Eric Metaxas

Eric Metaxas speaks at Judon University’s annual Constitution Day chapel service on Sept. 26, 2018, near Chicago. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

LAS VEGAS (RNS) — Eric Metaxas might be the most perplexing evangelical in America.

A best-selling author and nationally syndicated radio host, Metaxas spent his early career writing children’s books and video scripts for Rabbit Ears Productions and VeggieTales before becoming a cultural commentator and author of popular biographies of religious figures like William Wilberforce and Martin Luther.

At one point, he was best known for founding Socrates in the City, a series of conversations with writers and thinkers like NT Wright, Francis Collins, Lauren Winner and Sir John Polkinghorne, where he developed a reputation for thoughtful commentary on faith and public life.

Then he discovered Donald Trump.

Since then, the once-genial Christian author who penned “Lyle the Kindly Viking” has become a full-throated supporter of the president and critic of the liberal forces he believes pose a threat to American culture.

His latest book, “Donald Builds the Wall,” features a blond-headed caveman dressed in an American flag saving his people from the forces of evil by building a wall to keep out swamp creatures and a “caravan of troublemakers.”

Metaxas was recently in Las Vegas to appear on a panel during a meeting of the Religion News Association. Bob Smietana, RNS editor-in-chief, spoke with him there about his support for the president and his concerns about the state of American culture.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you wish people would understand about your concerns for the future of the country that they don’t get?

Since the ’60s, we’ve kind of drifted away from some basics, and, as with everything, there are some good reasons for that. But at the end of the day, some of it’s gone very wrong. I think this kind of creeping disdain for the founders and the founding vision and the Constitution has now come to a point, unfortunately, where we no longer know what we believe.

We just go by our feelings.

The issue of religious liberty is the most clear example of this.

It’s something so basic, that was so taken for granted, that we’re now living in a time where people hardly know what it is. Every American is similarly supposed to be able to exercise his or her faith in a way that not only would the founders applaud, but they would encourage.

In other words, they wouldn’t just say it’s possible to exercise your faith in every part of life, but they would actually say it’s necessary that we have some large portion of the American electorate that is practicing its faith — that’s living out (its) faith. That’s part of the strength of freedom.

If somebody has a belief you consider backward or stupid, it is that person’s right in America to hold that belief. We should not force people to believe things.

And so to my mind, it’s this ignorance of religious liberty and the ignorance of the founders’ vision that has allowed this to happen. And I don’t just think it’s bad for religious conservatives.

I think it’s bad for America.

Eric Metaxas

Eric Metaxas speaks at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

The issue of religious liberty often comes up in discussions about LGBT rights. Judges have begun to see discrimination against LGBT people as equivalent to racial discrimination. And despite the fact there were, for a long time, religious arguments made for race-based discrimination, we’ve rejected the idea that religion could be used to justify discrimination.

That is a false equivalence.

It stuns me that I have to bring up that it’s a false equivalence.

To me, it’s part of this victim culture that attempts to silence dissenting voices. You can’t even have much of a conversation about it because people immediately (think) you must be a bigot.

You always hear about slave-owning Christians, or you hear about people using the Bible to justify slavery. Well, even though that’s true, do you hear about the fact that it was what we would today call ‘Evangelical Christians’ who led the battle for the abolition of the slave trade?

They were in the front lines of saying that slavery is wrong — and you can look to the civil rights movement. It’s very similar. The churches were the place where you found that. The ignorance of that history makes it possible for us to kind of slide into this false equivalence between, you know, LGBT folks and blacks in America.

And yet the dominant groups in the United States who practiced slavery and Jim Crow were people who took the Bible very seriously — people in the Bible belt and Southern Baptists who believed slavery was God-ordained and who used the Bible and the doctrine of Ham to justify it.

What I’m trying to say is just because stupid people have existed and have misapplied the Bible is no reason to say that everybody who is taking the Bible seriously has been misapplying it.

Is it possible that intelligent people took the Bible seriously and misapplied it?

Intelligent people have always misapplied everything.

Eric Metaxas

Eric Metaxas. Courtesy photo

The whole point is if you want to be sloppy and use, you know, loud clichés to silence people, there’s plenty of ammunition. But these things are way too important for that. People of faith do feel misrepresented and not listened to because of things like this. Because they know, for example, they’re not racist.

I think there’s a huge disconnect. That disconnect doesn’t just harm social conservatives. I really think it harms the fabric of America.

Because I can tell you most Christians that I know, if they really see racism or injustice, they get more angry about it than any secular people I know. They would rightly get outraged by it.

The idea that being a white evangelical means you are sort of comfortable with white privilege is deeply offensive to people — because not only do they disagree with it, but their whole lives are meant to represent the opposite of that.

Do you think there are long-term unintended consequences of the evangelical support for Trump? He is a person whose business practices and personal practices do not line up with the kind of morality that evangelicals have stood for in the past. Does their association with the president harm the evangelical witness?

A lot of people have said that. I have to disagree. There are many reasons (why) I disagree.

Let’s, let’s start here. JFK routinely brought prostitutes into the White House. This wasn’t something that he did 10 years before being elected. While he was the president.

His face is still on our coinage. We have an airport named after him. Lyndon Johnson behaved extremely swinishly during his time in office. We know, obviously, Bill Clinton did. We’re not talking about in their lifetimes, but while they were in the presidency. I think the idea that we would expect everybody in the White House to act like Mike Pence is silly.

Now, when you have a leader, let’s say, who commits adultery or who does anything like that? If you vote for them, are you voting for adultery or are you voting in spite of adultery? When you vote for Trump, are you voting for every bad thing about him? Or are you voting for him in spite of those things?

Donald Trump

President Donald Trump speaks with reporters before departing on Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, on Aug. 21, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

But I think with Trump, I think they looked at a guy like that and they said, ‘you know what, I’ve screwed up in my life. I know tons of people that have screwed up in their lives. I have a different attitude toward people who screw up than I would have in the past where I wanted everybody to be an upstanding citizen and never get divorced and never do this.’

So evangelicals are trying to process Trump very differently than they would have processed him 20 years earlier.

I think, people looked at him and they said, you know what, he can be really rough around the edges and he’s got some terrible stuff in his past. But looking at him now, I see a guy who actually loves his country or seems to love his country and in his, kind of wild way, seems to care about some of this stuff that I think is vital to freedom and liberty. And I am willing to take a risk on him.

Why?

Because the alternative is Hillary Clinton. If the alternative had not been Hillary Clinton, I think a lot of people would’ve said, nope, we’re going to go for this other person.

Do you think the president’s use of social media is problematic? Does it exacerbate the divides that are already in the country?

I think most people I know who voted for Trump would prefer that he not use social media as much as he does.

I wrote a biography on Martin Luther and there are bizarre parallels — because what happens with Trump, and it happened with Luther, is that they are both incorrigible counter punchers, and their friends, Luther’s friends would beg him not to do this, and he didn’t seem to be able to help himself and observe somebody attack him. He would attack back three times as hard.

What do you think Bonhoeffer would say about Trump?

I think there’s no question that, from a cultural point of view, Bonhoeffer would not have been a fan of Trump’s style any more than George Bush Sr. is a fan of Trump’s style.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived from 1906 to 1945. Photo courtesy Joshua Zajdman/Random House

My study of Bonhoeffer and of what happened in the ’30s initially made me dislike Trump. But at some point, I began to wonder if the kind of predictable narrative was not the real narrative.

In other words, I think that in the same way that the national socialists gained the upper hand in the ’30s, the cultural elites in America have slowly persuaded themselves, I guess, that they are right on a number of issues. And if it means going around the electoral process, if it means going around the usual procedure that they’re going to do what they must.

I think Bonhoeffer was very lonely in his opposition to Hitler because he was trying to wake up the church at the time and say, ‘Listen: This nation’s going to go down in flames. We’re going to be hanging our heads in shame for a hundred years unless we stand.’

And if in his sometimes ham-fisted way the president is any kind of a counterforce against that, you have to be glad he’s there because of the mad rush toward the left, it’s been so fast and so dramatic.

So to take it back to Bonhoeffer, I think that Bonhoeffer saw some things other people didn’t see, and he tried to wake people up, and he knew he would look unpopular. He knew he would look foolish. But at the end of the day, he had to do what he felt was right for Germany, what he felt was right in God’s eyes. And he knew that tons of people — good people, Christian people — would not understand him.

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by Billy Cox

Sarasota Herald-Tribune

The next day, his son Dick called with bad news. Dad, a crew member of the USS Pennsylvania, had suffered a massive stroke and was in hospice care. And it became obvious that he had bottled up his eyewitness account of what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the “day of infamy” until the very last minute. Dick hadn’t even known his father was at Pearl Harbor.

Now, suddenly, all that was left was a story on videotape, along with Schleicher’s brief explanation for his 73 years of silence: “I didn’t wanna talk about the war. I didn’t wanna have nothing to do with it.”

I can’t remember exactly how many of these folks I’d interviewed over the years, and nobody knows how few are left. When the bombs struck Pearl Harbor, anywhere from 50,000 to 80,000 U.S. military personnel were in harm’s way.

John Schleicher, 97, survived the Pearl Harbor bombing because he was in church that Sunday morning. The Nokomis  resident never talked much about serving during WWII and did not even tell his son, Dick, that he had been at Pearl Harbor until a few days before 73rd anniversary of the attack.

To qualify for membership in the exclusive Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, however, veterans had to have been positioned within a 3-mile radius of the attack from 7:55 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941. The PHSA formed in 1958 and enjoyed peak membership in the 1960s, when some 20,000 were paying dues.

Today, with the youngest eligible members approximately 96 years old, PHSA survivors are now as rare as Civil War veterans in the nuclear age.

In fact, the PHSA held its last formal gathering at the USS Arizona Memorial in 2010, then officially folded in 2011. And with just seven members remaining, the San Diego chapter of the PHSA – perhaps once the nation’s largest, with 586 men – finally called it quits in September.

This weekend, the National Park Service expects to host 35 World War II survivors in Hawaii, according to a spokesperson, just 15 of whom saw the sneak attack unfold. “Only a few hundred Pearl Harbor survivors remain,” she stated in an email.

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by Richard Penaskovic

In a letter on July 21, 1944, to his longtime friend, Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while in prison, recalled a conversation he had some years ago with a young French pastor. They discussed what they both wanted out of life.

The pastor opined that he aspired to eventually become a saint. Bonhoeffer disagreed, stating that he would like to have faith by attempting to live a holy life. It’s possible that both men were on target with their desires, though we’ll never know that will be the case. (See “Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” edited by Robert Cole, Maryknoll, New York Orbis Books, 1998).

Who exactly was Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Dietrich, born in 1906, one of seven siblings, came from a prominent aristocratic family in Breslau, Germany, that moved to Berlin. Dietrich studied theology at Tübingen University and then at Berlin University where he received the doctoral degree in theology with a dissertation on “The Communion of Saints.” He was an outstanding student who played the piano brilliantly and was an excellent tennis player, to boot.

In 1928, Bonhoeffer took a position as a curate in a Lutheran church in Barcelona where he enjoyed taking care of the spiritual needs of blue-collar workers. They loved the talks he gave because they were thoughtful and punctured with biblical verses. For example, he once stated that Christ had been left out of a person’s life, if that person only gave to Christ a tiny part of his/her spiritual life. Bonhoeffer told his audience that one needs to give one’s life entirely to Christ, if they wanted to really understand their spiritual life.

In 1930, Bonhoeffer decided to go to Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan as a Sloan Fellow where he gained the respect of outstanding theological faculty like Paul Lehmann, with whom he developed a close friendship. After the year was up, Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin University as a lecturer in theology, while working on his second doctorate. 

Two days after Hitler rose to power as German Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer railed against Hitler and the Nazi party on the radio, when suddenly he was cut off in the middle of his remarks. That same year, inspired by Pastor Martin Niemoeller, Bonhoeffer again spoke out against Nazi rule. Many members of the Lutheran Church, including bishops and pastors supported Hitler and some even wore brown Nazi shirts, to the dismay of Bonhoeffer and Pastor Niemoeller who helped organize the “Confessing Church” that opposed the Nazis.

Bonhoeffer had to leave Berlin in 1938, and in 1941, the Nazi government forbade him to write. He then became part of an anti-resistance movement, along with six military officers who tried to overthrow the Nazi government by force. In April 1943, Bonhoeffer became a prisoner at the Tegel Prison and then at Flossenbürg, a small village in the Oberpfalz region of Bavaria.

Flossenbürg had a barracks that held 1,000 prisoners, but was built to hold 250 prisoners. Both Jews and special enemies of the state were housed in Flossenbürg. Special enemies like Bonhoeffer received “special treatment’ such as interrogation, torture and execution. Bonhoeffer was hanged in this prison — witnessed by Dr. H. Fischer who said that Bonhoeffer knelt on the floor and prayed before he was hanged.

What made Bonhoeffer a special person?

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Letter: Like rose petals sharpen rose

petals

Your life characterized by rose petal strewn paths? Do you spend endless summer days among rainbows and unicorns, daisies woven throughout braids of hair, dancing somewhat aimlessly in a circle hand-in-hand with other like – and-empty- minded, flipped-out folks?

Rose petals don’t sharpen rose petals. Iron does. That’s the truth of an ancient proverb of which one commentator said that what is envisioned is someone who cares enough – you might say ‘gives a rip’ enough – to confront his neighbor, thus “influencing his manner, appearance, deportment, and character, sharpening his wit, controlling his conduct.”

In contrast, G.K. Chesterton describes our current age as “a miserable truce,” wherein “everyone is walking on eggs, afraid to offend and suppressing the truth on account of this fear.”

Like this iron-sharpens-iron truth is this similar ancient Hebrew proverb which is usually – and wrongly – translated:

“A man that has friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother.”

Wrong. At least the first half.

The implication is amiableness; get-alongness; a smiley-face, best-foot-forward likeableness that certainly offends no one but rather is found by everyone as, well, friendly.

A good ol’ Joe.

Forever smiling, sun always shining, the number of Facebook friends stupefying – surely this guy epitomizes what it means to be a friend.

Wrong.

Observes one commentator, “the maxim means that the man of many friends, who lays himself out to make friends of bad and good alike, does so to his own ruin.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a friend.

“Facing the greatest evil of the 20th century” – Hitler’s Germany – Bonhoeffer was repeatedly assailed by the pressure from friends and foes alike, “mayn’t we all get along?”

Bonhoeffer’s answer: ‘mayn’t.’

In fact, Bonhoeffer would write, “I find myself in radical opposition to all my friends.”

IMAGE SOURCE

“As the shadow of the Third Reich fell across Germany,” as described in “Bonhoeffer – Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” by Eric Metaxas, Hitler’s intentions became crystal clear to Bonhoeffer, but the ingratiating, fawning, blurring, co-opting and conceding compromises of his friends to Hitler’s advances began paring the list of those Bonhoeffer believed could truly be counted on.

One who made the cut and joined Bonhoeffer as a traveling companion – in fact became Bonhoeffer’s best friend – on his “long and lonely road” was Franz Hildebrandt who, within the first five minutes of the two meeting for the first time, began to argue and according to Hildebrandt “we never stopped arguing from that day (December 16, 1927) until we were separated by exile and war.

“You could not be a friend of Dietrich’s if you did not argue with him.”

Got a friend like that?

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The writings, thought, ministry, and life of 20th Century German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer will be the focus of the final United Theological College (UTC) Colloquium of the year.

UTC’s Michael Mawson told Insights that Bonhoeffer remained ever relevant in the 21st century.

“As the diversity of the papers indicates, Bonhoeffer is not only a significant theologian in his own right, but continues to inspire diverse theological projects and agendas,” Dr. Mawson said.

“Younger scholars, in particular, have begun drawing on Bonhoeffer to develop new and creative approaches to pressing theological, ethical and political issues.”

The colloquium will include three papers that explore different aspects of Bonhoeffer’s writings.

Dr. Jacob Phillips’ paper will explore ‘Bonhoeffer on Simplicity in Adalbert Stifter’s Writings’.

Dr. Di Rayson from the University of Newcastle will explore Bonhoeffer’s contribution to Ecotheology and Ecoethics.

Charles Sturt University’s Dr. Peter Hooton will reflect on the place of mystery and paradox in Bonhoeffer’s work.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer took part in efforts to resist Adolf Hitler, and was executed weeks before the 1945 fall of the Nazi regime.

His most famous works include The Cost of Discipleship, Ethics, and the posthumous Letters and Papers from Prison. 

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(WW) My first experience as a full-time pastor was in a village which boasted a population of 369. Everyone in our church was thrilled when a couple moved to town and joined the Baptist church. The wife was a dedicated musician and was determined that our little congregation become just like her previous church. She became very frustrated when our attempt at starting children’s choirs never took shape “the way we did it back home.” Our adult choir couldn’t pull off a cantata to her liking. Our deacons didn’t “deac” the way she expected. Our bereavement meals at funeral time weren’t organized correctly.

Doyle SagerLet me hasten to add: This lady loved the Lord deeply and was a tireless worker. She was committed to Christ and wanted to share his love with others. Her problem was that she never came to love the church she had. She only loved an idealized church in her mind.

Yes, our church had many flaws and shortcomings. We needed desperately to become more missional (even though that word wasn’t used back then). Did we need some new blood? Yes. Did we need a fresh set of eyes to see what we could not see? For sure. But we also needed to be loved just as we were.

Personally, I believe all churches (including mine) must courageously abandon outdated practices and attitudes. Congregations must change drastically in order to touch our world with God’s grace. But sometimes, amid all the pulse-taking, evaluations, strategy planning, and critiquing, we forget to love the church we have.

This does not mean we become complacent and resist change. It means we pay attention to the movement of God’s Spirit here and now, in our imperfect and disheveled condition.

The internet has made it possible for anyone to “attend church” virtually, exposing them to incredible music, relevant sermons, and effective outreach methods. Sometimes we are tempted to ask, “Why can’t my church be like that one?”

church window with heart

Image by Dagmar Räder from Pixabay

Yes, we can always learn from others. But at some point, our discontent with where we are breeds a contempt which keeps us from loving the church we have. The late Eugene Peterson said it well in Practice Resurrection: “If we don’t grasp church as Christ’s body, we will always be dissatisfied, impatient, angry, dismayed, or disgusted with what we see.”

The church I serve is blessed with very strong children and youth ministries. When high school seniors leave us for college, we occasionally hear one say, “I’m going to find a church just like this one.” Our reply is always, “No. You won’t find one like ours. You’ll find the one God has for you, one in which you will be challenged and grow in different ways. That church won’t do things the way we do them; it will do many things better.”

The Apostle Paul knew more about the church’s warts and blemishes than any other person of his time. Yet, when I read his letters to the Corinthians, Philippians, and Thessalonians, I hear him saying, “Despite the failures, impotence, and embarrassments of your church’s witness, never view your church with contempt or disgust. Love the church you have.”

During Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ministry, most of the German church was failing miserably, being co-opted by Hitler’s seductive pseudo-gospel. Bonhoeffer was frustrated by the compromise and cowardice. No one had more of a right to wash his hands of the church and walk away from orthodox faith.

But in Life Together, he wrote…

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Why the Christian Life Is a Call to Community

And Earl Roland. He was a hunched old man who loved to pray. In the absence of an acceptable singing voice, he’d mastered the art of whistling, and he whistled loud and strong through the hymns we sang in church. So to honor him we whistled “A Mighty Fortress” at his memorial service.

I remember little old women in polyester who fawned over me, and the wrinkled man in a wheelchair who had a big black Bible and said, “But God!” (Because he knew stuff the rest of us didn’t yet understand.)

But it wasn’t just the old and the weak that made a strong impression on me.Roland and Naomi were seminary students in their late 20s when I was a teen. They never missed an opportunity to encourage me. When I graduated from high school and no one else my age was left at church, they invited me to join their young married small group. Roland and Naomi wanted children, but their arms remained empty. I watched them navigate barrenness with quiet trust, and it changed me.

There were other friendships forged over food. My parents set the stage for rich and relaxed community by hosting myriad meals, even on a shoestring budget. Neighbors, newcomers to church, and out-of-town friends all gathered around our table and lit up our home. Missionaries on furlough ate pot roast and told stories from the field. Giddy newlyweds talked of love over casserole. Sharing meals with people seemed as natural as, well, eating, and left me with an incurable taste for joy.

And what I couldn’t have put into words then, but I understand to the marrow of my bones now, is that community gives life. It grows you up and anchors you down; humbles and heals; brings laughter and tears. It brings sturdy ground to our existence.

Fighting the tug away from community

Now I’m the one with a family, and we’re living in the fastest-paced generation in the history of mankind. Despite some physical limitations that naturally slow us down, our family can still find ourselves dashing here and there, squinting sideways at our calendar to see how we’ll squeeze in another birthday party or baby shower, and communicating instantaneously with dozens of people in the course of one day.

My husband and I have to regularly fight against the tug of too much. We keep asking, “How do we pursue authentic, consistent, unhurried relationships? How do we do this in a way that builds up our family and doesn’t splinter us in a dozen different directions? How can we make sure our son doesn’t miss rubbing shoulders with the Miss Mosses and Earl Rolands of this world?”

We haven’t stumbled upon any easy answers. Community looks so different for each one of us, in every new season of our lives. And as soon as we think we’ve found our groove and figured it all out, life changes. The mom with three small children, the overseas missionary, the 50-year-old caring for aging parents, the one who’s chronically sick—they’ll tell you there’s no cookie-cutter shape for community.

But one thing’s for certain: we need each other. We can’t work through our yuck, see our blindspots, grow in grace, and experience joy on an island (no matter how exotic it might be). And while God alone is more than enough for us—and he should be our first and greatest relationship—he knows we will love and understand him more when we’re living in authentic relationships with others.

So we should prioritize it: Be with others. Set food on the table, and open the front door. Tell each other our stories. Confess sin to a friend. Meet a tangible need. Laugh together. Pray together. Sit quietly with a grieving one. Seek the wisdom of older friends. Forgive each other. Say “yes” to an offer of help.

A 7 Step Checklist for the Best Thanksgiving Ever

I actually believe Thanksgiving may be one of the most “Christian” holidays we can celebrate. As believers, we are to give thanks always—in every situation. And, we have reason to be thankful. Our God is on His throne—Jesus is alive—and we are loved with an everlasting love.

That’s enough, right?

But, let’s face it—Thanksgiving is hard for some people. They’ve lost loved ones. They are lonely. Another day off watching everyone celebrate how wonderful their life is online only makes it harder.

Others are so caught up in having the perfect meal and the perfect table setting—the house decorated just right—they get distracted with busyness and end up disappointed rather than enjoying some of the greatest blessings around them

And then there are those of us who simply take things for granted—and fail to stop and truly be thankful.

Here’s a checklist of activities, which will make your world look brighter and your holiday grander. I’m convinced. You may not be able to do all of them. I would encourage you to complete the ones you can.

Here’s a seven-step checklist for the best Thanksgiving ever:

Read Psalm 136. Slowly. Maybe even aloud. Maybe a couple times. Let the words dwell in you a while. Trust me.

Make a thankful list. I wrote about this in a previous POST, but one of the best ways to fill your heart with gratitude is to make a list of things for which you are thankful. When you reflect on the things you do have—rather than the things you don’t have—your heart grows in appreciation.

Spend time with family and friends. You may not be able to be with them in person—and that’s one of the harder parts of holidays for some—but even exchanging a text with someone you love can brighten your day. Reach out to some you haven’t heard from in a while. And if you’re mourning over someone special this year—spend some time remembering why they are special to you.

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In 1946, a man named Ernst Lohmeyer disappeared from East Germany. It took me three decades to piece together his story.
The Bonhoeffer That History Overlooked
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs
had never heard of Ernst Lohmeyer until I was in my late 20s. I came across his name in the same way I came across many names at the time—as another scholar whom I needed to consult in doctoral research.

In the mid-1970s, I was writing my dissertation on the Gospel of Mark in the McAlister Library at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. A premier commentary on Mark at the time was Ernst Lohmeyer’s Evangelium des Markus (Gospel of Mark), published in the acclaimed Meyer Commentary Series in Germany. Lohmeyer first published the commentary in 1936 when he was professor of New Testament at the University of Greifswald in Germany. The edition I was using, however, was published in 1967 and accompanied by a supplementary booklet. It carried the name Gerhard Sass, was dated 1950, and mentioned “how continuously [Lohmeyer had] labored to improve and expand his book, until a higher power carried him off to a still-unresolved fate.”

The melancholy of Sass’s preface haunted me. Why, after all these years, was the mystery still unsolved? The note about Lohmeyer’s mysterious disappearance stayed with me by the sheer power of its intrigue. But I did not pursue it. I was married at the time. My wife, Jane, and I had two young children, and my work as youth minister at First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs was a full-time-plus call. In addition, my PhD work at Fuller entailed flying to Pasadena three times a year to research assiduously in the library for two weeks. I had no leisure to pursue the lead.

In June 1979, however, his name came up again. I was translating for a Berlin Fellowship team in Greifswald, East Germany. We were in our final meeting, enjoying Kaffee und Kuchen—coffee and cake—in dicke Maria—“Fat St. Mary”— as the rather squat-looking church was affectionately called. The church basement was filled to capacity with people interested in hearing and talking with American visitors. Those who attended did so at some risk to themselves, for the Stasi—secret police—disapproved of public gatherings that were not controlled by the state. During a pause in the discussion, I suddenly interjected. “Is not Greifswald where Ernst Lohmeyer taught? Does anyone know what happened to him?”

The warmth and conviviality suddenly drained from the gathering. I had no idea why. The pastor of Fat St. Mary, Reinhart Glöckner, brought the meeting to a hasty and awkward conclusion and said to me, “Jim, let’s take a walk.” In a society where listening devices were placed in radios and TVs, in light sockets and under reception counters, where social settings such as this invariably had listening ears, a walk usually guaranteed privacy. We walked along a street called Brüggstrasse to the point where it exited through the old city walls. There we took a right and walked along a gravel path. On our right was the old red-brick city wall, on our left a spacious and inviting bank of trees.

I felt anxious as we walked.

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Eighty years ago, a 33-year-old Christian theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer returned to his native Germany after a short stay in the United States. He would not live to see his 40th birthday.

The Lutheran and Episcopal Churches, as well as other religious bodies worldwide, recently commemorated the annual remembrance of German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and resister of Nazi totalitarianism and terrorism. On April 9, 1945, after being in held prisoner for two years, Bonhoeffer was hanged for his association with others who resisted Hitler and the atrocities his party committed against Jews, Germans, among others.

Evidence showed the group he worked with also plotted to assassinate Hitler. A week later the Allies liberated that very POW Camp. As he was being led away to what all knew would be his death, Bonhoeffer said, “This is the end – for me, the beginning of life.”

Bonhoeffer wrote a book “The Cost of Discipleship,” that is now a classic. He compares “cheap grace,” which is like a head nod or an “atta boy” to the ethics of following Jesus, without actually getting in the water and risking a swim – with “costly grace,” that throws people into the deep end because they are formed by and live out the ethics of Jesus.

This is not a church and state issue. It is the involvement of a person of faith, regardless of religion, using politics, political action, and involvement to change the world for the poor, needy, oppressed, voiceless and powerless. Such costly grace brought Bonhoeffer into the resistance movement against the Nazis.

Bonhoeffer was also a founder and leader in a church-based resistance movement, the Confessing Church. When he was imprisoned, he refused the prayers of that Church. At a 50th Anniversary commemoration of his death, Klaus Engelhardt, then Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Church of Germany, lifted up Bonhoeffer’s reasoning, and challenged the church on it.

Bonhoeffer felt that exercising political means to resist evil and injustice set him outside the circle of prayer.

For the rest of the post…

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