A ‘proper humility’ can go a long way

President Obama bows his head in prayer during the National Prayer Breakfast this month.
President Obama bows his head in prayer during the National Prayer Breakfast this month. GETTY

Quite a stir has arisen from the political right about President Obama’s recent remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, a 63-year-old tradition.

He spoke about those who seek “to hijack religion for their own murderous ends,” ISIL being the most current example of religion-inspired violence. But here is where he got in trouble. He added these words:

“And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often [were] justified in the name of Christ.”

The president was examining how religion can be used for great good and great evil, and he called for the spiritual and political virtue of humility. This call for national humility was too much to swallow for those who connect humility with weakness and who decline to see how Christianity has been used for evil purpose as well as good. Charles Krauthammer wrote that the president’s remarks undermine the moral authority of the presidency and the nation.

But humility can be a strength when it soberly reminds us of our human limits. Ross Douthat traced the President’s “theology” to the work of the great American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. He himself was a chastened liberal whose “Christian Realism” took into account the human capacities for both good and evil. He famously said, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Niebuhr broke with his liberal friends by supporting American intervention to defeat Hitler and to enter World War II. Liberalism at that time was largely pacifist and non-interventionist. But Niebuhr said we must be willing at times to take “morally hazardous” action in order to defeat great evil.

He called for national humility which meant a recognition “of the limits of our capacities for power, wisdom and virtue.” Such humility did not refuse the exercise of political and military power against human evil, but warned of an unwise exertion of power – which always has unintended consequences. Niebuhr’s political and theological wisdom could serve us well today.

President Obama closed his remarks with these words:

“If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose. ... ‘We see through a glass darkly.’ ... But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required: To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.”

With these words he not only echoed Niebuhr, but also Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address where he said however we seek to do right and follow God’s will, “The Almighty has His own purposes.”

We who pray should pray for our president and for our national leaders a “proper humility,” strength of purpose and uncommon wisdom.

H. Stephen Shoemaker is an Assistant Visiting Professor of Religion at Johnson C. Smith University and former Senior Minister of Myers Park Baptist Church.