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President Donald Trump is often compared to Hitler. And American Evangelical Christians are compared to the German Christians who supported Hitler and saw him as a savior for the nation. Sad to say, it seems that many Christians in America are placing more faith in Trump than Jesus. Leaders come and go, but the worship of Jesus will last forever. As far as Trump’s faith, I don’t know! I am a Trump supporter. Is he a brother in the Lord? I don’t know.

~ Bryan

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Stephen Haynes is the Albert Bruce Curry Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.  He is a Dietrich Bonhoeffer scholar and author of The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship  in the Age of Trump (Eeerdmans, 2018). In this book, Haynes examines “populist” readings of Bonhoeffer, including court evangelical Eric Metaxas’s book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

Today Eerdmans has published the postscript to The Battle for Bonhoeffer.  It is titled “An Open Letter to Christians Who Love Bonhoeffer but (Still) Support Trump.  Some of you may recall that Eric Metaxas recently published an op-ed at The Wall Street Journal under the title “The Christian Case for Trump.”

Here is a taste of Haynes’s piece:

Your embrace of Trump is eerily reminiscent of German Christians’ attachment to Hitler in the early 1930s. I make this point not to convince you that Trump is Hitler but to remind you of the troubling ways Christians have compromised themselves in endorsing political movements in which they perceived the hand of God. I developed a scholarly interest in the churches’ role during the Nazi era in part so I could help ensure that Christians would never repeat the mistakes they made under Hitler. Similarly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of my heroes in part because he was able to resist the wave of Hitler worship that swept up many German Protestants.

Being familiar with this history, I have been struck by how reminiscent many of your responses to Trump are of the way Christians in Germany embraced a strong leader they were convinced would restore the country’s moral order. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, many Christians in Germany let themselves be persuaded that Hitler was a deeply pious man, placed in power by God through a graceful act of intervention in German history. Hitler encouraged these ideas not by claiming any allegiance to Christ but by employing vague religious language, promising a return to the “good old days,” and posing for photographs as he left church, prayed, and entertained ecclesiastical leaders.

Here are a few examples of how Protestant Christian leaders in Germany spoke about God’s role in Hitler’s accession to power:

• “With National Socialism an epoch in German history has begun that is at least as decisive for the German people, as for example the epoch of Martin Luther.”
• “No one could welcome January 30, 1933 more profoundly or more joyfully than the German Christian leadership.”
• “Adolf Hitler, with his faith in Germany, as the instrument of our God became the framer of German destiny and the liberator of our people from their spiritual misery and division.”
• “[Hitler is] the best man imaginable, a man shaped in a mold made of unity, piety, energy and strength of character.”

For the rest of the post…

 

Lately I have been reading a great deal of primary and secondary literature about Christian ethics—beginning with the ancient church fathers. (In my opinion, Richard Hayes’s The Moral Vision of the New Testament more than adequately covers New Testament ethics, so my book will begin with the second century church fathers.) I have run into some very startling ideas about the right way to live the Christian life—in the church fathers and in Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, Luther and Bonhoeffer and other, later, great Christian ethicists.

First, most of the church fathers and Erasmus and Luther (and to some extent Thomas Aquinas) regarded money as spiritually toxic. They heaped scorn on wealthy people while cautiously admitting that one could be wealthy and a good Christian if one used one’s excess wealth for the benefit of the poor. Their statements are very strong. John Chrysostom condemned wealth and luxury and advocated a kind of communism in which property would belong to all people. Erasmus and Luther also advocated, as an ideal, a “common purse” not only within the church but in society in general. However, they did not think that was practical. Nevertheless, they condemned hoarding wealth when people were hungry and homeless.

Second, nearly all the church fathers except Augustine, plus Erasmus and Luther, considered violence evil and urged Christians to avoid it whenever possible. Basil the Great and John Chrysostom banned Christian soldiers from partaking of communion for one year if they killed someone in battle. Luther, of course, notoriously argued that one can kill for a righteous cause in love, but he strongly discouraged Christians from practicing violence in self-defense. It was only justified in defense of another.

Third, many great Christian thinkers easily made exceptions to revealed rules of conduct—as traditionally interpreted by Christians. This exceptionalism might be called “occasionalism” or “contextualism” to avoid the stigma of “situation ethics.”

Luther condoned polygamy (or at least bigamy) in some cases and also said that if a wife discovers her husband is impotent she is justified in having sex with his brother in order to have children. Bonhoeffer justified lying and said that the Christian must only tell the truth when the person deserves the truth. Often, he more than implied, the person being spoken to does not deserve the truth and then it is okay to lie.

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Letter: Like rose petals sharpen rose

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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.”

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“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?

For the rest of the post…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who was executed in 1945 for his involvement in a plot to overthrow Adolf Hitler. His (book, The Cost of Discipleship) was published after his death, and includes a section on what he calls “cheap grace”.

Cheap grace is the idea that we can obtain salvation and forgiveness of sins without any personal cost to ourselves. Faith in God becomes merely “fire insurance”, and there is no compelling reason to change the way we live. We’re saved and forgiven, therefore we can do as we please without another thought.

Here in Canada, we have relative freedom to practice our faith. We don’t face imprisonment or death, and there are laws to protect us from being fired from our jobs because of our beliefs. Have we forgotten that our salvation cost God everything? We so often live as though His sacrifice is nothing more than a Get Out of Jail Free card that requires nothing more from us.

I read an account of a man who visited a country where it is illegal to practice Christianity. Early one morning, his Christian hosts took him on a boat ride down a river. The boat was loaded with fishing equipment, but no one was fishing. About an hour into the trip, in the middle of the enormous river, they met up with another boat filled with what looked like fishermen. After a while, another boat joined them. A lookout was appointed to watch for other boats that might carry government authorities or law enforcement, because to be caught could mean their arrest or immediate execution. This group of forbidden Christians spent hours reciting passages of Scripture they had memorized, since no one owned a Bible. They prayed, sang hymns quietly, and encouraged one another. At dusk, with many tears and deep emotion, they parted and went their separate ways. 

Ernst Lohmeyer (1890-1946) was a Lutheran pastor and scholar in Hitler’s Germany.  He opposed the Nazis–particularly the “German Christian” movement that sought to purge Christianity of its “Jewish” elements (that is, the Bible)–and after the war opposed the Communists, who took over where he lived in East Germany.  The Nazis sent him to the Eastern Front.  The Communists murdered him.

The theologian James R. Edwards tells his story in a new book entitled Between the Swastika and the Sickle: The Life, Disappearance, and Execution of Ernst Lohmeyer.

From the review in Christianity Today by Christopher Gehrz, The Nazis Persecuted Him. The Soviets Killed Him. Today He’s Barely Known:

Whenever I teach the history of 20th-century Europe, I incorporate stories from Christians who resisted the evils of totalitarianism. That list always includes martyred anti-Nazis like the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the university student Sophie Scholl. But thanks to theologian James R. Edwards, this fall I can add one more name to that cloud of witnesses: the German Lutheran Ernst Lohmeyer, who stood fast against Nazism and survived fighting in two world wars, only to be executed by Soviet authorities in 1946.

Having first encountered Lohmeyer’s commentary on the Gospel of Mark in graduate school, Edwards’s interest was kindled on a 1979 visit to Greifswald, East Germany. A local pastor told him that “we cannot mention the name of Ernst Lohmeyer” in the city whose university Lohmeyer served as theology professor and president. As he began a decades-long research project, Edwards “joined the small company of people dedicated to remembering, recovering, and recording the life of Ernst Lohmeyer.”

His labors have resulted in a new biography, Between the Swastika & the Sickle: The Life, Disappearance, & Execution of Ernst Lohmeyer.

For the rest of the article…

How Would Bonhoeffer Vote?

LESS THAN A MONTH before the 2016 presidential election, evangelical journalist and biographer Eric Metaxas made the case in The Wall Street Journal that, though they might find his morals odious and his behavior unconscionable, American evangelicals had no choice but to vote for Donald Trump. Metaxas admitted that Trump’s lecherous Access Hollywood hot-mic audio comments, which the Washington Post had made public five days before, might be a deal-breaker for some religious voters. But Trump’s opponent, he argued, had “a whole deplorable basketful” of deal-breakers, and, purity be damned, Christians were obligated to stop her from reaching the Oval Office.

To make his point, Metaxas needed a weighty moral example, a name that had currency among churchgoers. Attentive observers of American Christianity could almost have predicted his choice. “The anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer also did things most Christians of his day were disgusted by,” Metaxas wrote, implying that pulling the lever for Trump was analogous to conspiring against Hitler’s regime, while voting for Hillary Clinton was roughly equivalent to joining the brownshirts. As everyone knows, evangelicals bought what Metaxas was selling.

This was far from the first time the Berlin theologian and pastor’s name was used to gain leverage in American politics. The Bonhoeffer of Metaxas’s 2010 best seller, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, had all the theological orthodoxy and manly grit an evangelical could want. Conversely, though Charles Marsh’s 2014 biography, Strange Glory, was exquisitely crafted and meticulously researched, his Bonhoeffer looked suspiciously like an American liberal Protestant with some inclination toward activism and progressive politics. He even spent the years he was incarcerated in the Nazi military prison at Tegel (1943–1945) suffering from unrequited love toward his best (male) friend, Eberhard Bethge, rather than pining for his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer.

More recently, both conservative and progressive journalists, pastors, and academics have entered the fray, claiming that either the Obergefell v. Hodges decision to legalize gay marriage (the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ronnie Floyd) or the election of Donald Trump (Sojourners magazine) constitutes a “Bonhoeffer moment,” one in which Christians must resist cultural or governmental authority in order to obey God. The debate about who has the right to claim Germany’s most famous resistance figure has become so fierce that last year Rhodes College professor Stephen Haynes penned The Battle for Bonhoeffer to address the United States’s recent reception of his theology.

With so many American Christians wielding his name in this cultural proxy war, one might assume Bonhoeffer’s political commitments were common knowledge among college-educated believers. One would be wrong. Books on Operation Valkyrie and Bonhoeffer’s association with the July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler are a dime a dozen. English-language studies that touch on Bonhoeffer’s work on behalf of the Jews or his interest in the American Black church appear frequently enough. But if one sets out to peg Bonhoeffer as an ally of either American Democrats or Republicans, only a deep dive into current scholarship will offer any clarity.

That, of course, is because Bonhoeffer lived in a very different time and culture. He grew up among the Berlin Bildungsbürgertum — the city’s cultural elite — in the western suburb of Grunewald. Many academics lived in this upscale neighborhood. Dietrich’s childhood ambition to pursue a doctorate would not have seemed entirely abnormal in that environment. By his teenage years, his father, Karl Bonhoeffer, had become one of Germany’s most famous psychiatrists; the eminent church historians Ernst Troeltsch and Adolf von Harnack were regulars at neighborhood gatherings. However, these were hardly liberal, American-style academic circles. Most found themselves in agreement with their government’s bellicosity when war broke out in 1914. In fact, many were passionate advocates of imperialism; Harnack even acted as a speechwriter for Kaiser Wilhelm II.

A different political mood prevailed in the Bonhoeffer family. Dietrich’s older brother, Karl-Friedrich, joined the Social Democrats after a conversion to socialism during the war. The other siblings drifted toward the German People’s Party and similar parties. Theirs was a bourgeois politics sympathetic with the more open and liberal atmosphere of the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, a stance that may help explain why so many in the Bonhoeffer family would later play active roles in the resistance.

Dietrich, however, stood mostly aloof from wranglings over political ideology. His friend Eberhard Bethge has written that in the 1932 elections Dietrich supported the moderate, lay Catholic Center Party because he thought their international ties — that is, partly ties to the Vatican — could provide “stability and independence” in a rather unstable time. This was an extraordinary step for a German Protestant minister, yet in one sense it fits Bonhoeffer perfectly. His foremost political concerns were never about economics, war and peace, or even the treatment of minorities, though obviously these things were not unimportant to him. Above all else, Bonhoeffer cared about the preservation of the gospel message and the freedom of the Christian church from political and cultural entanglements that might obscure its message. The intricacies of politics, he firmly believed, were not the business of the Protestant pastor or theologian.

“There is no doubt that the church of the Reformation is not encouraged to get involved directly in specific political actions of the state,” Bonhoeffer wrote in his 1933 essay “The Church and the Jewish Question.” “The church has neither to praise nor to censure the laws of the state. Instead, it has to affirm the state as God’s order of preservation in this godless world.” There were rare exceptions to this rule of nonintervention, of course, and the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany was clearly one of them. That was not, however, simply because the Nazi government was engaging in morally repugnant deeds and implementing unjust laws, but because those deeds and laws had driven the church into a status confessionis, a situation where the very truth of the gospel was at stake.

Republicans more anxious about safeguarding religious freedom than President Trump’s peccadillos may read these lines and believe they have found a kindred spirit. When they encounter Bonhoeffer’s conclusion in his Ethics that abortion is “nothing but murder” and discover his intense impatience with American liberal theology, they might feel themselves justified in christening the Obergefell decision a status confessionis — roughly what today might be called a “Bonhoeffer moment.” Perhaps those who are potential targets of an anti-discrimination lawsuit feel especially justified in doing so.

Yet when Bonhoeffer came to Union Theological Seminary in New York for the 1930–’31 academic year and, again, for the summer of 1939, he had some harsh words for those obsessed with religious liberty. “The American praise of freedom is more a tribute to the world, the state, and society than it is a statement concerning the church,” he wrote. “But where the gratitude for institutional freedom must be paid for through the sacrifice of the freedom of [gospel] proclamation, there the church is in chains, even if it believes itself to be free.”

Bonhoeffer, it would seem, may have found the conservative panic over Obergefell more faithless than politically feckless. He may have thought their “Bonhoeffer moment” more about self-preservation and power politics than gospel proclamation.

American progressives might feel even more justified in appropriating Bonhoeffer’s legacy. After all, the first thing most people learn about the Lutheran theologian is that he resisted a tyrannical government that systematically oppressed minorities. And, as many on the American left argue, the Trump administration has at least tried to do just that. These progressive believers might buttress their case by lauding Bonhoeffer’s courageous philosemitic efforts or citing the Sundays in 1931 he spent with the Black community at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. And when they read the blistering criticisms of “otherworldly” faith in his essay “Thy Kingdom Come!” or discover his hope for the future development of a “religionless Christianity” in his final letters, enthused Democrats might be ready to enlist Bonhoeffer’s help in the 2020 election. Those “Bonhoeffer moments,” after all, will come in handy on the campaign trail.

Yet letters and documents from his year in the United States reveal a Bonhoeffer at odds with the progressive American version as well. The historical Bonhoeffer was sometimes appalled by the oppression of African Americans, but he spent much more of his time filling letters and essays with criticisms and even contempt for American liberal Protestantism and progressive politics.

“God is not the immanent progressive ethical principle of history; God is the Lord who judges the human being and his work, he is the absolute sovereign (God’s kingdom is not a democracy!),” Bonhoeffer fumed in a memo about American Christianity. “The ideal of international, democratic, collectivist life together on the basis of the value of individuals (notice the inner contradiction!) is not identical with the kingdom of God.”

For Bonhoeffer, American liberals had misunderstood an essential part of Christianity: no matter how hard we try, human beings cannot inaugurate the kingdom of God. The best believers can do before that bright day in which Christ returns is preserve human rights, political stability, and a modicum of justice and proclaim the gospel message whether or not they find it politically expedient.

So how would Dietrich Bonhoeffer vote in 2020? Which side would he back in the United States’s vituperative, divided political landscape, and which would he think has the right to claim their political program as a righteous reaction to a “Bonhoeffer moment”?

For the rest of the article…

Cheap grace the real enemy

“When God calls a man, he bids him come and die,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the dark days for the church under Nazi Germany.

At age 39, he was hanged on the gallows for his stand against Nazism.

He wrote, “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church. We are fighting today for costly grace.

“Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares.

“The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and consolations of faith are thrown away at cut prices. In such a church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin.

“Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

With these words and a life to back them up, Bonhoeffer became a powerful spokesman for a form of vibrant Christianity that would not bow to Hitler.

This man who called the church back to its mission for Christ became a martyr for his stand for God and against Hitler. Thousands of average people were inspired by his example and became a credit to the Christ they served.

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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?

For the rest of the post…

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