Dispatches from another America

04 Dec

Original version quoted at the head of Elisabeth Sifton’s book:

God give us grace
to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
courage to change the things
that should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

I am currently one of perhaps two people in Australia reading Elizabeth Sifton, THE SERENITY PRAYER: FAITH AND POLITICS IN TIMES OF PEACE AND WAR (Norton, 2003), a memoir of her father Reinhold Niebuhr and a meditation on the meaning of his famous prayer.


So repeated that it has become part of the wallpaper, a cliche, but as Sifton shows it is in fact a very challenging and, in its context, a very political prayer. From “Living one day at a time…” onwards is an addition, “certainly not by Niebuhr.” See Serenity Prayer in Wikipedia — which still manages to get the original version wrong. The different modals, especially “should” rather than “can”, really are quite significant. So is the fact the original is in the inclusive first person plural, while the common version is first person singular — communal versus individualistic.

In her PBS interview, linked above, Sifton says:

The prayer has become so famous because of its association with Alcoholics Anonymous as a personal prayer, spoken in the first person singular. That’s a wonderful way to use the prayer, a fine way, but I felt it was important to remember that it was written originally in the first person plural at the height of the Second World War. In the summer of 1943, when it was written, it was not at all sure that the Allies would win the war. It had been going on for years. It had gone on for two full years before the United States even joined in the war — a cause that my father was deeply involved in and cared about. It wasn’t clear how long it would take to win the war. I felt that a person such as the author of this prayer, an active clergyman and teacher and pastor and writer who had been working on issues of social justice and collective concerns about the community, could not but have these thoughts in mind when writing such a prayer. It would be inconceivable for a clergyman not to think of these things when composing such words in 1943. There was terrible pain and loss and grief that we all sustained in our private lives, but surely we as a community, as a city, as a village like the village my father wrote the prayer for, or as a country were suffering unimaginable grief and loss in 1943. Some of it was very hard to accept. There were conditions, not only the wartime conditions but conditions in our own country of social injustice and economic disparities, of difficult racial problems, all of which had concerned my father for many decades. It is inconceivable to me that he wouldn’t have had these in mind as well, as he wrote a prayer like this. The question of when to decide what to do, trying to have the wisdom to decide whether to try to change something or to accept it, was something that had been occupying everybody throughout the 1930s and 1940s. When do we decide to get involved in this war, for example, was a subject that had taken the United States two full years to answer. So it seemed to me that it was germane.

This is very much the situation today. It’s not similar; it’s comparable. We have comparable difficulties — not the same difficulties, but our difficulties today are to figure out this strange world, which is neither peace nor war. The United States sustained a terrific attack on 9/11, which was not like a war. It was a crime, of course, a terrible crime. But it felt also a bit like a war. We have been asked to respond to it as if it were a war, but there is no clear indication of exactly who is the enemy, or where he or she is to be found. And we are asked to respond to this situation in new ways. We are being asked to change, in some ways. On the other hand, we are being asked to accept things and not change them. It seems to me the question of what we’re going to accept — we as a collective, we Americans, or we New Yorkers, or we people of Massachusetts, or whatever it may be — what we are being asked to change or to accept should be asked anew every single day, just the way Alcoholics Anonymous people ask it anew every single day individually.

See Reinhold Niebuhr is Unseen Force in 2008 Elections by Benedicta Cipolla (PEW Forum September 27, 2007).

Thirty-six years after his death, Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr seems more alive than ever. Perhaps not since President Jimmy Carter acknowledged Niebuhr’s influence in his 1976 campaign has the name been on so many people’s lips.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama told New York Times columnist David Brooks that Niebuhr is “one of my favorite philosophers.” Brooks himself quotes Niebuhr consistently, describing him as a thinker we could use today “to police our excesses” in foreign policy…

Niebuhr is widely regarded as one of the most significant Christian intellectuals of the 20th century. Born in 1892 in Missouri to German parents, Niebuhr was ordained in the German Evangelical Church (later part of the United Church of Christ) and taught for more than three decades at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He was a founder of the liberal anticommunist lobbying group Americans for Democratic Action, and in 1948, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Over the years, Niebuhr won the admiration of political figures on the left and the right, including the late historian and Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, who served as Ronald Reagan’s U.N. ambassador.

Niebuhr’s unrelenting gaze inward — at a United States he refused to herald as the world’s unquestioned savior — runs counter to the renewed sense of American exceptionalism that followed the 9/11 attacks.

Niebuhr’s Christian realism — his recognition of the persistence of sin, self-interest, and self-righteousness in social conflicts — highlights the distinction between the acknowledgment of evil’s existence and America’s own involvement in that evil.

“As Niebuhr famously said, we always use evil to prevent greater evil,” said Peter Beinart, who advocated a Niebuhr-inflected American humility in his recent book “The Good Fight: Why Liberals — and Only Liberals — Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again.” “The recognition that America is capable of evil has been brought home to a new generation, in things like Abu Ghraib, in the most topical way since Vietnam.”

As the 2008 election heats up, Obama has emerged as perhaps the most visibly Niebuhrian candidate. At a June forum on faith for Democratic candidates, he spoke of the peril inherent in seeing America’s actions as always virtuous and in drawing battle lines too neatly between good and evil…

University of Virginia religious studies professor Charles Mathewes suggests Niebuhr “is the best theologian to think about things if you want to think about sin without being cynical.” Mathewes said he sees in Obama “the complexity of the Niebuhrian outlook,” but he also believes Hillary Clinton possesses “theological depth I think people don’t pick up on.”…

Future global threats, Mathewes said, are going to require collaboration across religions, national boundaries, and ideologies, and the U.S. response will need to be “infused with moral urgency, but also moral humility.”

The 21st century, he predicts, will be a Niebuhrian century. If the current political moment is any gauge, he just may be right.

See also Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr (2005) by Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

THE recent outburst of popular religiosity in the United States is a most dramatic and unforeseen development in American life. As Europe grows more secular, America grows more devout. George W. Bush is the most aggressively religious president Americans have ever had. American conservatives applaud his “faith-based” presidency, an office heretofore regarded as secular. The religious right has become a potent force in national politics. Evangelicals now outnumber mainline Protestants and crowd megachurches. Billy Graham attracts supplicants by the thousand in Sodom and Gomorrah, a k a New York City. The Supreme Court broods over the placement of the Ten Commandments. Evangelicals take over the Air Force Academy, a government institution maintained by taxpayers’ dollars; the academy’s former superintendent says it will be six years before religious tolerance is restored. Mel Gibson’s movie “Passion of the Christ” draws nearly $400 million at the domestic box office.

In the midst of this religious commotion, the name of the most influential American theologian of the 20th century rarely appears – Reinhold Niebuhr. It may be that most “people of faith” belong to the religious right, and Niebuhr was on secular issues a determined liberal. But left evangelicals as well as their conservative brethren hardly ever invoke his name. Jim Wallis’s best-selling “God’s Politics,” for example, is a liberal tract, but the author mentions Niebuhr only twice, and only in passing…

Why, in an age of religiosity, has Niebuhr, the supreme American theologian of the 20th century, dropped out of 21st-century religious discourse? Maybe issues have taken more urgent forms since Niebuhr’s death – terrorism, torture, abortion, same-sex marriage, Genesis versus Darwin, embryonic stem-cell research. But maybe Niebuhr has fallen out of fashion because 9/11 has revived the myth of our national innocence. Lamentations about “the end of innocence” became favorite clichés at the time.

Niebuhr was a critic of national innocence, which he regarded as a delusion…

There is more to America and more to American religion than many of us realise.

Just now in The Serenity Prayer I have been reading Sifton’s account of Myles Horton. To quote Wikipedia:

A poor white from Savannah in West Tennessee, Horton’s social and political views were strongly influenced by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, under whom he studied at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Along with educator Don West and Methodist minister James A. Dombrowski of New Orleans, Horton founded the Highlander Folk School (now Highlander Research and Education Center) in his native Tennessee in 1932. He remained its director until 1973, traveling with it to reorganize in Knoxville after the state shut it down in 1961.

Horton and West had both traveled to Denmark to study its folk schools, centers for adult education and community empowerment. The resulting school in Monteagle, Tennessee was based on a concept originating in Denmark: “that an oppressed people collectively hold strategies for liberation that are lost to its individuals . . . The Highlander School had been a haven for the South’s handful of functional radicals during the thirties and the essential alma mater for the leaders of the CIO’s fledgling southern organizing drives.” (McWhorter) The school was created to educate and empower adults for social change.

Laura Dungan, Executive Director of Sunflower Community Action shares a story of one of her heroes, Myles Horton, on this YouTube, where she does use the F-word once, I should warn you:


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Posted by on December 4, 2007 in Best read of 2007, Christianity, current affairs, faith and philosophy, humanity, politics, reading, religion, USA


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