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Archive for November, 2016

Writing in 1942, after ten years of active resistance to Hitler, Bonhoeffer sought to summarize in a set of mini-essays some of the most basic lessons he and his friends had learned. The shortest of these he called “On Suffering.”

There is no question that their lives had been deeply troubled by the Nazis, that they had long been in danger of arrest, imprisonment, and — because they were involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler — execution. For ten years suffering had been a substantial theme in their lives and the possibility of even greater suffering loomed over every day.

Yet this essay is the shortest of them all. Here it is in full:

It is infinitely easier to suffer in obedience to a human command than in the freedom of one’s very own responsible action. It is infinitely easier to suffer in community with others than in solitude. It is infinitely easier to suffer publicly and with honor than in the shadow and in dishonor. It is infinitely easier to suffer through putting one’s bodily life at stake than to suffer through the spirit. Christ suffered in freedom, in solitude, in the shadow, and in dishonor, in body and in spirit. Since then, many Christians have suffered with him.

Suffering is easier, Bonhoeffer writes, if it comes from being under the authority of another rather than from one’s own free choice. Why would that be? Because suffering by choice means both bearing the responsibility and having to resist the temptation to escape by making a new choice.

Suffering is easier, he says, in community than in solitude. We are reminded that the opening line of his book Life Together was a quote from Psalm 133 — “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!’ Solitude is good and enriching only when it is experienced in the context of community. If we are alone because we simply are friendless or because we are cut off from our friends against our will, the suffering is magnified by the sense of isolation.

And it is easier to suffer publicly and with honor than in hiddenness and dishonor. Suffering unknown to others emphasizes our aloneness and suffering dishonorably emphasizes the fact that we have chosen our suffering for all the wrong reasons. Honor, sad to say, is a word nearly gone from our vocabulary. Only military folk still speak of it. Most of the civilian world has discarded honor in favor of greed and selfishness. Much of our pain, then, comes from our own foolish choices and thus is accompanied by guilt, even if we’re barely aware of it.

Physical suffering is easier to bear than spiritual. Working my way through a battle with cancer and kidney failure, I applied a lesson I had learned long ago from a friend, Ray Anderson. I began each day by affirming, “This is the day the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.” It was not a pleasant battle but actually not as hard as some might think. I just thanked my Lord each day and took whatever came my way. Spiritual suffering, however, is more difficult because when things are amiss spiritually, we are unable to thank God or turst God. Than we are thrown back into an even deeper sense of being alone.

“Christ,” Bonhoeffer concludes, “suffered in freedom, in solitude, in the shadow, and in dishonor, in body and in spirit.” All suffering was brought together in the suffering our our Lord Jesus Christ. And here is our great comfort, our great strength: We, as followers of Jesus, as those who walk his path with him, suffer with him, sharing his pain even as he shares ours.

Many years ago, I sat in the very back row of a conference with 9,000 other college students. I was exhausted from trying very hard to live a good Christian life. I felt very lonely. And then they sang a promise from God — as if a choir of 9,000 angels singing just to me — “I’ll never, no never, no never forsake you.”

When the Lord of the Universe sends 9,000 angels to sing his promises to me, I tend to pay attention. . .   thank you, Lord.

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Writing in 1942, when the full horrors of Hitler and his henchmen were fully apparent for all to see, Bonhoeffer wrote a series of “mini-essays,” reflecting on what he and his friend had learned during their ten years of resistance to the Nazis.

One of those essays was entitled “Sympathy” but, interestingly, his first sentence is about wisdom. I miss hearing the word “wisdom” in our public discourse these days. It seems we may have despaired of becoming a people of wisdom, probably because we have lost hope that such as thing as wisdom even exists. It is my prayer that the Church will rise to the occasion and begin to fill that great gap in our Western — or is it only the American? — culture.

Wisdom, Bonhoeffer notes, is usually only learned through experience, through what we in the US have often called “the college of hard knocks.” One implication of that fact is that few people can see the right course of action in advance, only in the middle or even after the situation that so needed wise intervention. A second implication, says Bonhoeffer, is that few people have a genuine capacity for sympathy.

Lacking wisdom, we tend to underestimate the suffering that various situations bring to the human spirit until those situations begin to impinge on our own lives. Bonhoeffer lists several rationalizations by which people tend to keep the sense of threat at a distance as long as possible, and thus keep sympathy from developing very fully.

He writes:

From a Christian perspective, none of these justifications can blind us to the fact that what is decisively lacking here is a greatness of heart. Christ withdrew from suffering until his hour had come; then he walked toward it in freedom, took hold, and overcame it. Christ, so the Scripture tells us, experienced in his own body the whole suffering of all humanity as his own – an incomprehensibly lofty thought! – taking it upon himself in freedom.

Greatness of heart, he is suggesting, means walking toward suffering, not fleeing from it. We do not believe, of course, that our own suffering will have the universal implications which marked Jesus Christ’s suffering. Yet there is an essential dimension to the suffering of the Christian which does in fact have meaning beyond itself.

Bonhoeffer goes on to say that “if we want to be Christians it means that we are to take part in Christ’s greatness of heart. . .” That is the key, that is the factor which transforms Christian suffering into something more than merely personal pain. This is a familiar theme in Bonhoeffer: our participation in Christ’s reality. When we choose to walk toward suffering, our own or someone else’s, we do so as followers of the Christ who goes before us. We walk his path with him into the sacrifice that unites us with those in pain.

I’ve not written much in this blog in the last month because my attention has been captivated by our presidential elections here in the US. I am horrified at the results and believe trump will do serious harm to our nation and to other nations which have some connection to us. One of the many ways in which I find him to be antithetical to the Christian way is that he wants to protect Americans from the suffering that might come from welcoming refugees into our country. he does not care much that their suffering is widespread and intense. All he cares about is that we Americans ought to be sheltered from suffering on their behalf.

How very, very deeply our president-elect is unlike Jesus Christ. . .

 

 

, in the responsible action that in freedom lays hold of the hour and faces the danger, and in the true sympathy that springs forth not from fear but from Christ’s freeing and redeeming love for all who suffer. Inactive waiting and dully looking on are not Christian responses. Christians are called to action and sympathy not through their own firsthand experiences but by the immediate experiences of their brothers, for whose sake Christ suffered.

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Here in the US, we are as stunned as were the British in the days after the Brexit vote. The election of trump just did not seem possible. His flaws seemed too obvious and his qualifications to be non-existent. Unfortunately, his main opponent, Hillary Clinton, was simply not liked by very many people so, rather than cast a vote for an unpopular candidate, too many people stayed home.

Clinton got more votes than did trump but his were more strategically placed, so he won what we call the Electoral College. (It is an antiquated system that made sense 200 years ago but now, in a age of extremely rapid transportation and communication, just seems bizarre.)

Hitler became Chancellor of Germany not by election but by appointment by President Hindenburg. Bonhoeffer and a few others saw from the beginning how evil he was but in the eyes of most people he was merely unlikable, like trump. When Hindenburg died a year later, Hitler declared himself both Chancellor and President. He then called for an election in which he suppressed opposition and won the vote.

In the meantime, however, he had shown two things about himself. One was that, just as Bonhoeffer had seen, he was a cruel tyrant, bitterly vindictive and strongly xenophobic. The other was that, just as he had promised,he created jobs, greatly reduced crime, and raised the morale of the German people.

Or, to be more precise, he raised the morale of those who did not see that he created jobs by starting a major military buildup and re3duced crime by ruthlessly punishing anyone even suspected of a crime. As we have sometimes seen in this country, when the government fights for law and order but not justice, the result is cruelty.

So, as America moves into a period when we are led by someone who is much like Hitler was in the beginning, I would ask all of you — including and maybe especially those of you in other countries — to pray for us. Would you please?

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