Many people see religion and politics as oil and water -- the two should never mix. Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was not one of these people. One of the most prominent theologians of the 20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr was also an ethicist and a commentator on politics and public affairs. He spoke on the interaction of politics and religion, taking a “realism” approach to how religion and theology should shape public policy.
This realism perspective surfaces in one his quotes: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” For Niebuhr democracy was the best practical way to handle the distribution of power within a society.
Over the past several years there have been an increasing number of articles about the current threats to democracy, both here in the US and other countries. Symptoms include: the rise of authoritarianism and one-party rule, the ever-growing income and wealth inequality, and the proliferation of untruths and intentional deception by leaders. These, and other anti-democracy trends, shift the distribution of power in society into fewer and fewer hands. And we all know the quote about the concentration of power and corruption.
I believe Niebuhr would be most vocal of the comprised state of democracy today if he were alive. Niebuhr understood that our finitude (and our deep knowledge that we really are finite) makes it difficult-to-impossible for us individually to do anything without our self-interest coloring that action, if not outright dominating our action. Not the prettiest of observations, but, again, realism.
For this discussion, I’d like to shift the perspective on democracy. Democracy is typically used in reference to the governance of a society. I’d like to narrow the focus to us, as individuals; how democratic are we? How is the power we possess employed for justice? Or, how does our “inclination to injustice”, our inclination to follow the leanings of our self-interest, make for very undemocratic implementations of that power?
As a theologian and 30-plus year professor at Union Theological Seminary, Niebuhr saw a direct connection between the teachings of Christ and democracy. All major religions share the common thread of removing one’s focus from one’s self and shifting it to the other. Just how willing are we to distribute/share the power we have with the other? What, in our everyday actions, contributes to that sharing of power?
Many in our society, particularly those viewed as powerful individuals, would likely scoff at the notion of releasing power. It is why we have such a problem with gerrymandering political districts, it is at the root of the sexual harassment, it’s in petty power-plays like having a bigger chair in your office than the ones guests sit in. Why would we choose to give up power that we hold, power that can get us stuff we want? That’s insane!
Maybe we’d do it for the sake of justice.
Maybe for the common good.
Maybe for life -- like our own. Living for the other brings life. John, the gospel writer, states repeatedly that in living with the other in mind at, least as much as ourselves, we step out of the dark into the light, into the light of life itself.
Maybe we would give our power to others, because that is in fact powerful. Again, Niebuhr, “Faith is able to sense and appropriate an ultimate truth too deep for human reason.” Only faith can understand what logic cannot comprehend, that sharing, yielding, giving-away power actually manifests power. Faith enables us to see this.
In the 1993 movie based on a true story (“Schindler’s List”) the industrialist Oscar Schindler is attending a party at a German imprisonment camp during WWII seeking munitions contracts. Schindler is at the beginning of a turning in his life, away from self-interest and greed toward an interest in others and life.
Schindler is speaking with the commander of the camp, Amon Goeth, on a balcony off the commander’s luxurious quarters overlooking the fenced imprisonment camp. There are Jewish prisoners walking within the confines of the camp. As Schindler and the commander are speaking, the commander picks up a rifle and shoots one of the prisoners dead.
Schindler, shocked, asks why Goeth did that. Goeth states that the prisoner must have done something wrong -- and as the commander, he has the power to take their lives. Schindler replies, “Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t. That’s what the Emperor said. A man steals something, he’s brought before the Emperor, he throws himself down on the ground. He begs for life, he knows he’s going to die. And the Emperor pardons him. This worthless man, he lets him go.”
Goeth answers (as society tends), “I think you are drunk.” Schindler stands his ground, “That’s power, Amon. That is power.” The faith-truth of what Schindler speaks visibly shakes Goeth.
So, how are our personal democracies working?
The Rev. Scott Wipperman is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Helena. He enjoys nature, is a fixer-of-many-things and is truly enamored with Helena.