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