The Common Good
May 2004

A Prayer for Uncertain Times

by Shaun Casey | May 2004

Several times during the tumultuous events leading up to the Iraq war,

Several times during the tumultuous events leading up to the Iraq war, I heard or read the lament, "Where is the Reinhold Niebuhr of our age who can provide wisdom for these insane times?" Thirty years after his death, this Christian social ethicist still has a certain hold on the imagination. The Serenity Prayer, his daughter’s powerful account of his life, goes a long way to explaining his influence.

While today there is no apparent single heir to the theological mantle of Reinhold Niebuhr, Elisabeth Sifton has written a gem of a book that manages to move seamlessly between the days of war in the middle of the 20th century and our own time of violence. Her vehicle is an extended reflection on the context in which her father wrote the famous Serenity Prayer. She paints a rich tapestry of life in an intellectual orbit that ran from Union Theological Seminary on New York City’s Upper West Side to a small northwestern Massachusetts village named Heath.

As Sifton deftly shows, the initial force of the prayer differed significantly from the version so popular in today’s 12-step self-help culture. The original prayer was written by Niebuhr in the summer of 1943 for a church service in Heath; it went like this: "God, grant 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."

In popular culture, the prayer sometimes loses its emphasis on God’s grace to accept what cannot be changed as well as the call to discern what should be changed. Niebuhr knew of and accepted the changes, Sifton writes, but he also knew that this reworking domesticates its force and moves the prayer out of its original historic context.

Niebuhr’s own work was all about the pursuit of wisdom in discerning what should be changed and the pursuit of Godly grace and courage in the midst of change. One of the most important reminders The Serenity Prayer provides us today is the link between worship and work, prayer and ethics, and preaching and politics. In Niebuhr’s world none of these are easily separated. It may be that much of current Christian ineffectiveness in the world is due to the divorce of ethics from the piety of particular gathered communities of worshiping Christians. Niebuhr is often known for his travel and embracing of disparate causes. But here we see his connectedness and grounding in very specific communities.

One of the book’s most helpful aspects is how Sifton plumbs the differences in attitudes and inclinations toward worship between her parents. Her father’s more extemporaneous preaching and prayer style contrasted sharply with his wife’s Anglican temperament. It is in moving between these two theological and stylistic poles that we get a glimpse of some of the richness of Niebuhr’s piety. As worship wars afflict so many sectors of American Christianity today, it is good to be reminded that an eclectic approach to worship style can be a good thing.

Sifton offers a range of personal glimpses into a dazzling gallery of figures from the 20th century. From great theologians such as Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to public luminaries such as Felix Frankfurter, Myles Horton, Hubert Humphrey, and Will Scarlett, Sifton reminds us what an incredible circle of partners Niebuhr had. What theologian today maintains such a sphere of influence and assembly of conversation partners? As Christian theology has withdrawn and exiled itself into our country’s margins, it is hardly conceivable that theologians today should have such rich company. We do not often get competent portraits of great theologians in personal terms. This book helps fill many gaps in our understanding of who Niebuhr was.

SO WHAT IS his legacy in our dark hours? One of the dangers of a dialectical thinker such as Niebuhr is that his intellectual children may follow one of the different paths of the "two readings" while mistakenly claiming the whole legacy. There are neo-conservative heirs of Niebuhr today who argue that his legacy is that he taught Christians that they could approve the use of force and power to oppose injustice. On the other hand, there are those who take Niebuhr’s critique of all uses of power as masking some form of self-righteousness and self-delusion to mean that all uses of political force are morally corrupt. Sifton argues rightly that Niebuhr would call for a pox on both houses. He would critique both those who currently argue for a new American imperialism in the form of a doctrine of "preventive war" and those who naively believe that the war on terrorism is all just a great misunderstanding.

Sifton’s portrait of the messiness of the events leading up to World War II as well as the struggles in the post-war era remind us that wars never end cleanly, and they always start in darkness. Our war on terrorism will surely not end cleanly either. Whatever the short run holds for our globe, the long run remains cloudy and no one should naively embrace the notion that we will rid the world of evil by the barrel of a gun. By one estimate, war killed 160 million people in the 20th century. The 21st century may be worse.

Nostalgia is a dangerous and very un-Niebuhrian disposition. Despite the strong temptation to lapse into hagiography, Sifton doesn’t suggest her father would have had all the answers to our troubling age. Rather, she sheds light on our day, indirectly, in this fascinating and rewarding read of her father’s life. No parent could ask more of a child.

Shaun Casey is assistant professor of ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

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