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Daniel Schultz @pastordan
, 47 tweets, 6 min read Read on Twitter
All right, I promised/threatened a sermon on tear-gassing babies last night, and I intend to deliver. Consider yourselves warned.
1. I should say this is a "sermon," since I'm not using scripture, but instead referring to the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr, every pol's favorite theologian.
2. Niebuhr's best remembered by people like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and James Comey for his "Christian realism" - looking at the world's situation without sentiment and carefully checking idealism.
3. Niebuhr is also beloved of conservatives because of his critique of liberal thinking. But he's a good deal more subversive than he gets credit for being.
4. Niebuhr's earliest (relevant) insight was on pacifism, actually. After World War I, he was an ardent pacifist, as many liberal Protestant pastors were.
5. But, taking up a pulpit in Detroit exposed him to a very sort of world than the ideals he'd learned in seminary and graduate school.
6. This was the era of rapid industrialization in Detroit, with all the attending social malaises: rapid influx of workers led to substandard housing, there was a great deal of inequality, and downright abuse of factory workers.
7. Niebuhr began to question the easy assumption that social change could come about strictly through non-violent means.
8. In that, he proved prophetic: it wasn't until after a series of violent strikes in the 30's that the factory owners began to see the UAW and other unions as a force to be reckoned with.
9. Workers had to sacrifice blood, and rather a lot of it, in order to see real change happen.
10. From this basic insight, Niebuhr began with the principle that to enact the Christian commandment to love required Christians to seek justice for the oppressed.
11. "Love seeking justice" was the core of his ethics, and he came to see the liberal Christian trust in reason as a barrier to that search.
12. You can't just sit down with warring parties over tea and say, "Well, what's the right thing to do?" and expect peace to break out!
13. Nor can you tell a factory owner (or bank CEO), "You should really give people who don't have a lot money some more" and expect them to cough it up. Not on any kind of real terms.
14. People with power don't typically give it up without being forced to do so. Same for privilege, especially economic privilege.
15. Power responds to power, Niebuhr believed, and it takes the exercise of power to change power. If you're not willing to use power to effect social change, you're not interested in social change. It's as simple as that.
16. So lesson one for us: you can sign all the online petitions you like expressing your outrage at tear-gassing babies, write all the op-eds, give all the hand-wringing sermons you like. Your time is better spent trying to defeat incumbents who support Trump's policies.
17. Those kinds of actions are only effective inasmuch as they carry with them the implied threat: We're going to remove you from office and/or take away your money if you don't stop doing this thing that we hate.
18. But I think where things get interesting is when Niebuhr goes on to analyze why there's this discrepancy between ideals and actions.
19. After all, even hoitey-toitey CEOs will admit in principle that maybe there shouldn't be so many poor people. But will they do anything about it? And why not?
20. It's not because we're bad, Niebuhr says. It's because we're anxious. Humans want to live, like any other animal. But unlike any other animal, we have enough self-awareness to see that what we do to live hurts others.
21. Humans know that they are insecure, insignificant, and it bothers them.
22. We try to run away from our existential anxiety most often by trying to make ourselves bigger, more lasting, less prone to - you know - dying.
23. So we seek power, prestige, wealth. We indulge ourselves in sensual pleasures to dull the pain. Or we do what a lot of people do, which is get married and start a family so we can live on in through our children.
24. Now, who do you know that is consumed by gaining power, prestige, wealth, sensual pleasure and fathering many children by multiple women? I'll wait for your answer.
25. I'll give you a hint: he's orange-skinned, germaphobic, and basically a walking Darwinian id...
26. Right! Donald Trump. And here's lesson two for us: Trump must be the most anxious man on the planet. His ego is so fragile he can't abide any threat to it, and he continues to seek ways to escape the anxiety we all must live with, through the most perverse and corrupt ways.
27. But Trump's anxieties and dodges belong to the nation as much as to him. The United States is founded on anxiety almost without parallel in the constellation of nations.
28. Because we, of course, are born into the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - the realities of murder, slavery, and oppression.
29. One more thing: Niebuhr looked at the grasping anxiety so characteristic of human nature and asked how societies could hold. Why don't we lapse into anarchy, or battles of faction against faction?
30. The answer was that societies establish rules, which are enforced by empowered elites. The problem is, empowered elites always want a little more power to do their job, and a little more money for doing it...
31. That leads to resentment by the people they rule over. Eventually, the masses get sick of the elites and dump them. Then they take their place, and now you've got a nice little cycle going.
32. (Think Animal Farm.)
33. "The same force which guarantees peace also makes for injustice," Niebuhr says.
34. And now, with all that in place, we can begin to see what's going on with this ugly incident.
35. It's a contest between two sets of wills: one the will to live free from violence and the violence of poverty, the other a will to hold onto power and privilege.
36. That's very Hobbesian, of course, but it helps us understand the inevitability of the conflict, and especially why minorities in the US aren't at all surprised to see something like this happen.
37. The leaders of our great nation since time immemorial have established peace in the land by keeping the darks down. Inevitably, people get sick of this treatment, or they get so desperate they can't put up with it, and they refuse to go along.
38. They start to do pesky things like demanding equal treatment under the law, or for the opportunity to have their case for asylum be heard.
39. And the forces they oppose are backed into a corner. They cannot compromise, because it will cost them their power and privilege, and because such conflicts inevitably become conflicts of identity for them.
40. It's your group or mine, buddy, and I'll be damned if it's mine. That's not a rational position at all. It's human, deep-seated, and very, very irrational.
41. What can be done, then? There are no easy answers, but just realizing that is the start to an answer.
42. Liberals like you and me have to realize that the kind of force on display on the border *will not go away.* As long as there are people with different skin shades, there will be animosity. As long as there's *any* human difference, there will be animosity.
43. The reality is that some people are always going to try to make themselves feel better by making other people suffer. That won't change, no matter how big an electoral victory is won.
44. But! You can put limits on those contests, make them harder for the haters to win. You can abolish ICE. You can change immigration laws. You can make being a racist so flipping toxic Donald Trump will become a byword for generations.
45. That's using power, and that begins to "approximate justice," as Niebuhr liked to say.

So get out there and do it. Love your neighbor by seeking justice for them.
46. Speaking of getting out there, my wife is waiting for me to go for a walk, so I'd better go. Thank you for listening. Learn to spell "NIebuhr." You're going to need it.
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