Wolterstorff points out (Justice in Love, 71-2) that in Niebuhr’s thought “conflict among self-interested parties was always up front . . . when he thought about justice.” Conflict is the clue that one should “go with justice rather than love” because “lovee is relevant when conflict is absent.”

Wolterstorff rightly points out that this is precisely the opposite of what Jesus teaches: “It was about the need for love in situations of conflict that Jesus was most emphatic. Love your neighbor, he said, even if that neighbor is your enemy - even if he has wronged you and remains unrepentant. Do not return evil for evil; return good for evil. Practice love not only in non-conflictual situations but also in situations of conflict.” If Niebuhr sees love operative only where conflict is absent, “there is something seriously askew about Niebuhr’s position as an interpretation of what Jesus taught.”

Niebuhr is also deaf to the justice-talk of the gospel. Jesus “identified himself as anointed by God to bring justice” and, given Niebuhr’s emphasis on justice, one might expect that he will attend to justice as a biblical theme. Not so: “when one learns that the coming of the eschaton represents for Niebuhr the withering away of justice, one realizes that here too we are confronted with an interpretation that has gone wrong. The coming of the eschaton represented, for Jesus, not the withering away of justice but its full rule.” Once again, Niebuhr is misled by his assumption that justice is only relevant in situations of conflict.

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