Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible,
but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.
I wish I knew his work better than I do. What I know of Niebuhr is a foggy assessment of his having been something of a Calvinist, or at least a preacher who couldn't help but see evidenced of original sin all around. Like so many others of his era, he became a pacifist after the carnage of World War I; still, he worked hard, years later, to enlist others into taking on Hitler in WWII.
He seemed to see life as a balancing act, as the quote above illustrates. Because we can do justice, democracy has a chance; because we do injustice, it's a requirement. He seemingly could not assess human nature without adducing the darkness he saw within--not just in others, but ourselves, America included.
Niebuhr was the kind of person mainstream culture once regarded as important, a moral and spiritual voice, not simply for souls, but for living in the here-and-now. He was a public intellectual whose wisdom on ethics and morality put him on the cover of Time. I'm not sure we have anyone like him these days. It would be good if we did.
I thought of him this morning because the mail this week contained the newest edition of South Dakota Magazine, a glossy celebration of South Dakota life written primarily for those who live there, but beloved, I'm sure, by thousands of Dakotans in the diaspara, those who live elsewhere but whose heart and soul is back in the homeland.
I've never lived in South Dakota, but I count my frequent visits as pure delight. We took our grandchildren to Spirit Mound last week, and that odd little hill north of Vermilion showed up in the five-year-old's Sunday School drawing. We spent three days in the Black Hills with one grandson a couple months ago. Loved it. So did he.
This isn't a sales pitch. Not everyone who reads this will be equally taken, but I really love the magazine. I'm embarrassed to count up how many magazines I get and don't read, but I read all of South Dakota Magazine.
The new issue made no mention of Reinhold Niebuhr, who was born in Missouri and lived most of his life in New York City. But it's Niebuhr I thought of when I saw it and read it, because this edition of SDM is devoted primarily to a single story, the Massacre at Wounded Knee, which happened 125 years ago this December, on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Maybe ten years ago, on the day after Thanksgiving, I got up early in the morning, drove the six or seven hours it requires to get to the hill overlooking the creek named Wounded Knee, walked up there myself, alone in the wind because I wanted to be there to see the place--not experience it, just see it. I was writing a novel, and I had to see it to describe it. But to see it was an experience all its own.
I'd read about the massacre. I accumulated such a library of info that my personal ebay page still tries to sell me things--books, artifacts, art work--that refer what happened there. When I stood on the hill at Wounded Knee, it was not difficult for me to imagine the 7th Calvary all around, the largest encampment of U.S. fighting forces in one place since the Civil War.
I knew where Big Foot's band had camped, could see smoke rise from a hundred campfires, could hear kids playing. I knew where the cavalry pushed the Big Foot's band to gather, could see dozens of thin, cold Lakota surrounded by heavily armed blue coats. I knew what Big Foot himself looked like, wrapped in blankets, suffering from pneumonia, his nose bleeding.
I have other memories of that holidays that year, I'm sure; but none are cut in glass like the hour or so I spent in a cold wind up on a hill in the company of hundreds of Lakota buried there in a mass grave. No one is ever really alone in a graveyard. Not there especially.
This year, on December 29, right between the holidays, it will be 125 years since the massacre where upwards of 300 Native men, women, and children were slaughtered. What happened at Wounded Knee is not a treasured memory, and I'm sure some would say it's thoughtless, even ghoulish for South Dakota Magazine to rip open old wounds. Let sleeping dogs lie, after all.
But me?--I think Reinold Niebuhr would stand to applaud the SDM staff because, well, our capacity for justice makes democracy possible, and reconciliation not impossible. However, our inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary and reconciliation incredibly difficult.
Witness Wounded Knee.
South Dakota Magazine courageously brings us there, up there on the hill, to remember and not to forget.