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Archive for September, 2016

It is 1942. Bonhoeffer is writing to a couple of close friends, musing on lessons learned after ten years of resistance to Hitler and the Nazis. His paragraph on “Trust” is  very personal.

“Few have been spared the experience of being betrayed. The figure of Judas, once so incomprehensible, is hardly strange to us. The air in which we live is so poisoned that we almost die from it. But where we broke through the layer of mistrust, we were allowed to experience a trust hitherto utterly undreamed of. There, where we trust, we have learned to place our lives in the hands of others; contrary to all the ambiguities in which our acts and lives must exist, we have learned to trust without reserve. We now know that one can truly live and work only in such trust, which is always a venture but one gladly affirmed. We know that to sow and to nourish mistrust is one of the most reprehensible things and that, instead, trust is to be strengthened and advanced wherever possible.
“For us trust will be one of the greatest, rarest, and most cheering gifts bestowed by the life we humans live in common, and yet it always emerges only against the dark background of a necessary mistrust. We have learned to commit our lives on no account into the hands of the mean but without reserve into the hands of the trustworthy.”

It is hard for me to read that sowing mistrust is reprehensible without thinking of donald trump. He rejects personal accountability at every level, yet dares to expect us to entrust our nation to him. He is truly reprehensible.

 

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This is a short blurb about the sovereignty of God in our lives. It is one of those many passages in Bonhoeffer that makes us wish we could sit down with him and ask lots of questions.

I quote it in full:

I believe that God can and will let good come out of everything, even the greatest evil. For that to happen, God needs human beings who let everything work out for the best. I believe that in every moment of distress God will give us as much strength to resist as we need. But it is not given to us in advance, lest we rely on ourselves and not on God alone. In such faith all fear of the future should be overcome. I believe that even our mistakes and shortcomings are not in vain and that it is no more difficult for God to deal with them than with our supposedly good deeds. I believe that God is no timeless fate but waits for and responds to sincere prayer and responsible actions.

These are the words of a man who knows his life is in danger, whose family and country are already suffering under Hitler, the Nazis, and the war machine they have put into action. Bonhoeffer trusts the promise of Romans 8:28 that “all things work together for good for those who love God. . .”

Notice that he is also aware, however, that human cooperation is a part of the story. It is not as if we can simply do whatever we want whenever we want and God will somehow magically guarantee a positive outcome. The devil had tempted Jesus to believe in that illusion (Matthew 4) and had been rebuffed by Jesus. We are not to test God but cooperate with him, using the strength — and wisdom! — he gives us day by day, moment by moment.

The worst thing, in Bonhoeffer’s mind, would be for us to “rely on ourselves and not on God alone.” That’s offensive for those people infected by hubris who in fact want very much to rely on themselves alone and not need the “crutch” of faith at all.

As a new Christian more than a few decades ago, I puzzled over the relation between doing things without actually having a sense of being directed by God and doing nothing without a certainty of God’s will. I quickly decided, of course, that were I to wait for definite leading, I would simply sit in a dark room motionless for a long time. It is to posit a false dichotomy to say we must choose being doing and waiting.

Isaiah 30:21 was very helpful for me. “When you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.'” The Lord’s guidance normally comes as we step out in faith, not before.

There is something else in Bonhoeffer’s words which grabs my attention. God, he says, “waits for and responds to sincere prayer and responsible actions.” Surely this is the most amazing idea of all: The omniscient,omnipresent, never-changing Creator of the Universe responds to the prayers and responsible (=faithful) actions of his children.

Take this sentence and chew on it for a few weeks: Our Lord and his children are in a mutually responsive personal relationship.

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In his set of mini-essays entitled “After Ten Years,” written in 1942, Bonhoeffer reflects on the lessons learned in a decade of active resistance to Hitler. The section entitled “Immanent Justice” is one of the most profound parts of the whole piece and it begs to be expanded. Many of its ideas, in fact, do receive a broader attention in the book Ethics, of which “After Ten Years” was originally a part

Bonhoeffer’s first assertion here is that “evil . . . proves itself to be stupid and impractical.” That is, evil is neither wise nor pragmatic. It is unwise because (to supply an image which Bonhoeffer does not use) evil is a boomerang. It will always return to strike the one who sent it flying. It is not pragmatic because ultimately it becomes harmful to the very ends for which it was chosen in the first place.

Hitler’s hubris had such strength that it was the basis of the Thousand Year Reich he began to establish in 1933. After ten years, with the failed defeat of England and the disastrous and futile attempt to conquer Russia, it was clear that there would not be a Third Reich much longer. The Thousand Year Reich was to fall 988 years short of Hitler’s dream. It was killed by Hitler’s hubris: Had he listened to his generals, rather than thinking he knew more than they, things might have turned out in a vastly different manner. Hitler was killed by his own boomerang.

There are, argues Bonhoeffer, certain “laws” of the human community with cannot be broken with impunity and immunity. “In the fullness of the concrete situation and in the possibilities it offers, the wise person discerns the impassable limits that are imposed on every action by the abiding laws of human communal life. In this discernment the wise person acts well and the good person acts wisely.”

Bonhoeffer is not saying there are some sort of mystical rules built into the universe but that God has his ways of protecting us from the worst of our foibles. We may at times wish he would be more strict with us. After all, we cannot count the number of millions who lost their lives by the twin evils of Hitler and Stalin.

At the time Bonhoeffer was writing these ideas, he was already deeply involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Did he think murdering Hitler was somehow exempt from the Law of the Boomerang, that the assassination was a purely innocent deed?

For years people have combed Bonhoeffer’s writings, hoping to find there some claim of innocence because they cannot envision a theologian and ethicist engaging in a non-innocent action. They have searched in vain. Bonhoeffer made no such claim. He did argue, however, that “it makes a decisive difference whether such trespasses against the established limit are viewed as their abolishment in principle and hence presented as a law of its own kind, or whether one is conscious that such trespassing is perhaps an unavoidable guilt that has its justification only in that law and limit being reinstated and honored as quickly as possible.”

The action, though guilty, may be unavoidable for the ultimate preservation of the moral law being violated. He was willing to take on the temporary guilt of participation in the conspiracy because it was the only way to stop the monstrously murderous ways of Hitler. trying to imagine myself in Bonhoeffer’s position as he writes these words, I find myself experiencing a certain twisting in my own heart. And that is just the point. Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators took on a temporary guilt on behalf of all Germans, who were having a load of guilt on them to the degree that they condoned – or at least did not resist — the Nazi atrocities.

There are two relevant historical examples to help us understand this. The earliest and least profound is the example of Socrates, who willingly paid the legal price for resisting the Athenian laws. He did so because succumbing to those laws would have caused him to sit by idly while Athens proceeded to destroy itself from within. And we have been applauding Socrates for 2500 years.

A vastly more important example of someone incurring guilt to save others from their guilt, of course, is Jesus Christ on the Cross. Think about it: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21).

 

 

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