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November 02, 1984 - Image 42

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1984-11-02

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Friday, November 2, 1984




Remembering theologian Niebuhr

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Special to The Jewish News


The Midrosho College of Jewish Studies presents its


Mina and
Theodore Bargman

The Making of Our Precious Legacy:
The Emergence of the Modern Jew

Dr. Ellis Rivkin

Dr. Jehuda Reinhorz

Dr. Maurice Friedman

"The Process and Forms of
Emancipation in Eastern
and Western Europe -

"The Battle of Ideologies in
Eastern & Western Europe""

"World of Martin Dube(

Nov. 1, 8 pm, UHS

Nov. 8, 8 pm, UHS

Thursday, Nov. 15, 8 pm
At JCC Book Fair,
Maple-Drake Bldg.


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Located in the Sigmund
and Sophie Rohilk Bldg.

How many Americans know the
name of Reinhold Niebuhr? Of
course seminary professors are
not that well-known, even to
members of the churches, let
alone to the public at large. Yet
Reinhold Niebuhr, who was pro-
fessor at Union Theological Sem-
inary for four decades, is consid-
ered by specialists to have been
the greatest American theolo-
gian since Jonathan Edwards."
And, according to Hans J.
Morgenthau, he was also "the
greatest political thinker
America has produced at least
since John C. Calhoun."
More relevant to this column is
the extent to which he turned
some American churchmen to a
new way of thinking and acting
toward the Jewish people. In my
first graduate seminar which
dealt with the Third Reich and the
attack on the Jewish people, a
student established that Niebuhr
wrote more editorials and articles
dealing with the crisis than any
other American Christian. And
even now — 40 years after — his
writings stand the test of
Niebuhr understood that
Nazism was a mortal threat to
true Christianity. He understood
that the attack on the Jews was at
the heart of the Nazi enterprise,
and he believed and wrote about
their meaning months before
most Americans — Jews or Chris-
tians — awoke to the peril. He
championed the cause of the com-

paratively few German chur-
chmen — Niemoeller, Bonhoeffer
et al. — who publicly opposed Hit-
ler and his engine of destruction.
For this, although everyone
wants to forget it now, he was at-
tacked during the Hitler and
World War II years by powerful
sectors of the Christian estab-
lishment in America. He was ac-
cused of being pro-Communist be-
cause he was anti-Hitler. He was
criticized as "too pessimistic." His
theology was said to lay too great
an emphasis upon sin.
His warnings about modern
man's illusions, his blissful trust
in "progress," his unlimited confi-
dence in "education," his slight-
ing of problems of power and con-
flict, his sublime but naive trust
in persuasion were scoffed at by
"liberal" Protestants. On the
other side, of course, among
"Fundamentalists" he was
criticized because he did not use
the Bible as a slide-rule and be-
cause he made extensive use of
"secular" and "profane" knowl-
In Britain, however, and on the
world map of the World Student
Christian Federation and the
World Council of Churches in
process of formation, Niebuhr was
greatly admired. And among
those Christians in Germany who
stayed Christian, he was consid-
ered a major ally, a lifeline to the
world church. When he gave the
Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh in
1939, the fourth American to be

invited in 100 years, the lecture
hall had an overflow audience.
In the confrontation with Nazi
ideology and power. Niebuhr was
a tower of strength, and a major
force in exhuming the American
churches from the pacifism and
isolationism into which they (and
the country-at-large) had de-
clined after the disillusion with
World War I and the Versailles
Treaty. The leading Protestant
journal, The Christian Century,
constantly urged America to
avoid taking any stand against
the expansionism of the Third Re-
ich. Niebuhr founded Christianity
and Crisis as a countervailing
force against neutrality and for
support of, those, among the
churches and among the govern-
ments, who fought Hitlerism.
In one area, because of wide-
spread anti-Semitism among
church leaders, Christianity and
Crisis remained (as it has to this
day) as blind as The Christian
Century: the plight of the Jews
trapped in the Nazi Empire. But
Radical Religion, a quarterly
journal which he founded in 1936
as the journal of the Fellowship of
Socialist Christians, from the be-
ginning argued that Jewish sur-
vival was a concern for Chris-
By 1942, in the midst of the war,
Niebuhr was writing major arti-
cles on the need for a Jewish state.
He argued that group survival
was as much a right as individual
survival, and that the Jewish

Dear Friends,


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