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Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian most known for his book The Cost of Discipleship and his involvement in the plot to assassinate Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, suffered a great deal at the hands of the Nazis, including his eventual execution. In the summer of 1937, just as the Gestapo was arresting Bonhoeffer’s friends, the pastor preached about God’s judgment in Psalm 58 — but he didn’t say what a modern American might expect.

“The wicked are perverse from the womb; liars go astray from their birth. … O God, break their teeth in their mouths; pull the fangs of the young lions, O LORD. Let them vanish like water that runs off; let the arrows they aim break in two. … The righteous will be glad when they see the vengeance; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. And they will say, ‘Surely, there is a reward for the righteous, surely, there is a God who rules in the earth'” (Psalm 58:3, 6-7, 10-11).

So how did Bonhoeffer, a Christian who lost his life trying to assassinate Hitler, apply this verse to his own life? Did he rail against Hitler’s evil? Not exactly. (For the full letter, read Meditating on the Word, a compilation of Bonhoeffer’s works compiled and translated by David McI. Gracie.)

“Is this fearful psalm of vengeance to be our prayer? May we pray in this way? Certainly not! We bear much guilt of our own for the action of any enemies who cause us suffering,” Bonhoeffer declared in a sermon on July 11, 1937

This message is powerful, given what had happened to Bonhoeffer in the months — and even days — before. In January 1936, he lost his grandmother — who defied a Nazi boycott of Jews by shoving through brownshirts to buy strawberries from a Jew. Throughout 1937, the Gestapo carried out interrogations, house searches, confiscations, and arrests against Bonhoeffer’s seminary students. Ten days before this sermon, they arrested his friend and fellow pastor Martin Niemöller (the man famous for the “first they came for the Jews …” poem).

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Imagine getting this newsletter from one of your overseas workers. The newsletter says this:

Our brother, whom we love, has been arrested in Egypt and is in prison. Family whom he loved and trusted sold him into slavery and betrayed him to the authorities. We know that he has remained faithful to God, and has refused to pay bribes that would help him escape from prison. Because of his faith, he has been transferred to the dreaded central prison with the rest of the nation’s worst enemies.

How would we respond as the church? What actions would we take? Typically, the Western church would rush in to rescue Joseph. It’s a good impulse.

  • We would write and forward emails.
  • We would flood social media with appeals.
  • We would contact our political representatives.
  • We would highlight Joseph’s plight on radio and television.

The goal of our activity would be the release of Joseph from his unjust imprisonment. And we would feel justified in almost any action — perhaps even military intervention — to have Joseph set free.

The High Cost of Extraction

And maybe Joseph would be released. Followers and friends of Jesus would rejoice! We would thank God that our Joseph has been saved from prison. And we would even be satisfied that one of the conditions of his release would include Joseph’s relocation to another country where he would be safe because he’s no longer a thorn in the nation’s side.

Imagine then, years later, that a great famine hits Egypt and the surrounding countries. Because of his rescue, Joseph is not in prison when Pharaoh has strange dreams. Joseph is not there to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams concerning seven years of plenty followed by seven years of terrible drought. As a result of Joseph’s absence, Egypt squanders the food harvested in the seven good years. As a result of Joseph’s absence, Egypt is completely unprepared for seven years of famine.

The famine is so devastating, in fact, that Egypt does not survive.

And because Egypt does not survive . . . the Jews in Egypt do not survive, either.

And that is the end of the story.

A Better Plan for Freedom

Of course, the real story ends differently. Evidently, God knows when to leave Joseph in prison. God has a larger agenda in mind. God knows exactly what is necessary for the salvation of both Egyptians and Jews.

Do we?

Do our churches, our sending agencies, and our organizations that study persecution know when to leave Joseph in Egypt? Despite our affection for Joseph, do we understand that ultimately Joseph belongs to God, and that God can do with him whatever he desires? Is it possible for us to become emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually strong enough to know when to leave “our Joseph” with God in a seemingly dangerous place?

Advance or Extract?

Believers in persecution had much to teach my wife and me as we traveled among them for more than fifteen years. We listened to their stories. We learned that when Western workers become personally and emotionally connected to believers in persecution, extraction of these believers often becomes the main objective. In almost every case, we are desperate to get Joseph out of the hostile place, and away from persecution.

The apparent explanation for this is more than anecdotal, and less than statistical. It appears that Western workers who become emotionally attached to believers in persecution will attempt to extract about fifty percent of those believers to a safe country. This observation seems to apply to situations of persecution all around the world. In the Islamic world, the frequency of extraction seems even higher, approaching seventy percent. Imagine trying to start a church, even in the Bible Belt of America, if seventy percent of the believers were pulled out and taken to another country.

For God, conquering through persecution, rather than extracting from persecution, is the norm. The Western church typically takes the opposite approach. For us, extraction is the norm. Rescuing believers from persecution feels good. Significant funds can be raised to extract a family from persecution and resettle them in a safe country.

But if we gave as much energy and attention to spreading the gospel in hostile places as we have to extracting persecuted believers from them, the Great Commission may have already been finished by now.

The End of Extraction

Why is our view so different than God’s view? Here are some possible answers to that question:

  1. We don’t want fellow believers to suffer for Jesus in ways we are unwilling to or can’t relate to.
  2. We can’t imagine that prolonged suffering might be part of God’s plan.
  3. We do not truly believe that Jesus is worth suffering for.

And because those truths drive our actions and attitudes, we replace a biblical theology of suffering with something less challenging. As a result,

  1. We demand that persecution of followers of Jesus stop.
  2. We demand that those persecuting followers of Jesus be punished.
  3. We strive to install Western forms of democracy, human rights, and civil rights in foreign lands, believing these will usher in the kingdom of God. (Though, much to our surprise, there is no historical correlation between these Western forms and the kingdom of God!)
  4. We make emotional appeals to raise huge sums of money to rescue more believers from persecution.

What is outcome of all of our seemingly good efforts? Critical masses of believers are removed from the environments where God has planted them.

In some places, the birth of the church is halted; in other places, the multiplication of the body of Christ is hindered. New followers of Jesus (perhaps people from Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or Communist backgrounds) come to believe that living in a safe, Christian country is necessary in order to live for Christ.

After long days of interviewing, we often asked followers of Jesus in persecution what they learned from Western workers. They typically looked at one another and refused to respond.

When we pressed them for an answer, they would reply, “Western workers teach us to be afraid. Western workers teach us that it’s possible to follow Jesus only in safe places.”

This is not simply a mistake. This is sin.

Not My Will, but Yours, Be Done

Before Jesus was betrayed, he prayed a prayer made up of two parts (Matthew 26:39). First, he asked his Father for the cup to pass. He prayed for the suffering to be relieved. He asked if there was a way to avoid the crucifixion. He wanted to avoid the pain and public humiliation. But then, he prayed something else. He asked that the will of the Father take precedent over his desire to avoid suffering.

Following Jesus’s example, we must pray both parts of his prayer. It’s only natural to pray for suffering to be avoided — for ourselves or for others. But it is then essential to pray that God’s will to be done, whatever the cost to us.

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Earlier this month, I posted that on June 17, 1940 (the day France surrendered to Germany), Dietrich Bonhoeffer was with his close friend Eberhard Bethge “in the Baltic village of Memel. They were relaxing in an “open-air café when suddenly a special announcement came over the loudspeaker that France had surrendered. This moment was a defining point for Bonhoeffer! Bethge “asserts that Bonhoeffer’s ‘double life’ truly began. This Confessing Church pastor and theologian became deeply involved in the resistance movement against Hitler and the Nazis.”

Also:

For the next three years, until his arrest on April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer lived an unsettled life. He became a courier for the resistance group operating out of the Office of Military Intelligence (the Abwehr), even as he continued to teach and minister to the young seminarians and pastors of the Confessing Church.

DB was a seminary professor and involved in the resistance movement against Hitler. He was dedicated in preparing young men for the ministry and he was dedicated in stopping the Fuhrer.

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16: Conspiracy and Imprisonment 1940-1945, 1-2.

 

Earlier this month, I post that on June 17, 1940 (the day France surrendered to Germany), Dietrich Bonhoeffer was with his close friend Eberhard Bethge “in the Baltic village of Memel. They were relaxing in an “open-air café when suddenly a special announcement came over the loudspeaker that France had surrendered. Bethge wrote:

The people around the tables could hardly contain themselves; they jumped up, and some even climbed on the chairs. With outstretched arms, they sang “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles” and the Horse Wessel song. We stood up, too Bonhoeffer raised his arm in the regulation Hitler salute, while I stood there dazed. “Raise your arm! Are you crazy?” he whispered to me, and later: “We shall have to run risks for very different things now, but not for that salute!”  

This was a turning point for DB! Bethge “asserts that Bonhoeffer’s ‘double life’ truly began. This Confessing Church pastor and theologian became deeply involved in the resistance movement against Hitler and the Nazis.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16: Conspiracy and Imprisonment 1940-1945, 1-2.

Wow! I have had numerous discussions with people over the years about why a Christian like Bonhoeffer could take an active role in the resistance. Many are troubled because Jesus said to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43).

I have struggled other it was well. Yet, we were not there. DB was! And somehow, he joined the resistance to stop a mad-man from murdering innocent people. Somehow, DB reconciled being a disciple of Jesus and plotting to kill Hitler.

“I  believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil. For that purpose he needs men who make the best use of everything. I believe God will give us the strength we need to resist in all times of distress. But he never gives it in advance, lest we should rely on ourselves and not on him alone.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, After Ten Years in Letters & Papers From Prison, 10. 

“Christ suffered as a free man alone, apart and in ignominy, in body and in spirit; and since then many Christians have suffered with him.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, After Ten Years in Letters & Papers From Prison, 14. 

“Christ kept himself from suffering till his hour had come, but when it did come he met it has a free man, and mastered it. Christ, so the scriptures tell us, bore the sufferings of all humanity in his own body as if they were his own–a thought beyond our comprehension–accepting them of his own free will. We are certainly not Christ; we are not called to redeem by our own deeds and sufferings, and we need not try to assume such an impossible burden. We are not lords, but instruments in the hand of the Lord of history; and we can share in other people’s sufferings only to a very limited degree. We are not Christ, but if we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ’s large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and by showing a real sympathy that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. The Christian is called to sympathy and actions, not in the first place by his own suffering, but by the sufferings of his brethren, for who sake Christ suffered.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, After Ten Years in Letters & Papers From Prison, 13-14. 

By Theresa Newell, D. Min.

Introduction
Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands out among German church leaders during the twelve years of The Third Reich. He was one of a small number of churchmen to actively resist the racist policies and actions of the Nazi regime. He called for an uncompromising stand on the Word of God by the Church of Germany in the time of its country’s greatest evil.
As a result, Bonhoeffer paid the ultimate price: on April 9, 1945 he was hanged at Flossenbürg Concentration Camp, weeks before World War II ended and the camp was liberated by Allied forces. Since his death, volumes have been written about Bonhoeffer.
The latest a new biography by Eric Metaxas. His best friend, Eberhard Bethge, spent the remainder of his long life documenting and commenting on Bonhoeffer’s ideas and theology. Bonhoeffer Societies were formed. The topic, “Bonhoeffer and the Jews,” figures prominently in these discussions, books and papers beginning in the 1960s. Conflicting opinions have given rise to many questions about this extraordinary Christian pastor and teacher. Have his commentators created a Bonhoeffer of their own persuasion? Did
Bethge himself go beyond what Bonhoeffer would have said about himself?

’Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’: The spiritual growth and struggles of the celebrated German martyr

“Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” (Deckle Edge/Knopf, $35), the definitive biography of the German martyr, grew from Charles Marsh’s dissertation on Bonhoeffer’s philosophy. His previous books “Reclaiming Bonhoeffer” and “God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights,” his award-winning study of faith and the civil rights movement shaped social justice, display his disciplined reflection on theology and society.

The theme of the relationship of faith to society unifies the story of Bonhoeffer’s changing perspective as he evolves and society erupts. Bonhoeffer’s first dissertation, “Sacred Community,” studied social theory and grounded theology in the social reality of the church.

Bonhoeffer’s attraction to Roman Catholicism rested in the social/religious mystery of the church. His second dissertation focused on the reality of God in the human social experience. The journey of his life through academic brilliance, youth ministry, and German congregations in England and Spain failed to ground him in the regular responsibilities of parish life in his German Lutheran community.

Bonhoeffer continued to dream of a disciplined Christian community as reflected in his early books “The Cost of Discipleship” and “Life Together.”

Mr. Marsh proves that Bonhoeffer abandoned the theology of these early works as he moved into the deep conspiracy to murder Hitler and establish a new government in thought similar to Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism.

The author credits Bonhoeffer with deeper theology than Niebuhr but Niebuhr could not agree with Bonhoeffer’s more neo-orthodox affirmations. The author mistakenly identifies Niebuhr as a Lutheran rather than an Evangelical Synod theologian and he misidentifies Paul Lehman as later a professor of ethics at Union Theological Seminary when he was a professor of theology.

The argument of the book emphasizes how much his year at Union Theological Seminary changed Bonhoeffer. In Niebuhr’s class he read Harlem Renaissance writer Countee Cullen’s poem about lynching, and comprehended “the many trees on which God should swing world without end in suffering.”

Mr. Marsh credits American social theology, at first despised by Bonhoeffer, with setting Bonhoeffer on a track of concrete action from which he would never retreat. His African-American friend Franklin Fisher introduced Bonhoeffer to Harlem, Abyssinian Baptist Church, and the rich musical-liturgical life of Black culture.

He read Gunnar Myrdal, W.E.B. DuBois and black literature in Niebuhr’s classes, but he gained deeper insight and experience from his friend Fisher who later founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bonhoeffer’s seminary at Finkenwald, the Confessing Church, the German Evangelical Church, and the Ecumenical Church would all fail him. The story of the Church’s fight with the Nazis, as Mr. Marsh tells it, provides some of the more fascinating pages of the book.

In the end Bonhoeffer found community in alliance with his family, believers, and non-believers to subvert the Nazi government which enslaved the German people and threatened the world.

He was imprisoned for suspicion of aiding Jews fleeing Germany and for avoiding military service. His service in Military Intelligence under the supervision of clandestine anti-Nazis involved him in a complicated three-way deception.

Officially Bonhoeffer was assigned as a pastor to inform Germany’s Military Intelligence of developments within the Ecumenical Church movement.

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by JAMES DUANE BOLIN • Ledger & Times Columnist

In preparation for my trip to Regensburg, Germany, I have prepared for several weeks now a two-hour presentation required of each faculty member in Murray State’s Discover Europe Program. My presentation will explore the enduring significance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian whose resistance to Hitler resulted in his execution less than a month before Hitler’s suicide and the end of World War II.
We will explore important ethical questions, important then to Bonhoeffer and just as important to each one of us today: For whom would you die? For what would you die? What good am I? I have paired the music of Bob Dylan with Bonhoeffer’s life and theology. Dylan performed in Regensburg in 2000, had 18 concerts in Berlin, 13 performances in Munich, and a memorable gig in Dresden.
Bonhoeffer himself was an accomplished musician and indeed his family had hoped that he would pursue music as a career. I am guessing, of course, but I think that Bonhoeffer would have felt a real affinity with Dylan and his social commentary on war and faith.
Bonhoeffer visited the United States twice in 1930-1931 and again in 1939, both times to study and teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. There Bonhoeffer studied with Reinhold Niebuhr and met A. Franklin Fisher, a fellow seminarian, an African-American, who introduced him to the rich culture of the Harlem Renaissance and took him across the way to worship each Sunday at the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
At this historic church, Bonhoeffer sat under the preaching of Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and was moved by the inspirational singing of the Abyssinian Baptist Church Choir, hearing such historic black hymns as “Go Down, Moses” and “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”
Bonhoeffer found no Gospel teaching at Union. He was even less impressed with the preaching of Harry Emerson Fosdick at the nearby Riverside Church. Only at the Abyssinian Baptist Church and the preaching of Powell, Sr. and the singing of that magnificent choir did he find what his soul should yearned for.
During one semester break, Fisher took Bonhoeffer to Washington, D. C., where he had studied at Howard College, one of the great historically-black institutions in America. This was Bonhoeffer’s first foray into the American South. Later he would tour the South, traveling through Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, into Mexico, and back through Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia.
Bonhoeffer witnessed firsthand the Jim Crow South of the 1930s — the segregation, lynchings, abuse and racism — an “American Problem” he called it, that appalled him. It was this “American Problem” that he came to compare to what came to be referred to as “the Jewish Question” back in Germany. Bonhoeffer’s twin sister, Sabine, had married a Jewish man, and when Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to find Adolph Hitler and the Nazis rising to control the country, it was his American experience that convinced him to put his theoretical theological concepts into practice.
And this he did.
November 2017
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