The Serenity Prayer, originally composed in 1943 by the pastor-theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) for the troops in WWII, resonates as much now as ever in our public as well as personal lives.
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.
Since adapted by Alcoholics Anonymous thousands of people in recovery recite it daily. Niebuhr may be relatively unknown but his prayer lives on as a quick guide to sobriety and sanity whatever our situation in life.
His legacy has been renewed in a new documentary film available on PBS:An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story and companion book by Jeremy L. Sabella.
Those of us who studied mid-twentieth century theology remember Niebuhr for among other things appearing on the cover of Time magazine in 1948. We read his major works including – Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics and The Nature and Destiny of Man.
We remember that he was an inner-city pastor in Detroit before he became an ethics professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York. .
He is described in the new documentary as a ‘public theologian’ for his observations on social ethics and the role he played as an advisor to public policy leaders particularly on issues of war and peace.
Martin Luther King quoted him in his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail.” Billy Graham followed him. In the 2008 presidential campaign both John McCain and Barack Obama cited his influence on their politics.
He is best known and followed for two primary thoughts.
- Corporate systemic evil must be restrained by force if necessary.
Having witnessed the carnage of WWI, Niebuhr abandoned early 20th Century utopian visions for the perfectibility of society through education. While not giving up on social reform he recognized that evil is social as well as personal and must be named and at times restrained with force: making a case for just war.
- We must recognize and restrain evil in ourselves as well as the enemy.
Having witnessed the nightmare and future threat of atomic weapons following WWII, he warned U.S. leaders that the capacity for evil must be recognized in ourselves as well as the enemy.
A key petition in the Serenity Prayer is for “the courage to change.”
For Niebuhr this meant that –
- Since evil is systemic as well as personal we must work for justice.
- Given our propensity for self-centeredness we all need grace and forgiveness.
Serenity takes courage.