Grace, Courage, and Wisdom in a Time of War


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

Praying these words is an almost universally practiced part of every 12 Step meeting in the world. Self-help literature features it prominently, in dealing with issues like addiction recovery, or grief recovery, or divorce recovery. Then there are simply the common, every-day issues of life: gas prices going through the roof; gridlock on Atlanta streets; the person in front of you in the check-out line at Publix, taking his sweet time writing a check; your thirteen year old child, testing every boundary every day; the wait list for the surgery that might relieve your pain, months and months long. In the face of all such things and more, praying the Serenity Prayer makes a difference and changes our private lives for the better.

Yet this prayer has a more public and political dimension, which may not be widely known. When Protestant pastor and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote it, in 1943, he did so against the backdrop of decades of social turbulence. In the larger world, this turbulence took the form of the punitive quality of the Versailles Treaty concluding the First World War, which established terms that Germany could not live up to, triggering economic crisis in that land as well as the simmering resentment that would eventually spawn, years later, a Hitler. As for turbulence on the home front: a good example is the post-war anxiety and xenophobia that led to violating the civil rights of the vulnerable: poor people working without safety nets, recent immigrants, people considered “alien” and therefore perhaps hostile, and reformers questioning the powers that be. All of this and more was on Reinhold Niebuhr’s mind and heart when he wrote the Serenity Prayer. The prayer was never just about how to find serenity in our private lives, although over time it has come to seem that way. It was also about how we might live out our religious values with serenity in the larger world—how we might come to terms with the possibilities of collective action for improving the world, as well as with the impossibilities of this, our limitations. That’s our focus today—the more public, political aspect of the Serenity Prayer.

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

We begin with the things that cannot be changed. One of them is human nature. Listen to something Niebuhr once said: “It is so easy to condemn flagrant pride and to condone a subtle form of it; to outlaw overt injustice and to sanction a covert form of it; to condone the security of power because its tentative necessity is recognized; or to accept injustice complacently as the price and inevitable consequence of power; or to encourage men to the illusory hope that they may build a world in which there is no power, pride, or injustice. How can all of these things temptations be avoided? They cannot … wherefore we ought to speak humbly.” This is what Reinhold Niebuhr said. The temptations cannot be avoided. It’s about being realistic about what it means to be human. The more virtuous we think we are, the greater the viciousness that unconsciously seeps out. The brighter the light we think we are, the darker our shadow. Good and evil are in our hearts interwoven and inextricably mixed. Therefore we ought to speak humbly.

And how can we not? History provides ample reason. America fighting for freedom, outlawing overt injustice abroad, and yet at the same time sanctioning covert forms of unfreedom, like human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, or waterboarding and other so-called “legalized” forms of torture, or warrantless surveillance of people in these United States. In 1920 it was the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, in which two Italian laborers had been charged with murder. In broken English, they protested vehemently for their innocence, but given the fact that feelings at the time ran high against immigrants and the working class, as well as the fact that anarchist propaganda had been found among their possessions, they didn’t have a chance. The traumas of the First World War, together with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and worker’s strikes at home, had exacerbated ugly social and ethnic hostilities already simmering and bubbling in the great melting pot of American society. Sacco and Vanzetti were “Communists” and “Reds”; they were grubby workers who needed to remember their place in the social and economic pecking order. People wanted blood, and they got it. Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death in a trial that was a flagrant miscarriage of justice.

It’s just one small example of the shadow that is the necessary twin of light—we cast the shadow even as we claim service to the light. “Quick-blooming xenophobia was and still is a famous American habit in a time of stress,” says Elisabeth Sifton, Reinhold Niebuhr’s daughter. In the 1950s, anyone with an interest in better race relations or in American participation in international peacekeeping triggered suspicion with status quo leaders, were thought of as supporters of the evil Bolshevik empire, were put on a list. And today, the same namecalling and scapegoating happens, this time against such groups as Arabs and Muslims. Even moderate Muslims like Debbie Almontaser of New York City, dreaming of starting a public school in which children of Arab descent would join students of other ethnicities, learn Arabic together, become ambassadors of peace and hope. Despite this wonderful vision, Debbie Almontaser has been branded a “radical,” a “jihadist” and a “9/11 denier.” A subverter of the social order. Today, “terrorist” and “islamist” replace “communist” in the lexicon of American fear.

Good and evil are in our hearts interwoven and inextricably mixed. Therefore we ought to speak humbly. And Reinhold Niebuhr isn’t alone in saying this. Listen to how one of the premier 20th century Unitarian Universalist theologians, James Luther Adams, puts it. He says, “Fortunately, not many of us have had the experience of confronting Gestapo agents. We have liked to believe that we did not share their faith, yet we have all had some part in creating or appeasing Gestapos—and we could do it again. […] In fact, the spirit, if not the brutality, of the Gestapo has to be stopped in ourselves every day, and we are not always successful, either because of our impotence or because of our lack of conviction. The faith of the unfree can raise its ugly head even in a ‘free’ country.” That’s how one of our own, James Luther Adams, saw it.

Human failing is perennial and unchanging. Reinhold Niebuhr called it sin. James Luther Adams called it the inner Gestapo. Forget this—forget that the devil sits on one shoulder as surely as an angel sits on the other—and you end up serving the devil without even knowing it. It has always been so, and it always will. The faith of the unfree can raise its ugly head even in a “free” country, even in a “free” congregation.

It is something unchangeable. And here is something else: the irreducible messiness and ambiguity of our world. Perhaps the classic expression of this comes from the existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, when he said, “I stick my finger into existence and it smells of nothing. Where am I? What is this thing called the world? Who is it that has lured me into the thing, and now leaves me here? Who am I? How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted?” Kiekegaard here lists so many fundamental questions, and life does not wait for us to answer them. Life does not say, OK, I’m gonna leave you alone until you get your act together. No. Life poses difficult, terrible, at times even horrible challenges, and we must do the best we can without knowing the full context, without being able foresee the full consequences, without any up-front guarantee. Should we legalize forms of torture like waterboarding if it means that the violated human rights of one would mean the happiness and well-being of many? Should we block law-abiding Muslims from seeking ways in which the larger society might accommodate them? Should we? Should we? In Reinhold Niebuhr’s day, some of the difficult and terrible issues had to do with saturation bombing, or use of atomic weapons, or what was to become of the Jews in the post-war world. Life does not wait for us to get our act together. It puts us in the most difficult places, and we must do our best. We must do our best, even as we know that “The fires of commitment do not bestow the gift of infallibility.” Even as we know that “the most well-meaning can err in the mission of good, and can worsen conditions they seek to reform.” (Derrick Bell).

The things that cannot be changed. Human fallibility. The world’s messiness. Which takes us to the issue of acceptance. Accepting these realities with serenity. Not with a sense of hopelessness, which sees futility in every effort to reform the world, but serenity, which is a calmness and clearness that, first of all, preserves our energy from being sapped by unrealistic expectations. Accepting the fact that the faith of the unfree can raise its ugly head even in a free country means that we aren’t excessively shocked and therefore paralyzed when it happens. We can take the energy that would be tied up in all that shock and paralysis and use it to actually do something.

Serenity means calmness, not panic, when unjust things happen; and it also means resilience as we do our best to counter the injustice. One of Niebuhr’s favorite bible scriptures was 2nd Corinthians, Chapter 4, where it says, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” This is resilience, and he had to have it when, in the 1930s, word started getting around about how Hitler was rounding up the Jews, or when he saw his own country, America, insisting that neutrality was the best option, even as the Wehrmacht swallowed up one nation after another, and then, in 1939, attacked Poland—and THEN, in 1940, attacked England. “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed.” He was not going to allow adversity to keep him from doing all that he could do, to speak out and act on behalf of justice. Adversity was not going to trap him into doing nothing. For he knew this, that “The surest way for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing” (Edmund Burke). That’s what he knew.

Serenity is key. It calms and clears; it empowers resilience; and it does this as well, above all: it creates a space of listening in which we can hear a call to do something that is indeed in our power to do. Perhaps we are aware of a situation that is so big, or complex, or entrenched, that we hardly know how we might act to make it better; yet serenity can open up a creative space in our hearts and minds, in which previously unrecognized solutions of some kind will bubble up. I like how one of my colleagues, the Rev. Scott Alexander, talks about this, as it applies to the situation in the Middle East. He says, “It is very important spiritually for each and every one of us to quietly understand that there are many things about this world of ours that we as human individuals do not have the power to change. Just one example: During the recent month of deadly violence between Hezabollah and Israel, which was constantly in the news, I found myself increasingly upset and off balance, wishing I (and others) could do something to end the pointless violence. But, of course, in more sober moments I fully realized there was nothing I alone, living half way around the world, could do to bring lasting peace to the Middle East. But I could (and decided I would) try (as the rockets and bombs flew) to bring greater peace and greater calm to my home, and neighborhood, and workplace and my daily interactions with others, especially strangers. As the war raged, I tried to be a presence of greater peace in my daily rounds…” That’s what Scott Alexander says, and this is of no small significance. Not at all. How tragic to be warlike at home, or in the workplace, or in one’s congregation when one is angry and hurting about war abroad! That’s a tragedy.

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

Oh, we need this wisdom today. We fight a war on terror that, in my opinion, has been horribly mishandled and has created a situation in which there are no easy solutions. We face choices of action that seem unimaginably difficult. At home, there is great anxiety and uncertainty, and injustice abounds. Innocent people are being scapegoated. Civil rights curtailed and violated.

And so we turn to the Serenity Prayer, and allow it to guide our efforts in the social and public sphere. From it, we can learn that though we cannot truly create heaven on earth—that human nature and the nature of the world are such that there will always be suffering, there will always be strife, there will always be injustice—still, we can change our attitude towards all this. We can courageously choose serenity rather than defeatism. We can courageously choose calm, rather than panic. And we can courageously choose to allow the creative Spirit of Life to touch our own lives, to fill us with wisdom, so that we can hear the call that is ours to hear in life, and play whatever part (small or large) is ours to play.

Be ready for that call. Do the something you can do. Do it with serenity, knowing that it will and has to be sufficient. “I am only one,” said 19th century Unitarian Edward Everett Hale, “But still I am one. I cannot do everything, But still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”