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By far the two most popular of my blog pieces have been discussions of Bonhoeffer’s brief essay called “On Stupidity,” part of the set of remarks entitled “After Ten Years.” It is found in the notes from which Bonhoeffer was in the process of forming the book “Ethics,” which he was never able to complete because of the turmoil of the times. In December of 1942 he sent it as something of a Christmas gift to his friend Eberhard Bethge and two of his co-conspirators, Hans von Dohnanyi (Bonhoeffer’s brother in law) and Hans Oster (deputy head of the counter-espionage bureau in the German military intelligence). It is a series of brief reflections on lessons they have learned in the ten years since Hitler had become Chancellor in January, 1933.

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“Have there ever been people in history who in their time, like us, had so little ground under their feet, people to whom every possible alternative open to them at the time appeared equally unbearable, senseless, and contrary to life? Have there been those who like us looked for the source of their strength beyond all those available alternatives? Were they looking entirely in what has passed away and in what is yet to come? And nevertheless, without being dreamers, did they await with calm and confidence the successful outcome of their endeavor? Or rather, facing a great historical turning point, and precisely because something genuinely new was coming to be that did not fit with the existing alternatives, did the responsible thinkers of another generation ever feel differently than we do today?”

This brief section follows the prologue and simply raises the question, Have others been in this difficult situation in which there are no good alternatives before them? It is tempting to say Bonhoeffer would not have bothered rising the question had he known much about presidential elections in the U.S. In fact, for this year in particular, the difference may be only a matter of degree.

Bonhoeffer raised the question in 1942, with Germany already engaged in war, wrecking devastation  where there had been no enmity. Bonhoeffer, along with a great many others, was working not to depose Hitler but to kill him.

They knew that his evil could not be stamped out by mere political reformation. Hitler did not operate by or respond to political realities, only by power and intimidation. They knew also that Hitler could not be put in his place by rational argument. his supporters were not rational people and were not interested in thoughtful reasoning. Theirs was a blind, self-chosen enslavement to a master manipulator who seemed to be fulfilling his promise to make Germany great again.

It is true that we in America today are in a similar situation, though not nearly so drastic. Our political institutions are strong enough to limit the damage that would be done were trump, the petty tyrant, to be elected. Our moral foundations, though seriously weakened by our entertainment and advertisers industries, remain sufficiently firm that  the vast majority of people will never surrender to the meanness of spirit shown by trump.

Most of us in America are frustrated by how ineffective our government has become. We’re even raising the question of whether we have pushed the idea of representative democracy as far as it will stretch. That’s why Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” has gained such popularity that he almost won the Democrat nomination for the presidency.

So we have now to choose between the candidate on the left who represents too little change and a candidate on the right who is irresponsible, unable to think in terms other than his own self-interest, and who is a genuinely mean manipulator and intimidator.

Not much ground under our feet unless we know and rest in the sovereignty of God. If our faith is in the Constitution, we’re in trouble. If it is in the Bible, we have solid ground for hope. Thanks be to God!

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One of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s oddest sounding ideas — at least for Evangelicals — is expressed in the opening lines of Ethics, in which he says that the exploration of ethics must begin with the surrender of the questions “How can I be good?” and “How can I do something good?” “Instead,” he writes, we “must ask the wholly other, completely different question: what is the will of God?”

This is not meant as merely an attention-grabbing beginning for the book but is in fact a conviction fundamental to Bonhoeffer’s approach to ethics. It is a quite radical dismissal of what has passed for Christian ethical thought for two thousand years.

As an Evangelical myself, I want very much to be a biblical person in thought and deed. Sometimes — as in the case at hand — that puts me at odds with some of my fellow Evangelicals. I have found myself saying many times that God has not called me to be good or to be successful, only to be faithful. If there is goodness in my heart or in my deeds, it is his goodness, for which I am not proud but grateful. If there is success in my life, it is God’s not mine. As Paul put it long ago in his letter to the Galatians: “It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.”

I suspect few Evangelicals will object to this line of thinking, since it is so grounded in Scripture. Why, then, would we think it odd when Bonhoeffer says we are not called to be good but to live by God’s will? Is that so different from my way of wording the matter?

To approach the matter from another angle, think for a moment about the story in Genesis 1-3. Before the eating of the forbidden qumquat, how were Adam and Eve to know what to do? They had no rules to govern their behavior except the one warning not to eat from one specific tree. The rest of the behavior was governed not by rules of good and bad but simply by the will of God. Can we see it any other way?

The knowledge of good and evil — and therefore the responsibility to choose one over the other — is the fruit of sin. Surely we can see that God is delivering us from and calling us out of the life of sin and its fruits. So is Bonhoeffer really being so radical? No, I think he is just being biblical.

[More on this theme later. . . ]

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Yesterday I saw a small, simple carving of a Black American. It was created in 1876 by Emma Marie Cadwalader-Guild. As I walked toward and then around it in the museum, it was clear that this was a portrayal of a man broken by slavery. He is barely clothed, leaning against a stump with his hands behind his back and his head bowed low. As I returned to the front of the 20 inch carving, I was surprised to find it entitled “Free.” Confused, I walked slowly around it again, this time noticing that his hands weren’t tied together: One hand grasped the wrist of the other.

So, in one sense he was a free man yet every detail in the carving suggested an unbearable burden, an oppressive weight. It was as if his new-found freedom (1876 was barely more than a decade after the formal end of slavery in the US) could not ease the crushing pain of the slavery he had known since birth. His freedom, then, was not freedom at all.

Yet there was a note, a little grace note,of hope. Though his hands were still tied by remembered chains, they were in fact free to separate, free to create, free to clear a path ahead.

The artist, CadwaladerGuild, gives us no clue about what was to become of the freed slaves in America. Was she hopeful for them? Would she be pleased by how much progress has been made in America in moving beyond slavery?

No, I suspect that she would read our headlines and be dismayed that our progress has been so limited. Slavery is illegal but racism is still strong. And, just as painful to watch, the recovery of Black families — which has already been underway for a century and a half — is going to take many more generations. White Americans not only kept their slaves in primitive, barely civilized situations but have been losing their grip on family stability themselves.

Saddest of all for me is that conservative Christians, those most boasting of  believing Bible and Gospel, have been among the most racist of all. What a terrible and completely inexcusable denial of both Bible and Gospel!

May those who have been touched, claimed, and saved by the immeasurable grace of God become at last the proclaimers of freedom, dignity, and justice. Please, Lord. . .

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A Sincere Apology

My apologies to those who have wondered why my bog has been inactive for the past couple of months. I had major surgery in July, followed by a severe kidney infection from which my kidneys have been very slow to recover. Things are looking good at last and my mind is becoming a bit less groggy, so I’ll return to writing next week. Thanks to everyone for your patience!

Mike

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