While researching Reinhold Niebuhr’s papers in the Library of Congress, Justin Hawkins uncovered a fascinating exchange between the theologian and William Nichols, editor of This Week Magazine, who asked him, “If as a result of some cataclysm, it were possible to retain just one passage from the Bible – what would your choice be?” Niebuhr’s response:
The passage of the Bible which I would choose is Ephesians 4:32, “And be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” I take it that the purpose is to find a passage of Scripture which will contain as much as possible of the whole message of the Bible. I have chosen this particular passage because it combines the high point of the Christian ethic, which is forgiving love, with a reference to the whole basis of the ethic, which is the historical revelation in Christ. We are asked to forgive one another. The charity of forgiveness is, however, not possible as a duty. It is only possible in terms of the knowledge that we are ourselves sinners, and that we have been forgiven. It therefore combines the Christian Gospel with the Christian ethic in succinct form.
While this answer stands with the majority of the Christian tradition, it is also distinctively Niebuhrian in several ways. First, it recognizes the limitation on human moral performance. Niebuhr notes that mere knowledge of the moral imperative is insufficient to actually perform it. Secondly, the humble approach we must take toward our moral performance is occasioned by the reality of sin. Though Niebuhr would later mention that he regretted so frequently employing the language of sin because it entailed historical and doctrinal baggage from which he wanted to distance himself, that language is inextricably bound up with the rest of Niebuhr’s political, ethical, and theological projects.