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Archive for January, 2015

This I believe:

Christianity often has been, could still be, but is not now a powerful force for morality in Western civilization.

Christianity had a very strong influence on the shaping of the American nation, so much so that Christians came to take for granted that culture was always going to follow Christian morality. As Western societies have moved away from their Christian roots, the churches have tended to complain about this particular issue or that (e.g. abortion, premarital sex, and so on) but have been quite inept in trying to understand the broader picture of moral foundations and in trying to influence society. We have been dismissed from the public forum in part because we simply don’t know how to take a responsible role in that forum.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor, theologian, and Hitler-resister in the 1930s, spoke of ethics in ways that made little sense to his compatriots but which are now beginning to make a great deal of sense. We have much to learn from this prescient follower of Jesus Christ.

His largest book is called Ethics. it is in many ways just an expansion of an earlier essay, delivered first as a lecture shortly after his 23rd birthday, entitled “Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic.” There is one sentence which makes a good but very unorthodox beginning for us as we try to understand what Bonhoeffer has to say:

Christianity is basically amoral.

That’s simple enough to say but a bit of a challenge to understand. Basically, there are two reasons he makes such an odd claim. One reason is historical. As Bonhoeffer rightly observes, “Christian morality” has changed and evolved over the centuries. Can you imagine the scandal that would have been caused had some nice Christian girl a century ago had worn a bikini at the beach? And “Christian morality” is not the same in one place as it is in another. A Christian youth in America may show a level of disrespect toward his or her parents that would be unthinkable among Chinese Christians. Christian morality, in short, is adaptable from time to time and place to place.

(A bit of a digression, if I may: I read not too long ago some comments by a teacher at a Christian college, who noted that what many of her students found most remarkable about Bonhoeffer is that he smoked cigarettes. And, a more serious observation, it took years after the War for the Lutheran churches in Germany to appreciate Bonhoeffer because they thought of him as having been a traitor for opposing the German fuhrer. In both cases, small and large, Bonhoeffer’s ethics did not match up to cultural norms as enforced by the churches.)

Bonhoeffer’s second reason for saying Christianity is basically amoral is a theological consideration of great importance. Read these words carefully:

“. . .Christianity is basically amoral. . . And why? Because Christianity speaks of the exclusive path from God to human beings from within God’s own compassionate love toward the unholy, the sinful, while ethics speaks of the path from human beings to God, about the encounter between the holy God and the holy human being; in other words because the Christian message speaks of grace while ethics speaks of righteousness.”

Morality cannot be of fundamental concern for Christianity because our task is not to try to make ourselves into good people but to receive and be responsive to the will of God as expressed by the Spirit of God moment by moment. We cannot earn our way into God’s favor by being good people. The Gospel is quite the opposite: We are helpless until God helps us; we are guilty until God transforms us by his grace and forgiveness.

“I have come to call not the righteous but sinners,” said Jesus very clearly and directly. But we in the churches have frequently taught one another the exact opposite. God is so righteous that he cannot bear the sight of sin, so we had better get our sinful nature under control or he will reject us.

Paul, thinking more consciously in terms more familiar to his fellow Jews — but leading them to grand new insights — said that

. . .before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.

We could go on, of course, citing many more passages which teach exactly what Bonhoeffer was trying to express but I want us to return now to our starting point: How can Christians be a strong force for morality in a culture which has already dismissed us and God himself as irrelevant?

We can and must demonstrate the love of God. We can and must articulate what we are doing and why. We can and must seek to persuade others in ways that make sense to them, not merely to us. And, in the midst of all else, we can and must renounce the role of being the judges of those with whom we disagree. These points mark only how to begin but even they are far beyond the reach of many Christians today. We’ve got a lot of growing to do!

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During most of my adult life, I avoided putting too much thought into politics because I had a sense that I had other work to do as a pastor which would be hampered were I to become involved in political matters. Now that I am retired, I am paying much more attention and am finding that these are interesting times, with the far Right trying very hard to advance its program of negativity toward government, diversity, minorities, and on and on. All the while, they are trying equally hard to avoid words which might reveal their inherent racism and elitism.

For several months I have been tracking Fox News, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh, as well as going back over clips of Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin in an effort to understand how anyone could have supported them. The level of dishonesty, sheer ignorance, and blatant hypocrisy I have found in each of these sources has been dumbfounding.

Time and again  words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer have come to mind, words which in his day applied to those who defended the Nazi regime in Germany. Today, methinks, they describe the Far Right in American politics. Bonhoeffer wrote in the essay After Ten Years:

“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed – in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.”

Stupidity? Yes, I think that’s the most accurate word for such Fox tricks as they pulled in September of 2012, repeatedly showing during the day a photo of President Obama sitting next to a person dressed as a pirate on “Talk Like a Pirate Day.” The issue which had offended the Fox team was that the day before the President had not met with Israeli President Netanyahu, citing lack of time. And they were right — meeting with a pirate instead of a president is terrible.

The only problem, just a tiny one, was noted later in the day by Fox on Twitter (but never on the air): “The picture we aired this morning of the President and the pirate was from 2009.”

Aside from the fact that their little Tweet hardly counts as the apology which Fox owed, the larger question is, How could a station devoted solely to the news (or so they say) make such a ridiculous error? There are many conceivable answers to that question, but not one which does not make Fox News look simply stupid.

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An important task which growing churches set for themselves is that of making the Bible relevant in our day. It is a task which Bonhoeffer would call extremely dangerous and almost certain to lead us into paganism.

In many of his writings (at the moment I have in mind the 1935 lecture called “Contemporizing New Testament Texts) Bonhoeffer speaks out against the Enlightenment idea of humans as autonomous. “Autonomous,” of course, literally means “self-law” or “a law unto themselves.”

On page 413 of DBWE (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English), he writes, “Either one understands it [i.e. contemporizing NT texts] to mean that the biblical message must justify itself to the present and thus demonstrate that it can be contemporized or that the present must justify itself to the biblical message and that thus the message must be made contemporary. . . it is always assumed [that] the New Testament is to justify itself to the present.”

We always tend to assume that somehow our age and our culture are the first in history to be Right and that, therefore, we must judge everything else by our standards, even the Bible itself. That, says Bonhoeffer, is paganism, an idolatry of ourselves.

For example, we have repeated endlessly the idea that Jesus spoke in parables because he was addressing uneducated and simple folk and therefore needed to set his teaching in familiar pictures and stories. We simply dismiss what Jesus actually said about parables: “For those outside everything comes in parables so that in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven'” (Mark 4:11-12).

Bonhoeffer says the real meaning of contemporization [making the text sound relevant to contemporary listeners] “is not a justification of Christianity to the present but a justification of the present to the Christian message.” Scripture is not just a set of comforting promises but, more often than not, a bracing challenge to surrender our self-sufficiency to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We have tried to tame the Bible for our own pleasure. We must learn, he says elsewhere, to read the Bible not for us but against us. We must conform our lives to the Bible, not the Bible to our lives.

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Bonhoeffer discovered the writings of Barth some time in the late 20s and found them more fruitful for his own thinking than those of any other theologian. He did not actually meet Barth until after his return from the year of study in America. It was in July of 1931 and Dietrich had gone to Bonn to take a three week seminar with the master. On July 24 he wrote to his friend Erwin Sutz:

“It is important and surprising in the nicest way to see how Barth still stands beyond his books. There is an openness, a willingness to listen to a critical comment directed to the topic at hand, and with this such concentration and with a vehement insistence on the topic at hand, for the sake of which he can speak proudly or humbly, dogmatically or with utter uncertainty, in a way that is certainly not intended primarily to advance his own theology. It is becoming easier and easier for me to understand why it is unbelievably difficult to grasp Barth through the literature. I am impressed by his discussion even more than by his writing and lectures. He is really fully present. I have never seen anything like it nor thought it possible.”

That’s a very fine testament to the man who became the closest thing Bonhoeffer ever had for a mentor. But it is also, I think, something of a parable. Certainly one of the most persistent and substantial threads running through all the thinking of Bonhoeffer, right up until his end, is that we are called not to theology, not to thinking and reading and writing about Jesus Christ, but directly to the living Christ himself. We are to so open ourselves and devote ourselves to our Lord that we end up saying, in wonder and joy, He is really fully present.

If we do not grasp the importance of this for Bonhoeffer, we will never make sense of any of this thinking or of his life. When he says in Ethics, for instance, that we are not called to be good but godly, we will have no way of distinguishing “good” from “godly” unless we understand that by godly Dietrich meant living in harmony, day by day and moment by moment, with the living and present Jesus Christ.

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