When pride overruns the common good

Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) recently admitted that the government shutdown continues not for achievable policy goals, … Continued

Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg

Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) recently admitted that the government shutdown continues not for achievable policy goals, but because of pride.

“Republicans have to realize how many significant gains we’ve made over the last three years, and we have, not only in cutting spending but in really turning the tide on other things We can’t lose all that when there’s no connection now between the shutdown and the funding of Obamacare.”

“I think now it’s a lot about pride,” Ross added.

Reinhold Niebuhr, a 20th century Christian theologian who often wrote on power and politics, would certainly agree, and at some length. Niebuhr actually distinguished among four different types of pride.
The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. 1
(pp. 186 ff). Niebuhr, in this book, is trying to bring the full sweep of Christian reflection on the human condition into the challenges of a decade of economic depression and a rising international threat from Nazism and Fascism.

In this work, Niebuhr posits that human beings are caught between their freedom and their finitude. This produces anxiety, and anxiety is a fertile soil for the growth of sin, especially egotistical self-assertion in individual and collective life. Egotistical self-assertion can be summed up, for Niebuhr, in the word pride. This is “man’s” basic sin: the unwillingness to acknowledge creatureliness and to insist on self-elevation.

Quoting Reinhold Niebuhr is nearly a cottage industry these days. Niebuhr is a favorite on both sides of the aisle in Washington D.C. From President Obama to Senator John McCain, Niebuhr has become the “Philosopher of the Post-9/11 Era”.

This begs the question of why Niebuhr is so popular among politicians in the 21st century. I think this is often because politicians forget to do what Niebuhr himself did best: analyze the historical context. They simply sift through the corpus of Niebuhr’s work and lift out what they like, devoid of context.

For example, Niebuhr’s contextual theology outraged his Cold War disciples when he accurately assessed the dangers of the Vietnam War. “One neocon Niebuhrian, Paul Ramsey, famously lamented that in the political climate of the 1960s ‘even Reinhold Niebuhr signs petitions and editorials as if Reinhold Niebuhr never existed.’” Niebuhr saw what Ramsey did not; the context had changed in regard to Vietnam.

Niebuhr was, in fact, a “contextual” theologian, meaning that he took the particular historical contexts in which individuals and societies find themselves as critical for theological reflection.

It can seem that Niebuhr’s thought on the “sin of pride” is tailor-made for today’s context of government shutdown and the failure, to this point, to achieve a “rough justice.” Fallible human beings, according to Niebuhr, confuse their own partial view of the good with perfection. Thus their own pride and selfishness lead them to refuse to compromise.

But there is more than this main Niebuhrian theme that can contribute to a way forward, and this can be found in critiques of Niebuhr and his overemphasis on pride. “Pride” is certainly one form of sin, but in my view, this current context is more theologically complex than that. One critique of Niebuhr, first put forward by Valerie Saving and continued by Judith Plaskow is that Niebuhr overemphasized the sin of pride, and this was irrelevant, even harmful, for women. Indeed, “sin for women” is more the failure to be a self, to have pride.

The failure to be a self can be relevant to some women’s experience, but it may also be more broadly relevant to this current Washington gridlock. Overall, as John Bennett, Niebuhr’s colleague and friendly critic noted, “Niebuhr never discussed the traditional sin of sloth. Thus the sin of the weak man who needs some discipline is unaccounted for in his categories.” Men as well as women can find themselves in this condition.

The “sin of the weak man” is directly relevant to why we may be stuck in Congress, and perhaps how we can move forward.

There are many levels to our current political context, and the “will-to-power” is not always the sticking point. There is also a diffuseness to some, both individually and collectively, a seeming lack of a coherent self.

I heard an echo of this problem in a statement by conservative Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind.

“We’re not going to be disrespected,” he said, adding, “We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

That statement speaks of diffusion to me, a lack of coherence. But the most important statement, for going forward, is the fear of being “disrespected.” President Obama mocked Rep. Stutzman’s statement. Clearly frustrations are running high.

But in fact, I think Rep. Stutzman’s statement contained clues to a way out that the President is overlooking.

From Just Peacemaking work, I know that to settle a conflict, all parties need to feel they have been given respect even if they don’t get want they say they want, or even when they don’t even seem to know what they want.

Respect, the need to be seen as a coherent self, a person worthy of regard, is one of the deepest human needs there is. It is a need beyond any particular policy prescription.

Getting and receiving respect is the way out. Can we get there from here?

Perhaps you want to say, “You first!”

That’s not how Just Peacemaking works.

Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President at Chicago Theological Seminary. Her most recent works include Dreaming of Eden: American Religion and Politics in a Wired World , a book that uses Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought, in part, to interpret the anxieties of the Internet age, and Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War

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