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Chatting with buddies at the bar or coffee shop helps us think more clearly, and that’s sorely missing right now

By gathering in community spaces and chatting with friends and strangers, we really are solving the world’s problems.

Humans don’t just desire complex forms of human contact, from the intimate contact of love to the more distant contact of political order. We cannot do without it.

When Southern Methodist University announced in March that it would close campus after spring break because of the global pandemic, I was teaching a course on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in Germany in the 1930s and ’40s who was eventually put to death in a concentration camp for his anti-Nazi activities. As we continued to abide by the shelter-in-place orders, my students and I, forced to meet exclusively online, commented several times about how poignant it was to read Bonhoeffer together during this time. By the last quarter of the term we were reading Bonhoeffer’s prison writings, many of which are weighty meditations on the challenges of forced loneliness. Bonhoeffer’s writings, from his early works to these later ones from prison, emphasize how important sociality is for human beings.

It’s stunning that, surrounded by the terror and murder of the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer spent so much of his time writing not about murder and war, but about these basic forms of social life. As Bonhoeffer saw it, even before the mass murder began, the Nazis posed an existential threat to human flourishing because of their attempt to flatten out human relationships. From the beginning of the regime, Hitler insisted that everything must be Nazified — church, family life and even bowling leagues. There were no distinct places with their own integrity, goals and practices. There was only Nazi space.

Bonhoeffer was concerned about the loss of these spaces because he thought they do more than simply connect us with others. Rather, these spaces actually help us think. It’s easy to conceive of thinking as a human activity best accomplished in isolation. But on Bonhoeffer’s telling, it is by inhabiting these social spheres that we learn to think well.

For instance, if I ask myself whether my responsibility as a father means that I should pick my son up early from school in order to spend more time with him, I also have to ask if in so doing I would be failing to fulfill my responsibilities at work. This sort of very ordinary moral question, and the ordinary form of moral reflection that accompanies it, depends on the difference in space between work and home. Without that kind of difference, our ability to think is diminished.

Bonhoeffer combined a long tradition of Christian theology with the more recent insights of sociology when he argued that humans need multiple different kinds of social relationships — or spaces — in order to flourish. Humans want good home lives and work lives, and we depend on good political order to make those possible, but we also need other places where we gather and converse with friends and strangers alike. These are what sociologists sometimes call “third places.”

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Isaiah Colton ThompsonIsaiah Colton Thompson, religious studies and history major

Isaiah Colton Thompson, a senior with a double major in religious studies and history at Cal State Fullerton, discovered his primary subject, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a most unusual way … courtesy of a trashcan and an engaging professor. (Bonhoeffer was a German evangelical pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident. His influential writings focused on Christianity’s role in a secular society.)

“I was meeting with one of my professors, Bradley Starr, to discuss my broad research interests,” he recalled. “When I mentioned Bonhoeffer, his eyes lit up. He literally reached into his trashcan and handed me a magazine that was advertising a recently published work on Bonhoeffer. I ordered the book, found an area of interest and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Thompson was looking forward to visiting Washington, D.C., this spring as his senior thesis on Bonhoeffer and the lessons from Finkenwalde Seminary had been selected for display at the Council on Undergraduate Research’s annual “Posters on the Hill” event, which takes place in the nation’s capital. It was abruptly canceled in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

A virtual poster session is scheduled for Tuesday, April 21 at 9 a.m. on Twitter. For more information , visit the Council on Undergraduate Research.

“I was surprised and incredibly pleased that my poster was selected,” Thompson said. “Sixty projects were selected, from across the nation, out of 400 applications. The point of the event is to demonstrate the research being performed in universities across the country and encourage further funding for these programs.”

Thompson’s project was the only one selected from the state of California for this honor.

At CSUF, there are many programs that benefit from federal funding, including the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Scholar and the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, all programs that Thompson is involved in.

“Programs of these kinds are incredibly important as they support low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students who want to complete their degrees in higher education,” he said. “Participating in this event not only would have allowed me to promote my research … but would have enabled me to endorse the very programs that encouraged my research.”

The Problem of Discrimination in Nazi Germany

Thompson was particularly interested in “the lessons from Finkenwalde Seminary.” The focus of the seminary was the problem of racism in Nazi Germany.

“During the 1930s, Hitler called on Nazi-supporting Christians to bring Germany’s churches under the ideals of the Nazi state,” Thompson explained. “This included race. The seminary at Finkenwalde resisted those ideas and taught a counter-narrative to combat targeted discrimination. Bonhoeffer directed the seminary and taught many of the classes.”

Many, including Nazi-supporting Christians, held the people, the land and the leader of Germany in high esteem. They believed Germany was called to a special path of victory and triumph. In pursuit of this path, certain groups of people were targeted because they did not fit “the ideal” that Germans had in mind. Bonhoeffer, however, saw the flaw and addressed it directly in lectures from Finkenwalde.

The Power of Resistance

“Ultimately, the research reveals the power of resistance,” Thompson said. “And it looks at the influence of nationalism on race. Because the Nazis held the ideals of the state in such high regard, they justified sacrificing human beings for those ideals. It also focuses on a deeper issue — the power of ideas.

“Because of my research, I often wonder about the everyday influences that impact my thinking. Where do these ideas come from? Who produces them? Bonhoeffer and the students at Finkenwalde remained cognizant of the ideology of their leaders … and strongly resisted this world view.”

Lessons for Today

Thompson believes that some of the lessons of Bonhoeffer resonate today.

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by Rev. Dr. Peter Walker, Principal, United Theological College

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed on the order of Heinrich Himmler seventy-five years ago in a Nazi concentration camp in Flossenburg, only days before its liberation, in April 1945. Bonhoeffer had known from the age of sixteen that he wanted to study theology. He died having fully expended himself in that calling. And in so doing, he has become an inspiration to generations of Christians. As his gravestone reads: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Witness to Jesus Christ.

In 1935, Bonhoeffer accepted a call from the Confessing Church, an alliance of faithful resistance to Nazism, to lead an underground seminary for its pastors. There, in Finkenwalde, he wrote Life Together in 1938. Now a devotional classic, Life Together was first of all a guide to life in Christian community – a reflection for his underground seminarians. Within it, Bonhoeffer explores the joy and struggle of community lived in and through Jesus Christ; a spiritual and even divine reality, manifest in human fellowship, and marked by Bible reading, communal singing, sharing a table, prayers, and daily work.

Yet the central chapter of this beautiful book about being together is titled ‘The Day Alone’.

Hearing the voice of God

Bonhoeffer writes, ‘Let those who cannot be alone beware of community’. The noise and activity of life together may crowd out the voice we sometimes need to hear alone, the voice we might sometimes only hear alone – the voice of God.  Yet with a balancing wisdom, Bonhoeffer follows soon after with its opposite. “The reverse is also true”, he writes. “Let those who are not in community beware of being alone”. The voice which speaks out of the silence to our inner-most self, calls us into the community of Christ’s disciples.

Bonhoeffer wanted his seminarians to understand the connection between silence and our ability to hear the still small voice of God which animates our faith; to understand “the essential relationship of silence to the Word.” And, he wanted them to understand that time together and time alone are both essential to Christ’s community. Time with others enriches our time alone, and time alone enriches our time with others. “The day together will be unfruitful without the day alone”, Bonhoeffer writes. And conversely, “After a time of quiet, we meet others in a different and a fresh way”.

“Only in this fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone, and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship. It is not as though the one preceded the other. Both begin at the same time, namely, with the call of Jesus Christ.”

COVID-19 and ‘the day alone

COVID-19 has brought a form of ‘the day alone’ upon us all. In reality, it will be much more than a day. We are beginning a time of relative solitude that will last for weeks and may hold for months.

Notwithstanding our heartbreak for those to whom this virus brings suffering, for whom we must do all we can in love, I suspect Dietrich Bonhoeffer would encourage us, as individuals and as the church, to embrace this time alone. Embrace it for meditation on the scriptures. Embrace it as an opportunity to be intentional in our listening for God. That will not be easy, and we will need to be patient. Yet we have time. What is God saying to you? What is God saying to this church?

Embrace this mandated time apart as a time for prayer.

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C.S. Lewis lecturer Brown to focus on martyred pastor

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This year’s C.S. Lewis Legacy Lecture will focus on the legacy of martyred German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Storyteller the Rev. Larry Brown, of Columbia, will deliver Westminster College’s eighth annual lecture at 11 a.m. Feb. 6. in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury. Brown is famous for infiltrating and writing about racist, white nationalist groups throughout the United States. He frequently appears on PBS.

Bonhoeffer famously opposed Adolf Hitler and vehemently protested Nazi treatment of the Jews during World War II.

Brown’s lecture will commemorate the 75th anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s death: He was executed April 9, 1945, at Flossenburg, a Nazi concentration camp in Flossenburg, Germany.

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Lynda Edwards

A professor at Schenectady’s Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, Haggard demonstrates why so many humans, from Harlem churchgoers to prison guards, found Bonhoeffer such great company. He was funny, brilliant, blunt, thorny, an avid outdoorsman whose hiking trips made him a hit as an inner-city youth minister.He still inspires antifascist activists worldwide. His writings are so fresh and sharp, echoes of his work can even be found in pop-cultural epics like “Game of Thrones.”

Haggard makes readers keenly aware of the long, joyous life Bonhoeffer could easily have had if he had fled Germany. While attending college in New York City, Bonhoeffer became good friends with fellow seminary student, Frank Fisher, who was black. Bonhoeffer taught Sunday School at Fisher’s Harlem church. A gifted musician, Bonhoeffer loved learning and gospel and spirituals.

At age 28, Bonhoeffer was safely employed in England in 1934 as Nazism swept Germany.

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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.

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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.

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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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Pastor Niemöller spoke out against Nazism. In 1937 he was sent to the camps for “misusing the pulpit.”

By Doris Bergen
In the annals of the Holocaust, Martin Niemöller cuts an awkward figure. A celebrity in his day, the impulsive German pastor is now remembered, if at all, as the tag to the quote that begins, “First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Communist.” Though a political prisoner, he is sometimes called a martyr but did not die at Nazi hands. In fact, Niemöller remained alive for decades after the war, time he used to try to reckon what he had been part of—and frequently to put his foot in his mouth.

Niemöller’s only meeting with Adolf Hitler was a fiasco. It was January 1934, and Hitler had been in power for just under a year. The chancellor, obsessed with his image, was irritated about strife in the German Protestant church and the foreign press coverage it attracted. Disunity made him look weak. To manage the situation, Hitler summoned a dozen prominent clergymen to his presence. Among them was the Lutheran pastor and former submarine captain Martin Niemöller.

THEN THEY CAME FOR ME

By Matthew D. Hockenos
Basic, 322 pages, $30

Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), a U-boat officer during World War I, received the Iron Cross in 1917. PHOTO: ULLSTEIN BILD VIA GETTY IMAGES

A junior member of the group, Niemöller stood near the back. When Hermann Göring, head of the newly formed Gestapo, spoke he pulled a sheaf of papers from his briefcase and began to read the transcript of a phone call recorded that very morning. It was a conversation between Niemöller and a friend. Frozen with dread, the churchmen heard how a cocky Niemöller had promised that everything would be fine. Hitler would come to see that the people he considered opponents within the church were in fact loyal Germans. Anyway, President Hindenburg would take their side, Niemöller predicted gleefully, and by the end of the meeting the old man would be “administer[ing] the last rites” to the upstart Hitler.

The meeting thus torpedoed, the future of the outspoken Niemöller quivered in the balance. Would the devout Christian emerge a champion against the moral evil of Nazism? Or would the ardent nationalist, who voted for Hitler in 1924 and again in March 1933, redouble his efforts to prove that he could serve both his country and his faith and in the process become complicit in Nazi crimes? The answer, Matthew Hockenos reveals in a gripping biography, is “yes” and “yes,” or, more precisely, “yes but.” Niemöller was heroic but flawed, and his life and legacy challenge the popular notion of the individual hero as society’s best hope. In its place, “the pastor who defied the Nazis” offers two modest messages for those under threat in our own troubled times: help one another and don’t wait too long.

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July 2020
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