebuhr the chief created agencies under God's governance are not simply the political collectivities of nations and empires . . . divine action is located in the uneasy, at first sign almost ludicrously ill-balanced "polarity" . . . between the nation, or other associated social collectivities, and the church. [His] "radical monotheism" insisted on this polarity because the universality of one sort of group is always henotheis-tic (we might as well say idolatrous), including, of course, the church. (1993: 231)
The polarity, which is not clearly developed in Reinhold's thought, affords greater protection against idolatry and defensiveness in political life. Both, needless to say, threaten critical independence before God.
Following an exposition of Niebuhr's political ethics in parts II and III of this essay, I consider these criticisms in the final section and propose that, while Niebuhr possesses an array of resources to answer and rebut them, they remain relevant and valid. His case for Christian political responsibility as it stands tends to undermine claims for critical independence. I suggest in conclusion that such claims in political theology require more careful attention to the significance of, first, the practices of the Christian community; second, the lordship of God in history; and third, our discernment of that lordship in its continuing summons to repentance and conversion.
Was this article helpful?
Download this Guide and Discover How To Find And Monetize on Your Expertise And Strengths. Inside this special report, you'll discover: How positive thinking is one of the key factors in a successful life. Five ways and tools to help you stay positive. Use these to help you keep on track. Case studies that'll inspire you to stick to your dreams. Plus much, much more.