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The Saturday Night Theologian is part of Progressive Theology
Exegesis of Word and World, based on readings from the Revised Common Lectionary
Advent 2: Luke 1:68-79

Consider the following series of quotations from Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society, in the chapter entitled "The Morality of Nations."

The paradox is that patriotism transmutes individual unselfishness into national egoism.
Thus the sentiment of patriotism achieves a potency in the modern soul, so unqualified, that the nation is given carte blanche to use the power, compounded of the devotion of individuals, for any purpose it desires.
Perhaps the most significant moral characteristic of a nation is its hypocrisy.
The best means of harmonising the claim to universality with the unique and relative life of the nation, as revealed in moments of crisis, is to claim general and universally valid objectives for the nation.
The nation is a corporate unity, held together much more by force and emotion, than by mind. Since there can be no ethical action without self-criticism, and no self-criticism without the rational capacity of self-transcendence, it is natural that national attitudes can hardly approximate the ethical.
With these statements I heartily agree, and I recommend that everyone read this entire chapter (and indeed the whole book!). However, I don't agree with the conclusion that Niebuhr draws from his many observations concerning the immorality of nations, namely, that "perhaps the best that can be expected of nations is that they should justify their hypocrisies by a slight measure of real international achievement, and learn how to do justice to wider interests than their own, while they pursue their own." It should be noted that this rather pessimistic view was penned in 1932, while Europe was still recovering from the shambles of World War I and Germany was on the verge of becoming the Third Reich and launching World War II. Niebuhr had a right to be pessimistic as he looked at the world around him, and perhaps we do as well.

The Jews who lived during the time of Caesar Augustus had an equal reason, probably a better reason, to tend toward pessimism. Their brief flirtation with national independence had ended half a century earlier when the Roman general Pompey rode into Jerusalem and claimed it for Rome. The Jews maintained a certain degree of political autonomy, being ruled by King Herod the Great, but they were firmly under the thumb of Rome.

Despite their situation, the priest Zechariah, upon hearing that his wife would bear him a son in their old age, envisioned an upheaval, a reversal of fortunes. He prophesied that the messiah, of whom his son would be the forerunner, would save his people from their enemies and bring them salvation. He described those days as follows: "By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." In light of the uneasy political situation of his day, it is noteworthy that he looks forward to a time of peace. At the same time, he also mentions the existence of enemies. Many people would define peace as deliverance from one's enemies. I believe Jesus would define peace as the transformation of enemies into friends. Peace in the presence of one's enemies is at best an uncertain peace.

And this is where I think Niebuhr makes an error in his analysis. He cannot envision a world in which nations ever do much more than look out for their own selfish interests, for "what lies beyond the nation, the community of mankind, is too vague to inspire devotion." I don't accept that. Nationalism, as Niebuhr suggests, does indeed lead to an unstable world. We need not look back in history to support this assertion; plenty of contemporary examples are at hand. Nevertheless, the possibility of peace exists, despite the current existence of "sovereign" nations, in the eventual establishment of a system of worldwide justice, human rights, and democracy that exercises authority transnationally. The elimination of warfare between nations will come about only when nations give up their "right" to maintain armies and attack their enemies. Peace is possible, as Zechariah foretold, if we follow the model of Jesus and begin by loving our enemies, transforming them into friends.

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