Richard Stride commentary: Beginning to understand the meaning of understanding


I love watching documentaries, usually those that are about history or historical figures.

My wife likes sitcoms.

If you saw us at home sitting on the couch together, you would see that she is watching the TV and I have my headphones on while watching something on my tablet, usually a documentary. I have the need to learn something from what I am watching or reading.

My wife and I do love watching movies together, especially Marvel and monster movies (Godzilla, King Kong, etc.). I do watch things for the enjoyment of just watching, but my preference is to watch something from which I can learn.

I recently happened upon a PBS documentary titled “An American Conscience the Reinhold Niebuhr story.” I had read some of his writings years ago and was impressed. His most famous book, “The Irony of American History,” written in 1952, can be difficult to follow but is worth the read.

Prior to this classic work, he wrote a book titled “Moral Man in an Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics,” written in 1932 during Hitler’s rise to power. But who was Reinhold Niebuhr? What did he say? What can he teach us today?

He was an American theologian who wrote extensively concerning America’s role in the world. New York Times writer Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called Niebuhr “the supreme American theologian of the 20th century.”

David Brooks, another writer from the New York Times who is also featured in the documentary, said of Niebuhr, “Niebuhr had the audacity. He wrote with audacity. He wrote big books on big subjects. He took big public stands.”

He may be most famous for the serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” 

Alcoholics Anonymous adopted the prayer in the 1940s as something that encapsulated their struggle with the disease of alcoholism.

But he said and wrote much more.

In his widely read and studied book “The Irony of American History,” he wrote, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime: therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in our immediate context of history, therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone, therefore we are saved by love.”      

That is profound, don’t you think?   

Niebuhr believed in America, in democracy, in democratic societies and what democracies stood for, famously saying, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Prophetically, as if speaking to our own time, he said, “Everybody understands the obvious meaning of the world struggle in which we are engaged. We are defending freedom against tyranny and are trying to preserve justice against a system which has, demonically, distilled injustice and cruelty out of its original promise of a higher justice.”

He did not believe that we would ever be able to achieve a utopian democratic society, but democracy was the world's best hope for peace.

Niebuhr also was keenly aware of our human nature.

Another celebrated theologian, Cornel West, who also was featured in the documentary, said it best: Niebuhr knew of the Civil War within our hearts that rages between good and evil.

In other words, what we know is the right thing to do, and our nature toward selfish fulfillment.

I think we can learn a lot from Niebuhr.

I think, further, if we take to heart what he is trying to tell us today, we can begin to understand the meaning of understanding.


Richard Stride is the current CEO of Cascade Community Healthcare. He can be reached at