The Prophetic Voice: Reflections on Faithful Witness in the White House and the Ivory Tower by Prof. Will Inboden
This article is adapted from remarks at the Rivendell Partnership Reception on May 11, 2013 and also a forthcoming article in the journal Diplomatic History. A long time friend of Rivendell Institute, which he first encountered during his graduate work at Yale, Prof. Will Inboden teaches at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Austin-Texas, and he recently accepted the invitation to join the Rivendell Board of Directors. Previously, he worked as a Senior Director for Strategic Planning on the National Security Council at the White House. A more complete bio is included at the end of the article.
I finished my doctoral work here at Yale 12 years ago, and since then have been privileged to live an adventurous career journey that took me geographically to Washington DC, Dubai, London, and now Austin, Texas, and vocationally from positions at the State Department, the White House, a multinational investment firm, and now as a professor at the University of Texas. This journey included sustained exposure to people of considerable power and wealth – and also considerable human frailty and flaws. At every step of the way I have been thankful for the discipleship and Christian growth that I benefitted from through my involvement with the Rivendell Institute during my years at Yale. And along the way, whether in the academy or the policy realm, I have regularly reflected on the theme that is central to Rivendell’s mission: how to maintain a faithful Christian witness in a fallen world.
My remarks represent an effort to draw together some diverse strands of my academic scholarship and my government service on national security policy. A common theme throughout is the question of how do ideas and values – especially religious values – shape foreign policy?
On this theme of the prophetic voice, I want to begin in New York City in 1930, at Union Theological Seminary, then as now a bastion of theological liberalism. That year brought together two figures whose lives over the next two decades would embody much of the question of what it means to be a prophetic voice in a darkening world: a young seminary professor, Reinhold Niebuhr, and a visiting German post-doctoral student, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These are two figures that I first encountered during my graduate study here at Yale, and who in many ways have been influential on my subsequent professional, academic, and spiritual life.
What would become a lifelong friendship did not start well. Niebuhr found the 24-year old Bonhoeffer to be arrogant and naively abstract. Bonhoeffer regarded all of his Union professors with disdain – the “theological education of this group is virtually nil” he wrote – and he thought Niebuhr entertaining but shallow. In truth, both of them were entering the formative stages of their theological development. Niebuhr at the time was beginning to turn from his earlier pacifism and idealism towards a more Augustinian sensibility that appreciated the pervasiveness of Original Sin. Bonhoeffer would soon return to his native Germany and begin to question his own spiritual detachment from the world, and to understand the moral imperatives of the Gospel witness. For both Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer, the looming rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany would be a crucible that defined their respective roles as prophetic voices.
As a German-American, Niebuhr took a keen interest in developments in the land of his ancestry. As a Christian, Niebuhr believed that the church had a responsibility to play a prophetic role in holding all earthly authorities and powers to account, in declaring the whole counsel of God to a sinful world. Hence he was particularly alert to any encroachments on the church and any efforts to squelch its prophetic voice.
It is much forgotten now, but when Hitler first formally took power in Germany in March 1933, he was largely regarded in the United States as an oddity who may have held some unpleasant views but might at least restore order to a crumbling German society and economy. Niebuhr, ever mindful of the state of the church as an early warning indicator, immediately perceived a more sinister prospect in Hitler’s rule. In June, 1933 Niebuhr wrote a searching article on “Religion and the New Germany.” Describing Hitler’s imposition of a “totalitarian state…which exercises authority over every type of human association and assumes direct control of all organizations,” he lamented that this signaled the likely elimination within Germany of any critical voices or constraints against the Nazi state, and would thus leave the regime unrestrained to engage in internal oppression and external aggression. This article also appears to mark Niebuhr as among the very first – if not the first – observers to use the new term “totalitarian” to describe the emerging Nazi regime.
Niebuhr also noted with curiosity that “the strongest opposition has arisen from the church.” While within German churches the majority of clergy and laity identified themselves as “German Christians” loyal to the Third Reich, a courageous minority of congregations and pastors refused to go along with Hitler’s program. This group would become the ConfessingChurch, and Bonhoeffer would be one of its main leaders.
That same year Niebuhr also wrote a disturbingly prescient Christian Century article on the early Nazi pogroms. He offered an unsparing assessment of the Nazi regime’s treatment of Jews in its first months of holding power. “Evidences multiply that the German Nazi effort to extirpate the Jews in Germany is proceeding with unexampled and primitive ferocity…the Nazi government is determined to reduce the Jews to second-rate citizenship and to destroy their livelihood.” Niebuhr also condemned the German people for their apparent yet inexcusable ignorance of this campaign. “They know little of what goes on in Nazi barracks, concentration camps, and Nazi hide-outs. There Jews are brought, frequently unmercifully beaten and sometimes killed.” Noting the boycott of German goods called for by Jews outside Germany, his worry echoes with chilling hindsight. “This boycott is like waging a war against a nation which holds over a million of your own hostages and which may be sufficiently angered…to exterminate the hostages.” Realizing that Jewish efforts alone would little avail, he instead called on his fellow Christians to come to their defense.
Meanwhile, 1934 brought a notable development among German church leaders. Though a Swiss national himself, Karl Barth had been resident in Bonn for several years as a theology professor. Working with Bonhoeffer and other leaders of the “Confessing Church,” Barth drafted a manifesto known as the Barmen Declaration. It boldly asserted the spiritual and organizational loyalty of the church to Jesus Christ. It denounced the Nazi state’s pretensions to totalitarian rule, and the “German Christians” for their subservience to the Third Reich. It affirmed that “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”
As strong as it was, the Barmen Declaration remained silent on a key issue. Bonhoeffer and a few other Confessing Church pastors had pushed for the Declaration to make an explicit condemnation of anti-Semitism, yet their efforts fell short due to the spirit of compromise and the desires of Barth and others to attract as many signatories as possible by focusing solely on the Confessing Church’s spiritual prerogatives.
The outbreak of war in 1939 came while Niebuhr was in England preparing to travel to Great Britain for his Gifford lectures. On the day he heard the radio news announce Germany’s invasion of Poland, he wrote “as one who has been certain for years that this would be the consequence of ‘appeasement,’ I am no less shaken than those who had more hopes than I.” He persevered in delivering his lectures through the early months of the war, even to the point of speaking while the sound of Luftwaffe bombs hitting Edinburgh distracted his audience and drowned out his orations. These early Nazi attacks on the British Isles provided a vivid backdrop for one of the central themes of Niebuhr’s lectures. In his words, “the temptation to idolatry” is perhaps most acute when “the nation pretends to be God” – and the severe consequences of this deification of the state could be heard and felt just outside the lecture hall.
This concern for the prophetic role of the church shaped his understanding of the chasm separating the opposing sides in the war. The United States and Great Britain, as democracies with active church communities, still retained vestiges of “Christian civilization,” which Niebuhr defined in prophetic terms as “one which allows the word of God’s judgment to be spoken against it, and which therefore knows itself ultimately dependent upon the mercy of God.” Moreover, “What makes the Nazi civilization un-Christian primarily is precisely the fact that it has sought, in its boundless self-assertion and collective egotism, to destroy the possibility of a word of divine judgment being spoken against it…It knows that where the gospel is preached there are limits to the pride and arrogance of man. It makes the impulse of self-glorification, from which no individual or collective human life is ever completely free, into the very norm of life.”
While Niebuhr delivered his lectures in Scotland, Bonhoeffer, who had remained in Germany to lead the Confessing Church, rightly feared that his life was at risk from the Nazis. He surreptitiously travelled to England in 1939 to meet with Niebuhr and seek a way of escape. Niebuhr arranged in short order for to Union Seminary to grant Bonhoeffer a visiting professor position – Niebuhr warned the president of the seminary that if Bonhoeffer were not helped, he would likely end up in a concentration camp – and thus enabled Bonhoeffer to secure refuge in the United States.
But almost immediately upon his arrival in the US, Bonhoeffer feared that he had abandoned his flock in Germany, and thus abandoned his prophetic calling. A crisis of conscience – and the Word of God — compelled him to return to Germany after just two months, to pastor the Confessing Church and to join the resistance movement. As Bonhoeffer told Niebuhr of his decision, “I have come to the conclusion that I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany.” Here the rest of the story is better known. Bonhoeffer returned to Germany, was eventually arrested for his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler, and spent two years in a concentration camp before being executed on April 30, 1945, just one week before the war’s end. Upon learning of his friend’s death, Niebuhr wrote “the story of Bonhoeffer…belongs to the modern acts of the apostles. Not only his martyr’s death, but his actions and precepts contain within them the hope of a revitalized Protestant faith.”
Why do I use the examples of Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer, when the threat they faced of Nazism was so much more horrific than any threats we face today?
Because they show us what it means to be a prophetic voice in the most dire and dark situations. And because the horrible decade they endured shows us what may happen when the church abdicates its role to be salt and light, and silences its Gospel witness.
So the situations I faced in government, or face now as a professor, or that any of us here face, are so much more mild that they cannot even be compared with that confronted Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer.
But the principles endure. And we serve the same Christ that they served.
Here I want to pivot and offer some thoughts on what it might mean to live a faithful witness today, particularly in the academy and in government.
A faithful witness need not be sensational. Paul’s admonition in I Timothy 2:1-2 that we pray and offer thanksgiving for “kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life” suggests at least an implicit connection between our duties as Christian citizens to pray and be thankful for our governing leaders, and the blessings of being able to lead peaceful and quiet lives.
Perhaps much of the work of government might be considered analogous to the work of plumbers or carpenters. These tradecrafts involve the building and maintenance of structures and systems vital to daily human existence. Sturdy houses and functioning faucets and toilets are the types of things we take for granted – until they fail to work, or until we visit an impoverished area that doesn’t have them in the first place.
Likewise, most often statecraft, the work of government, consists of the maintenance and preservation of the metaphorical scaffolding, framework, and plumbing that make our city, our state, and our nation function every day. The fruits of this statecraft are also the matters of daily life that we implicitly take for granted. The fact that roads are paved and stoplights function, or that public schools are available, that regulations and licensing work for businesses and new buildings, military to protect our national security, police and courts to protect our public safety, etc – these realities are the results of government. The benefits flow to American citizens of all walks of life, both Christians and non-Christians, just as in God’s creation He “makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust” as Christ tells us in the Sermon on the Mount.
We see this also in the lives of Joseph and Daniel in the Old Testament. They are two exemplars of serving God faithfully in the office of government – and under leaders in Egypt and in Babylon who did not themselves follow the biblical God. Notice how Genesis tells us that Joseph managed Egypt’s economy and food stores with wisdom and prudence, to the benefit of the Egyptian people and his own Israelites as well. Or how in Daniel’s life and authority in Babylon he was found even by his adversaries to be “faithful, and no error or fault was found in him.”
Much of my work on national security policy at the White House consisted of trying to carry out statecraft so that citizens can lead peaceful and quiet lives. So whether this meant working on American alliance issues with Asian countries, or on counter-terrorism policy, or trying to curtail nuclear proliferation, or on reforming how foreign assistance is delivered, our work was an effort to fulfill God’s creation mandate, of keeping the scaffolding of the international system intact.
This was also reflected in my training from Rivendell, where as graduate students all of us, no matter what our academic field or discipline, were and are encouraged to do our scholarship to God’s glory. To uncover the endless truths of God’s creation in the physical and moral universe. To discover the majesty of God’s providence in the unfolding of history. To display the splendor of God’s creativity in literature and art. For me, even though the day to day work of national security policy is very different than the day to day work of academic scholarship, the theological principles were the same. This is the prophetic witness in the sense that Kuyper spoke of: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, “Mine!”
But at times, in the academy, or in government, we may be called to take a more explicit prophetic stance of faithful witness for Christ, even if it be costly. If part of the Christian calling for government is to pursue statecraft that enables peaceful and quiet lives, there is also the role of the individual believer in government to stand for Christ and His people. If part of the Christian calling for scholarship is to study God’s creation, there is also the role of the Christian scholar to proclaim biblical truth in an often hostile environment. Obviously, this can look different in different contexts. But as with those witnesses who have gone before us, the challenge and the call remain the same.
William Inboden is a Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law and an Assistant Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as a Senior Advisor with Avascent International, a Non-Resident Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and an Associate Scholar with Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project. Previously he served as Senior Director for Strategic Planning on the National Security Council at the White House, where he worked on a range of foreign policy issues including the National Security Strategy, strategic forecasting, democracy and governance, contingency planning, counter-radicalization, and multilateral institutions and initiatives. Inboden also worked at the Department of State as a Member of the Policy Planning Staff and a Special Advisor in the Office of International Religious Freedom, and has worked as a staff member in both the United States Senate and the House of Representatives.
Inboden has also served as Senior Vice President of the London-based Legatum Institute, and as a Civitas Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is a contributing editor to Foreign Policy magazine, and his commentary has appeared in numerous outlets including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, Sky News, and BBC. He has lectured widely in academic and policy settings, and received numerous research and professional development fellowships. He is the author of Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945-1960: The Soul of Containment (Cambridge University Press) as well as numerous articles and book chapters. Inboden received his Ph.D. and M.A. degrees in history from Yale University, and his A.B. from Stanford