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Posts Tagged ‘Bonhoeffer’

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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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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It was inevitable that the constant struggle against Nazi evils — made all the worse by the popularity of the Nazi regime in its first ten years — would wear down those who had recognized the  Hitler’s wickedness from the beginning.

Petty people, who define themselves by what they are against rather than what they are for, seem to thrive on conflict and confrontation. Those who are more mature and who know the good they are pursuing, find it to be a great strain when circumstances force them into the unnatural posture of opposition.

When matters are deeply serious and drearily prolonged, death itself becomes no longer an enemy but almost a temptation because it seems to promise relief and rest. “We can no longer hate Death so much; we have discovered something of kindness in his features and are almost reconciled to him. Deep down we seem to feel that we are his already and that each new day is a miracle.”

“Who stands firm?”, Bonhoeffer had asked earlier in After Ten Years. Only the one who stands “in faith and in relationship to God alone,” the one who knows and accepts that he “is called to obedient and responsible action.”

When death becomes a temptation, only a few will stand firm in their active resistance to evil. Bonhoeffer’s hope — and commitment — was that when death came, it would find him “completely engaged in the fullness of life, rather than by accident, suddenly, away from what really matters.”

Or, to put it in language John Wayne* would understand, he wants to die with his boots on.


  • For those outside the US, John Wayne was an film actor who became a symbol of the rugged individualism on which America prided itself in its first two centuries. the attractive ideal of the rugged individualist still lingers in American dreams, though the realities of modern life tie us together in so many and such complex ways that now all we have left is a wistful memory of the good ol’ days.

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Ten years of resisting Hitler, watching the tyrant’s popularity grow during that whole time, must have been exhausting for Bonhoeffer and the others who never gave up fighting for truth and justice. In fact, however, it was not.

His mini-essay entitled “Optimism” helps us understand why Bonhoeffer remained strong. He recognized that it seems “more sensible to be pessimistic” as a way of protecting oneself against disappointment. Nonetheless, Bonhoeffer was firmly committed to optimism.to him it was “a power that never abandons the future to the opponent but lays claim to it.”

Those who despair of building a better future become irresponsible and therefore end up increasing their future problems. They do not accept the “responsibility for ongoing life, for building anew, for the coming generations.”

Responsibility, you will recognize, is a major theme in Bonhoeffer’s thinking. We are called to be responsible to God for ourselves. This is not self-centeredness, which would be the case if Bonhoeffer were arguing that we are responsible to ourselves. No, we will answer to God for ourselves. And we had better be able to answer, “Yes, Lord, I accepted responsibility for my present, my future, and for generations to come.”

“It may be,” concluded Bonhoeffer,”that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; only then and no earlier will we readily lay down our work for a better future.”

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