The only way into the kingdom of God

An exchange between brothers on military intervention in the Sino-Japanese conflict of the early thirties; non-involvement vs. involvement, as debated by two famous brothers, both at that time professors of Christian ethics. H. Richard Niebuhr at Yale Theological Seminary and Reinhold Niebuhr at Union College Theological Seminary.

Editor: The Christian Century

Sir: Since you have given me leave to fire one more shot in the fraternal war between my brother and me over the question of pacifism, I shall attempt to place it as well as I can, not for the purpose of demolishing my opponent’s position- which our thirty years have shown me to be impossible—but for the sake of pointing as accurately as I can to the exact locus of the issue between us. It does not lie in the question of activity or inactivity, to which my too journalistic approach to the problem directed attention; we are speaking after all of two kinds of activity. The fundamental question seems to me to be whether “the history of mankind is a perennial tragedy” which can derive meaning only from a goal which lies beyond history, as my brother maintains, or whether the “eschatological” faith, to which I seek to adhere, is justifiable. In that faith tragedy is only the prelude to fulfillment, and a prelude which is necessary because of human nature; the kingdom of God comes inevitably, though whether we shall see it or not, depends on our recognition of its presence and our acceptance of the only kind of life which will enable us to enter it, the life of repentance and forgiveness.

For my brother, God is outside the historical processes, so much so that he charges me with faith in a miracle working deity which interferes occasionally, sometimes brutally, some times redemptively in this history. But God, I believe, is always in history; he is the structure in things, the source of all meaning the “am that I am,” that which is that it is. He is the rock against which we beat in vain, that which bruises and overwhelms us when we seek to impose our wishes, contrary to his, upon him. That structure of the universe, that creative will, can no more be said to interfere brutally in history than the violated laws of my organism can be said to interfere brutally with my life if they make me pay the cost of my violation. That structure of the universe, that will of God, does bring war and depression upon us when we bring it upon ourselves, for we live in the kind of world which visits our inequities upon us and our children, no matter how much we pray and desire that it be otherwise.

Self-interest acts destructively in this world; it calls forth counter-assistance, nationalism breeds nationalism, class assertion summons up counter-assertion on the part of exploited classes. The result is war, economic, military, verbal; and it is judgment. But this same structure in things which is our enemy is our redeemer; “it means intensely and it means good” not the good which we desire, but the good which we would desire if we were good and really wise. History is not a perennial tragedy but a road to fulfillment and that fulfillment requires the tragic outcome of every self-assertion, for it is fulfillment which can only be designed as “love.” It has created fellowship in atoms and organism, at bitter cost to electrons and cells; and it is creating something better than human selfhood but at bitter cost to that selfhood. This is not a faith in progress, for evil grows as well as good, and every self-assertion must be eliminated somewhere and somehow —by innocence suffering for guilt, it seems.

If, however, history is no more than tragedy, if there is no fulfillment in it, then my brother is right. Then we must rest content, with the clash of self-interested individuals, personal or social. But in that case, I see no reason why we should qualify the clash of competition with a homeopathic dose of Christian “love.”

The only harmony which can possibly result from the clash of interests is the harmony imposed by the rule of the strong or a parallelogram of social forces, whether we think of the interclass structure or the international world. To import any pacifism into this struggle is only to weaken the weaker self-assertions (India, China or the proletariat) or to provide the strong with a fa?de of “service” behind which they can operate with a salved conscience. (Pacifism, on the other hand, as a method of self-assertion is not pacifism at all but a different kind of war.)

The method which my brother recommends, that of qualifying the social struggle by means of some Christian love, seems to me to be only the old method of making Christian love an ambulance drive in the wars of interested and clashing parties. If it is more than that, it is a weakening of the forces whose success we thing necessary for a juster social order. For me the question is one of “either-or”; either the Christian method, which is not the method of love but of repentance and forgiveness, or the method of self-assertion; either nationalism or Christianity, either capitalism-communism or Christianity. The attempt to qualify the one method by the other is hopeless compromise.

I think that to apply the terms “Christian perfectionism” or “Christian ideal” to my approach is rather misleading. I rather think that Dewey is quite right in his war on ideals; they always seem irrelevant to our situation and betray us into a dualistic morality. The society of love is an impossible human ideal, as the fellowship of the organism is an impossible ideal for the cell. It is not and ideal toward which we can strive, but an “emergent,” a potentiality in our situation which remains unrealized so long as we try to impose our pattern, our wishes upon the divine creative process.

Man’s task is not that of building utopias, but that of eliminating weeds and tilling the soil so that the kingdom of God can grow. His method is not one of striving for perfection or of acting perfectly, but of clearing the road by repentance and forgiveness. That this approach is valid for societies as well as for individuals and that the opposite approach will always involve us in the same one ceaseless cycle of assertion and counter-assertion is what I am concerned to emphasize.