When is it ok to do nothing?

We’ve been spending a lot of time here talking about many things that are wrong with the world and what we can do to fix them – or at least lessen the negativity. I do my best to promote active participation in society and culture and have often been convinced that there is always something that one can be doing, ANYTHING. I believe creative thinking can help you weasel out of the worst of situations. But is there ever a time that nothing can or should be done?

First of all, how can we possibly define inaction? There are so many different ways and reasons to be uninvolved in an event or culture. In the essay The Grace of Doing Nothing, H. Richard Niebuhr toys with every kind of inaction; from pessimism to pacifism to faith that God is being active so we don’t have to be. Then there are the instances where inactivity is as much of a statement as activity. Its not possible to be uninvolved in society because whether by action or inaction, we are participants in the story of this planet. Niebuhr writes in a time where the sense of human participation on a global level was just being realized, the first of the World Wars.

What is fascinating about this writing on the various types of inactivity is that it was written in a time of such great global activity.  Niebuhr writes of the world he knew in the rocky years between World War I and II where Germany was collapsing, Japan was building, and the citizens of the globe realized how small the world had become. Niebuhr saw the judgement that America was passing on other countries and realized that one nation condemning others was not having a positive effect on the world, it was negative action. Every country sought its own self-interest, generating the wars and creating tensions within and between nations. As a Christian Ethicist, Niebuhr developed a Christian perspective on this self-interested tirade and developed this response:

To do nothing.

In H. Richard Niebuhr’s perspective, the best thing Christians can do is not pass judgement, not follow the path of the self-righteous, and to do this all internally in order to reconstruct human nature. It is a mental practice of resisting the urge to look down on others, regardless of their beliefs and actions. Doing nothing suddenly requires a large amount of discipline and a defiance of human nature.

Niebuhr has convinced me that there is a form of positive inactivity, and it is in how we view the world around us. It is easy to condemn the people in your life internally and support them externally, but that is not the best we can do.  We can change the sinful nature that brings harm to others, and its by doing nothing.

“…it is the inaction of those who do not judge their neighbours because they cannot fool themselves into a sense of superior righteousness.”

– H. Richard Niebuhr, 1932

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4 thoughts on “When is it ok to do nothing?

  1. So where are some areas that we can gainfully do nothing? Should we withdraw from the missions against ISIS? Should we withdraw from NATO? Should we refuse to engage with international trade agreements? Should we stop sending missionaries to nations that already have churches?

    Doing nothing is usually seen as passivity (or passivism, as you’ve said before), but when it’s actually doing something important it requires great restraint. Restraint is the core of pacifism, and it takes incredible power to show restraint. Most people see pacifism as weakness, but if pacifism is an expression of restraint, then it is an expression of double strength: first, the strength to respond; and second, the strength to restrain oneself from responding.

    When Christ was arrested at Gethsemane, he could have resisted. Peter tried to, and Jesus told him to put his sword away, reminding Peter that Jesus could have called down a legion of angels to his own defence. He restrained himself from unleashing a power so great that he could have used it to overthrow the Roman oppressors and set up his kingdom on earth by show of force (as Satan tried to convince him to). Instead, he healed the soldier that Peter had wounded, and allowed himself to be led away to his own death like a lamb to the slaughter. For the sake of the other, for the sake of his enemies, for the sake of ending the cycle of violence, for the sake of refusing to fuel the growing uprising, he chose to do nothing – and in so doing, started a different kind of revolution that has outlasted the Roman empire and every nation since.

    Of course, Reinhold Niebuhr disagreed with his brother. I recommend that you also read his essay, and maybe read them back to back, as they respond to each other. They both have some good points, though I don’t think that either of their points stand up so well today as they probably did back then. The writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who also studied at Union) are more radical in their exploration of pacifism and Christian ethics, and they continue to be deeply challenging today. I recommend you pick up his Ethics, which has influenced my faith more than any book except the Bible itself.

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