Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. (AP Photo, File)
Navigate to News section

A Familiar Name Fights Presbyterian Divestment

Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s nephew takes on the U.S. church

Eric Berger
July 03, 2014
Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. (AP Photo, File)

For Gustav Niebuhr, the former New York Times religion reporter, this month’s controversial decision by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from companies that do business with Israel is an affront—both spiritual and personal.

The 58-year-old grand-nephew of famed Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr—once described by Barack Obama as “one of my favorite philosophers”—is fighting back against what he sees as the Church’s misguided take on Israel and attack on his great-uncle.

In “Zionism Unsettled,” a study guide published by a national committee of the Presbyterian Church that blames the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “on pathology inherent in Zionism,” the authors attack not only the Jewish State, but also its supporters— including Reinhold Niebuhr.

Niebuhr was one of the most prominent theologians in America until his death in 1971 and a close friend of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the 20th century’s most influential Jewish theologians. But the study guide casts Niebuhr in a different light. It accuses him of “moral blindness” in supporting the Jewish state and ignoring the plight of Palestinians. (The national Presbyterian organization announced last week that it would stop selling the study guide on its website, saying that it does not represent the views of the organization.)

“To call him ‘morally blind’ is really just disgraceful,” said Gustav Niebuhr, a professor of religion at Syracuse University. Also, “it’s just not true.”

In response, Niebuhr is working with Presbyterian clergy and laypeople around the United States to mend ties with the Jewish community and helping draft a full-page advertisement to run in the New York Times on behalf of Presbyterians who oppose the divestment.

Niebuhr remembers his great-uncle, who died when Gustav was 16, as a “kind older relative,” but much of his connection to the prominent theologist came later, reading his books and what others had written about him. Towards the end of his life, as his health declined after several strokes, Reinhold, who lived on the Upper West Side, took almost daily walks with Heschel.

“These walks, ordered by the doctor for Reinhold’s health, when in the company of Abraham, became times of exchange and refreshment,” his widow, Ursula Niebuhr, said in a 1983 speech delivered at the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota. “It was no wonder to me that these two friends found each other so congenial, not only in this shared universe of discourse, but also in their dependence upon and reference to the Hebrew prophets.”

His great-uncle, Niebuhr said, placed great importance on interfaith dialogue at a time when it was much less common for Protestants and Jews to discuss their beliefs with one another. That’s why he sees the “Zionism Unsettled” claim that his great-uncle neglected Palestinian Arabs as “unfair” and “anti-intellectual.”

“He spoke about the need for a Jewish homeland, but at the same time, he said any sort of arrangement made has to take into account the Arabs, who live there as well,” said Niebuhr, who spent a month studying in Israel as a graduate student.

At his church near Syracuse, Niebuhr organized a forum breakfast in May to discuss the study guide and the Israel-related overtures, as proposals in the church are called, that would be considered at last week’s general assembly in Detroit.

“People were astonished because they weren’t aware of what had been going on,” he said. He then traveled to Michigan to speak out against divestment and in support of other measures aimed at a two-state solution.

“I said, ‘People are going to find out about this when they pick up their morning newspaper or turn on their TV and there’s going to be a lot of embarrassment if they get asked about the divestment and don’t have a way to explain it,’” he said.

Niebuhr said a lack of dialogue between Presbyterians and Jews contributed to the divestment, which the assembly narrowly approved by a 310-303 vote. But now that interfaith dialogue becomes even more difficult.

“If I were to be an optimist, I would say that maybe something of educational value could come out of this,” Niebuhr said. “Presbyterians could learn that this is not the way to make peace—in the world or in the Middle East.”

Eric Berger is a staff writer with the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. He has also written for the Jerusalem Post and the St. Louis Beacon.

A version of this post originally appeared in the Jewish Exponent.

Eric Berger is a staff writer with the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. He has also written for the Jerusalem Post and the St. Louis Beacon.