God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
What many of you probably don't know is that it was written by the highly influential 20th Century American theologian Rienhold Niebuhr. I was listening to a Speaking of Faith podcast on Niebuhr today while mowing the lawn and was surprised to learn that this simple prayer was actually an encapsulation of Niebuhr's whole approach to Christian involvement in politics and social justice. Niebuhr was a "Christian Realist" when it came to how we ought to engage in the world, which means, in the words of his biographer Richard Wightman Fox, "He exhorted his readers and listeners to take responsibility for their world while warning them against the temptation to try to perfect it." Niebuhr realized that while action for social justice was good and necessary, even the best of people will end up doing a certain amount of evil in the process of attempting to do good. In other words, we can never get it completely right, but that doesn't mean we should just give up and do nothing. The important thing is to stay engaged, but to do it in a self-critical way, to always be on guard against self-righteousness and fanaticism.
What I also find fascinating is this idea that the Serenity Prayer is originally about social justice. The basic idea is that engaging in social action requires us to do what we can, but to also be realistic about what we cannot to - to not overestimate our own efficaciousness or come at it with a naive optimism that believes we ourselves can solve every problem or bring heaven on earth. I find that this is a good reminder and an important balance to find, especially for those of us who have begun to see the kingdom of God as a present reality and something which we are trying to put into practice in the here and now. Even as we do so, it is important to remain humble about our limitations as flawed and finite human beings, and remember that ultimately it is God, not us, that establishes his own kingdom. We simply have the privilege of contributing our small part to it if we are willing.
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