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Paul Ramsey and Reinhold Niebuhr on a Public Theology of Tragedy and the Problem of Dirty Hands

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Modern discussions of the problem of ‘dirty hands’ often draw upon a tradition of thinking in American public theology that wrestles with political conflicts between moral limitations and responsibilities. This article examines the problem of dirty hands through the way two significant figures in the field, Paul Ramsey and Reinhold Niebuhr, employ concepts of tragedy in their public theological writings. The analysis suggests that Ramsey and Niebuhr provide several starting points for describing the ambiguous realities of the political context and establishing limits on morally permissible political behaviour. This offers a significant challenge to the idea that ‘tragedy’ can be used to describe the liberal failings of either scholar and asserts the potential helpfulness of their arguments as the church seeks to exchange reasons in a democratic culture.

Affiliations: 1: Duke University USA; 2: Seton Hall University USA


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