It was 1968, for the last semester of my senior year at Illinois Wesleyan, and I requested permission from Paul Bushnell, the head of the history department, to join the senior seminar in history. That would not be surprising, but I had never taken a history course at IWU, except the History of Christianity that was taught in the religion department. My theory had been, “Why take a course in a field that was my hobby anyway?” Paul Bushnell invited me into the seminar.
He knew what I intended to do, which was to study as much of Reinhold Niebuhr’s writing as possible, leading up to his 1932 work Moral Man and Immoral Society. Another course had required the reading of that book. My interest was to trace the historical sources of his insight, that there is a “basic difference between the morality of individuals and the morality of collectives” that makes it exceedingly hard for groups to check impulses, transcend their own needs, comprehend the needs of others, and restrain their own egoism. He did not imply that this is easy for individuals, just that it is much harder for groups.
The method for the course began with collecting every essay Niebuhr had written before his book was published, and many afterwards, since 1932 was just the beginning of his application of the insight into the development of the Third Reich. In addition to English, as a German reader and writer, his awareness of German developments exceeded most of his contemporaries. I had not even begun to read German yet, so I had to rely on others’ translations of his German essays. The library of the University of Illinois was nearby, and their collection provided over a hundred essays that I could not find elsewhere, as well as a photocopier that worked, and I emptied my wallet making copies.
I was lost in a forest of insights. How could a pastor, occupied with the needs of his Detroit parish, find the time to delve so deeply into the social conditions of his nation and his world? Some relief came with the personal reflections in Niebuhr’s Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. Niebuhr was human, after all. He was also totally immersed in thoughtful analysis of “the disproportions of power in society” and “the stubborn resistance of group egoism to all moral and inclusive social objectives.” People hold onto their prejudices, hypocrisies, and dishonesties, and use them to justify the privileges they enjoy or seek. The powerful are more likely to be personally generous with a portion of their wealth than to grant structural change for social justice.
Essay by essay Niebuhr built a catalogue of social wrongs from police suppression of labor demonstrations, to legal and extra-legal racial discrimination, to Nazi scapegoating of Jews, Romani, and “non-Aryans.” He was a persistent witness to the continuing struggle of one group or class of people over another, seeking vengeance and employing vindictiveness in repositioning themselves, and using any and every means to justify their actions, even from a moral point of view. “Society needs greater equality, not only to advance but to survive….”
Occasionally I look over that dog-eared collection of essays and that most popular book that summarized them all, with its many underlined passages. Circumstances and characters have changed; in significant ways they remain the same. How contemporary the insights appear.