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Book Review: Love and Justice

Published: March 28, 2021
Last Updated: March 28, 2021

Love and Justice is a collection of essays written by Rienhold Niebuhr. Most of the essays are written near to or during World War II, and span the topic of love and justice both on a general, national, and international scale from the standpoint of a Christian theologian.

As an atheist I still find room to appreciate Niebuhr fairly easily, both intellectually and morally, because the topics he covers and the “morals” invoked really transcend Christianity and are applicable to anybody who is interested in society, justice, and either progressive or conservative ideas. Niebuhr has a nack for presenting his position in a way that is interesting regardless of your religion.

I am by no means knowledgeable on topics that delve deeply into Christianity itself, and before reading Rene Girard held organized religion as a whole as something kind of stupid. However, Girard’s compelling theory as to why religion exists made me revisit the stupid part of it, and also revisit some of the ideas and the bias I had against certain aspects of religion.

All in all, I don’t believe that some all-powerful being in the sky simply created man in seven days after watching a YouTube tutorial. However, after reading Girard I do believe the Bible has a wealth of information on humanity which would be foolish to ignore.

So I picked up a few Rienhold Niehbur books and let me tell you they are very interesting to read. I think five or six years ago I wouldn’t have given them a second glance once I found out Niebuhr was a Theologian, but thankfully, that has changed. No, I still don’t go to Church on Sundays, and definitely consider myself an atheist, at least in the sense concerning the YouTube video God from above.

Out of the Niebuhr books I’ve read so far, I think this one has the most Christian tinged writing, and I think that is because it’s a series of essays and some of them are written as critiques of different Christian organizations of the time. So the whole religion and God part comes through clearly. There is also an essay which goes relatively far into Jesus and the idea of love.

That said, I thought it was interesting regardless, because once you get passed the #hashtag #memed out version of words such as ‘love,’ there is quite a bit more nuance and thought required. From the standpoint of the large-scale (which is generally what Niebuhr writes on) this book goes into quite a bit of that detail. And, to be honest, living in America, or Western Civilization in general, I think you’re crazy to write off all of Christianity’s impact on society as solely stupid and bad. While the Church has done many wrongs, there are also positive aspects to religion. You can read Niebhur to see some of it.

The effort to substitute the law of love for the spirit of justice instead of recognizing love as the fulfillment and highest form of the spirit of justice, is derived from the failure to measure the power and persistence of self-interest.

One of Niebuhr’s common themes in his writing that I’ve discovered is his constant reminder of self-interest, and at the same time humanity’s ability to forget the power of it. The above quote highlights quite a bit of what this book covers in a general sense. How is it possible to support war in the light of Christian teachings? It’s questions like this that Niebuhr spends considerable time on in this book. Niebuhr himself is known for having changed his position on the use of force throughout his life.

A large portion of the book is Niebuhr detailing his opposition to pacifism despite it’s strong Christian basis. He goes into quite a bit of detail on why he thinks it is the wrong approach within the context of intervening in World War II to stop the Nazis. It’s also interesting to read this from a historical perspective, and see how portions of the United States were not sold on intervening in the war.

We should have long since have known that there are no clear choices between good and evil in the realm of politics and economics.

This is another quote from the book, and as the essays in Love and Justice show, there is no simple right and wrong. At least from the perspective that Niebuhr sees the world. Although he does write compellingly in many of the essays for his position, with the forceful clarity of somebody who believes they are right.

The book covers a number of topics besides World War II, including: Christians fooling themselves, realism, social justice, racial issues, war, pacifism, and the complex issue of justice overcoming oppression. It’s an interesting read on a wide ranging number of moral and social issues which continue to plague America and the world in modern times.

A few more quotes from the book:

We cannot disavow the use of power because it is hazardous, but neither must we obscure the moral peril of power.

We have a right to view the social and personal consequences of an action in retrospect, but if we view it in prospect we have something less than the best.

These two quotes also provide a context for which many of the essays operate within. Niebhur is not an advocate in these essays for the disavowal of power – in fact, in the case of Nazism, he pushes strongly for fighting, despite the strong pushback from the pacifists who are also Christian. He also shows the “moral peril” of power, and how it is difficult for the oppressed to use power and violence without becoming tainted with it’s use. It’s clear from reading this that there is no way to push back against oppression and wrong without getting your hands dirty.

The second quote directly above is always relevant, and it was fun to read these essays now, given that they have aged 60-80 years. It’s a reminder now that it’s hard to prejudge actions and know how it will come out. These essays were written during or shortly after one of the most traumatic periods in world history, and at the time Niebuhr advocated for intervention strongly.

Love must be regarded as the final flower and fruit of justice. When it is substituted for justice it degenerates into sentimentality and may become the accomplice of tyranny.

Overall this is a good series of essays written in an engaging and interesting way. It would be nice to find a contemporary Rienhold Niebhur to read about modern events.


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