I recently read an old article in The Christian Century where John Kelley discusses the Niebuhr brother’s only published disagreement over how to respond to large-scale conflicts. In light of the (then) conflict surrounding Japan, Reinhold advocated working for justice. His brother Richard took a different and surprising tactic. He argued that Christians should “do nothing.”
Richard based this response on two premises:
- That God is real. The reason doing nothing seems impractical, according to Niebuhr, is because such a belief is obsolete. God was at work in his world, and perhaps we fancy our efforts too important.
- Christians should do nothing in the face of conflict because it can be an antidote to the powerful pull of self-interest. Behind all our righteous indignation, Niebuhr argued, often lies a sinful thirst for control, to be God.
Although this compact argument leaves much open to question and interpretation, I think Niebuhr’s points are worth taking seriously. According to Kelley, Niebuhr desired that Christians would be a healing presence, a witness through acts of caring. This “suffering presence,” as Kelley describes it, seems to be more in line with the teachings of our Lord. The Triune God can handle the world’s problems, and will. We must resist seeing ourselves as the key to the resolution of the world’s problems, especially by violent ends, lest we end up becoming thirsty for power or oppressors who wish to “help.”
Kelley, John. “Time for the Grace of Doing Nothing.” The Christian Century 105 no. 31 (October 26 1988): 940-41.