Sunday, August 23, 2009

Reinhold Niebuhr - Pride and Serenity

Pride and Human Rights In Canada From Another Perspective

This morning, I came across some of the thoughts, teachings and writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, an American Protestant pastor, teacher, and social justice advocate. He is best known for authoring the Serenity Prayer, which I will reproduce in totality at the end of this piece. Before today, I had never seen all of it, and it is worthy of thought and prayer.

What I came across that was most pertinent to the situation of our Human Rights Commissions in Canada was actually written by Rev. Niebuhr in 1951 in his book The Nature and Destiny of Man. It was his description of pride and I came across it as relayed by Daniel Akin et al from a Baptist perspective, in A Theology for the Church, published in 2007. It never ceases to amaze me that everything old is new again. Here almost 60 years later, what Niebuhr said is proving to be even more true.

Niebuhr wrote about 3 kinds of pride extant in our society, pride of power, pride of knowledge, and pride of virtue. This Christian man then started his discussion of pride by quoting a well known philosopher, socialist of the time Bertrand Russell:
"Of the infinite desires of man, the chief are the desires for power and glory. They are not identical though closely aligned."
Niebuhr describes pride of power thus:
"There is a pride of power in which the human ego assumes its self-sufficiency and self-mastery and imagines itself secure against all vicissitudes. It does not recognize the contingent and dependent character of its life and believes itself to be the author of its own existence, the judge of its own values and the master of its own destiny.... It is the sin of those, who knowing themselves to be insecure, seek sufficient power to guarantee their security, inevitably of course at the expense of other life."
He then went on to describe the pride of knowledge, or intellectual pride that:
"pretends to be more true than it is. It is finite knowledge, gained from a particular perspective; but it pretends to final and ultimate knowledge."
As Niebuhr viewed it, the person guilty of this pride could see limitations of perspective in others, but in himself or herself, not so much, in fact, not likely at all. Reminds me of some HRC commissars I've heard of.

The third area of pride, pride of virtue comes forth in self righteous judgements. As he described it, the self righteous individual condemns others because the judged person is unable to conform to the highly arbitrary standards of the self. As Niebuhr put it (my bold):
"Since the self judges itself by its own standards it finds itself good. It judges others by its own standards and finds them evil. . . Moral pride is the pretension of finite man that his highly conditional virtue is the final righteousness and that his very relative moral standards are absolute."
Boy, I have never heard a better description of the work of our Canadian human rights commissions than this description of pride. Think for a moment how the HRCs and HRTs of Canada are setting about making right imaginary wrongs, for some imaginary or even stated purpose. At least, we can now put a perspective on the purpose behind the stated purpose, if there is indeed a discernible stated purpose that makes any sense.

Now for another view let us look to Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer, and see what his words have to say about the situation we find ourselves in.

The Serenity Prayer

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.


Here is a revision that seems to be more operative in our society of the day, though I abridged it also.
SERENITY PRAYER -- Revised and Abridged
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I cannot accept,
and the wisdom to hide the bodies of those people I had to kill today because they p?ssed me off.

Also, help me to be careful of the toes I step on today,
as they may be connected to the a?? that I may have to kiss tomorrow.

I prefer Niebuhr's version, and am doing my best to work against this one. By the way, I don't come to an ignorant place of finger pointing at the HRCs of Canada about pride. I have lived almost 60 years with my own struggles with pride, some more successful than others, so I know that when I point a finger at someone else, 3 point back at me.

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