R. Gustav Niebuhr, great-nephew of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, is Associate Professor in Religion & the Media at Syracuse University.
He is a leading journalist in the field of American religion for such diverse media as the New York Times, the Huffington Post and for the National Public Radio program “All Things Considered.” He is author of Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America (Viking, 2008).
Niebuhr first presented this material on October 6, 2011, as a lecture for the centennial of the Andover-Harvard Theological Library. Harvard Divinity Bulletin published an edited and revised version in its Summer/Autumn 2012 issue (Vol. 40, Nos. 3 & 4, pp. 20-29).
We encourage you to read the entire article.
Niebuhr begins with a passage from Neither Victims nor Executioners (1946), a collection of essays by Albert Camus, in which Camus “described the basic moral choice involved in living in a world nearly broken by Nazism and faced with the building horror of a possible confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.”
In the coming years an endless struggle will be waged across five continents, a struggle in which either violence or dialogue will prevail. Granted, the former has nearly a thousand times the chances of the latter. But I have always thought that if the [person] who places hope in the human condition is a fool, then he who gives up hope in the face of circumstances is a coward. Henceforth, the only honor will lie in obstinately holding to a formidable gamble: that words are stronger than bullets. (22)
During his travels around the country as a journalist, Niebuhr says he
became persuaded that there was evidence of a scattered, grassroots movement taking hold in cities and suburbs, focused on bringing people of differing theological beliefs into productive contact with one another. In part, this movement…drew its inspiration from the recognition of growing religious diversity that in its complexity seemed unlike anything Americans had experienced….
As a movement, interfaith encounters often shared common principles. But the action occurred very gradually over time and involved a great deal of talk—the kind of talk that start and stops, loops back on itself and accelerates, only to begin the process again. Not a direct, linear argument…; not easy material out of which to make a news story…. But then movements aimed at real social change may begin in this way. (22-23)
Then came September 11, 2001.
On September 11, we witnessed an exceedingly cruel demonstration of what my great-uncle Reinhold Niebuhr called “absolutism”—the self-justifying quest for the impossible ideal [in Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932)]…. The absolutists fail to understand that they will inevitably confront their nemesis, which he described as the inertia of human nature. Furthermore, he wrote, theyrisk the welfare of millions when they gamble for the attainment of the absolute. And, since coercion is an invariable instrument of their policy, absolutism transmutes this instrument into unbearable tyrannies and cruelties. The fanaticism which in the individual may appear in the guise of a harmless or pathetic vagary, when expressed in political policy, shuts the gates of mercy on mankind. (24)
Gustav Niebuhr describes the reactions he and others shared the day of the attacks.
No one can be prepared for violence on that scale…. Acts of terror can be carried out without words—as terror, they are meant to deprive people of speech. The purpose is to crush our humanity, take away our ability to communicate rationally, and replace it with stark, uncontrollable fear.
What I didn’t know that morning, however, is that not everyone had lost her or his speech.
Very shortly after the towers in New York collapsed, someone in Seattle did an extraordinary thing, taking out a note card and writing a simple statement that said, “We don’t blame all Muslims.” Whoever wrote this message then took it in hand and left it leaning against the front door of the Islamic School of Seattle. I know this because the school’s principal, Ann el-Moslimany, told me about it five months later….
When she and her students returned a week later, they were greeted by students from an alternative high school across the street who carried signs saying, “Welcome back”…. [The] Seattle Council of Churches offered volunteers to come patrol the sidewalks and keep an eye on the building…. [The] council had been flooded with calls from individuals…who wanted to “do something” to prevent innocent people among them from being harassed or attacked. (24-25)
He tells about various other similar actions around the country to reaffirm civil society after the 9/11 attacks.
People acted locally, without press releases. Because their activities did not end up on the police blotter, local news organizations—and national ones—tended to miss them. But together these activities showed that people had not lost their voices—or their determination to use them for the public good….
Some people, I would later write, “choose to build networks that deliberately cross boundaries in an era in which religious differences are so explosive.” Their work constitutes a quiet countertrend in that “it directly challenges violence in God’s name, even if it does not replace it. At its heart, it’s a grassroots educational process in which the goal is to gain knowledge about individuals and their beliefs in a way that lessens fear….
What amazes me about this citizens’ project is that it is not easy, because it means confronting differences without acting to change them, but rather trying to understand them. (25-26)
Niebuhr concludes with thoughts that came to him during the 2011 dedication of the 9/11 memorial in New York City.
I grew up in an era when people warned against publicly discussing religion. But that time is long past; religion must be discussed, if we are to be educated about our fellow citizens. We need to know what others believe, how they interpret their texts, how faith shapes their lives. We need to know so we can pierce the suspicions that would divide the overwhelmingly peaceful majorities among us. To know is a civic responsibility. And we must learn to recognize demagogues for what they are when they try to wring poison from dogma….
Terror despises human rights. But combating it does not belong simply to the military. Among us civilians, it demands a commitment to search for the common ethic among people we do not always know. Does that mean taking a risk? Yes. Does that mean sometimes being disappointed? Yes, again. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “He has not learned the lesson of life who does not daily surmount a fear” In dealing with differences, that’s our charge. (28-29)
And so it is.
R. Gustav Niebuhr, Associate Professor in Religion & the Media at Syracuse University
National September 11 Memorial in New York. Photo: Reuters (theguardian.com, Sunday 11 September 2011)