The Legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr

January for me, as for many people, is always a time of reflection and reorientation. A moment to consider the past year and goal setting and refocusing for the year ahead. Many Januarys, I have a hard time noticing any progress from where I might have been the previous year: sometimes in my personal reflections, or family reflections, faith reflections or even professional reflections. How could a whole year go by with little progress? Maybe you have experienced this as well. Some years I am just grateful that while there has been no progress, I have been able to stem the tide of regress.

I think the work of mission and justice can feel especially slow moving. Progress can be made in one endeavor, while others get lost in our collective conscious or neglected for lack of vision. Jesus tells his disciples that the poor will always be among us, but that provides no consolation after years of feeding the hungry, encouraging development in struggling communities and advocating for the lost and the least, let alone 2,000 years after the start of the Christian movement.

In these January reflections, I often come back to something that theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in The Irony of American History:

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. 

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. 

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. 

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.” 

Faith. Hope. Love. Forgiveness. These are the things we are also called to measure when we consider the work behind and before us. How have we done our part to bring more of these things into the world?

This February (Sundays, February 4-18 at 11:15 a.m.), we will spend three weeks reflecting on the legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr. We will welcome Niebuhr scholar Jeremy Sabella to give us a refresher on the writings and influence of this Reformed theologian, especially in the context of the 20th century.

We will screen a short documentary, on which Sabella consulted and to which his recent book on Niebuhr is a companion. In this documentary, we will hear the voices of 20th and 21st century Christian and political leaders who acknowledge the ways that his writings influenced their call to work for justice in the world.

Finally, we will hear from our own David Smith, Interim Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry, as he guides us through a conversation about how the impact of Niebuhr continues to shape the way Christians understand and work for change in our 21st century and 2018 context.

The Niebuhr quote that most of us know by heart, though may not know comes from him, is what has come to be called the Serenity Prayer:

“God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

While most of us might connect this prayer to the 12 Step Program, it is a vital prayer for the work of justice as well. That we might use this moment of reflection and preparation for the new year to set our hearts and minds on the things we can do to make a difference in the lives of people in our community one day, one year, one generation at a time.