The Bible Verse Reinhold Niebuhr Chose As Most Essential

If but one Bible verse survived after a global cataclysm, what verse would you hope got preserved?

The famous theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was asked this question in 1954 of a magazine editor, and here was his response:

The passage of the Bible which I would choose is Ephesians 4:32, “And be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” I take it that the purpose is to find a passage of Scripture which will contain as much as possible of the whole message of the Bible. I have chosen this particular passage because it combines the high point of the Christian ethic, which is forgiving love, with a reference to the whole basis of the ethic, which is the historical revelation in Christ. We are asked to forgive one another. The charity of forgiveness is, however, not possible as a duty. It is only possible in terms of the knowledge that we are ourselves sinners, and that we have been forgiven. It therefore combines the Christian Gospel with the Christian ethic in succinct form.

The contrast with Nietzsche and our post-Christian era is stark here. Nietzsche would have called Niebuhr’s response an example of slave morality. The very notion that you should be generous with people and cut them breaks surrounding their faults and bad behavior because God in Christ has been generous with you and absorbed your own faults and bad behavior on the cross, sounds nice but makes you a debtor obligated to a master (as those you forgive in turn become debtors to you).

It is, in other words, inherently guilt producing. When you inevitably fail the standard, it sets up a round of personal recriminations, requests for fresh forgiveness from your master (Christ), and renewed attempts to punish yourself by putting up with stupid, lazy, and bad people exactly as Christ puts up with you. 

And who benefits from this guilt? Nietzsche would say the mediocre, life’s losers (which is why they advocate it). It tames those who excel and gives the undeserving things for free.

Freud might also add salt to this wound, arguing that once you accept such a relationship to others and to God, if you fail and then don’t set up this guilt-cycle consciously, you’ll do so unconsciously (harming yourself by “accident” as a form of self-inflicted punishment).

Still, given the alternative, this seems a fair trade to most people, and why there are so many more professing Christians than will-to-power Nietzscheans in the world. Christianity of the sort promoted by Niebuhr is a refuge from the Darwinian storm, a place for people to breathe the air of generosity together. It is not tit-for-tat (a typical Darwinian exchange if two members of the same species are cooperating and not at one another’s throats), but tit-regardless-of-your-tat. It is an invitation to transcend the game altogether (at least for a while).

In this sense, ancient Christianity’s response to ancient Judaism anticipates contemporary Christianity’s response to our own post-Christian, Darwinian, and capitalist world. Just as early Christianity was push back against strict obedience to the Mosaic law (“an eye for an eye,” etc.), so today’s Christianity is push back against the dog-eat-dog treadmills of the 21st century.

Somewhere love has to prevail even where it induces in us guilt, servitude, and obligation to the One who (supposedly) went first.

File:Marco palmezzano, crocifissione degli Uffizi.jpg


But this is where Christianity misses something important about human nature. Generosity is not best secured by obligation to Christ, but by prosperity.

In other words, Jews, Darwinian atheists, and capitalists are surely no more or less generous in practice than Christians who have taken a vow of poverty (for example), and this has to do with tit-for-tat arrangements that make for general prosperity. People who do not enforce the law among themselves, do not assert their own will-to-power, and do not engage in trade and lending for money, have set themselves up for cycles of resentment, not generosity. It wasn’t better morally in the Middle Ages when lending money was considered a sin and cathedral building absorbed a great deal of a community’s energy. It’s better now. And it’s not because of Christ, it’s because of prosperity grounded in Darwinian and capitalist selfishness.

Tell me that’s not true.

And this is why Marxism doesn’t work either. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” has a pleasant ring to it. Indeed, it sounds very much like a secular version of Niebuhr’s favored biblical passage. But in practice it’s a nightmare (as is Christianity).

Better is the below verse from the Hebrew Bible. Contra Niebuhr, it’s the passage I would want to see survive a global calamity. The verse is Micah 6:8. It gets the justice and mercy balance right. And it has the quality of an elegant mathematical formula, a reduction of religion to elements that I, as an agnostic, can absorb and endorse. The translation I’m quoting from is the King James:

He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

My agnostic translation: Do justly, love empathy, doubt.

And in doing justly I think it’s only fair and empathic to say that I don’t like the author’s flagrant male gendering of the addressor (God) and the addressee (man), rendering women invisible. And in keeping with humility before the ontological mystery (the mystery of being), I think it’s fair to ask how the author knows that God is male. Or what God has shown us. Or even that God exists.

On analysis, in other words, the verse breaks down under its own weight. And that’s why I like it. It’s what makes for the verse’s beauty and power. The author’s admonishments invite scrutiny upon themselves with the same gestures that are advocated.

Isn’t that great?

And this is why I think that Zizek’s critique of charitable giving and philanthropy in the below video, though clever, is ultimately mistaken, harkening back, in Marxist form, to the Pauline moral error that Niebuhr endorsed.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to The Bible Verse Reinhold Niebuhr Chose As Most Essential

  1. I love that video!
    Continued success.

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