Reinhold Niebuhr’s brother, H. Richard, argued for faithfulness to the example of Jesus’s nonviolence, while Reinhold believed this was naive and unrealistic in an imperfect world. H. Richard was the purist to the Christian faith, believing that following the Golden Rule, no matter the consequences, is what Jesus and God called us to do — the success of the mission being in God’s hands rather than our own.
Reinhold, however, looked at the more practical side of things, substituting his or the world’s idea of what was possible and changing his ethics accordingly. H. Richard thus trusted more in the providential moral arc of history as M.L. King, Jr. , would call it rather than a realist’s version of what humans believe is attainable given their corrupt nature. In essence, H. Richard focused on the power of God’s grace to transform our spirits and the world for the better, while Reinhold accepted a more cynical view of our ability to be radically changed as a specie.
Reinhold’s views were exemplified in the famous “Serenity Prayer” that he coined (as is seen below). But for those who are more optimistic, or at least more faithful in heeding God’s call regardless of the anticipated success of doing so, a prayer more in the spirit of H. Richard Niebuhr may be more inspiring.
In a world where so many are looking for personal serenity and contentment, we need to be reminded of the moral duty and spiritual grace of placing the Golden Rule above the rule of self-interest. Our comfort, safety, and security matter less than our kindness, mercy, and dignity.
Below is my attempt to offer a prayer that focuses on faithfulness to God’s call to live non-violently and compassionately with one another irregardless of whether we think it will work. This requires more trust in God’s values than it does the malleability of the human soul. I hope we can be transformed in our spirit to abide by God’s virtues, but whether we can or not is less important than that we diligently strive to do so with a resolve and determination to place God’s highest ideals above our own conceptions of what is humanly possible.
THE DETERMINATION PRAYER
I vow, O God, to model the faithfulness
to change what ethics would have me not accept;
to oppose anything less than what virtue would inspire;
to compassionately work for justice for others and myself, no matter what the cost;
to trust that more beauty and goodness is possible than what I may realistically reason to be so;
and to live and die with the integrity of aspiring to the noblest ideals of living in peace with nonviolence, rather than to capitulate to any lesser motive.
Grant that I may not look to the probabilities of success, but to the wisdom of being faithful. Inspire me to be committed, persistent, and enduring in my devotion to live by values that are sacred; rather than calling sacred whatever may be my values. And so may I be a blessing to the world in which I inhabit.
— Rev. Bret S. Myers, 3/15/2017