Must we still do nothing?

Christians are called to engage with politics in a way that keeps our nation from abusing its power.

Managing Editor Henry Koenig Stone

When I came to Unbound almost two years ago, I was motivated by a two-part conviction about Christianity and the United States—a conviction that I still hold. Firstly, I believe that our faith at its best can be a guiding star of justice and the social good, bringing good news to people who are outcast or living in poverty. Secondly, I believe that a perverted mockery of Christianity has instead been a moral albatross around our country’s neck for a long time.

There’s really a third part to my conviction: I believe that it’s long past time to do something about this.

The language and example of Jesus, if actually read and internalized, demand a just society—a society that welcomes the stranger, that acts as the Good Samaritan did in providing healthcare to the helpless, and that actively works with its neighbors out of love. Yet we see Christian narratives and symbols being used far more consistently to justify self-righteous nationalism, to preach the prosperity gospel, and to justify—almost without question—any and all acts of war.

Using the Gospel to preach tribalism and violence, to justify our perpetual state of war, and to proclaim that we are above all other people—the so-called “Greatest Nation”—is a profound blasphemy. This blasphemy is also our national status quo.

At the same time, preachers and laypeople alike are often discouraged from becoming “too political” in church—as though the acts of overturning money tables in the temple, healing outcasts from society, and giving speeches before large public audiences were not political acts that ultimately led to Jesus’ political execution. The Gospel imperative of justice, in opposition to the abuse of power, is not a new idea.

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I think we have internalized the wrong part of each [Niebuhr] brother’s message, and over the decades have built those false lessons into a vicious cycle of theological malpractice.
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How did we get to this dual fiction that 1) military hegemony can be a Christian goal and 2) Christians are called to accept this drive for power without theologically-grounded complaint? Well, I’m not sure about the causal link. But I do have an example of how these misinterpretations can come about.

In the 1930s, an iconic debate between a not-quite-pacifist “love ethic” (that of H. Richard Niebuhr) and the more assertive “Christian Realism” of his brother Reinhold played out in The Christian Century in the form of H. Richard’s article, “The Grace of Doing Nothing,” and Reinhold’s, “Must We Do Nothing?” On the question of restraining an imperial Japan that had invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria, H. Richard favored non-intervention and Reinhold argued that we should leverage force.

I think we have internalized the wrong part of each brother’s message, and over the decades have built those false lessons into a vicious cycle of theological malpractice. Here’s my layperson’s take on what we should have taken from these articles.

H. Richard preached humility and trust in God where there is no better option, arguing that our own imperial ambitions were no more pure than Japan’s:

“The inactivity of radical Christianity is not the inactivity of those who call evil good: it is the inaction of those who do not judge their neighbors because they cannot fool themselves into a sense of superior righteousness.”

Reinhold acknowledged this potential hypocrisy, but argued that defaulting to inaction when there is no ethically perfect solution does not actually solve the ethical problem of engaging with injustice:

“[We] can never resolve in purely ethical terms the conflict between what is and what ought to be.”

But here’s the crucial part that we often miss: for Reinhold, the use of force was at best a necessary evil when other countries are bad actors. In adopting “realism” as a popular label in D.C., politicians have lost this nuance and consistently sought, not just to increase the power of the United States, but to leverage that power wherever it seems handy.

Secular realists, who start with no ethical framework as they describe how countries do act, lack the tools to imagine a radical transformation to how they should act. In particular, the cynical power-maximizing goals of “offensive realism” (coined by my erstwhile professor, John Mearsheimer) contrast starkly with Reinhold’s Christian realism, which makes an honest effort to apply Christian ethics to engaging a flawed world before concluding that sometimes we do need to intervene. U.S. foreign policy is driven more by a Mearsheimer-style worldview than by Niebuhr’s—though Mearsheimer himself is critical of the strategic blindness of US interventionism (he opposed the Iraq war). Even so, the phrase “Christian Nation” still gets bandied about pretty frequently, and hence “defending Christianity” is subsumed into the assumptions about what the goals are of our world-deployed military.

Through such forgetfulness it is apparently possible to be a “Christian Nation” at the same time as we are a nation perpetually at war!

Reinhold Niebuhr’s argument for “doing something” internationally loses a degree of applicability, and H. Richard’s argument about our hypocrisy gains poignancy, in this world where the United States already projects power far more pervasively than Imperial Japan ever could. At the same time, as the historical Christian criticism of aggressive international relations is left behind and edged out by more nationalistic assumptions, the ability of Christians to critique and challenge our financially unaccountable, resource-hemorrhaging military monolith is crippled when worries about being “too political” keep us from asking tough questions. And so there is still a danger of “doing nothing”—not in terms of international restraint, but by avoiding our participation in conversations about seeking justice within our own system of government.

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Soon, it will be time for me to leave Unbound and move on to a new part of the struggle for justice and honest critical discourse. But I want our readers to know that I will leave with a little more hope than when I came into this position.
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Here’s where we come full circle: I came to Unbound because I was tired of watching good-hearted people of faith roll over and accept the narratives of unrestrained U.S. hegemony. More generally, I was tired of feeling like the only “Christians” active in trying to change the world were those who preach military domination, xenophobia, and white nationalism. But we must never worry that speaking truth to power is hopeless, or is inappropriate, or will lose the church members. That is the road to moral insignificance.

Soon, it will be time for me to leave Unbound and move on to a new part of the struggle for justice and honest critical discourse. But I want our readers to know that I will leave with a little more hope than when I came into this position.

Here’s the thing: in my time in Louisville, I have seen faith in radical transformation take the form of programs equipping folks to lift themselves out of poverty.

I have seen faith in radical transformation sustain superhuman efforts to fund and facilitate disaster aid.

I have seen faith in radical transformation motivate learning about and engaging with racial, gender, and identity-based inequality, something folks are rarely willing to do.

I have seen faith in radical transformation develop the Poor People’s Campaign, which in turn has influenced the way church leaders talk about movement-building and institutional change.

I have seen faith in radical transformation even affect the church’s policy wonk body (ACSWP)—in shaping policies that drive the discussion about justice, rather than holding it back.

And I have seen brave public witness that consistently challenges systemic injustice and the alt-right narrative of white supremacy.

In short, I have been reminded that we people of faith are not and never have been “doing nothing” to address the injustice of the world. Although it has been hidden behind right-wing Christians’ culture wars, there is still the work of generations to build upon and grow and share when it comes to addressing hunger, inequality, and abuse of power.

We have not done “nothing”—far from it. But neither have we done enough, and so the fundamental goal remains: We, as Christians, are called to do a new thing in our domestic and foreign policy advocacy, to transcend the boundaries of the status quo and seek instead: justice. And we are called to do so publicly, to change the narrative about what it means to be a person of faith in the public arena.

I’ll wrap this up with one more quote from Reinhold Niebuhr (pardon the gendered language!) before I leave you to do this work:

“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Seeking justice through democracy requires us to engage every one of our ethical cylinders, whether we are atheists, Jews, Muslims, or Christians. In this country, we Christians in particular need to pick up some of the slack. I pray that, together, we may begin doing so in earnest.

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Author Bio: Henry Koenig Stone serves in Louisville, KY as current Managing Editor of Unbound and Associate for Young Adult Social Witness. Originally from Rochester, NY, Henry comes from a long line of pastors and professors. His family has practiced an equally long critical tradition of having “roast preacher” for Sunday lunch. Henry holds a B.A. in Economics (2015) from the University of Chicago and an MPP (2017) from UChicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. His past work has focused on policy analyses of healthcare pilot programs and public health systems. A baritone, Henry is a fan of both sacred and irreverent vocal traditions. His favorite place on earth is Dunkirk Camp & Conference Center, where he has been a summer camp counselor for many years.

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