Excerpted with permission from Sightings, which comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote "The Irony of American History" exactly 50 years ago, as we were realizing involvement in the Cold War. It was immediately relevant. I made much use of it during the Vietnam War. And now it speaks to the present moment, as we mobilize against terrorists at home and abroad.

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Niebuhr also wrote amidst often heavy crossfire. He was a theological Cold warrior, attacking the Soviet Union, and was applauded by all except the pacifists, and the few on the religious far left.

But after providing a stinging critique of the Soviet Union, he did what theologians and prophets should: he asked whether America was perfect, or whether it too stood distant from the will of God, equally under divine judgment. His text for that was Psalm 2:4, in which God is pictured as the one who sits in the heavens and laughs, and holds human pretensions ("the princes") in derision.

Let me paraphrase: Niebuhr said that the "good" side--that is our side, once again--also has to be aware that there is enough guilt tucked into our innocence, enough vice in inner war with our virtue, enough insecurity undercutting our security, enough ignorance to go with our knowledge, that when we undertake action, "ironically," some of it will go wrong. And we will have been, as we always are, partial agents of the going wrong. Always.

Niebuhr did not leave things there. Awareness of our own guilt, vice, insecurity, and ignorance, in the eyes of a laughing God, and in the eyes of beholders who use ironic perspective, is not to be an excuse for apathy, cynicism, or scrupulosity in self-judgment to the point that we turn paralyzed. Indeed not.

The same God who wants us to keep ourselves and our causes in perspective, also holds us responsible for wise action. Niebuhr always said that the God who laughs at human pretension does not disdain legitimate human aspiration.

I picture Reinhold Niebuhr urging us on in pursuit of the terrorists, and encouraging us to keep our cause, our side, our flag, our nation, our ways of life "under examination," so we give each other freedom and space and leeway to criticize--and to affirm.

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