Reinhold Niebuhr and the Christian realist pendulum

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Reinhold Niebuhr is widely acknowledged as the father of Christian realism and a staunch critic of pacifism. In a famous exchange with his brother H. Richard in The Christian Century, Niebuhr defended the necessity of entering the fray of battle to combat evil as opposed to opting for non-violent detachment that ultimately usurps God’s authority to decide on final matters. Niebuhr, however, never endorsed an aggressive Just War doctrine. Striving to reconcile the Christian command of love with the harsh realities of power resulting from universal sinfulness, Niebuhr emphasised the necessity of negotiating the distance between the two extremes of a pendulum swinging from Christian pacifism to the endorsement of interventionist policies. Rather than this being an expression of the ambiguity of his moral convictions, this paper argues that it is a product of his sensitivity to applying contextual moral and political judgement as an exercise of theological responsibility.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)185-202
JournalJournal of International Political Theory
Issue number2
Early online date10 Dec 2020
Publication statusPublished - 31 May 2021


  • Butterfield
  • Christian realism
  • Elshtain
  • Niebuhr
  • Pacifism
  • Wight


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