It must be understood that the children of light are foolish not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness. They underestimate this power among themselves.
Reinhold Neibuhr, 1944
The TakeAway: Periodically, democracy confronts mass confusion, as liberty enables the flow of conflicting claims and justifications for how we should live together. 2016 was such a year, as increasing inequality and the dissolution of the middle class surfaced ugly conflicts between cynics and optimists, with both sides seemingly unable to agree on facts, beliefs, or a shared sense of purpose. To prevent society from collapsing into chaos, we must rededicate ourselves to the principles of our pluralist, representative democracy, educate and empower ourselves about ways in which we can bridge the equity gap, and engage in the great battle for the nation’s soul.
In the waning hours of the last day of a tumultuous year, among other things, I was (a) mobbed by love and hugs from a dozen Ugandan children. Despite the cold, my upstairs Ugandan neighbors had a barbecue on New Year’s Eve, before setting off to see the fireworks in Boston. Most of them live around here — there’s a huge diaspora in the Boston area — but one family is visiting the States from Uganda, and the papa’s name is Ernest — my Dad’s middle name; (b) a Nepalese religious scholar who works at a local green grocer gave me a bouquet of flowers, an expression of gratitude for what he considers my warm and loving presence; (c) my wonderful, longtime Chinese landlord (whose eldest daughter is at West Point) said that a new fridge would be delivered on Wednesday (my old one conked out before Christmas).
What this means to me: That immigrants are a source of renewal and strength, and represent who we are in this great nation, which isn’t about an ethnic or racial group but an idea. My family goes back to the Revolution, but really, who cares? It’s about finding the good in everyone, and giving them the respect and room to grow it in a society that values such virtues, ennobled by freedom and supported by law.
It’s also about recognizing the evil, and the need for “the slow growth of mutual trust and tissues of community over the awful chasm of the present international tensions” and, I would add, American public life. Reinhold Niebuhr, one of our greatest thinkers and a public theologian — where are the public theologians? Why aren’t we treating religious principles with the dignity and respect and implications for practice they deserve??? — wrote about this in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, a book based on a series of lectures he gave at Stanford in January 1944. At this dark time of looming disorder, I take strength from his words:
“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
“Sometimes new truth rides into history on the back of an error. An authoritarian society would have prevented the new truth with the error.”
Back then, Niebuhr was writing about the need for caution in taming economic activity with moral discipline and political restraint — a discussion that has since faded but is making a comeback — but he might as well have been writing about today.
Beware of simple judgments
Niebuhr cautioned against an overly-optimistic liberal culture that “prevented modern democratic societies both from gauging the perils of freedom accurately and from appreciating democracy fully as the only alternative to injustice and oppression.” Too much optimism “obscures the perils of chaos which perennially confront every society, including a free society. In one sense, a democratic society is particularly exposed to the dangers of confusion. If these perils are not appreciated they may overtake a free society and invite the alternative evil of tyranny.”
Too much pessimism, Niebuhr says, “invariably leads to absolutistic political theories; for they prompt the conviction that only preponderant power can coerce the various vitalities of a community into working harmony.”
Seeking balance within human nature and human history
The challenge, he says, is to balance optimism with pessimism, that “modern democracy requires a more realistic philosophical and religious basic, not only in order to anticipate and understand the perils to which it is exposed, but also to give it more persuasive justification.”
In other words, both Light and Darkness, good and evil, lie within human nature and human history, and always pose perils. To ignore this is to put our own selves and the democratic ideal in jeopardy.
Evoking Matthew 10:16, Niebuhr wrote, “The preservation of democratic civilization requires the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove.
The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free from their malice. They must know the power of self-interest in human society without giving it moral justification. They must have this wisdom in order that they may beguile, deflect, harness and restrain self-interest, individually and collectively, for the sake of the community.”
Implications for active citizenship
So what are we to do? Here are some suggestions:
- Drop the sanctimony. We’re not in a debate, we’re in battle for the nation’s soul. Get out of your bubble. Listen to others, and pay attention to your own biases and filters. There are no “sides” or special race, white nationalism be damned. There are no special interests, just the national interest — which enables us to live free together, because America is an idea, not a demographic. There’s only one unifying purpose: E pluribus unum, with liberty, opportunity, and justice for all.
- Get educated. The children of light and the children of darkness lie within human nature and human history. Look back at history, during similar eras such as Niebuhr describes, that can help us understand what’s happening now. Look around you, at the wealth of new concepts and tools out there that can make our politics stronger, beginning with new approaches to capitalism that put the public interest and the common good out front, not sidelined or eclipsed by market values. That’s what this platform is about, and that’s what a now-sprawling infrastructure of dedicated professionals and reputable institutions have been working on for decades. Time to learn more about it.
- Get involved. The battle for the nation’s soul involves making the American idea and the values we hold dear real and enduring, not abstract or fiction. There are many existing outlets for positive action, and some still to be born. (Stay tuned for that.) Be it local, state, regional, national, or international, it is up to us to fix the situation. We all are immigrants. We all are equal. We all are stardust and golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.
So here’s to a more enlightened, activist, empathetic, and hopeful New Year, wherein the children of light and the children of darkness inform and enhance our communities and America’s promise, not destroy them.
Read more (check your public library):
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944. Copyright renewal 1972. New Foreword ©1960).
Paul Elie, “A Man for All Reasons,” The Atlantic, November 2007.
Neal Gabler, “The Secret Shame of the Middle Class,” The Atlantic, May 2016.
 The idea of taming economic enterprise with appeals to the virtues of stewardship, multicapitalism, and external impacts is, of course, a central one for this platform, the work I do, and the evolution of a field that has become far more robust and sophisticated than average Americans realize. It is an idea rooted in ancient cultures, involving questions of reciprocity, community well-being, and responsibilities beyond self-interest. Now is the time for more people to be educated, empowered, and engaged with this “movement” so as to fix inequality and numerous issues at the top of the public agenda that cannot be addressed solely through conventional means — e.g., taxation and public sector decision making.