The Politics of Being Nice
Associate Professor, Religion Department, Wilson College
Co-editor of Political Theology
7 June 2017
One of the things that first drew me to the work of Reinhold Niebuhr was a certain contrarian strain to his writing, a kind of polemical bent directed at the popular thinking of his day.
Perhaps this spoke to my own contrarian spirit, but I suspect that something more was going on as well–that Niebuhr resonated with my growing suspicions regarding a form of conventional wisdom that glorifies positive thinking and will power.
Growing up in a Southern Baptist family this conventional wisdom mixed with a strong dose of personal piety to form an ethic that suppressed grievances and resentments and stressed being nice. Even historical events like Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement were out of bounds. Watching a television show like MASH became a kind of boundary pushing event.
When I came across Reinhold Niebuhr in a seminary class, the first thing that hit me was his claim that conflict was inevitable. I heard him arguing that while Christians are called to love, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that with enough effort we can remake the world, especially not simply by being nice. Such ideas, he claimed, allow us to deny our participation in “covert forms of violence” on the job, at home, and in church.
Today we live in an age that seems far more cynical than Niebuhr’s, and yet we continue to long for a new society, a society that is post-partisan, post-racial, and even post-political.
We are tempted to reject party politics altogether, to wish a pox on politicians of all stripes. In place of politics we dream of social change on the model of a conversion experience. Many of us find ourselves dreaming of the good ole days or of a brand-new start. The reality is that even our dreams are informed by conflict. Niebuhr reminds us that conflict runs deeper than partisan politics; it runs to the heart of who we are. This isn’t the only claim Niebuhr made about us human beings, but it is a hard one to remember, especially for us nice people.
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