The controversy over the construction of an Islamic community center in proximately to Ground Zero in New York has provoked a great deal of discussion. Alan Bean at Friends of Justice brings Niebuhr into the conversation:
Reinhold Niebuhr, incidentally, had a profound influence on the practical theology of Martin Luther King. In the first book of his trilogy on the King years, Taylor Branch devotes an entire chapter to King’s discovery of Niebuhr during his years at Crozer seminary. “After Niebuhr,” Branch writes, “King experienced for the first time a loss of confidence in his own chosen ideas rather than inherited ones. The Social Gospel lost a good deal of its glow for him almost overnight, and he never again fell so completely under the spell of any school of thought, including Niebuhr’s.”
Niebuhr taught King that dispensing pleasant bromides from the liberal pulpit would change nothing. If “the race problem” was as deeply rooted as the Union Seminary professor suggested, it would take radical measures to overcome it.
The current agitation over the Ground Zero mosque isn’t an isolated moment of corporate madness. The mosque issue is just a contemporary version of “never in a thousand years” resistance to the civil rights movement or, a generation later, the Republican “southern strategy” that parlayed fear and bigotry into amazing success at the ballot box.
Niebuhr is dead right. We despise and reject the “other” because we have transformed our privileged place in America into an idol. We seethe with racial resentment because, deep down, we know we stand indicted before a God who is satisfied with nothing short of perfect justice.