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Archive for the ‘Early Bonhoeffer’ Category

At long last my Bonhoeffer book is completed and has been accepted by a publisher. It should be available in the Spring of 2018.

The title is “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biblical Appreciation.” Until recently the subtitle was going to be “An Evangelical Appreciation” but the word “evangelical” has morphed into a political rather than a theological term and so has become useless in theological discussion.

What I argue in the book is that Bonhoeffer builds on the same foundations as have the (non-political) Evangelicals who have so shaped my faith over the last half-century: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Fuller Seminary, John Stott and Eugene Peterson, among others.

The two parts to the foundation we share with Bonhoeffer are the centrality of Jesus Christ and the trustworthiness of the Bible. Like Bonhoeffer, I want to read Scripture with a sense that it is “a love letter written from God” to me, even while listening to it wit a critical ear.

The critical ear does not invalidate my trust in the Bible. It just means I do not believe it was dictated by God to a variety of stenographers over the centuries. Though often obscured by our modern translations, there are substantial difference between the way the books of the Bible are written, indicating that the personalities and writing styles of the writers had a significant effect on their work.

In my Bible blog, for example, I’ve just finished spending a couple of months going through Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians. I’m now beginning work of I John. The transition from one to the other is like a culture shock. Paul’s training in Greek rhetoric shows through very strongly, while John poetic way of thinking is like walking through a field of wildflowers. To read Paul as if he were John, or vice versa, would be to miss entirely the persons behind the text.

Yes, I agree that the Bible is the Word of God but it is not God’s Word instead of being a human word. As is the case in nearly everything God does on earth, the human is yoked to the divine. If we cannot see that in Scripture, I doubt that we can begin to comprehend it in the incarnation of Christ.

Though using the same foundations, the theological house Bonhoeffer builds seems quite unlike American evangelicalism of the 20th century. That means, first, we are given a whole new perspective from which to understand our Lord, his promises to us and expectations of us. Second, it challenges us to be free to disagree even with our most cherished mentors. The finest people among us are still fallible. We want to enter into conversation with them, not blindly write down their every word.

Finally, why have I chosen “Biblical” in the sub-title? It is because, as an evangelical, I’m always trying to be sure that everything I say or write is an accurate and insightful reflection of Scripture. Bonhoeffer was an excellent student and teacher of the Bible. His later years, of course, were marked by his struggle against Hitler. He wrote less directly about the Bible than in his earlier years but grounded his work on biblical foundations no less.

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Thanks to my friend John Matthews, a small publishing house in Minneapolis has expressed interest in my Bonhoeffer manuscript. I’m reviewing the text now to get it ready to send off. Kinda’ scary!

My purpose in writing the book was to look at Bonhoeffer’s life and writings through evangelical eyes (though I’m no longer sure what the word “evangelical” means). I’ve tried to do a careful job of showing that Bonhoeffer’s last works (Ethics and Letters and Papers) were no more radical than his earliest writings, dating back at least to 1928. I hope I’ve also effectively shown that even in his most radical ideas, Bonhoeffer (though not being an evangelical) was not far from the best of American evangelicalism.

For example, when I first became a Christian in the early 60s, there was an idea I heard often: “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship.” I liked it then and I like it now. It is not substantially unlike Bonhoeffer’s idea of “religionless Christianity.” It’s so close, in fact, that I am actually puzzled that evangelicals haven’t been excited about it.

Eric Metaxas did little to help, mouthing the old view that Discipleship and Life Together are good books while claiming Bonhoeffer would be embarrassed to know that anyone takes seriously his last works. I hope the day comes when Metaxas realizes what a foolish view he has propounded.

I’ll let you know if my book ever makes it into print!

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By far, my most popular blog entries have been the two on Bonhoeffer’s brief paragraph on stupidity. As I was working my way through Bonhoeffer’s writings in my blog, they just happened to come up during last year’s campaign season. More than a year old, they are still getting hits.

I think the reason is that, in our polarized situation in the US, each side finds the other to be blind, dim-witted, unreasonable, and just plain stupid. Disagreement has become cause not for compromise but for condemnation.

“Against stupidity,” noted 18th century German scholar Friedrich Schiller, “the gods themselves contend in vain.” Bonhoeffer’s point almost precisely! I say “almost” because Bonhoeffer was speaking of a specific kind of stupidity, that of the blind followers of a tyrant. It is a major theme in Bonhoeffer’s thinking that there is no morality without responsibility. We cannot claim to be moral people if we are letting someone else be responsible for us.

He wasn’t speaking, of course, of those who are truly needy and cannot take care of themselves. Instead he has in mind those who are willfully stupid, who voluntarily turn over responsibility for their lives to someone else. He was surrounded by such people as Germans by the millions came to view loyalty to Hitler as the highest value in life. If Hitler said something, it was accepted uncritically as true. If Hitler called for a certain action (such as the destruction of the Jews) it must be the right thing to do.

If you had asked a Hitler loyalist whether he was being morally responsible, he would have insisted that he was being more moral than ever in his life. Until it was too late, most Germans in the 1930s really believed they were doing the right thing in entrusting their own sense of right and wrong to Hitler.

Thirty years later Martin Luther King Jr. commented that “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Those who are fundamentally irresponsible are pleased with themselves. And they are very dangerous, as Schiller and Bonhoeffer taught us, because they will not see reason or value truth.

So, in our political situation, about a third of American adults trust Trump, even though he has lied more times since announcing his candidacy than anyone can count. They are sure he is trying to do the right thing, even though his life story proves beyond any possible doubt that he is crooked, deceitful, manipulative, and immeasurably greedy. They don’t mind that he is blatantly using his position to enhance his own wealth because it just shows what a good businessman he is. Having surrendered their own judgment and their own sense of responsibility to him, they will go to any lengths to defend the indefensible in him.

That is willful stupidity and it cannot be countered by rational argument. But it can be countered by prayer, if only the faithful will learn how to pray more deeply than the usual, “Please help me, Lord, to get over this cold.” If only we will learn to pray. . .

Having read this far, you’ve seen what a jam I’m in. I bemoan the fact that in our day we tend to think people are stupid if they differ radically from us. And yet here I am, thinking it is obvious that Trump, like Hitler before him, has made his followers into mindless loyalists. I don’t suppose you’ll let me off the hook even though I’m confessing my sin, will you?

 

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My cancer has returned and is expected to be aggressive, which means I know I’m living in my own end times, my own eschaton. I have tried a bit of a thought experiment, trying to use my own situation to better imagine and identify with Bonhoeffer in prison. The circumstances, though, present too great a contrast. I’m home, not feeling too badly, and being cared for by a truly amazing wife.

Yes, like Bonhoeffer, I know the end is near but it is not unjust for me as it was for him. And I am 74, retired, thankful for a long and full life. He never reached 40. My life has been productive in minor ways (I’m glad to have had the privilege of helping people) but his life and his death were both productive in ways few of us will ever experience.

Nonetheless, I have “done my bit,” as the citizens of England used to say during WWII, doing their bit to contribute to the war effort.

Part of what makes Bonhoeffer so admirable is that he so effectively maintained his sense of the sovereignty of God, his trust in the Lordship of Jesus Christ, even when all the earthly evidence suggested that he was the victim of injustice. Injustice is the enemy of God and injustice seemed — to onlookers — to be dominating Bonhoeffer’s last years. Yet he chose to affirm in multiple ways that it was his Lord who reigned in his life. His was a faith deeper than appearances. He walked by faith, not by sight.

And God has been honoring him ever since.

 

 

 

 

 

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For those not yet convinced of the danger Trump presents to American democracy, here are words written by Eberhard Bethge about the beginning of Hitler’s tyranny in 1933:

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The day before the Reichstag fire, it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s turn to preach. Taking as its text ‘The people with you are too many for  me’ (Judges 7:2), his sermon on Gideon remained imprinted on the minds of his students:

    Do not desire to be strong, powerful, glorious and respected, but let God alone be your strength, your fame and your honor . . . . Gideon, who achieved faith in fear and doubt, kneels with us here before the altar of the one and only God, and Gideon prays with us: ‘Our Lord on the cross, be thou our one and only Lord.  Amen.’

    “Out of this controlled chaos, within a short time Hitler had changed the legislature into a tool of his will. In the wave of enthusiasm for the new national era, the German people submitted to one decree after another, one law after another, in the illusion that they were experiencing a new freedom. In fact, they were being deprived of numerous rights.
    On the night of 27 February [1933], behind an impenetrable police cordon, the Reichstag was burned to the ground. The following morning Hitler declared his most ominous emergency decree, the ‘Reich President’s Edict for the Protection of People and State.’ To remain in force ‘until further notice,’ the edict remained in effect until 8 May 1945. It abolished virtually all personal rights protected by the constitution. It made the concentration camps possible. In the 5 march election, the majority of Germans accepted de facto the terms of paragraph 1 of the edict of 28 February 1933:

    Therefore restriction of personal freedom, of the right of free speech, including the freedom of the press, of the right of association and of public assembly, intervention in the privacy of post, telegraph and telephone, authorization of house searches and the confiscation and restriction of property, beyond the hitherto legal limits, will henceforward be admissible.

    This gave Hitler the supreme powers he desired. All that remained to be seen was whether he would have the necessary basis to implement them or would fail to exploit them.

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In today’s America, with a new president who seems reckless and irresponsible, we worry about the end of what our founding fathers called “tranquility.” They created a constitution designed to insure domestic tranquility because that is a necessary condition for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

They also had a concern for peace and the defense of our nation. That, too, now seems uncertain as our president proceeds to offend our international friends and cozy up to Putin in Russia.

In 1934 Bonhoeffer already understood that war was inevitable so long as Hitler remained in power. He saw through the illusion that Hitler was fomenting that the Nazi aim was nothing more than the safety and security of the people. Here is one of Bonhoeffer’s most cogent points:

“How does peace come about? . . .There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be made safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to mistrust, and this mistrust in turn brings forth war. To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means to give oneself altogether to the law of God, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won where the way leads to the cross.”

Oh how I wish there were such wisdom in Washington today!

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The English Language Section of the International Bonhoeffer Society has taken the unusual step of issuing a letter in response to all the political and moral turmoil in the United States these days. Here is the opening paragraph of that letter:

The United States has undergone an unusually contentious, bitter, and ugly election that has brought  us to an equally contentious, bitter, and ugly beginning of the presidency of Donald J. Trump. While it is impossible to predict what lies ahead, we are gravely concerned by the rise in hateful rhetoric  and violence, the deep divisions and distrust in our country, and the weakening in respectful public discourse. Some of the institutions that have traditionally protected our freedoms are under threat. In particular, this election has made the most vulnerable members of our society, including people  of color, members of the LGBTQ communities, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, the poor, and the  marginally employed and the unemployed, feel even more vulnerable and disempowered.

And the closing paragraphs make suggestions about relevant ideas gleaned from the writings of Bonhoeffer:

  • He warned that leaders become “misleaders” when they are interested only in their own  power and neglect their responsibilities to serve those whom they govern. (1933)
  • He warned that when a government persecutes its minorities, it has ceased to govern  legitimately. (1933)
  • He admonished Christians to “speak out for those who cannot speak” (1934) and reminded  that the church has an “unconditional obligation toward the victims of any societal order,  even if they do not belong to the Christian community.” (1933)
  • In his book Discipleship, he wrote: “From the human point of view there are countless possibilities of understanding and interpreting the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus knows only one possibility: simply go and obey. Do not interpret or apply, but do it and obey. That is the only way Jesus’ word is really heard. But again, doing something is not to be understood  as an ideal possibility; instead, we are simply to begin acting.”(1936)
  • He wrote: “I believe that in every moment of distress God will give us as much strength to  resist as we need…I believe that even our mistakes and shortcomings are not in vain and that is not 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.” (1942)
  • He wrote: “Is there a political responsibility of the individual Christian? Individual Christians can certainly not be held responsible for the government’s actions, nor dare they make  themselves responsible for them. But on the basis of their faith and love of neighbor, they are responsible for their own vocation and personal sphere of living, however large or small  it is. Wherever this responsibility is faithfully exercised, it has efficacy for the polis as a whole.”(1941)
  • He wrote: “…  one only learns to have faith by living in the full this-worldliness of
    life….then one takes seriously no longer one’s own sufferings but rather the suffering of God in the world. Then one stays awake with Christ in Gethsemane…. How should one become arrogant over successes or shaken by one’s failures when one shares in God’s suffering in the life of this world?” (1944)

In the coming time, we will seek to live such a life of witness, not only for the sake of our  country, but because our Christian faith calls us to do so.

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