Niebuhrians in an Era of Mass Incarceration

Daniel Morris
Lecturer in Religion, Augustana College

10 August 2017

We in the United States desperately miss Reinhold Niebuhr’s prophetic voice today. Our society is plagued by sin and injustice no less than Niebuhr’s was. Of the many social and political issues that vie for our attention, racial injustice is one of the most urgent. Christians who are interested in reviving Niebuhr’s prophetic voice should note the many ways in which a realist social ethic is relevant to questions of racial justice. Niebuhr may not have engaged race as deeply or systematically as he could have, but he gave abundant tools for white Christians in the 21st century to evaluate and resist evil forms of racial oppression such as mass incarceration.

Anyone who has studied Niebuhr at all will know that he reflected at great length on the idea of sin. Sin is the universal human inclination to deny, as a result of anxiety, either our freedom or our finitude. The denial of finitude results in pride and puts human beings at odds with both God and neighbor. This is the problem that occupied Niebuhr most. His writing is packed with memorable lines on the nature and function of sin in modern society.

One passage, though, stands out as particularly relevant and instructive for American society today. In his Gifford Lectures, published as The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr reflects on the fact that all human beings are guilty of sin. But despite the fact that we are all guilty in a spiritual sense, social differences between persons create asymmetrical levels of power and injustice. 

“Capitalists,” he writes, “are not greater sinners than poor laborers by any natural depravity. But it is a fact that those who hold great economic and political power are more guilty of pride against God and of injustice against the weak than those who lack power and prestige…White men sin against Negroes in Africa and America more than Negroes sin against white men.”

Human beings may be equal in sin in an abstract spiritual sense, but in a concrete social sense, our differing levels of power allow for differing levels of injustice and oppression.

Nowhere is this more obvious today than in the racial disparities that mark our criminal justice system. As Michelle Alexander explains, the War on Drugs has created “grossly disproportionate rates” of incarceration for people of color. “Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino.” Yes, we are all finite and sinful. But some of us benefit from social and political power in relation to sin more than others. And some feel the pain of our universal inclinations to sin and injustice more acutely than others.

If white Christians in the United States want to participate in a Niebuhrian revival, we can begin by stating a basic fact of theology and ethics. Although we are all equal in sin, we are not all equal in the injustice that we inflict on each other or in the guilt we bear because of injustice. We white Christians who accept Niebuhrian premises about human nature and sin must accept our responsibility for injustice that falls disproportionately along racial lines. In the United States today, the prophetic work of love and justice can become active as we urge our legislators to end policies (such as mandatory drug sentencing) that perpetuate the inequality of racial guilt and injustice that has marred our history since its beginning.

*It is important to note that there are thousands of people incarcerated each day that simply can’t afford to post bail.

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