Serenity, Courage and Wisdom: Doing What We Can

by David Stewart

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation

August 6, 2107

To properly understand Niebuhr, we have to understand his place in our tumultuous 20th century history, so let’s briefly talk about that. In the beginning of his career, while serving his Detroit congregation between 1915 and 1928, Niebuhr addressed labor issues at Ford Motor company. He also wrote, spoke out and served on civic committees in Detroit about racial problems, forcefully advocating for integration and denouncing the Ku Klux Klan. He transformed himself over time from an anti-war pacifistic stance to contributing significantly to the theory of Just War. Niebuhr made this transformation because he saw serious evil in the rising militaristic and authoritarian powers of Japan, Germany and Russia in the 1930s and became convinced that those regimes morally required a militaristic response. He was always a socialist in his mind, but a Christian in his heart, believing strongly in the sinfulness of men. He ultimately came to the realization that while idealism can guide your actions and goals, having a realistic understanding of how power and people function will better help you achieve those goals. 

So, why would we as Unitarian Universalists pay attention to a conservative Christian with liberal politics that fought with both liberal and conservative political idealists and liberal and conservative Christians? The answer we are looking for is that he had a nuanced and realistic view of the human condition, our societies, and how to best make them work for the common good. His spiritual journey was strange and unique, and surprisingly similar to many of the spiritual journeys of members and friends in this congregation. 

I found myself asking, “If Niebuhr were here, what would he have to tell us from the lectern?” After all, he did speak to the Unitarian General Assembly in 1934 as the Ware lecturer. He spoke to us then about the challenge of living in the 20th century, given the horrific loss of life in World War One and the economic collapse of the Great Depression in the 1930s.

This quote from that speech might sound familiar to you all given our recent slow climb out of recession and entry into political chaos: “We are thus living in a period in which either the optimism of yesterday has given way to despair, or in which some of the less sophisticated moderns try desperately to avoid the abyss of despair by holding to credos which all of the facts have been disproved.” It’s almost as if he knew we would have another time of group think, another time of divisive know-nothingness. He spoke to us then about how human nature undermines our efforts to produce a better society, and it clearly is as applicable today as it was almost one hundred years ago. 

He spoke to us about how groups are inherently less moral than individuals. But Niebuhr was an optimistic pessimist. Or maybe a pessimistic optimist. In any event, he said, “It will [give strength to] men to exhaust all their resources in building a better world, in overcoming human strife, in mitigating the fury of man’s injustice to man, and in establishing a society in which some minimal security for all can be achieved.” (Which sounds a lot like a capital campaign asking you to dig a little deeper to make our little part of the world a better place.)  Beyond that it also sounds like someone who knows very well that climbing part way up the mountain of justice is a lifetime of work.

Many powerful people, including Presidents and social justice leaders, have named Niebuhr as an inspiration to how they should approach their use of power. He encouraged them to use their power for the betterment of humanity. But he warned them that along with the exercise of power comes the corruption caused by using power and the complacency of thinking our actions come from a place of purity.  Leaders often excuse their use of power with Niebuhr’s words without following through on the full prescription of his wisdom. But it wasn’t only those in formal power that heard his message and used his knowledge of the dynamics of power to be more effective in their work. After all, Niebuhr didn’t have the luxury of making snarky comments on Facebook when things he didn’t like were cropping up.  An example of the practical application of Niebuhr was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s efforts to drive public opinion against the proponents of Jim Crow laws in the South, which MLK called “a Niebuhrian stratagem of power.” 

But how might we apply Niebuhr? Personally, I have found comfort in using Niebuhr as a guidepost in my work on the Socially Responsible Investment Committee for the Unitarian Universalist Association. In that capacity, I help the UUA manage their Common Endowment Fund and all of the congregational endowments that are invested alongside of the UUA in the Common Fund. I sometimes do shareholder advocacy, and in my instances of making moral arguments to corporate boards at annual corporate meetings, I try my best to persuade directors of the board and corporate executives to change their behavior for the betterment of society. I know that the likelihood for success isn’t necessarily high, but keep my optimism that persistent efforts with a broad coalition will, over time, create change.  I try to be humble about my impact, and not self-righteous in the delivery of my message. I emphasize that I am only a messenger of a coalition much larger than myself.

I borrow strongly from Niebuhr when I understand that I am of the world, in it, and have to get my hands dirty to affect change in order to make the world better. That stepwise, compromised progress is often derided as insufficient, but that stepwise progress is likely more than would have been made otherwise, and puts companies on a path towards even better behavior in the future. I even try to crack a joke or two if that is possible – to keep their interest and make them understand that we share the human condition, and that even in a meeting all about money, that moral considerations can (and frankly, should) intrude in their considerations. 

I think all of the dry Niebuhrian theory that I have bored you with so far will have set you up for better understanding the limitations and the surprising successes of the UUA’s Socially Responsible Investing Committee. While I normally try to avoid talking extensively about the successes of shareholder advocacy at the Socially Responsible Investment Committee I co-lead at the Unitarian Universalist Association, please excuse me while I try to maintain some humility while I list them. Due to the efforts of the Socially Responsible Investment Committee over the years, two million workers are now protected in their gender identity and expression via corporate policies, not state and national laws. The leadership of the UUA was crucial, because we included protections for trans-gender people, not just gay and lesbian people, which other denominations were not as keen to do.

As part of a larger coalition, the UUA has convinced more than 80 companies to stop funding ALEC, an organization that creates legislative templates benefiting fossil fuel companies, stand your ground laws, and privatizing education, as well as the destruction of the Affordable Care Act. ALEC seeks to reduce societal support for normal Americans by reducing all regulations and shifting taxes to middle- and lower-class citizens. The UUA continues to successfully advocate to reduce damage to the environment due to corporate activities, such as leaking natural gas or mining tar sands in Canada as well as reducing the carbon footprint of companies that generate electricity. And there are many more that I will leave aside so we can finish this sermon in a timely manner (as well as keeping my ego in check). 

My point with listing these successes is simply to note that the Niebuhrian approach of limiting one’s goals and working humbly with a large group to accomplish those goals can be one way to impact a large number of people for the better. It allows me to remember that while I am not the perfect instrument to deliver corporate change, I nonetheless can do something, and this builds my stamina and maintains my optimism when faced with glacial movement by corporations. It allows me be a part of a coalition that gently and persistently chastises the economically powerful to do better for shareholders, for citizens, and for the environment. I get to come out of my ivory tower and actually do work to make the world a better place, one small step at a time, while knowing that I will never make the world anything approaching perfect. And, working on the UUA’s SRI Committee keeps me grounded in the reality that the world is complex.  

So, enough about me and really, enough about Niebuhr as well. The main point about this reflection is that we all have an obligation to try to make a difference, even knowing we might not make a large impact. I would ask you: What else are you going to spend your life on? We all spend our lives. How are we going to spend them is the real question. What are you going to do that affects the world, even in a small way, that leaves your legacy as a contributor to the greater good? If you are doing so, or are at capacity, please accept my and the congregation’s thanks for doing your good work. If you have some room to spare in your life to change the world a little bit, I would encourage you: find something to do that is long, slow, difficult, and world-changing. As a certain philosopher once said:

“Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime;
Therefore, we are saved by hope.

Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history;
Therefore, we are saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; Therefore, we are saved by love.

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own;
Therefore, we are saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”