Reinhold Niebuhr as Archetype of Failed Peace due to Inadequate Atonement Theory

In my previous two blogs I have traced a nearly all-inclusive array of churches in the United States that began as peace churches and which gradually and nearly completely repudiated this original stance. In this final blog on this topic, I trace the thought of what many would consider the premiere American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, as he too begins as a pacifist and then becomes the 2oth century’s most famous anti-pacifist. In my conclusion, I suggest this history of failed pacifism can be traced to a specific and shared cause. The failed peace churches all focused on a forensic notion of the death of Christ, and though Niebuhr had his own view of the atonement, it too focused on a narrow understanding of an achievement of forgiveness. The stark difference found among early Anabaptists and those who maintain a commitment to peace, is a return to the Christus Victor understanding of atonement and notions of a real world transformation.

The most important individual American example of the rejection of pacifism is Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian which Presidents Kennedy, Carter, and Obama, admired and who may have done more to define a generation than is normally allotted a mere theologian. He follows the pattern I traced (here) among indigenous churches in the U.S. of relinquishing his original peace stance due to circumstance, but he names the “realism” which is the controlling factor in his thought, admitting that the correct understanding of the New Testament and Jesus is nonviolent resistance. His point is that one can follow Jesus’ teaching and be nonviolent and irrelevant. To be nonresistant means one must check out of the realities of this world and be consigned to being inconsequential. Due to his experiences with the poor, with the labor movement in Detroit, and then the rise of Hitler, the one thing he wanted was to confront or resist evil, something he presumed Jesus did not do and did not allow for. For him, to resist evil would necessarily entail violence.

His genius was to relate and fit the evils, with which all are familiar, to the biblical notion of sin. Sin arises due to the tension between our embodied social location and the sense that we are meant for more. The lure of transcendence can give rise to pride or it can, due to the inherent inability to get beyond our situation, lead to a turn to the sensuous and a relinquishing of transcendence. As Niebuhr describes it:

“When anxiety has conceived it brings forth both pride and sensuality. Humanity falls into pride, when it seeks to raise its contingent existence to unconditional significance; it falls into sensuality, when it seeks to escape from its unlimited possibilities of freedom, from the perils and responsibilities of self-determination, by immersing itself into a ‘mutable good’, by losing itself in some natural vitality.”[1]

Creatures made for divinity are torn between the extremes of this tension giving rise to sin.

The best part of us individually and corporately is still sinful, but the social or corporate magnifies the sin, so that while we might individually do better than those around us, the corporate and social of which we are a part drags us all down. Sin is the reality we must adjust to. It is the universal human condition and not even Christ has done much to change it other than to secure forgiveness.   

Niebuhr’s analysis of the human condition was an unflinching recognition that people are prone to evil and pride, and that though they may appear sophisticated or educated these were simply means of deploying pride in more creative ways. Some might, given the right circumstance, improve themselves incrementally but the evil condition of human nature is universal and mostly unchangeable, which explains how it is that the realities of war and violence would shape his theological life. This former pacifist had come to see reality for what it is and he adjusted his religion to this grim realism.

Niebuhr’s picture of sin accounts for capitalism and the oppression of workers and the rise of Nazism. These things, though, will have to be dealt with on their own terms, terms which Jesus did not engage. Christianity may help one negotiate the inherent sinfulness of individuals and the social structures, but it does not do this by challenging these structural evils. Christ teaches us that God loves us, in spite of our sinfulness and moral failing and our best hope is to receive his mercy.

The law of Christ teaches us, like the Old Testament law, that we are sinners. Christ tells us to love the enemy, and we need to take this in its full pacifist context, and realize this is an impossibility. Jesus taught we are not to accumulate wealth, but what Christian pacifist even attempts to do this? We cannot hope to follow the Sermon on the Mount, we can only know Jesus forgives us for our incapacity to do so.

 If we do not face the reality of sin, as pacifists are inclined to do, we will only repeat the mistakes of those who let our Nazi enemies get out of hand, then we will be thrown into the other extreme. Like Woodrow Wilson, who pacifist like wanted to resist joining WWI, then concludes the United States must join the war to end all wars so as to obliterate the enemy, the pacifist is in danger of becoming the next crusader who feels obligated to annihilate the enemy he has allowed to get out of control. Like the jail house patsy reduced to being a sex slave and then requiring a shiv to extract himself from abuse, the pacifist must, like Niebuhr, relinquish nonviolence and resist evil from the beginning so as to contain it. God will forgive the necessities thrust upon us, and the goal is to get through life doing as little damage as possible, but committed to trying to do the right thing.

The Bible needs to be submitted to the authority of this modern understanding. Jesus, after all, was no realist as he had no worldly responsibilities, no wife and family, he held no public office. His was an unattached life that did not engage historical reality and his is a spiritual nonresistance not meant for earthly practicality.

Jesus’ ethic might work at an individual level or in a face-to-face confrontation, but it is impossible to turn the other cheek when being slapped from multiple people in every direction. One might carry a single Roman pack, but it is impossible to carry the burdens of multiple soldiers going in different directions. I can only give away my cloak to the first person who asks.[2] There are limitations and inherent impossibilities posed by picturing Jesus’ ethic as applying beyond a very limited and individual condition.

Jesus as “the way the truth and the life” would have to be fit to Niebuhr’s realist frame. He may be a way and truth for another world but his is an ill-conceived way and truth in this world. What Jesus and the early Christian’s wrongly presumed was that this world was about to end, and so we are left with an ethic inadequate for a realist of this world.

Niebuhr limited the work of the cross to a shattering of pride, as we witness in the death of Jesus the human pride which caused this ultimate tragedy. His death is a point of despair which calls for contrition and repentance by which we can receive forgiveness. As he describes it, the Atonement wrought on the Cross is “the good news of the Gospel . . . that God takes the sinfulness of man into Himself and overcomes in His own heart what cannot be overcome in human life.” God suffers sin and forgives it but there is no overcoming of sin, apparently even for God.  

Perhaps Niebuhr’s serenity prayer best captures his theological attitude: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The changeable middle part of the prayer may be quite small, as the primary need is acceptance of an unchangeable world of sin and the wisdom to recognize it is unchangeable.

 Niebuhr, the best and brightest of his generation, illustrates the limited frame within which the work of Christ often continues to be conceived. What Niebuhr could not conceive is the questioning of the socially constructed nature of the “truth” by which he would judge the work of Christ. What his narrow realism could not conceive is that truth itself was being changed up in the person and work of Christ. A different realism is being established in the kingdom of Christ. Jesus’ victory over death, the power which controls us, is absent in Niebuhr as is the notion that Jesus is an example to follow. Niebuhr, like other American based pacifists loses his pacifism, as it seems to have never been deeply grounded in a holistic notion of the depth of peace Christ establishes.

This is the difference that Frances Hiebert finds in the enduring nature of early Anabaptist notions of peace. Though they did not reject Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory, they saw it as incomplete and inadequate. “For early Anabaptists, atonement was the transformation of the believer’s life, an ontological change brought about by the work of Christ and the faith of the believer.”[3] Anabaptists develop a unique cultural ethos, an enduring holism surrounding peace, and a suffering patience, flowing out of a return to a Christus Victor-like atonement theory.

Their notion that one responds to the work of Christ is grounded in the understanding this work directly engages and defeats the evil of the world. Peter Ridemann, spoke about sin as chains by which people are bound by the devil. He wrote that Christ had “come to destroy the work of the devil”; had “destroyed the power of death, hell and the devil”; and had “overcome the devil and death and had risen again.” The Christus Victor motif is evident as Anabaptists had a sharp sense of conflict with the world, the flesh, the devil, and the religious-political structures of their time.

It seems, independent of the Eastern tradition, they too develop a notion of divinization. Balthasar Hubmaier’s picture of God-human relations was explicitly synergistic. As he describes it, the soul is awakened, “made healthy,” and given freedom to again choose the good. It must therefore cooperate with God for the work of Christ to be effective. It must allow itself to be reconciled to God. Salvation, he stressed, does not take place without human cooperation. They came to call this participation in the life of God “divinization.” The gospel was not only the good news of salvation but also a series of directives for the Christian on how to live, how to follow Christ the example, and in following Christ, humanity could be brought back into the life of God.

There is a common thread in the relinquishing of the gospel of peace. It is that atonement as a holistic realization of a socio-political-personal new life is missing. Even where, as in the various holiness movements and restoration movements, Jesus is at first recognized as an example to follow, with an inadequate understanding of the atonement this is lost. Niebuhr is representative of an American Christianity inadequately grounded in an understanding of how Christ’s work is a real-world defeat of evil, death, and the devil and the establishment of a deep and abiding peace grounded in God.


[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: 2 vols. (voL I: Human Nature: New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941; vol. II: Human Destiny, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943) 178-179.

[2] John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (p. 294). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Yoder nicely sums up Niebuhr in this chapter.

[3] Frances F. Hiebert, “The Atonement in Anabaptist Theology” in Direction, Fall 2001 · Vol. 30 No. 2 · pp. 122–38 https://directionjournal.org/30/2/atonement-in-anabaptist-theology.html


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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