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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?

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.

Kierkegaard, of course, spoke about the “teleological suspension of the ethical” and argued that true religion, Christianity, transcends ordinary ethics. The true “knight of faith” must do what God commands even if it violates a known law of God.

Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

Does all this sound somewhat like “situation ethics?” During the 1960s Episcopal theologian Joseph Fletcher published Situation Ethics: The New Morality which was thoroughly trashed by conservative Christians. Admittedly there are differences between Fletcher’s situation ethics and the “occasionalism” or “contextualism” of some of the church fathers and reformers and Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer. (I could throw in Barth and Brunner, too, but their “exceptions” to the revealed will of God are not as strong or as extreme as some others.)

It is exceptionally difficult to stick to a strict rule-based ethic, even within Christianity! Kant tried to do it, even arguing that it would be wrong to lie to save the life of a friend. But Kant lived in an ivory tower of pure thought and hardly ever encountered the real world outside his home and university. Luther needed Prince Phillip of Hesse to support his reformation; the prince had two wives. Luther at least condoned it. Melanchthon more than condoned it. It’s possible that he even performed the second marriage while the first wife was still alive. Bonhoeffer lived in a “world” where innocent people, including children, were being killed for no reason other than insane prejudice and hatred.When I was a teenager growing up in a fundamentalist church in the 1960s one of the worst things anyone could be accused of was “situation ethics” and yet I observed many of my denomination’s own leaders doing things that I knew to be unethical. I won’t say how I knew, but I knew beyond any doubt that one denominational executive was forging another one’s signature on documents and checks—perhaps with the other one’s consent but it was still illegal in some cases. Everyone winked at it because it was simply too difficult then to get the right signature on the check or document. I well remember many instances in which pastors, evangelists, denominational leaders, did things that were blatantly unethical in a rule-based ethic but justified them given the circumstances. In all of the cases I remember, nothing like life was at stake; these were minor “offenses” if offenses at all. They were certainly technical offenses, violations of law in some cases. I was being taught one thing and watching my spiritual mentors who taught me ethics doing the opposite.

When is it ethically okay to violate a rule? Is there a rule for that? Ethics is messy. Virtue ethics sounds nice but is no complete alternative to “quandry ethics”—ethical decision making based on case studies. Augustine’s “rule” was “Love and do as you please.” Fletcher said much the same thing in Situation Ethics. I was taught that it is never right to break a rule. I grew out of that. Now I have the task of teaching when and why it is okay to break rules. It’s complicated.

The history of Christian ethics is full of surprises and it’s challenging.

For there rest of the post…

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.

For the rest of the post…

If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.

Posted by | Apr 13, 2019

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.

For the rest of the post..

APRIL 9, 2019 BY DEACON GREG KANDRA

German Federal Archives/Wikipedia

The great preacher, writer, theologian and witness to the faith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was executed on April 9, 1945, just days before the Nazi camp where he was held, Flossenbürg, was liberated. He was 39.

Here’s what happened: 

On 4 April 1945, the diaries of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, were discovered, and in a rage upon reading them, Hitler ordered that the Abwehr conspirators [those who had plotted for Hitler’s assassination] be destroyed. Bonhoeffer was led away just as he concluded his final Sunday service and asked an English prisoner, Payne Best, to remember him to Bishop George Bell of Chichester if he should ever reach his home: “This is the end—for me the beginning of life.”

Bonhoeffer was condemned to death on 8 April 1945 by SS judge Otto Thorbeck at a drumhead court-martial without witnesses, records of proceedings or a defense in Flossenbürg concentration camp.  He was executed there by hanging at dawn on 9 April 1945, just two weeks before soldiers from the United States 90th and 97th Infantry Divisions liberated the camp,  three weeks before the Soviet capture of Berlin and a month before the surrender of Nazi Germany.

Bonhoeffer was stripped of his clothing and led naked into the execution yard where he was hanged, along with fellow conspirators Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Canaris’s deputy General Hans Oster, military jurist General Karl Sack, General Friedrich von Rabenau, businessman Theodor Strünck, and German resistance fighter Ludwig Gehre.

Eberhard Bethge, a student and friend of Bonhoeffer’s, writes of a man who saw the execution: “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer…In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

His legacy has been profound:

Bonhoeffer’s life as a pastor and theologian of great intellect and spirituality who lived as he preached—and his being killed because of his opposition to Nazism—exerted great influence and inspiration for Christians across broad denominations and ideologies, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the anti-communist democratic movement in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.

Bonhoeffer is commemorated in the liturgical calendars of several Christian denominations on the anniversary of his death, 9 April. This includes many parts of the Anglican Communion, where he is sometimes identified as a martyr.

In our own troubled time, Bonhoeffer’s courage in the face of evil, and his suffering in the face of persecution, stand as a testament to true Christian witness — the very essence of what it means to be a “martyr.”

His likeness is preserved in Westminster Abbey, alongside other martyrs, including St. Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King, Jr.

He continues to teach and inspire Christians today.

For the rest of the post…

During his (Bonhoeffer) final years in school, there is increasing evidence of his opposition to the right-wing radicalism that was becoming more and more obstreperous. When he left for his last school holiday, he wrote to his parents that on the train he found himself sitting opposite “a man wearing a swastika” and spent the whole time arguing with him. The man “was really quite bigoted and right-wing.”

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 33.

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