The Moral Universe – Changing What Should be Changed


I’ve been reminded a few times recently of the Serenity Prayer.

While talking to #Black Lives Matter activists, Hillary Clinton told them emphatically, “You’re not going to change anyone’s hearts. You need to change the laws.”

While talking to a friend while I was fretting about a global problem, she said, “Don’t worry about it. You can’t change it.”

I am often told, “It is what it is.”

The Serenity Prayer was written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1934:

God, give us
Serenity to accept what cannot be changed,
Courage to change what should be changed,
And wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

In its original form, the prayer is different from that adopted by 12-Step groups, and there’s good reason for that. People newly straight, sober or learning to live with alcoholism shouldn’t be changing much of anything until they have good sobriety under their belts.

I think, however, that the prayer as practiced by 12-Steppers is the prayer that most people are familiar with and may be used as an excuse not to change, not to wade into the fray, to just say “It is what it is” and make no attempt to be part of the solution.

Ms. Clinton sounded very down-to-earth and practical when talking to the #Black Lives Matter people. She could; by chance or design, they did not get a chance to interrupt her public appearance as they did Bernie Sanders’ on two occasions. Arriving late, the activists settled for a “private” talk with her (it was being taped). It was when one of the activists talked about changing hearts that she made her statement.

I tried to envision her saying that to Martin Luther King. Or Nelson Mandela. Or even Reinhold Niebuhr.

Changing laws is, yes, in the short term the way to progress in the areas of equal justice. But it is not a long-term solution. As we have seen, those who do not want equal justice are pretty good at changing laws too. They can even get the Supreme Court to change laws that have been in place for almost 50 years.

But notice that Niebuhr’s prayer talks about changing what should be changed. And without changing hearts and minds, nothing much is really changed. Granted, someone who has had their right to vote revoked may be well-served, and should be well-served, by a change in law. But someone who feels uncomfortable walking down the street in a white neighborhood, or who cannot go into a store without being followed around by a white employee, or who can’t drive anywhere without being stopped by police and possibly murdered: those are situations that only changes of minds and hearts can solve.

Paradox is the keynote of both Niebuhr’s prayer and his life. The son of an Evangelical minister and German immigrant, he himself was a practicing minister even before he had attended Yale Divinity School. His first sermon before an interdenominational audience, in 1913, considered the paradox of the text from Matthew 10:39: “He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” He turned the paradox to a more personal level: “. . .self-preservation means self-destruction and self-destruction means self-preservation. . . As a mirage in the desert the happiness we seek will disappear when we seek it; we will lose our life when we attempt to find it.”

This problem of life, he said, can only be solved by love and self-sacrifice. “Selfishness, that is our sin. To overcome it, that is the problem of our lives.” He saw love as the answer to the paradox, and over the next decades of his life, he practiced what he preached. As a pastor in Detroit in the 1920s, he saw the exploitation of workers and threw himself into pro-labor issues. He preached against the consumer culture and against complacency and laziness. He crusaded against racial prejudice and tried to radicalize black students in the South through lectures sponsored by the African Missionary Society.

Niebuhr did sacrifice himself in his quest to change what he thought should be changed. He lost many friendships because of his unpopular views, and his physical and mental health suffered. He had periods of turning to thoughts of anarchism and communism and was persecuted by Joe McCarthy. His connection to the area in which I live began with admittance to the Austen Riggs Institution in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a mental health facility.

In the end, perhaps, we all have different notions of what should be changed. But for those of us, and Niebuhr was one, MLK was one, Nelson Mandela was one, who envision the Peaceable Kingdom, envision a society in which all creation has the right not only to exist, but to flourish. To be useful rather than to be used. To enjoy all the rights and privileges of society. And we shouldn’t have to change the law every damn time we turn around. Only by changing hearts and minds can that state exist.


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