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True pessimists are often vindicated by history and seldom have to endure the sting of disappointment in the basic failings of humanity. This understanding is what makes Reinhold Niebuhr’s brand of Christian realism so appealing. Assuming the essential fallenness of humanity as an overarching narrative, Niebuhr recontextualizes the mission of Social Justice to complement the foundational ideology of an America solidifying its position as a dominant world power. Niebuhr’s dialectical framework surrounding the essential nature of humanity imposes a false dichotomy on morality and distorts the project of American religious liberalism.
Most of Niebuhr’s understanding of the Christian religion was in line with the liberal Protestant position of the Social Gospelers of his time. Gary Dorrien writes that Niebuhr “took for granted that religion is a humanly constructed power for social good; that a passionate commitment to social justice is the heart of good politics; that religion is made possible by humanity’s unique capacities for good, transcendence, and evil; that Christian Scripture and teaching are pervaded by myth; that the Christian doctrines of the deity of and resurrection of Christ are religious myths; and that, while reason and experience must be subjected to criticism, they are nonetheless the tests of religious truth.” It is Niebuhr’s treatment of “good, transcendence, and evil” that is most important for this essay. Where he breaks with the liberal tradition is a fundamental cynicism regarding the essential nature of human desires and expectations in the world. By essentializing the fallenness of humanity, evil is transformed into a necessary condition for existence. What is good or transcendent becomes an object of individual attainment outside of a group narrative. In this way, what is just becomes a negotiation between the individual will within a given societal structure which rewards acceptable varieties of power.
Justice then becomes dialectical in nature between the individual and society, good and evil, and transcendence and power. Again Dorrien states that, “Niebuhrian neoliberalism, usually called ne-orthodoxy, was a religion of the dialectic of divine transcendence and relation. For Niebuhr, transcendence referred to the divine realm beyond all finite experience; to the principle or ground of reality, meaning, judgment, and hope; and to the capacity of the human spirit to transcend itself and relate to God.” The paradoxical nature of God’s relationship to humanity is part of Niebuhr’s distorted understanding of basic moral impulses:
God is beyond society, history, and the highest ideals of existence, Niebuhr argued, yet God is also intimately related to the world. The human spirit finds a home and grasps something of the stature of its freedom in God’s transcendence, yet the self also finds in the divine transcendence the limit of the self’s freedom, the judgment spoken against it, and the mercy that makes judgment bearable.
This limitation leads Niebuhr to the overvaluation of the problem of finitude in the everyday experience of humanity. It is in this problem that Niebuhr envisions a purely horizontal relationship between the teachings of Jesus, the Divine, and humanity. God is removed from the ethical situation of humans in relation with each other – the constant need to look up for idealistic salvation is the manifestation of the fallen nature of humanity. Sin, represented by the selfish human will to power and rebellion against the finite nature of existence, is in this sense not only unavoidable, but is the controlling factor in the social valuation of what is just.
Accepting this essential aspect of the individual leads Niebuhr to claim the cynical approach to a purely relational understanding of societal justice as more realistic than the prevalent forms of theological liberalism. Examining Niebuhr’s attempted reclamation of the concept of original sin, Dorrien writes that according to Niebuhr, “the religious truth of the fall is precisely what is crucially lacking in liberal Christianity… the root of human evil is the prideful human pretension of being God. As creatures made in the image of God, human beings possess capacities for self-transcendence that enable them to become aware of their finite existence… The same awareness moves human beings, however, to attempt to overcome their finiteness by becoming infinite, like God.” I argue that the embrace of finiteness, and the attempt to become like God in our infinite capacities, should be the foundation of moral understanding.
It is not only the relational aspect of God to humanity which is paradoxical. The paradoxical nature of reality is best expressed in how justice manifests itself in embracing the finite nature of existence leading directly to transcendence. A truly revolutionary aspect of religion is that it insists on not just the possibility, but on the reality of transcendence – a believer in this type of religion cannot view the moral community as either idealistic or as ambiguous. This is the root of the instruction given by Jesus to his followers to “love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Belief, in this sense, is the commandment to search for the infinite within ourselves. This idea is also expressed by Master Seung Sahn when he writes that, “Instead of having the original human capacity for love, cooperation, and compassion, people nowadays only fight with each other and with this world. They cannot do correct together-action with other human beings.” Self-transcendence can only be expressed through social justice and the acceptance of this transcendent infinite nature in reality.
Niebuhrian dialecticism imposes a false theology of power on religion in society. Good and evil are not within each other, but are part of constantly present continuum. It is the interplay of conflicting desires and motivations which makes freedom a reality – not simply vacillating between the dichotomy of good and evil or finding both contained in ambiguous power. Sin is not the result of a hubristic rebellion against God as Niebuhr asserts as the basis for his cynically ‘realistic’ view of humanity, power, and justice. The sin was in the failure to acknowledge the existence of the self-transcendent in humanities connection to all of creation. Negotiating the terror of choice is the plight of all ethical beings – it is what Jesus confronted in Gethsemane, what Martin Luther King faced late at night while sitting at his kitchen table, and what we confront when we open ourselves to reality in seeking justice.
 Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 479.
 Ibid., 468.
 Ibid., 458.
 Ibid., 481.
 Ibid., 456.
 John 13:34 (New Revised Standard Version)
 Seung Sahn, The Compass of Zen, edit. Hyon Gak Sunim (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997), 26.
 Dorrien, 456.
I cannot help but remember how the flashing lights from the police cars glared on my bedroom wall when I read about the flames and smoke which engulfed a young Malcolm X and his family. My night of terror took place when I was thirteen years old, ripped from my bed in the middle of the night and taken into custody for truancy and, I would later learn, suspected gang affiliation. The memory of the fear from that night is tangible – with the slightest effort I can reach out and hold it in my hands. It is the emotional clarity of that moment which leads me to suggest that theology of Malcolm X was primarily shaped by early encounters with the overwhelming power of violent societal injustice. To understand Malcolm X the convert, we must first understand Malcolm X as a victim of white supremacy – the child of violence who spent his early life searching for an individuality endowed with full humanity. It is my contention that the discipline Malcolm X found in prison echoed the dignity and self-control remembered from his time among the Garveyites with his father, Earl Little, and the constructed idea of control represented by his step-sister Ella Collins. The paradoxical nature of religion is found in Malcolm X’s faith narrative; it is only by losing all agency as a prisoner that he was able to find the path to self-determination that he so desperately craved – submission, in this spiritual sense, leads to freedom.
Malcolm X was raised in a crucible of oppression; not just the overt murderous racism that affected the men in his family, but also the societal domination represented by the hue of his mother’s skin. Race became one of the defining characteristics of Malcolm X in his encounter with the world. But this was not a simple matter of black and white, but of whiteness within blackness. He writes, “Out in the world later on… I was among the millions of Negroes who were insane enough to feel that it was some kind of status symbol to be light-complexioned – that one was actually fortunate to be born thus. But, still later, I learned to hate every drop of that white rapist’s blood that is in me.” As such, Malcolm X had to constantly bear the burden of domination in the very way he related to the world.
It should be no surprise that this burden not only led to conflicted emotions in Malcolm X toward entitlement, but also that this created an internal conflict concerning the very essence of his blackness. This is best illustrated in the repugnance he felt at the emotive black church experience. The sweating, the jumping and hollering, and the hope for justice in heaven all represented the lack of control that Malcolm X found deplorable in his father’s itinerant preaching. Similar feelings applied to the “complacent and misguided” black population in Lansing which were only relatively middle-class and only that at the whim of their white employers. The self-determination Malcolm X witnessed, in the form of personal restraint and the call for self-defense, among the Garveyites became a defining example of what black dignity should be. Self-determination, or control over one’s relation to society, and dignity become conflated in the emotional life of the young Malcolm X. This concept leads him to the incorrect assumption that merely being self-sufficient is the key to full humanity.
This construct can be used to understand the impact of Ella Collins on the adolescent Malcolm X. The Ella presented in the autobiography is distinct in many ways from the Ella presented by Manning Marable in Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Her criminal record is elided in Malcolm X’s work where she is described as someone who “did and got exactly what she wanted.” Marable points out that her example is problematic in that it reinforced the idea of criminality being a justified way to move in confronting reality as a black person. The whole creation of ‘Detroit Red’ is a reaction to the conflicted idea of blackness within Malcolm X. Having failed at integration within polite society at school, criminality was Malcolm X’s first attempt at living outside of the existing structures of supremacy. He conceived of both the criminality represented by life with Ella and the Black Nationalism of the Garveyite movement as offering the same path toward an escape from this system of domination. This conception fails on two points: the first is a failure to recognize that the stereotype of the black criminal is part of the supremacist system, the second fails to understand that this domination is also an internalized construct. In this way, basic control of one’s life does not create dignity or a full humanity.
Malcolm X should, above all else, be thought of as an idealist. What made him so dangerous for his time was that this idealism was intimately connected with his identity as a black man. What made him revolutionary was that this identity was formed while imprisoned – formed from the depths of a society built and sustained on unjust captivity. Internal conflicts are solved, at least temporarily, when Malcolm X is forced outside of the stereotypical supremacist system, by gaining an understanding of his cultural history through an intense educational experience, and into introspection through encountering the Nation of Islam. Dignity and self-sufficiency are only properly related to one another outside of the white supremacist power structure. It is true that through education Malcolm X finds true freedom, but this is only because the noble lie of the Nation of Islam creation story contains powerful truths within its ideology – a “perfect echo” of Malcolm X’s unique childhood experience. In this reading his life is not so much a journey toward faith as Marable would insist, but is, rather, a journey toward a complete humanity.
Yesterday, Sunday, February 16, the congregation at Riverside Church received a prayer request from Lucia McBath – the mother of Jordan Davis, a boy killed playing loud music and embodying an assumed threat of black violence. She asked that we pray for her family and for the soul of Michael Dunn, the man who killed her son. I admit that I could not meet the later part of this request; at such moments it is difficult to embrace a God of forgiveness. This experience informed my understanding of Malcolm X and how a violent youth shaped his embrace of the Nation of Islam. He eventually came to realize his humanity in rebellion against the pattern of supremacy which sought to hem in the quality of his life. What was heroic in Malcolm X’s mission did not come from facing death, which he did regularly as a criminal, nor in striving to reconcile the conflict of black life within his own experience. What was heroic was the submission to a God of justice and a spirit greater than a single life. In Malcolm X, victimization evolves into resistance
 Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press, Inc, 1966), 2.
 Ibid, 4-5.
 Ibid, 33.
 Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (New York: Viking, 2011), 42.
 Malcolm X, 31.
 Ibid, 173.
 Ibid, 183.
 Manning, 12.
 Malcolm X embraced the message that the “key to a Muslim is submission” during his educational journey in prison. Malcolm X, 162.
Of modern thinkers I have to give credit, what little credit there can be given, to Joseph Campbell and Colin Wilson. It is in the reading of their works in my early twenties that I was able to orient myself to life. I found myself at twenty-one with no high school diploma and no prospects for employment dealing with my mother’s unexpected death. I did have almost four hundred dollars to my name and I spent part of that money on A Hero with a Thousand Faces, The Outsider, and Religion and the Rebel. It should be no surprise that I find myself, ten years later, attending seminary dealing with the questions raised by these texts.
What intrigued me about Campbell was the idea of a unified story connecting humanities quest to graft meaning on to life. This idea of solid passages from nascent stages of life into fully realized humanity, with an emphasis on courage, still informs the way that I approach the state of American culture. We can look to the way that we treat the marginal and distressed in our society to evaluate where we are as a culture. I see an America guided by fear, hung up on pervasive Antebellum fears surrounding race, class, and pseudo-science. Investing the “Other” with humanity is a form of courage that has been abandoned to security. We are taught that our position in society so precarious, it is only by keeping others down, physically through health management and financially, we will elevate ourselves. Campbell is often misinterpreted as a purveyor of a personal philosophy of “Do what you love,” but I have come to understand that it is only through others that we can reach our personal potential.
Bill Moyers, who worked with Campbell on his various PBS specials, is the prime example of a life devoted to others. I often wonder how much of A Hero with a Thousand Faces has uplifted Moyers’ efforts to bring honesty and compassion to American politics.
Wilson is a more baffling character to understand through his works. I recently reread his autobiographical introduction to Religion and the Rebel. I see so much of what I have become, and the questions that have guided my research, in his voyage of self-discovery. There are hints of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in the question of the Outsider – an internal “Why?” connected to both meaning and existence. The Outsider essentially provided my personal reading list for the past decade as I wrestled my way through the alienating experience of undergraduate education. The discovery of Albert Camus through Wilson has been a particularly illuminating experience. Wilson’s turn towards mysticism and the occult was foreshadowed in his early work and it is this turn which doomed him to the periphery of the intellectual community. Nothing is more reviled than a believer and even skeptics, of the modern variety, draw the line at investigating the phenomenological underpinnings of society. Everything must be questioned – but in a specific pre-approved way.
Apparently Wilson died last month. His passing did not break into my shell of final exam preparation and internet dormancy. For me Wilson represents what has to be sacrificed for the big questions in the age of simplistic answers. In his work Wilson was consistently against “stages” in life; clearly believing that influence should be deep and lasting or non-existent.
The last week has been a whirlwind. I have met dozens of fellow seminarians, each of which seems to be more profound and capable than I am. Shuffling between orientation sessions and finding my way around Manhattan, I search for calmness in the confusion. The hustle was brought to a grinding halt with the holiday weekend and the news of Seamus Heaney’s death.
I became acquainted with the work of Heaney in 2001 due to his translation of Beowulf. Memory fails me at this moment in details, but I recall the earthy feel of the lines and the immediacy of the story. Perhaps it hit me at the right moment as a high school dropout struggling to find a direction for my life. What strikes me, looking back, are the gleeful violence of Beowulf and the pain of Grendel’s mother. She created something grotesque and evil, yet we must feel the love Grendel’s mother contains having participated in the act of creation. I find more sympathy with her rather than Beowulf – a man who collects heads as trophies and whose only merit is strength.
“Digging” is perhaps Heaney’s best known work in America – much anthologized and studied. In this poem Heaney’s pen and talent become his tool for freedom; freedom from his past and freedom from dull expectations. As a writer with a blue collar background, or perhaps I should say a steel collar background, I understood the psychological risk of embracing art and literature. Ridicule is only part of the problem; failure and loss of self are much more present in the mind. I like to think that this laptop is my pickax, and that instead of digging into darkness I am digging out of it.