DEFACING THE SIGNS OF THE TIMES: Rescuing the Legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr from the Alarming Rise of Hate

In 1945 the great pastor and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr published Discerning The Signs of Times: Sermons for Today and Tomorrow. The work reflects the author’s painstaking endeavor to apply a religious and moral critique to the crises of his day. Niebuhr’s writing inspired thinkers of every race and religion to consider the question of how a person of faith can make a difference in a political fight. Dr. King studied Niebuhr and quotes him in Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about Niebuhr in any number of his essays, including No Religion is an Island. The inspiration for the title of Niebuhr’s book comes from Christian New Testament in the book of Matthew: “You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you, hypocrites, cannot discern the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:2-4). Human beings, blessed with the capacity of discernment, do not lack intellectual skill. What we lack is the will and the moral courage to put our intellect to good use. Can we summon up the integrity required to interpret the signs of the times with at least some of the intensity with which we analyze a weather report, a Torah portion, a concert, or a basketball game?
Sadly, it seems that our society is running in the exact opposite direction that Neibuhr, Heschel and King dared to dream of. Rather than discerning the signs of the times, a growing number of Americans are engaged in defacing them. A few months ago, here in Lexington, the sign for the Chabad house was vandalized. Just yesterday we learned that the sign welcoming people to Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion Cincinnati campus had a swastika painted on it. It’s not just happening to the Jews. Mosques, African-American Churches, Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist Temples have also been the recipients of such abuse. It needs to stop and it needs to stop now. Vigilante attacks on people’s signs one day have a bad habit of turning into violent attacks on people’s bodies the next. Vandalism is the calling card of hate. Violence is what happens when hatred visits in the flesh.
The Book of Exodus, which we begin re-reading in just a few days, opens with the ominous words: “There arose a Pharaoh that knew not Joseph.” A society that forgets a minority community’s contributions is a society on the path to self-destruction. Omitting Joseph one day, turns into oppressing his grandchildren the next. Slavery leads to a chain of events resulting in the destruction of Egypt’s resources and the death of all its first born. As we gather together for the last Martin Luther King Day of the first African-American President’s time in office, let us be mindful of how important discernment is to democracy. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s masterpiece, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?  May we honor his memory, along with that of Niebuhr and Heschel, by making sure to give King’s rhetorical question a redemptive answer.
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