Maybe I missed it, but in the two months since the September terrorist attacks, no Christian or Jewish leader has adequately defined for me the critical issues we face as a nation.
Indeed, religious leaders, when they do speak out, are divided into two opposing camps. One group wraps itself in robust nationalism and is committed to the military campaign under way in Afghanistan but offers no philosophical grounding. The other group, smaller in number but highly vocal, rejects military force on moral grounds and cites various U.S. policies and actions as a root cause of the Sept. 11 assaults. Neither position is sufficient or satisfying.
To overcome my perplexity, I turned to one of America's foremost philosophers and theologians, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). For many years, the Missouri-born Niebuhr was a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He is the author of many classic works, including Moral Man and Immoral Society, and was the founding editor of the publication Christianity and Crisis.
Writing in February 1941, just 10 months before America entered World War II, Niebuhr sharply criticized the "school of Christian thought that believes war can be eliminated if only Christians and other men of good will refused resolutely enough to have anything to do with conflict. Another school of thought, while conceding that war is one of the most vivid revelations of sin in human history, does not find the disavowal of war so simple a matter."
Niebuhr placed himself in the second group although, of course, he was no war lover. However, he understood that "there are historic situations in which refusal to defend the inheritance of a civilization, however imperfect, against tyranny and aggression may result in consequences even worse than war. . . . But (religious perfectionists) are wrong in assuming that we have no right or duty to defend a civilization, despite its imperfections, against worse alternatives."
Niebuhr's eloquent phrase "to defend the inheritance of a civilization" is precisely what some religious leaders seem unable or unwilling to do today. Frequently, they espouse a mindless and unexamined religious correctness that blanches out the spiritual distinctiveness and diverse histories of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. To say all three faiths are "for peace" is shallow rhetoric and means little unless each religion is vigorously examined by both its followers and those who are outside that faith.
Niebuhr was a "Christian realist" and unlike some of today's religious thinkers, he recognized "the element of sin in all human endeavors. . . . The biblical answer to the problem of evil in human history is a radical answer, precisely because human evil is recognized as a much more stubborn fact than is realized." People who refuse to directly confront evil "have obscured what the Bible has to say about the relation of justice to mercy in the very heart of God."
He knew that we all feel a "sense of unworthiness" when we must "act as an instrument of God's justice." Niebuhr warns that carrying out justice and defending our civilization's values are solemn and often deadly exercises that allow us no exalted perch of purity, "of guiltlessness from which to proceed against evildoers. There is no such vantage point."
Niebuhr had harsh words for his fellow Christians who believed in simply offering "love" to those who seek to destroy our values: "Love must be regarded as the final flower and fruit of justice. When it is substituted for justice it degenerates into sentimentality and may become an accomplice of tyranny." He rejected the idea that if we were only "more loving . . . the problems of war . . . would solve themselves."
Nor was Niebuhr paralyzed in his actions because of America's many societal flaws: "The task of defending . . . our civilization is imperative, however much we might desire that our social system were more worthy of defense. . . . If this external peril is not resolutely faced . . . the possibility of correcting its faults . . . may be annulled for centuries."
Niebuhr was an outspoken foe of all forms of anti-Semitism and again, unlike many of his contemporaries, he correctly saw what was at stake in the inevitable clash with Nazism: "We think it dangerous to allow religious sensitivity to obscure the fact that Nazi tyranny intends to annihilate the Jewish (people) . . . to make truth the prostitute of political power . . . and to destroy the very fabric of our Western civilization."
It is bracing to read Reinhold Niebuhr, especially at a time of international crisis. Six decades later, his powerful prophetic words cut through today's fog of lies, self-deception, failure of nerve and wishful thinking.
_ Rabbi Rudin is the senior interreligious adviser of the American Jewish Committee.