Archive for July, 2016

In the essay called After Ten Years, in which he reflects on lessons learned in their decade of resisting Hitler, Bonhoeffer includes a section called “On Success.” He is thinking of the fact that Hitler had rid the country of crime (except his own atrocious crimes), restored the economy and restored military strength to Germany. He had even fulfilled his promise to return Germany to a habit of winning.

Hitler was, by his own standards, a success. And success, argued Bonhoeffer, is not “ethically morally neutral.” That is, while success may be morally neutral in the short term, in the long term it actually changes what people think is morally acceptable.

That certainly was the case in Germany. People got so used to Hitler’s brutal ways of doing things that they willingly surrendered their own sense of responsibility and simply participated with a clean conscience in the most inhumane cruelties. They simply – and quickly – got used to evil.

In much the same way, we can already see in America that supporters of Donald Trump are so accustomed to his outrageous lies, irresponsible accusations, and utter nonsense, that they cheer him for his trumpiness, as if being Trump were a self-determining good in and of itself.

It happened in Germany and it is happening here. Scary!


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Paul Ryan said yesterday that it is his duty to support his party’s candidate for president. Does he forget that he is third in line for the office himself? However much the politicians may have twisted things in Washington, the fact remains that the position of Speaker of the House is first and foremost a national, not a political office. If something awful had happened in Philadelphia last night and we lost both Obama and Biden, Paul Ryan would be president this very minute.

He had better expand his sense of responsibility beyond his political party. He is bright enough to recognize that trump is the enemy of democracy and owes it to America to stop him. It is not enough to think that he could influence trump after the election. That’s what they thought about Hitler, too. People who are completely narcissistic cannot be influenced. And that makes them very dangerous when they get any sort of power.

Ryan, at best, is forgetting his real responsibility. At worst, he is betraying the American people.

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Bonhoeffer addressed the question in 1942 of why it had seemed the German people had lacked the civil courage to stand up to Hitler from the beginning. He said it wasn’t as simple as saying it was simply a matter of personal cowardice.

Rather, it was something in the shared cultural values of the German people. Here is the key paragraph:

In the course of a long history, we Germans have had to learn the need for obedience and the power thereof. We saw the meaning and greatness of our life in the subordination of all personal wishes and ideas under the commission that came to be ours. Our gaze was directed upward, not in slavish fear but in the free trust that beheld a career in the commission and a vocation in the career. The readiness to follow an order from “above” rather than one’s own discretion arises from and is part of the justified suspicion about one’s own heart.

Germans valued trust in and obedience to their leaders, to the exclusion of personal responsibility. Much of Europe and Russia has been inclined toward favoring a “Strong Man” type of leader who rules by the strength of his own will.* Since personal responsibility was at the heart of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the normal Christian life, it was perhaps a bit easier for him to recognize Hitler’s evil than it was for others.

He goes on the say the Germans had been naive and had failed to consider that placing blind trust in a strong leader made them quite vulnerable to an evil leader. And in Hitler Germany faced a man willing and able to exploit the worst in the German character.

Just as we in America today face exactly such a man in donald trump. . .

  • You must read Machiavelli and Nietzsche to be able to recognize Hitler and trump fully and clearly.

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After ten years of resisting Hitler and the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote an essay asking the question, “Who Stands Firm?” What kind of people have proven able to see and resist Hitler with patience and persistence? By this time, December 1942, he has seen nearly every resistor fall by the wayside: The reasonable people, the fanatics, folk of sensitive conscience, those with a high sense of duty, those who value freedom above all, people committed to a private, individual sense of virtue. None of these have been up to the long struggle.

Who stands firm? Dietrich answered, “Only the one whose ultimate standard is not his reason, his principles, conscience, freedom, or virtue; only the one who is prepared to sacrifice all of these when, in faith and in relationship to God alone, he is called to obedient and responsible action. Such a person is the responsible one, whose life is to be nothing but a response to God’s question and call.” This was not some sort of religious bias on his part. He had seen religious people by the thousands succumb to Hitler. No, this was plain old experience on Dietrich’s part..

He also spoke of some of the reasons why the struggle had been so hard. One such reason was that resisting Hitler meant resisting his many, many followers. A very highly thoughtful person himself, he had learned that the supporters of a tyrant are not thoughtful but are enslaved to their own gut-feelings. In conversation they seem truly stupid. “Stupidity,” Bonhoeffer noted, “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.”

That observation is true in today’s American political scene as much as in Germany of the 1930s. Bonhoeffer could well have pointed out, however, that evil on the part of the leaders is itself extremely stubborn. Hitler induced a certain stupidity among the German people and that stupidity provided something of a protective wall behind which he could carry out he evil work.

Now in America, as the GOP Convention gets underway with donald trump the inevitable nominee to emerge from the proceedings, we need to remember the lessons of the Nazi era. I’ve been listening with great care for more than a year. For a long time I thought he was an amazingly accomplished liar.

Now my mind has changed. I no longer believe that donald trump has “truth” anywhere on his list of virtues. He does not care about truth, does not think about it, does not even recognize any particular difference between truth and falsehood. He is one of the most profoundly amoral men I’ve ever observed. He is a man of zero moral concern.

He loves to point out moral flaws in others, of course, while brazenly demonstrating again and again that he does not believe there are any moral restraints on him. to anyone of any moral sensitivity at all, donald trump is deeply repulsive.

The law is to be used for his own personal gain. Judges are to be intimidated. Politicians are to be bought. Foreign nations are to be put at disadvantage in their relations with us.

His lack of a moral dimension makes him evil and very, very dangerous.

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Sometimes a liberal newspaper like the NY Times shows a greater understanding of Christianity than does the “evangelical” wing of the Republican party. I’m copying here in full an opinion piece by Times writer Peter Wehner. He attributes a quotation from Paul to the Jesus but other than that he shows far greater sensitivity to biblical Christianity than do people like James Dobson and Eric Metaxas.

I have just one comment about Metaxas: His biography of Bonhoeffer shows that he actually read very little of Bonhoeffer’s writing and that he is as ignorant about Hitler as he is about Bonhoeffer’s theology. I do not use the term “ignorant” lightly. Metaxas wrote an entertaining biography but failed very seriously to comprehend what Bonhoeffer taught and what the Nazi context was like. His ignorance makes it possible for him to say about Trump exactly what many people said about Hitler: “the “last great hope” for his country.

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The Theology of Donald Trump

SINCE Donald Trump assures us that the Bible is his favorite book, it’s worth asking: Just what is his theology?

After Mr. Trump met with hundreds of evangelical Christians a couple of weeks ago, James Dobson, who is among the most influential leaders in the evangelical world and serves on Mr. Trump’s evangelical executive advisory board, declared that “Trump appears to be tender to things of the Spirit,” by which Dr. Dobson meant the Holy Spirit.

Of all the descriptions of Mr. Trump we’ve heard this election season, this may be the most farcical. As described by St. Paul, the “fruit of the Spirit” includes forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, hardly qualities one associates with Mr. Trump. It shows you the lengths Mr. Trump’s supporters will go to in order to rationalize their enthusiastic support of him.

Dr. Dobson is not alone. Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, has praised Mr. Trump’s life as in many ways exemplary and said that he believes that “Donald Trump is God’s man to lead our nation.” Eric Metaxas, who has written popular biographies of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, has rhapsodized about Mr. Trump and argued that Christians “must” vote for him because he is “the last best hope of keeping America from sliding into oblivion.”

And should your conscience tell you that Mr. Trump might not be the right choice, Robert Jeffress, the influential pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, explains that “any Christian who would sit at home and not vote for the Republican nominee” is “motivated by pride rather than principle.”

This fulsome embrace of Mr. Trump is rather problematic, since he embodies a worldview that is incompatible with Christianity. If you trace that worldview to its source, Christ would not be anywhere in the vicinity.

Time and again Mr. Trump has shown contempt for those he perceives as weak and vulnerable — “losers,” in his vernacular. They include P.O.W.s, people with disabilities, those he deems physically unattractive and those he considers politically powerless. He bullies and threatens people he believes are obstacles to his ambitions. He disdains compassion and empathy, to the point where his instinctive response to the largest mass shooting in American history was to congratulate himself: “Appreciate the congrats for being right.”

What Mr. Trump admires is strength. For him, a person’s intrinsic worth is tied to worldly success and above all to power. He never seems free of his obsession with it. In his comments to that gathering of evangelicals, Mr. Trump said this: “And I say to you folks, because you have such power, such influence. Unfortunately the government has weeded it away from you pretty strongly. But you’re going to get it back. Remember this: If you ever add up, the men and women here are the most important, powerful lobbyists. You’re more powerful. Because you have men and women, you probably have something like 75, 80 percent of the country believing. But you don’t use your power. You don’t use your power.”

In eight sentences Mr. Trump mentioned some variation of power six times, to a group of individuals who have professed their love and loyalty to Jesus, who in his most famous sermon declared, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are the meek,” who said, “My strength is made perfect in weakness,” and who was humiliated and crucified by the powerful.

To better understand Mr. Trump’s approach to life, ethics and politics, we should not look to Christ but to Friedrich Nietzsche, who was repulsed by Christianity and Christ. “What is good?” Nietzsche asks in “The Anti-Christ”: “Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is evil? Whatever springs from weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power increases – that resistance is overcome.”

Whether or not he has read a word of Nietzsche (I’m guessing not), Mr. Trump embodies a Nietzschean morality rather than a Christian one. It is characterized by indifference to objective truth (there are no facts, only interpretations), the repudiation of Christian concern for the poor and the weak, and disdain for the powerless. It celebrates the “Übermensch,” or Superman, who rejects Christian morality in favor of his own. For Nietzsche, strength was intrinsically good and weakness was intrinsically bad. So, too, for Donald Trump.

Those who believe this is merely reductionism should consider the words of Jesus: Do you have eyes but fail to see and ears but fail to hear? Mr. Trump’s entire approach to politics rests on dehumanization. If you disagree with him or oppose him, you are not merely wrong. You are worthless, stripped of dignity, the object of derision. This attitude is central to who Mr. Trump is and explains why it pervades and guides his campaign. If he is elected president, that might-makes-right perspective would infect his entire administration.

All of this is important because of what it says about Mr. Trump as a prospective president. But it is also revealing for what it says about Christians who now testify on his behalf (there are plenty who don’t). The calling of Christians is to be “salt and light” to the world, to model a philosophy that defends human dignity, and to welcome the stranger in our midst. It is to stand for justice, dispense grace and be agents of reconciliation in a broken world. And it is to take seriously the words of the prophet Micah, “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?”

Evangelical Christians who are enthusiastically supporting Donald Trump are signaling, even if unintentionally, that this calling has no place in politics and that Christians bring nothing distinctive to it — that their past moral proclamations were all for show and that power is the name of the game.

The French philosopher and theologian Jacques Ellul wrote: “Politics is the church’s worst problem. It is her constant temptation, the occasion of her greatest disasters, the trap continually set for her by the prince of this world.” In rallying round Mr. Trump, evangelicals have walked into the trap. The rest of the world sees it. Why don’t they?

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At the end of WW II, many Nazi leaders were put on trial for war crimes. Their defense was simple but almost impossible to challenge except on the basis of the teachings of the Bible.

The defense was that the Nazis were innocent because they had been obeying the law and the legal Fuhrer. Clearly, they were guilty of great and inexcusable evil but how does one establish that in court, since “evil” is not a legal category?

The chief counsel for the United States, Robert H. Jackson, won the day with the argument that there is a “law above the law” that is the measure by which some laws can be deemed good and some evil. His position was upheld by the court and used as the basis for the conviction of most of the Nazi leaders and the execution of many of them.

Would a court today be able to agree with Jackson? Having worked hard to scrub any traces of God from our national structures, how could we envision any sort of “supra-legal” basis of legal judgment? All such attempts to establish a secular morality end up being either absurdly permissive, leaving society with no cohesive principles, or totally arbitrary.

We can coast for a generation or two on the foundation of biblical ethics which guided most American and Western thinking for so many centuries but each generation becomes more and more removed from the source. The convictions about right and wrong become muddled. We soon will be where ancient Israel was for a time before their kingdom was established: “. . .all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”

Moral anarchy is ugly and deadly. And we are already paying a great cost for having rejected any foundation for ethical thinking.

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