Wake Forest University School of Divinity
We are in a moment, it seems to me, in which the devil is showing both horns and both cloven feet. On Niebuhr’s own analysis, we might conclude that it is time to adopt Barthian countermeasures to best challenge obvious evils in political space. But despite his problematic track record on race, Niebuhr’s critique of Barth is helpful here. In order to exercise political agency responsibly, human beings must recognize and accept divine judgment. To do that, human beings need to wrestle with their own “perplexities,” repenting of prideful assertions of power. Genuine repentance is the precondition of responsible political action.
Less helpful is Niebuhr’s analysis of how the devil operates in political life. Niebuhr had a tendency to analyze groups and “group egotism” homogeneously, as though there is no meaningful difference between, for example, leaders and followers, elites and adherents, and the moral agency they exercise in group settings.
This moment offers an opportunity to re-examine Niebuhr’s assumptions about and deepen his analysis of “group egostism.” By doing so, we will be better prepared to wrestle with the “perplexities” of white racism in institutional settings.
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