What does Reinhold Niebuhr have to do with Drones?


September 26, 2012

During Pres. Obama’s first year in office, he testified that Reinhold Niebuhr was his favorite theologian.  R. Niebuhr is of course famous, in part, because of his writings on “Christian Realism.”  I am under the impression that the vast majority of American Christians live under the Christian Realist moniker without ever having heard of Reinhold Niebuhr.  His ability to uphold Jesus’ principled way of nonviolence as “ultimately normative” but not “immediately applicable” for the life of the church has paved the way for our contemporary Western conceptions of Christian political existence, including our present mode of war-making.  But our present mode of waging war gives us the following…

This past year, news surfaced that Pres. Obama has created a special troika of counterterrorism advisors to reside over targeted killings, with the President mulling over the kill command.  This article here talks of Obama’s relative dis-ease over this particular part of his job description when first coming to office while having “no qualms” with assassinating a US citizen on foreign soil without trial (Anwar al-Awlaki) by 2011.  But the hundreds of civilian deaths amassed under this administration are justified under Christian auspices because we live in the “real” world- as if Jesus’ call to pick up our cross happened in a fake world.  I’m reminded of John Howard Yoder’s summary of the “impossible possibility”: “The nonviolent position is pure, in the style of Tolstoy or the Amish or the Franciscans.  It is good to have a few of those holy perfectionists around to keep the rest of us humble.  But what the world needs more is dirty-handed realists.”  He then adds his own critique,

“If Jesus is confessed as both fully human and the icon of God, then the axiomatic dichotomy between necessarily sinful, politically effective human life, and the necessarily powerless, apolitical moral purity has to be a pair of category mistakes. The renunciation of violence is not right because it ‘works’ (sometimes); it ‘works’ (sometimes) because it is right. If and when, in a given frame of time or place, it did not work, it is still right. Particular tactics of nonviolent action may be more or less fitting on pragmatic grounds, but enemy love is not. It is right because it unfolds out of the divine nature that became history in the public ministry and the cross of Jesus.”[1]

I’m not so sure the world needs more dirty-handed realists.  But I would like to imagine/see/perform a community converted in the way of Christ that ultimately changes our patterns of behavior.  It might even be a more effective method of counterterrorism; but then again, Jesus was still crucified.

[1] John Howard Yoder, “Politics: Liberating Images of Christ,” in The War of the Lamb, Glen Stassen, Mark Thiessen Nation, and Matt Hamsher, eds. (Brazos Press: Grand Rapids, MI, 2009) 179-180.