God Grant Me
This is the second installment of our exploration of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer.” He wrote the prayer in two sections, the first part of which is recited in many twelve-step groups: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Today we will explore the courage to change.
Before we can change things, whether the exist within us or in the world around us, we must be brave enough to acknowledge the problem, then courageous enough to do something about it. That isn’t always easy.
First, we have to accept that change is necessary. When we’re judging the world, that’s not so hard. Glancing at the morning newspaper, scrolling through my Facebook feed, I read about abuse, collusion, and deception; global warming and pollution; homelessness, racism, and sexual assault; global warming, poverty, genocide, and the death of our children not just from school shootings, but also from drugs overdoses, hazing, and suicide. Some days, the enormity of our human cruelty and insanity overwhelms me.
The Courage to Demand Change
Your list is probably at least a little different from mine. A conservative Republican’s would doubtless be significantly different. Regardless, for us to detail these lists takes no courage whatsoever. In fact, figuring out everyone else’s problems sometimes protects us from truths about ourselves we don’t want to face.
Still, it’s not all bad to come up with a list like that. We need to define the problem before we can come up with a solution. To analyze our lists accurately and honestly, however, and then decide on a course of action that is both moral and effective, does take courage. Then we need even more courage to follow through and do something about the injustices we see.
The United States has enjoyed some decades of relative peace, prosperity, and goodwill, times when money was spent on social services and shoring up infrastructure. Not even then, though, did the prosperity and goodwill exist for everyone. Eden will never be total.
That’s why we need the courage to endure, to keep struggling, to keep loving, to keep speaking out. We need courage so we do not give up. This means not giving up on ourselves, on our country, on our values, or on our faith.
Does Change Require Battle?
How, though, do we struggle? What does it mean to “fight”?
If we go to war armed with weapons, we will need a certain amount of courage to keep going. To go forth with nothing but our own body and our words, to protest without violence, takes even more courage.
Many martyrs have exhibited such courage. Sophia Magdalena Scholl, for instance, was an anti-Nazi activist in her early twenties. She joined the White Rose, an anti-Nazi resistance group committed to nonviolence. Along with some other members of the organization, Sophie was arrested and executed. Just before she died, she said, “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?” 
That young woman spoke rousing and encouraging. Certainly, we hope that resistance movements make a difference. Although we won’t see results at the time, we hope that eventually, because of some small thing we have done, the balance of good and evil will tilt toward the good.
Martin Luther King, Jr., understood this, as well. “I’ve seen the promised land,” he said the night before he died. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.” 
After fifty years, King’s people are still not yet there. Not completely. That means, none of us are there. Nonetheless, the struggle to achieve his vision, and the vision of many other people, is still alive. We can take courage in that.
Niebuhr as a Political Writer
Yet perhaps you think I am over-politicizing Niebuhr’s prayer. After all, twelve-step groups are adamantly not political, which is as it should be. Their goal is to be a resource for everyone, regardless of class, religion, color, or political persuasion. Therefore, the change they advocate is an internal one, and the courage we need is the willingness to face our denial and recognize our own faults.
It is not wrong, however, to consider Niebuhr’s poem from a more political frame. After all, he was a political theologian. He is well known, for instance, for his analysis of war and pacifism. He believed that pacifism was heretical. To claim that Christianity is all about love is simplistic, he insisted. Sin is too real. While Christians believe we should model our behavior after Christ, we are each of us, “in some sense a crucifier of Christ.” 
In other words, we might try to love our neighbor and be good, but we will inevitably fail. Also, while individuals can be moral, societies cannot.  Therefore, pacifism alone can never adequately address the evils of the world.
While Niebuhr appreciates the moral stance of the pacifist and honors the conviction of beloved community that lies behind such a philosophy, he also insisted that it is wrong to condemn those who are willing to fight wars against injustice. To make such judgments is “absolutist” and self-righteous. 
The Courage to Change
In this way, Niebuhr highlights an inconvenient truth. Just because we judge our society as wrong doesn’t mean our way is the only or best way. Not only do leftist radicals show courage when they stand up for what they believe. So do some conservative politicians.
For instance, Ajit Pai, the chair of the Federal Communication Commission who led the battle to dismantle net neutrality, recently received the Charlton Heston Courage Under Fire Award from the National Rifle Association. Apparently, because of that, he received death threats, his family was “abused in different ways,” and his property was “invaded by the George Soros crowd.” The executive director of the American Conservative Union, Dan Schneider, introduced Pai as “the most courageous, heroic person that I know.” 
Regardless of your campaign, it takes courage to keep going when you and your family are threatened with harm. To accept and even honor this, especially in someone whose values we disagree with, takes its own kind of courage. We show an even deeper courage when we refuse to join crowds and mobs who vilify or even kill those with whom they disagree. To do this, we must find the courage to change ourselves.
Anthony de Mello offers a lesson in personal change when he tells a Sufi story of a master who, as a young man, wanted to change the world. He prayed for courage and energy so he could protest tirelessly.
As he got a little older, he saw that during those years of protest, he never changed a single soul. So he began to pray for the ability to change those close to him, such as his family and friends.
Finally, as an old man, he realized he’d wasted his entire life trying, unsuccessfully, to transform everyone but himself. His prayer became, “God, give me the courage to change myself.” 
We Are Not Alone
If we look within ourselves, and then do the work we need to heal and transform the “defects of character”  we see, we will behave differently toward our family, friends, and neighbors. Might that not be more courageous than yelling at them or fighting? To stand quietly and with loving firmness in the face of censure, ridicule, shame, danger, and betrayal is quite brave, whether we are facing Nazi soldiers or resentful siblings.
What makes such courage possible is that we are not alone in our struggle to change. We see this in a mystery novel by Vicki Delany. . Walt, one of the main characters, was convicted of a murder he hadn’t committed and framed by the investigating detective so he could marry Walt’s wife.
More than twenty years later, Walt’s case was reviewed, and he was cleared of all charges. Released from prison, he returns to the town where this all began, in part to take revenge on the detective who had sent him away.
Letting Go of Resentment
Toward the end of the book, Walt is standing on the porch of the detective’s home, pointing a pistol at him. Two policemen stand on the steps nearby. It took courage for Walt to return to the town where he’d been convicted, and it took courage for him to walk to the detective’s home with his gun. Standing there with his weapon, he knows his own life is also in danger now, and it takes some courage to stay there. On the other hand, he was prepared to die for his cause, righteous or not, and facing our deaths always requires at least some courage.
Fortunately for Walt, the two officers who are watching, waiting, and trying to figure out how to respond without anyone getting hurt, know something about Walt. The man has been living in their town for about a week.
As Walt stares at the man he hates, one of the officers gently asks him, “How is Carolyn?”
A Gentle Reminder
Carolyn is not Walt’s wife. His wife has died. Carolyn is a woman he met after getting out of prison, a woman he cares for, with whom he experienced joy for the first time in many years. By invoking this woman’s name, the officer reminds Walt of all he has to lose. Is the momentary satisfaction of his rage worth the loss? Walt remembers that life has its attractions. He wants to enjoy them. With a nod of thanks to the officer, he hands her his gun.
The officer showed courage in the careful way she turned the situation around, defusing tension, knowing that if she did not, she might have to kill a man she didn’t want to harm. Courage isn’t about the power to hurt others. Any boor can do that. Courage is about the power to refrain from hurting.
Walt himself showed the courage to refrain from hurting another. He could not change the past, but by letting go of his “right” to revenge, he gave himself an opportunity to change his future. This would not have been possible without the compassionate support of the officer who understood that to be soft often requires more strength and courage than does aggression. No matter how courageous we are, we can never make internal changes by ourselves.
Generally, we don’t make those changes when we’re young, either. In our youth, we may experience an outraged, defiant courage. As we saw in de Mello’s story, age brings the wisdom to realize we need to change ourselves before we even begin to condemn others. It takes courage to admit this.
Changing the world may be a worthy goal, but it is not the only goal, nor perhaps the most important. To change ourselves, we must be honest. This is not easy. To face our inner evils, to stand up to our own cravings, is particularly hard. That’s why we need the support of others. Niebuhr wrote his poem so he could seek support from his god. Hopefully, we have friends, perhaps family. Maybe we can find a community of people trying to make changes similar to the ones we need to make.
To change what we can takes the courage to accept our imperfections and be gentle with ourselves, anyway. Then, perhaps, we will be able to be gentle with our imperfect world.
In faith and fondness,
- Burns, Margie, “Sophie Scholl and the White Rose,” The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, http://www.raoulwallenberg.net/holocaust/articles-20/sophie-scholl-white-rose/, accessed 2/24/18.
- King, Martin Luther, Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Memphis: TN, April 3, 1968, Say It Plain: A Century of Great African American Speeches, American Radio Works, http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/sayitplain/mlking.html, accessed 2/24/18.
- Niebuhr, Reinhold, The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr : Selected Essays and Addresses, edited by Robert McAfee Brown, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987, 101-102.
- See Zubovich, Gene, “Reinhold Niebuhr, Washington’s Favorite Theologian,” Religion and Politics, April 2, 2017, http://religionandpolitics.org/2017/04/25/reinhold-niebuhr-washingtons-favorite-theologian/, accessed 2/23/18. In this article, Zubovich discusses Niebuhr’s book Moral Man and Immoral Society.
- Niebuhr 119.
- Neidig, Harper, “FCC Chair Pai Receives NRA Gun Award for Courage,” The Hill, February 23, 2018, http://thehill.com/policy/technology/375310-fcc-chair-pai-receives-nra-gun-award-for-courage, accessed 2/23/18.
- de Mello, Anthony, The Song of the Bird, Loyola University Press, 1983, 197.
- Step Six of Alcoholics Anonymous reads that we “were entirely ready to have God remove these defects of character.”
- Delany, Vicki, Unreasonable Doubt, Ashland: Blackstone Audio, 2016.