Niebuhr is not a pacifist. He believed that people in groups always act out of self-interest, and that sometimes it is necessary to use coercion, violent or not, to bring about needed changes in order to make the world a better place. His critique of pacifism is that it doesn't work in really changing anything. Hauerwas came along later and argued for a form of pacifism that is a bit different than what Niebuhr seems to think pacifism is about, but that's for another post.
I wanted to share an example that Niebuhr gave. He is not critical of the principles given below, but he argues against their effectiveness in bringing about change. The situation is that in Italy, fascism was rising to power, and to combat it, the socialist leaders adopted pacifist principles as their strategy. Here are those principles:
- Create a void around fascism.
- Do not provoke; suffer any provocation with serenity.
- To win, be better than your adversary.
- Do not use the weapons of your enemy. Do not follow in his footsteps.
- Remember that the blood of guerrilla warfare falls upon those who shed it.
- Remember that in a struggle between brothers those are victors who conquer themselves.
- Be convinced that it is better to suffer a wrong than to commit it.
- Don't be impatient. Impatience is extremely egoistical; it is instinct; it is yielding to one's ego urge.
- Do not forget that socialism wins the more when it suffers, because it was born in pain and lives on its hopes.
- Listen to the mind and to the heart which advises you that the working people should be nearer to sacrifice than to vengeance.
I find some principles in that list that I think are worth applying to my own philosophies and ethics as a Christian. At the same time, Niebuhr's realism is pretty overwhelming.
Pacifists and non-pacifists tend to disagree about whether the rightness and wrongness of actions is determined by their ontological value versus their teleological value. Are things inherently wrong, or if we do wrong things for the right reason, does that make them ok?
Another facet I find very interesting is individual ethics versus societal ethics. I don't believe in vigilante justice, but I believe that government is appointed by God to "carry the sword." I can't do it, but we can. Niebuhr has some really fascinating observations about the general badness of mankind when groups go unchecked by other groups.