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December 27, 2015 in Column, Opinion

Michael Gerson: Bonhoeffer resisted Nazis, offered hope

Michael Gerson The Washington Post

The current ferment of American politics has brought comparisons to Europe in the 1930s, with echoes of leaders who stoke anger against outsiders and promise a return to greatness through the application of a strong man’s will.

The analogy is hardly exact. Lacking the economic chaos and fragile institutions …

The current ferment of American politics has brought comparisons to Europe in the 1930s, with echoes of leaders who stoke anger against outsiders and promise a return to greatness through the application of a strong man’s will.

The analogy is hardly exact. Lacking the economic chaos and fragile institutions of Weimar Germany, America has fewer footholds for fascism. But the reaction to fascist darkness in the 1930s produced a figure, a bright light, who should guide us.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who resisted the Nazis and the influence of Nazism in his own church. He spoke out on behalf of German Jews, was implicated in a plot against Adolf Hitler’s life, was imprisoned, wrote and ministered for years from confinement, then was led naked to the execution ground and hung with a noose of piano wire, just weeks before the end of World War II.

As a theologian, Bonhoeffer was farsighted. Modern Western societies, he argued, were becoming “radically religionless.” It is not possible to reimpose this consensus, and mere nostalgia is pointless. But religion – in Bonhoeffer’s view, a changeable form of “human self-expression” – is not the same as faith. “If religion is only the garment of Christianity – and even the garment has looked very different at different times – then what is religionless Christianity?”

It is a question that could occupy a theologian’s entire career. Bonhoeffer’s was cut short at age 39. But it is worth noting one thing he did not find outdated. He believed that Advent and the story of Christmas speak directly to the modern world.

The appeal of Christmas to a prisoner, from one perspective, is natural. Christmas upends the normal calculations of power and influence. “He takes what is little and lowly,” said Bonhoeffer, “and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly. … He loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”

This is not merely a sentimental insight. In Bonhoeffer’s view, this revelation about the character of God involves a kind of judgment. “No powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod. For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly. Here the rich come to nothing, because God is with the poor and hungry, but the rich and satisfied he sends away empty. Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope; they are judged.”

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s life and work has far-reaching implications…Bonhoeffer’s and his friends’ political activities show that the still widely-held view that the plot of July 1944 was simply a “conspiracy of a small clique of reactionaries and discouraged officers,” who saw Hitler losing the war and had made a mess of their profession, is wrong.

There also was in the German opposition movement another strand of uncorrupted spiritual forces which opposed all that Hitler and National Socialism stood for on grounds of Christianity and the basic values of life, of truth, justice, goodness and decency. This trend drew its members from quite different political parties and religious groups. None of these men stood for a special party belief, but for a certain way of life, the destruction of which was the avowed purpose of National Socialism. 

Memoir by G. Leibholz in  Dietrich BonhoefferThe Cost of Discipleship1961 edition, 27.

In a letter of this date, a two-term President of the United States, writing to his predecessor, wrote this:

…the Theist, pointing to the heavens above, and to the earth beneath, and to the waters under the earth, asked if these did not proclaim a first cause, possessing intelligence and power; power in the production, and intelligence in the design, and constant preservation of the system; urged the palpable existence of final causes, that the eye was made to see, and the ear to hear, and not that we see because we have eyes, and hear because we have ears…

Well, as you will readily discern, dear reader, this is not President Obama’s or President George W. Bush’s accustomed style of writing.

This letter, dated April 8, 1816, was penned by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and addressed to his reconciled friend, John Adams. It’s worth parsing the eighteenth century language because it’s a keen insight into the minds of our Founding Fathers.

In this letter, the former president, Thomas Jefferson, one of the leading scientific minds of his day, rejects the atheism of some of the French philosophes with whom he shared so many ideas. He ascribes to the Creator “power in the production, intelligence in the design, and constant preservation of the system…”

Jefferson’s ideas of Intelligent Design were put to a court test in Dover, Pennsylvania, in 2005. The federal judge in that case came down hard against any students in the public schools learning what Jefferson actually believed about origins of our universe. The judge found Mr. Jefferson’s reasoning a form of religious indoctrination that was wholly unconstitutional.

Today, liberals routinely cite Jefferson’s “Letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptists as their source for all church-state jurisprudence. No matter that they have completely twistified (Jefferson’s own word) what he thought and what he wrote.

Noted author Eric Metaxas shows where such twistifying leads. It leads to a doctrine of religious freedom that is narrowly construed to permit “freedom of worship” and which at the same time comes down hard on “free exercise.” The First Amendment doesn’t just guarantee freedom of worship. It is broader than that.

Here’s a portion of Eric Metaxas’s recent speech at CPAC:

Let me begin with my hometown, Danbury, CT. Some of you know that Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptists in [1802], in which he uses the phrase “separation of church and state” — and in case there is anyone who doesn’t know it, the sense in which Jefferson uses that phrase is actually the opposite of how it’s generally thought of today. Today we often hear that it means that the state needs to be protected from religion, and that religion should have no place in government or society.

Jefferson and the Founders thought the opposite. They knew that the State was always tempted to take over everything — including the religious side of people’s lives. So they put a protection in the Constitution that the government could not favor any religion over another… and could not prohibit the free exercise of religion.

They wanted churches and religions to be protected from the government — from Leviathan. Why? Because they knew that what people believed and their freedom to live out and practice one’s most deeply held beliefs was at the very heart of this radical and fragile experiment they had just launched into the world.

Okay, so where are the threats to Religious Freedom in America today? Well, for one thing, understand we are not talking about Freedom of Worship. In a speech 18 months ago, Hillary Clinton replaced the phrase Freedom of Religion with Freedom of Worship — and my hero and friend Chuck Colson noticed and was disturbed by it. Why? Because these are radically different things. They have Freedom of Worship in China. But what exactly is Freedom of Worship?

In my book Bonhoeffer I talk about a meeting between Bonhoeffer’s friend, the Rev. Martin Niemoller, who early on in the Third Reich was one of those fooled by Hitler. And in that meeting he says something to Hitler about how he, Niemoller, cares about Germany and Third Reich — and Hitler cuts him off and says “I built the Third Reich. You just worry about your sermons!”

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Overcoming Darkness

Holy Week helps us to remember, recommit and guard against the darkness of today’s apathy.

By Henry Green

The complicity of the church in the Nazi policy to annihilate the Jewish race cannot be denied.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “The church confesses her timidity, her evasiveness, her dangerous concessions. The church has been untrue to her office of guardianship and to her office of comfort, and thus she has denied to the outcasts and to the despised the compassion she owes them. To put it another way, the church has failed to speak the right word, in the right way, at the right time. She has just stood by while violence was being committed under the very name of Jesus Christ. Therefore, she is guilty of the deaths of the weakest and most defenseless brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Adolf Hitler

The isolationism of a global community unresponsive to the abject poverty and destruction throughout Europe in the wake of World War I, the desire to annihilate the soul of the German people and the arrogance of a pride that led to National Socialism paved the way for a Second World War. This isolationist policy of neglect in the west and the nihilism of Communism in Russia to the east set the stage for a reactionary form of nihilism in Germany: The rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Third Reich.

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Anniversary Pictures: Remembering Roe v. Wade

Imagining a concrete picture can bring abstract truth to life. To help us understand what this month’s 40th anniversary of legalized abortion in the United States means, one Care Net website offers this picture:

[I]magine Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Lambeau Field in Green Bay, and Miller Park in Milwaukee filled with fans. Now consider this: to host more than 55 million people, all three of these stadiums would need to fill to capacity 290 separate times!

We cannot undo this human tragedy, this dark undercurrent in a culture marked by an inflow of countless material things and an outflow of discarded life. To be specific—more than 55 million discarded human lives since Roe v. Wade was decided in January 1973. Many, though, are helping invade the darkness with the light by pursuing these actions, which we can aim to pursue more faithfully every passing year, along with God’s people and by God’s grace.

1. Remember

For many, the reality of abortion breaks in only every now and then. For so many others, though, abortion is a personal, ongoing reality. As Albert Mohler reminds us in a thought-provoking article (responding to Time magazine’s January cover story), at current rates one out of every three American women will have an abortion by age 45. That means a huge percentage of the women with whom we attend church, shop for groceries, work, exercise, and raise children carry painful abortion stories inside them. Men carry them as well. Many of these stories are not yet resolved.

This issue should seem to us as real as a deep, bleeding cut on a friend’s hand: we’ll notice it. . . . it will affect the way we reach out our hands. . . . it will make us aim to help heal.

2. Pray

In the Bible, healing involves prayer. Abortion is hard to pray about, in a way. Often Christians pray that God would “heal our land,” claiming the beautiful promise in 2 Chronicles 7:14. That promise, of course, was originally directed to the nation of God’s people, and so we sometimes struggle to understand how it applies or does not apply to nations like the one Americans inhabit today. We can know for sure, though, that those words speak to God’s people. We can be certain that we are called to humble ourselves and pray and seek God’s face and turn from our wicked ways.

We can start by praying for the people around us in Christ’s body, the ones with whom we worship—and the ones whom we would like to bring into the church. We can get to know the women God brings into our lives and share their ongoing stories. There’s nothing like ministering to real people to make us pray.

3. Offer Gospel Hope

As believers, we know the gospel is the “ground zero” of healing. Counseling in general can prop up a woman or a man, but counseling that tells the truth about who Jesus is and what he has done for us offers the only lasting hope. Counseling that offers the food of the Word of God feeds people with what they need to live—and to choose life over death. Many Christian pro-life clinics these days offer not just pre- but also post-abortion Bible-based counseling, aiming not just to stop the taking of babies’ lives but also to offer eternal life in Christ to all who will hear. Women and men in life-and-death crises often have open ears to hear.

Even if we’re not involved directly in such formal counseling, we are all involved in daily conversations with needy people—usually more needy than we ever realize. What if we were more ready to offer biblical words of hope and encouragement? What if we were a little less fearful? A few years ago, in a talk to college students, I addressed this topic of abortion with some trepidation. The dramatic response by both female and also male students took me by surprise. The Spirit and the Word do their work to open avenues of gospel healing and hope.

4. Add Concrete Action

As we realize the depths of this tragedy not only in our own nation but also globally, we can help in other ways, as God leads us.

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Dr, Martin Luther King Jr.

The Good Society and the Moral Law

More than forty years ago, on August 28, 1963, a quarter million people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial. They marched here for the cause of civil rights. And that day they heard Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, a speech in which he challenged America to fulfill her promise.

“I have a dream,” he said, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’ ”

While we know of the speech, most people are unaware that King also penned one of the most eloquent defenses of the moral law: the law that formed the basis for his speech, for the civil rights movement, and for all of the law, for that matter.

In the spring of 1963, King was arrested for leading a series of massive non-violent protests against the segregated lunch counters and discriminatory hiring practices rampant in Birmingham, Alabama. While in jail, King received a letter from eight Alabama ministers. They agreed with his goals, but they thought that he should call off the demonstrations and obey the law.

King explained why he disagreed in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. “One might well ask,” he wrote, “how can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer “is found in the fact that there are two kinds of laws: just laws … and unjust laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws,” King said, “but conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobeyunjust laws.”

How does one determine whether the law is just or unjust? A just law, King wrote, “squares with the moral law of the law of God. An unjust law … is out of harmony with the moral law.”

Then King quoted Saint Augustine: “An unjust law is no law at all.” He quoted Thomas Aquinas: “An unjust law is a human law not rooted in eternal or natural law.”

This is the great issue today in the public square: Is the law rooted in truth? Is it transcendent, immutable, and morally binding? Or is it, as liberal interpreters argue, simply whatever courts say it is? Do we discover the law, or do we create it?

Many think of King as a liberal firebrand, waging war on traditional values. Nothing could be further from the truth. King was a great conservative on this central issue, and he stood on the shoulders of Augustine and Aquinas, striving to restore our heritage of justice rooted in the law of God.

Were he alive today, I believe he’d be in the vanguard of the pro-life movement. I also believe that he would be horrified at the way in which out of control courts have trampled down the moral truths he advocated.

From the time of Emperor Nero, who declared Christianity illegal, to the days of the American slave trade, from the civil rights struggle of the sixties to our current battles against abortion, euthanasia, cloning, and same-sex “marriage,” Christians have always maintained exactly what King maintained.

King’s dream was to live in harmony with the moral law as God established it. So this Martin Luther King Day, reflect on that dream—for it is worthy of our aspirations, our hard work, and the same commitment Dr. King showed.


Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963.

Read the text of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Visit the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute website.

St. Augustine, City of God (Penguin Classics reprint, 2003)

God in the Newtown classroom


Christmas was muted in our churches this year and “Joy to the World” got stuck in our throats. It was difficult to “repeat the sounding joy” for a birth, because hearts were heavy with sorrow at the shocking loss of so many young, innocent lives.

On Dec. 28, just a few days after Christmas, Christians mark the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which recalls the cruelty of King Herod, threatened by the news of the “new born king,” orders the slaughter of all male children under the age of 3 in Bethlehem and its environs. Pro-life activists compare the event with the large number of abortions performed in this country and for the belief that Herod’s soldiers killed thousand of children in Bethlehem. Although such an act of atrocity was not beyond Herod’s barbarity, Bethlehem was a small town, and the number of dead is thought, more accurately, to be in the twenties or thirties.

The Bible reading for that day is the prophet Jeremiah, who spoke of a voice of sobbing and lamentation being heard in Ramah, a small town near Bethlehem: “Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled, since they were no more.” There was similar weeping and lamentation throughout our country this Christmas when an unspeakable tragedy struck a small community most painfully and poignantly a few days before Christmas. The reality that the victims were small children anticipating the joy and magic of the season added to the heartbreak of parents, families, towns and the nation.

A God-question invariably arises when one loses loved ones under particularly tragic circumstances due to age or the wide swath of death: the parents of Connecticut’s slain children, the mother of a young child who dies of cancer, the families of victims of death and destruction arising from natural disasters like hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, the Japanese tsunami and tornadoes sweeping across the country. The same question is discussed endlessly on Internet blogs, in churches, mosques and synagogues, in newspaper editorials and letters to the editor and in quiet conversations at the supermarket.

The only people who don’t ask the question are committed atheists for whom the question about God’s presence in human events has no meaning: if God does not exist, then God cannot be implicated. Even for believers and people of faith who can and do ask the question, there is no fully satisfactory answer.

A recent documentary on the difference between chimpanzees and humans when faced with a simple problem-solving task is that the human child asks “why” when the object in the experiment did not perform as expected. The chimp simply gave up. The most fundamental question we are faced with in the presence of the moral evil of free human choices (like Newtown) or nature’s physical disasters (floods, hurricanes and tornados) is why. It is a basic question for scientists, medical researchers and, especially, for religious people who believe in and relate to a supposedly all-wise, all-knowing, all-loving and all-compassionate God.

The question why innocent people die or suffer is as old as the book of Job and new as The Shack. Some answer: “It was the will of God,” but that makes God out to be a sadist. When the innocent suffer and evil prosper, there are only three possibilities: 1) The world is ruled by a fiend-God. 2) If sometimes the innocent prosper and the wicked suffer, then the world is ruled by chance and is meaningless. 3) If “It all will get their due in the end” (reward or punishment in the next world), then the world is moral, but ruled by a judge who doles out compensation. Is there another possibility?

The concentration camp survivor and novelist, Eli Wiesel, recounts in his book, “Night,” a story of the hanging of three prisoners in the presence of the entire camp population, forced to watch. One victim was a small child who appeared pale, almost calm, biting his lips. “Where is God? Where is He?” someone standing in the row behind Wiesel asked. “Long live liberty” cried the two adults, but the child was silent. On signal, the SS guards tipped over the three chairs. Then the crowd was forced to march, single file, past the hanging bodies. The two adults were already dead, but the child was still alive and struggled for half an hour. Wiesel heard the question once again: “Where is God now?”

“And I heard a voice within me answering him,” writes Weisel, “Where is He? Here He is — He is hanging on this gallows.”

Theologians debate the post-Holocaust question, “Can God suffer?” Is there a “crucified,” “hanging” or “bullet ridden” God? Some say no: suffering cannot touch God. For others, the symbol of a suffering God who endures and is defeated with those who suffer helps belief in a God who takes the pain of the world into God’s own life in order to redeem it. The idea of a suffering God is far better than one who does not: “Only a suffering God can help,” wrote the Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his Nazi prison cell in 1944. The Jewish scripture do not hesitate to talk about a God who “grieves, weeps and laments.” God hears their pain — and feels it. A prominent Cardinal says that God is not apathetic but sympathetic, a God who can “suffer with us.

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*Robert Nugent is a Catholic priest from New Freedom.

by Wesley Hill in First Things On the Square


Krister Stendahl

Krister Stendahl’s classic 1963 essay, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” makes the case that Augustine and the Western (Protestant) Christian tradition, preoccupied as they were and are with personal human guilt, present us with a drastic misreading of Paul. Unlike his fourth-century reader who poured out confessions of sin and misery to God, Paul was relatively untroubled by a sense of personal failure. According to Stendahl, himself an ordained Lutheran clergyman, Paul was very different from Augustine and Luther insofar as Paul possessed a “robust conscience.”

When Paul looked back over his life prior to his conversion to faith in Jesus, Stendahl argued, he considered himself a successful keeper of the Jewish law. Where Augustine and Luther narrated their respective conversions as a transition from oppressive feelings of condemnation to the relief of forgiveness and justification, Paul presents a very different picture: “as to righteousness, under the law [I was] blameless” before I became a Christian, he says (Phil. 3:6).

In drawing this distinction between Paul and Augustine, Stendahl is not simply interested in making a point about the distant past. He suggests, rather, that Paul’s freedom from feelings of guilt may have something to teach us about our contemporary Christian experience. Paul’s witness may enable us to break free from an oppressive Augustinian preoccupation with human unworthiness. “Did Paul think the only way to become a good Christian was out of frustration and guilt?” Stendahl asks (in the book in which the “Introspective Conscience” essay was eventually collected). No, he answers. “It may be that the axis of sin and guilt is not the only axis on which Christianity revolves.”

Another Lutheran clergyman—the theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffermay offer the best rebuttal to Stendahl’s view of Paul. In his Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer worries that some versions of Christian apologetics and evangelism elide the distinction between sin and feeling guilty. As theologian Ian McFarland put it in his excellent book In Adam’s Fall:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was highly critical of those styles of evangelistic preaching that seek first to persuade people how wretched and miserable they are and only then introduce Jesus Christ as the cure for their condition. He called it ‘religious blackmail’ and thought it both ignoble and completely inconsistent with Jesus’ own preaching. . . . Bonhoeffer objected that such preaching confused sin with personal weakness or guilt.

Better, Bonhoeffer argued, to present the total claim of Jesus Christ on a person’s whole life, rather than attempting to root out—in the fashion of muckraking journalism—a person’s hidden insecurities as a prelude to introducing them to Jesus’ forgiveness. At first glance, this makes it sound as though Bonhoeffer were agreeing with Stendahl that we have to break free of the old notions of personal sin and guilt if we’re to preach Christ in the changed landscape of modernity. But a closer read suggests there’s a deeper logic at work here.

Bonhoeffer suggests, contra Stendahl, that if we’re really to preach about the sin of humanity, we have to avoid yoking that preaching too closely to the feelings of guilt that may or may not be a feature of our hearers’ experience. Regardless of what a person may feel, Bonhoeffer implies, the gospel truly addresses them and lays claim to their lives. The truths of sin and redemption aren’t dependent on the rising and falling of human emotional states. And to dismantle a faulty view of the importance of those emotional states isn’t equivalent to a wholesale revision of Christian teaching on sin and redemption.

There’s an important lesson here…

For the rest of the post…

Cheap grace is a deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace!

~ Dietrich BonhoefferThe Cost of Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed in the spiritual discipline of scripture meditation. He wrote:

[Meditation] lets us be alone with the Word. And in doing so it gives us solid ground on which to stand and clear directions as to the steps we must take.

(Quoted in Jon WalkerIn Visible Fellowship: A Contemporary View of Bonhoeffer’s Classic Work: Life Together, Chapter 17)

September 2019
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