When Reinhold Niebuhr wrote The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness in 1944, he was discussing democracy, which was coming under attack during world war two. He did this through the articulation of his children of light and children of darkness.
The children of light are the proponents of democracy. They are optimistic, and almost naïve about how society can be rid of evil. Evil can be governed and enlightened by reason. They believe that everyone will do what’s best for the people around them. If there were still white knights, in shining armor, they would be the epitome of what one of the children of light would believe in to protect them from evil.
The children of darkness however are on the opposite side of the spectrum. They are anti-democratic, anarchic in a sense, and they are filled with evil. But evil might be defined slightly different than what we are used to. To the children of darkness, there is no law beyond the self; all that matters to them, is the individual. They are extremely wise, but evil in their use of wisdom. In this way, they can truly understand the power of self-interest, and turn it against the children of light.
In today’s world, who are the children of light, and who are the children of darkness? And who wins? In our heads, we would like to believe that the children of light would win. We’ve all read the stories where the hero, representing everything that is good, comes screeching in at the last minute to save the day. But, does this really happen? Can we count on a hero?
Looking at the current financial crisis, economic meltdown, and the recession that we are still immersed in, this answer becomes obvious. The children of darkness are the CEO’s, the Wall Street bankers, and the rating agencies that said everything was going to be ok. They know no law beyond the self. If they did, they wouldn’t have given themselves million dollar bonuses as their businesses were failing. They knew what they wanted, and they wanted to profit regardless of the consequences to others.
And, they did seem to win out. The children of darkness won. I don’t see any of them in jail, or any of them apologizing after the stock market and housing market crashed. I didn’t see them apologizing as people lost their savings, and lost their homes. I didn’t see them apologizing when there were record rates of unemployment.
Niebuhr argued that the children of darkness would always beat out the children of light because of self-interest. In order for the children of light to overcome the children of darkness, they must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness, but remain free from their malice. They must understand the power of self-interest in human society, without giving it a moral justification. They must do this to restrain and harness self-interest for the sake of the community. They must be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.
So here we are, at the mercy of the children of darkness. It is our job as citizens, and the representatives, and members of the children of light, to not let the children of darkness win. We must understand the self-interested decisions that went on, and not allow them to happen again.
I’ll leave you with one final question, are you one of the children of light, or one of the children of darkness? Or, do you think you’ve found the medium Niebuhr is discussing.