Twelve-step mantra a product of its times

Published June 1, 2004

From the beginning there has been a tension in the Christian family between those who struggle with the dynamics of applying their faith within the rigorous exigencies of daily life and those [pullquote] who would seem to ghettoize their faith in spiritual fantasies to escape the struggle. The bottom line here is that the realities of daily life, in times of war or peace, are complex and difficult, and probably never was this more evident than during the 20th century. It was a period when individuals and whole societies were called to engage in horrors that challenged both individual Christian conscience and everything that Christianity as a religion stands for.

That is why Elisabeth Sifton has done a great service in The Serenity Prayer by publishing a memoir of growing up in the family of her father Reinhold Niebuhr, a leading North American liberal theologian in a tumultuous century. In 1943 during the Second World War he wrote what has become known as The Serenity Prayer. Ms. Sifton’s purpose is to tell the story behind the prayer and to counteract the many fictions about its source that have been contrived over the years.

Simply written and with a depth of meaning, it is not difficult to understand its wide appeal: “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.” First published in a book of prayers used by U.S. Army chaplains it became known as The Serenity Prayer when it was adopted as a mantra of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Reinhold Niebuhr was born into a German-American family in Missouri, son of a pastor in the Evangelical Synod, in which he also became a pastor. After serving congregations for 15 years in Illinois and Michigan, embracing what he saw as the social imperatives of the gospel, he took up a post at Union Theological Seminary in New York where he influenced more than a generation of students to engage realistically in the world’s affairs in their witness to the gospel.

He was a champion for all those who suffered from the effects of racism, anti-Semitism and unfair labour laws and he argued and worked for principled and transparent involvements in international affairs. As he saw it the root problem was not fascism or industrial strife or war but, simply, sin. “The civilization and culture in which we are called upon to preach the Christian gospel is … a devotee of a very old religion dressed in a new form. It is the old religion of self-glorification. This is a very old religion, because it involves the quintessence of human sin as defined by St. Paul … ‘they became vain in their imaginations and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools’ [and what an accurate description that is of the vain glory of our modern era!]”

The author relates the happy family life that surrounded their summer retreat in Heath, Mass. There, friendships opened a window to understanding the context in which thoughtful Christians and others searched for direction through the questions raised by European political instability, the rise of fascism, economic depression, unjust labour conditions, war and its aftermath. For Niebuhr the gospel was about preaching and living the Kingdom of God as a “this world” reality. It meant recognizing that some things could not be changed, but also that some things could and should be changed. It meant taking positions and, in dialogue with others, thinking them through theologically in order to take action.

The prayer is as relevant today as when it was written and might well be on the lips of all 21st century Christians, and certainly of all Anglicans. The grace of serenity is only part of the prayer. Courage and wisdom are equally important – and too often in short supply. Each passing era provides a context which calls for a peculiar Christian witness, and this account of one man’s response in his day will provide encouragement for those facing the challenges of a new century.

This completes my third year of writing this column and I believe it is time for a change. My thanks to the editors for such an enjoyable task and to the readers whose comments I valued. Au revoir and God bless.


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