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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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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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“The receptivity of the masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.  As soon as you sacrifice this slogan and try to be many-sided, the effect will piddle away, for the crowd can neither digest nor retain the material offered. In this way the result is weakened and in the end entirely cancelled out.”  (Hitler, Mein Kampf, Vol. 1, chap 6, sect 4)

These are the words of Hitler in 1924. In 1942 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was writing about the lessons learned after ten years of resisting Hitler. He wrote that it is impossible to deal with stupidity, the willful stupidity of a people who have surrendered to a tyrant who rules by intimidation, hatred . . .and slogans.

We know that the proto-tyrant of 1924 became the real tyrant of 1942, with the year 1933 being the pivotal year. That was the year that Hitler became Chancellor and thus began to have the power to enact the ideas he had written nine years earlier.

A people, such as the millions of trump supporters, who willfully surrender their minds and hearts to a tyrant become stupid. Sometimes that stupidity is dangerous and damaging. In Germany it led to a terrible war and a Holocaust whose immeasurable cruelty we still can’t quite grasp.

The danger right now for America is that, for the sake of his own ego, trump may be unleashing the forces that return us to the unfinished Civil War. Hitler was deliberate. trump, I believe, has simply been made stupid by his own thoughtless self-manipulations. It is as if, feeding solely off the noise of the crowds, he is simply mesmerized. His is not a studied evil, as was Hitler’s, but it is extremely dangerous nonetheless because he is unleashing the dark side of an America he can’t begin to understand.

The obvious problem, of course, is that those forces are now unleashed and will bear some sort of awful fruit whether or not trump wins the election. America is in a lose-lose situation. The Republicans, especially once they were goaded on by the Tea Party, paved the way by their recalcitrant opposition to Obama. Even they are shocked by what they have created.

The problem in the Republican Party goes back at least as far as Reagan. He, like Hitler, lived and worked on the basis of a small handful of slogans and cliches. His “trickle-down” economics, so favored by the economists who bought the thinking of Milton Friedman, turned out just as one should have expected: The rich got richer, the middle class experienced a temporary boom, which the wealthy quickly squeezed and strangled because they were now empowered to gain unlimited wealth.

Even as they preyed upon and nearly destroyed the middle class, the wealthy continued to increase their wealth and did so at an ever-increasing pace. It ought to frighten us that the wealth of the 1% grew even faster during the economic meltdown of 2007-08. If we do not act soon to curb the growing income equality gap, the damage may escalate drastically.

Thanks for favoring greed, you dear Republicans.

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I’ve left this blog unattended for too long! Frankly, I’ve been caught up in trying to figure out what it means that the American political system has produced two presidential candidates who are unpopular. At the least, it means that the United States is in a period of cultural bewilderment. And during such a time, those who represent the worst in society — people of hate and meanness and prejudice — are encouraged to yell their foolishness into the public forum. The chaos is emphasized when one of our two major political parties chooses a candidate who deliberately builds his campaign on the very hate which threatens the public order.

As I listen to the Republican candidate speak, my mind often goes to Bonhoeffer’s words on stupidity. There is nothing to be gained by arguing with stupidity, he asserts. The stupid are not those who simply lack intelligence but, far worse, those who have chosen to be mindless. Reasoning with them, we might say, is speaking a foreign language which they don’t even want to understand. And rational people cannot speak the native language of the willfully stupid because it truly makes no sense.

It is in this context that I now read Bonhoeffer’s paragraphs on “The Sense of Quality.” When we lack the courage to observe a genuine sense of boundaries, “we perish in an anarchy of human values.” We must ask immediately what boundaries Bonhoeffer has in mind. He leaves us no doubt: his uses of the words “rabble” and “nobility” say it all.

Is this some sort of snobbish elitism? Ordinarily, I would say Bonhoeffer is certainly in danger of that but now, with our chaotic and mean-spirited campaign fowling the spiritual air in America, I find myself saying Bonhoeffer is exactly right.

He writes of Germany in words that fit today’s American situation perfectly: “In other times it may have been the task of Christianity to testify to the equality of all human beings; today it is Christianity in particular that should passionately defend the respect for human boundaries and human qualities.”

Equality is an idea that is fundamental to the grand American experiment. We dare not let it go. To sustain a culture and a political system based on equality, however, requires a great deal of mutual trust. We must trust that each person is genuinely interested in furthering the common, equal good. Right now in the US, that trust is at a very low level. When hatred and meanness are unleashed and encouraged, the fabric of society which underlies our political system is in danger of being shredded.

What does Bonhoeffer mean by the nobility? And what difference does that make here in the US, where we have no class clearly demarked “nobility”? He writes,

“Nobility arises from and exists by sacrifice, courage, and a clear sense of what one owes oneself and others, by the self-evident expectation of the respect one is due, and by an equally self-evident observance of the same respect for those above and those below”

That’s not what we might have expected him to say. The first marks of nobility are sacrifice, courage, and a clear sense of what one owes oneself and others. True nobility is not self-serving but self-sacrificing, not cowardly but courageous, and not privileged but indebted. For the opposite qualities we have a good example: the Republican candidate.

In Bonhoeffer we see the best understanding of noblesse oblige, the sense that nobility (of status or character) brings with it an obligation both to oneself and to others.

Did Bonhoeffer really believe that he ought to be self-sacrificing? He risked and lost his life serving an ungrateful, willfully stupid people, when he could have stayed safe in America for the duration of the war. He was truly noble. . .

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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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Reading Bonhoeffer’s 1942 set of mini-essays called “After Ten Years,” it is a bit of a surprise to find a very short section labeled “Contempt for Humanity?” What brought such a thought to his mind?

My inclination is to think he must be talking about the Nazi contempt for humanity. But when a quick glance at the text makes it clear that he is warning his friends — and himself — about the danger of slipping into the same contempt that the Nazis are showing.

While Hitler despised all non-Aryans, Bonhoeffer was aware that he himself is in danger of despising the supporters of Hitler and the Nazis.

Bonhoeffer’s remarks are so brief that I will simply copy them in full:

    The danger of allowing ourselves to be driven to contempt for humanity is very real. We know very well that we have no right to let this happen and that it would lead us into the most unfruitful relation to human beings. The following thoughts may protect us against this temptation: through contempt for humanity we fall victim precisely to our opponents’ chief errors. Whoever despises another human being will never be able to make anything of him.
    Nothing of what we despise in another is itself foreign to us. How often do we expect more of the other than what we ourselves are willing to accomplish. Why is it that we have hitherto thought with so little sobriety about the temptability and frailty of human beings? We must learn to regard human beings less in terms of what they do and neglect to do and more in terms of what they suffer. The only fruitful relation to human beings—particularly to the weak among them—is love, that is, the will to enter into and to keep community with them. God did not hold human beings in contempt but became human for their sake.

In this election season, I need to take this word seriously because I find myself becoming too much like trump, calling people stupid. He is talking about our national leaders while I am talking about anybody who believes trump has any good qualities. But Bonhoeffer points his finger right at me. I too fall into a spirit of judgment which makes me feel superior to any who disagree with me. And that proves not that I am superior but that I am like those whom I criticize.

Drat it! How did that spotlight get turned around and aimed directly at sweet, innocent me? Surely I must be one of the nicest hypocrites you could every hope to meet. . .

 

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