Dissent as a Spiritual Discipline If the Church Sells Out to Power and Glory

[A Review of Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Charles Marsh, 2014]

Marsh introduces us to Bonhoeffer’s ancestry and walks us clear through to the last imprisoned years of uncertainty that ended in his execution just days before the end of WWII. It is not written to coddle nor to discomfort whatever our self-image is as American Christians today, but tries to show reality. This is what biography should be – excellent credentials, extensive research, sensitive awareness, sympathetic objectivity, thorough treatment, and clear organization and writing.

Two eras of his life seem particularly important to our current experience in the United States.

CHAPTER EIGHT, “THEOLOGICAL STORM TROOPERS ON THE MARCH” deals with the direct pressures on the church after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. It traces the ease with which the Nazified church, the innocent-sounding “German Christians,” took control of the Christian establishments. A major moral concern at this time was church involvement in the deliberate singling out of Jews for exclusion and ever more violent persecution.

The terrifying crucial factor was the willingness of pew-level Christians to see Christ and the Bible replaced by enthusiasm for a strong Germany and a strong, “Christian” leader. Hitler actually used the phrase “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” even while replacing Christ in the people’s affections. He deliberately made enthusiasm for the nation seem the same as enthusiasm for the Gospel.

The fraud, power plays, and frequent violence (including concentration camps for questioners) were of course key factors. But the large majority of Christians and Christian leaders became promoters of the new anti-Christ power, while seeing it as the proper development of Biblical history. Bonhoeffer saw it differently, called it all “heresy,” and began referring to Hitler as “anti-christ.” Marsh says Bonhoeffer’s “orthodox understanding of Christ, which ‘begins in silence,’ directed Bonhoeffer onto a different path – one of recognizing dissent as a spiritual discipline.”

These idolatrous tendencies are at work in America today, with real differences of detail, but clearly at work. This chapter is worth some study.

CHAPTER SIX, “I HEARD THE GOSPEL PREACHED IN THE NEGRO CHURCHES”, describes his experiences as a student at Union Theological Seminary in NYC in 1931-32. It brings up two issues still important in American church life.

First, he felt a profound difference between Christian (churchly) white America, and black Christian America. The prior showed to him “frivolousness,” and “lack of clarity,” and left him “feeling depressed.” His involvements with black Americans and black churches “were never for a moment … boring.” He felt he found there a very real and direct expression of Christian faith and worship. Hence, “I heard the Gospel preached in Negro churches.”

Two things about that were distressing to him.

One – the to-him self-pleased and even self-indulgent flavor of white liberal Christianity was unattractive, largely useless, and in the context of world events, dangerous. Unfortunately, we could take the word “liberal” out of that sentence and find it true today.

Two – the white church establishment seemed quite unaware of and uninterested in the experiences of people of color. White Christian blindness in this country has been a problem of long standing, and represents the kind of ignorance that will always prove dangerous one way or another.

Second, Union Seminary was the pinnacle of American theological and activist effort shaped by the “social gospel.” But to Bonhoeffer the theological work seemed shallow. He was used to extensive, rigorous reading and study, well beyond what his fellow students seemed ready for. Still, he came to believe of Reinhold Niebuhr, under whom he chose to study that whole year, that his “sobriety and seriousness” were “irrefutable,” and Bonhoeffer took much encouragement from Niebuhr’s serious focus on “the real” in surrounding society.

In fact, that social gospel concern, expressed in the requirements of his course work, pushed him into neighborhood and church-based justice ministries in the city almost weekly. These experiences softened his criticism of American theology, as he saw it deliberately and truly engaged with the real suffering and injustice around; and it was trying to do so from a perspective of Biblical values even if not richly steeped in the history of theology. As his cousin would explain, “Something was missing from German theology … the grounding of theology in reality.” The author says, “The technical terminology faded steadily from his writing, giving way to a language more direct and expressive of lived faith.” We always need that.

And we always need this: “He … began to search the Christian and Jewish traditions for inspiration to peacemaking, dissent, and civil courage.”

This is a good biography, and timely, and a very good introduction to Bonhoeffer.

A Review of Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Charles Marsh. 2015. Vintage Books.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Contempt and Hate Sloshing Around Is A Huge Moral Issue.

If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,”
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?

Will he not repay everyone according to what they have done?
Many of my Republican friends would protest and say it isn’t true –
they don’t hate people, nor even hold them in contempt.
They love them.

They just wish they’d straighten up and … I don’t know what.
Not be poor?
Not be born into economically oppressed inner cities (or stagnating rural areas)?
Not grow up in an American subculture?
Not be persecuted?
Not be abused?
Talk like the white majority in whatever community they are in?
Go to church with them?
Don’t listen to weird music?
Don’t get arrested for things that white people are doing but don’t get arrested for?
I don’t know what they want, frankly. Maybe they just want to be comfortable in their self-esteem.

But some, of course, are quite willing to express it directly as contempt and are proud of it.

Sadly, if they are voting Republican, whatever the motive, they are putting lots of people in positions of power who, in the name of those who voted for them, are Continue reading

The Billionaires Win Big. What Next?

The billionaires won big in yesterday’s election, so the Party-That-Tends-To-Hurt-People got stronger.

But, as the hurt increases, the ‘little people’ (which seems to be most of us) will not blame that party.

They (we?) will dutifully follow the teaching of the billionaires (through, e.g. Fox News) and blame the other party, the Party-That-Frequently-Tries-To-Help People.

Do we need to abandon this dollar-dominated, greed-driven, manipulative foolishness? Maybe really get into something more Gandhian, or more ML Kingian, maybe something that would even be more Christian, more basic, more powerful? Or maybe get more of a hybrid, where the spiritual power of the one strategy for good alters the nature, and thus the effectiveness, of the other strategy for good.

I have to think about that.

Losing Gov Candidate says, “Do Justice, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly … ” (Micah 6:8)

Chuck Hassebrook (D-NE Governor candidate) closed out his campaign last night by quoting Micah 6:8.

“He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?”

Coming from him that is entirely credible because that’s how he has lived his entire life. And unlike others, he did not go into politics wealthy and he’s not coming out of it wealthy.

Capitalism: Does Anyone, Biblically, Have Authority to Interfere in Economic Matters?

A major theme of the Bible is that there is indeed a higher standard for public behavior than the preferences of the wealthy and powerful of this world.
I’ve experienced it a number of times – many of my Christian acquaintances can get so worked up with contempt and even hatred for their government. They often seem to have no respect at all for the idea of government interfering in people’s lives in any way – or at least not in well-off or successful people’s lives.

We've all heard it. Something like ...
Those attitudes are not actually capitalism. They are anarchism of a certain sort, or radical libertarianism, or tea-baggery.

And of course I am stating it in extreme terms. But I actually do hear it in those terms.

Aside from the fact that such radical anti-government attitudes are quite un-American in sentiment, there IS this question that bothers me.

Question 1: What are we going to do with Isaiah?

Many times in Isaiah (and other places in the Bible) there is a complaint like this one in Isaiah 1 Continue reading

When You Chop Down a Tree a Few Chips Must Fly / Gaza & Israel

This is from a powerful diary over at Daily Kos. It lists casualties of the Israeli efforts to subdue the Palestinians in two recent months. Her article adds some very helpful historical illustration and comment.

I do not ask that you read the lists. But do scroll through them; you’ll get the point.

Both lists span July 8, 2014 to August 13, 2014. And the people on both lists were just that, people. Living, breathing, dreaming people.

Operation Protective Edge Wood Chips From July 8 to August 13, 2014

Israeli Wood Chips
Majority military, mandatory conscription. Continue reading

When You Work On It It’s No Longer Impossible – “A Set of Problems to Solve, One After the Other”

Here’s the guy who did the (illegal) high-wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Center. Dare you think about the impossibe? – especially something impossible that badly NEEDS doing?

It’s impossible. But that would not stop me from considering it.
Interviewer: I assume that an illegal or clandestine wire-walk, or any other kind of performance involving a major public building, would be much more difficult today.

P.P. It would be impossible. But in my life I work on the impossible, so when you work on it it’s no longer impossible. It becomes a set of problems to solve one after the other. Obviously the world has changed. New York has changed. Human beings on earth have changed, and it’s impossible. But that would not stop me from considering it.

Walking on Air
Man on Wire
Philippe Petit