Major Book Reviews -- Passion for Justice: Retrieving the Legacies of Walter Rauschenbusch, John A. Ryan, and Reinhold Niebuhr by Harlan Beckley

Article excerpt

PASSION FOR JUSTICE: RETRIEVING THE LEGACIES OF WALTER RAUSCHENBUSCH, JOHN A. RYAN, AND REINHOLD NIEBUHR, by Harlan Beckley. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, 1992. 391 pp. $27.00 ISBN 0-664-21944-6.

Beckley has written an important book for the serious student of Christian ethics in the United States. The subtitle, "Retrieving the Legacies of Walter Rauschenbusch, John A. Ryan, and Reinhold Niebuhr," indicates the focus of his investigation of justice.

Beckley presents in an in-depth, thorough, and very systematic way the approach to justice of each of these three influential scholars and activists in American Christianity. The three of them had little or no contact with one another, and Niebuhr, according to Beckley, seriously misunderstood Rauschenbusch. The book generally agrees with the accepted understandings of Ryan and Niebuhr but proposes strikingly different conclusions about Rauschenbusch.

Rauschenbusch was not a superficial and sentimental optimist relying solely n a biblical approach. He accepted a natural ordering of human life and saw redemption as working through this basic ordering. Justice requires that the social order maximize opportunity for individuals to integrate their natural interests through self-development in solidarity with others. The author personally supports the unexpected agreement of Rauschenbusch and Ryan (in opposition to Niebuhr) that justice requires an equal opportunity for persons to develop their natural interests toward realized excellences of personality.

Beckley's detailed study of these three authors employs (but not in a mechanical way) the four base points for Christian ethics proposed by James Gustafson--an understanding of God, the interpretation of the historical circumstances, an account of human nature and human agency, and the criteria by which judgments about justice are made. This method has the advantage of showing how the theological, historical, and ethical are involved and influencing the particular positions taken by these authors and also structures the comparisons among them.

This brief review cannot do justice to Beckley's detailed analysis of these three American Christian ethicists, but can summarize his understanding of the development that has occurred in each. Ryan showed the least development, maintaining his basic theological and ethical perspectives while proposing new and more radical policies in the new times of the Depression and the New Deal. Rauschenbusch's pastoral experience in New York made him aware of the social problem, and in 1892 he discovered the theological centrality of the kingdom of God for his approach to justice. After 1892 there were no major developments in his theology, ethics, and policies.

The overarching frame of reference for Niebuhr's theological ethics and approach to justice was the tension between the ideal and the actual. Niebuhr moved from his early liberal idealism to a more "robust moral idealism" and then to his Christian realism in the 1930s. Niebuhr understood justice as the strategy for approximating the social ideal of love under conditions in which the unchecked human will-to-power exerts its influence. …