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Archive for March, 2013

We read the Bible as if it were a cafeteria of blessings, picking and choosing which nice promises we want to claim on this day or that. How that must grieve the heart of God!

It is bad enough that we encourage each other to be self-centered. It is far worse that we think our Lord is centered on us, too. Have we not heard that he calls us to be followers of Jesus Christ, not spoiled children treating him as if he were our servant, following us around so that he can wait on our every whim?

Bonhoeffer addressed a conference on the shores of Lake Geneva in late August of 1932. He said, “Has it not become terribly clear, again and again, in all that we have discussed with one another here, that we are no longer obedient to the Bible? We prefer our own thoughts to those of the Bible. We no longer read the Bible seriously. We read it no longer against ourselves but only for ourselves” (DBWE 11:377).

Reading the Bible against ourselves? That sounds awful. What does he mean?

I’m always amused and maybe a little irritated that when Hollywood shows someone walking in the dark with a lantern, the light is held right in front of the person’s face. That’s nice for us because we can see the face but it means the actor is having to walk blindly. To see in the dark, we have to shine the light into the darkness, not at our own face.

When we read the Bible, we blind ourselves if we think it is merely shining blessings on us. Instead, we are to read Scripture to learn the character and will of God. Only then do we realize that, in a way we could not have anticipated. the Bible does turn a light on us. It is not a child’s toy flashlight but a powerful searchlight which examines us, challenges us, and calls us to ever-greater conformity to the character of Jesus and to walking the path of Jesus.

Our question becomes, Where is Jesus going? Jesus Christ is always walking a pathway into the world, toward the Cross. That is the path for us, too, if we are walking with him. Into the world, toward the Cross, following Jesus.

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Bonhoeffer and Pope Francis

One of the most important experiences in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was his two-month visit to Rome in the late spring of 1924, when he was just 18. With his already rich knowledge of history and art, he expected to revel in the museums of Rome. What impressed him most, however, was the Church of Rome. He loved the music, the worship, and the faces of the faithful. His understanding of what the church could be was greatly expanded by all that he saw.

On Palm Sunday morning, having attended Mass at St. Peter’s, he wrote in his diary: “The universality of the church was illustrated in a marvelously effective manner. White, black , yellow members of religious orders – everyone was in clerical robes united under the church. It truly seems ideal.” (1)

How he would have enjoyed the white smoke of the Vatican this week! He would have been deeply moved at the joy of the tens of thousands of people jamming the Vatican to await that sign of a new Pope.

And, just as much, he would have appreciated what we are learning of that man, now to be known as Pope Francis, having chosen to take the name of the impoverished St. Francis of Assisi. He has been living in a humble apartment rather than regal church housing, riding public buses and serving frequently among the poor.

Bonhoeffer had “discovered” the poor and homeless when he spent a year in Barcelona at age 22 and then, three years later in New York, came to appreciate the love of Jesus he found in Harlem among the Black churches. These experiences helped shape his compassion for the Jews when Hitler came to power and unleashed the widespread German hatred of them.

Years later, in December of 1942, he reflected back on the Nazi years and wrote, “It remains an experience of incomparable value that we have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reveled, in short from the perspective of the suffering.” (2)

Clearly Dietrich would have recognized in Francis a brother in the faith who is able to see life “from the perspective of the outcasts.”

It remains to be seen whether Pope Francis can resist the corrosive effects of the great power of his position and the great wealth and pomp with which he will now be surrounded. The Roman Church has a long history of transforming humble situations into glorious circumstances. St. Francis himself, for example, is honored in the Church by a huge and spectacular basilica in Assisi, a building which likely would have disgusted him.

Dietrich saw that one of the great weakness of the church in Germany was that the leaders, Catholic and Lutheran alike, tended to enjoy privilege and status more than servanthood. He hoped that a purified church would emerge from the horrors of Hitler and the War. As Eberhard Bethge points out, however, Bonhoeffer’s hope was not fulfilled. He writes, “When a church was rebuilt after the war in Berlin – in Moabit, which is a kind of Harlem in Berlin – Bishop Dibelius came to the dedication in a Mercedes, but the famous mayor Reuter of Berlin came in a Volkswagen. And the people in Moabit noticed that at once.” (3)

May Pope Francis be protected from temptation and distraction and be elevated not to pomp and merely human glory but deepened in his spirit of serving the poor and oppressed.

(1) Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English, vol. 9, p. 88.
(2) “After Ten Years,” DBWE 8:52.
(3) Eberhard Bethge, “Prayer and Righteous Action,” p. 22.

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A friend of mine has asked a good question about Bonhoeffer and his colleagues: Should Bonhoeffer and those in agreement with him should have shouted in protest against Hitler more loudly than they did?

I don’t know what should have been done but I do have some idea about why they were not more publicly vocal.

First, though Dietrich knew Hitler to be a dangerous man even before becoming Chancellor and – just two days after Hitler’s appointment – spoke on the radio against the dangers of a Fuhrer with too much power, he was still caught in the German Lutheran sense of separation of church and state. In the first year or two, Bonhoeffer struggled to come to grips with the idea that citizens are responsible not just to but for the state.
The result of this idea of the “two kingdoms,” as Luther had worded it, was that even those church leaders who recognized Hitler as evil tended to fight Hitler on only one front: his interference with the church.(A good way to see this struggle is to read Dietrich’s April, 1933, essay “The Church and the Jewish Question.”)

Second, from the very beginning Hitler simply outshouted any and all opposition. He was a bully who already had proven a willingness to kill opponents. His tyrannical powers increased very rapidly once he became Chancellor. It was very clear that any overt attempt at arousing public sentiment against Hitler would be a hopeless gesture.

Third, as William Shire points out in “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” p. 1018, even the conspirators themselves tended to care too much about preserving Germany’s dignity and ability to recover from the war. They were not single minded in their opposition. In fact, it was Bonhoeffer’s assignment to make sure the western leaders knew that the conspirators were already working on establishing an interim government to lead Germany once Hitler was killed.

In a Bonhoeffer conference at Gustavus Adolpus College several years ago, Eberhard Bethge discussed this very question of why Bonhoeffer and the others (including himself) tended to be so covert. He would not defend their position because even 50 years later he did not know what they should have done. What he did say was that they deliberately chose the path which they believed had the greatest hope for success.

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