thinking about Bonhoeffer in today’s situation

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis shortly before the end of the war because of his resistance against Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich. He saw through Hitler and at least as early as 1933 criticized what was happening in Germany, specifically the rise of authoritarianism as seen in emphasis on submission to one leader. Bonhoeffer found himself at odds with the German (Lutheran) church early on. And even with the Confessing Church which had split from it, but later mostly caved in to Hitler’s demand for full allegiance. Even my tradition, the Mennonites in Germany at that time gave into that demand, offering full support to Hitler and that government, even couching it with Christian language.

For Bonhoeffer, faith and God being in the center were assumptions from which he operated, everything else subsidiary to that. Bonhoeffer was not in the least an evangelical, if you’re thinking about today’s American evangelical. I would say not even close. But you have to start reading his material including his letters to his good friend Eberhard Bethge. You’ll find thoughts about religionless Christianity, as well as his feeling more at home with non-Christians than Christians. Bonhoeffer was certainly more than disillusioned by the Christians of his day, and didn’t see in their faith any following of Christ whatsoever. Remember that in one of Bonhoeffer’s seminal works, Discipleship or The Cost of Discipleship he commented extensively on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, and wrote that when Christ calls someone, he bids them to come and die.

If Bonhoeffer were alive today, I think he would look at what’s happening in the United States with a similar concern which he had early on in the 1930’s in Germany. You have the rise of neo-Nazism in the US and elsewhere, white supremacist, and nationalistic groups. And you have the majority of white evangelicals in the United States backing the regime, I call it, which these groups support. This is not a good time. Christians are sullying the name of Christ today to do what Bonhoeffer said the German church was all about doing in his day: preserving themselves. How often do we hear today Christians up in arms over their perceived loss of religious freedom to the point that if it ever would happen, people would think they were crying “Wolf” again. And their concern for the possible loss of their status and place in their world, as minorities increasingly are influential in America, actually being the reason the recent (2020) US presidential election turned out as it did. And speaking a lot about reversing Roe v Wade, which may or may not happen. Remember that Hitler made the performing of abortion a capital punishment offense. That certainly didn’t make Hitler “pro-life,” although it would seem in today’s world that he would be called “pro-life” for that reason.

Bonhoeffer deserves a careful reading, as well as reading what historians have gathered about him. Do avoid any versions which don’t depict him as he truly was. He was complex, not easily understood, or pinned down. Some would consider him to the left of Karl Barth. But no doubt a man in whom the Spirit of Christ was alive and active. And who lived out his convictions even through his own mistakes and the awful circumstances of his time to the end when by grace he embraced the way of Christ fully. I write this far from being any expert on Bonhoeffer, but as one who sees his writing and work as more than worth considering given the time and circumstances in which we live.

true religion today

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

Amos 5:21-24

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:26-27

It is a sad time, and a difficult one indeed, worldwide. With the pandemic, and all that has swirled around that, and now with the murder of another black person at the hands of a white person, even one who is supposed to enforce the laws of the land. There’s little wonder over the reaction that has taken place, terribly mistaken as it is, from years and years of pent up frustration and anger and loss of hope.

The anger on all sides is nearly overwhelming. You have Christians on the religious right holding the line steady on abortion being the evil of the day, and too often minimizing other evils, in my opinion, though not always. Then you have Christians on the religious left who too often it seems to me think that a political change can solve the problem. I don’t deny at all that political process and change can’t make a difference.

But what both Amos and James are getting at demands more than religious services with lots of words on how to fix the problem. What seems needed is an underlying passion for justice, and a heart set on making a difference. This goes well beyond politics, how one thinks in terms for example of American politics: left, right, moderate, whatever. It doesn’t leave those behind, and I think there can be good points in them all. But what is at the heart for Christians and for the church is nothing more or less than what Amos and James were getting at.

What is needed is a change of heart that can lead to the other changes needed. And this should be seen in the church, in its care for each other, and for its community and beyond. And it must touch the troubles of the day with the healing hand of Jesus. Our politics of this world should not even enter into the picture. There should be the kingdom of God influence which permeates all we say and do. “The politics of Jesus.” When people look at the church, they should not be able to figure out what American or other national political persuasion we’re of. They should instead think something like, “Wow, these people really love each other and everyone. They care about the poor, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, pregnant women, the unborn, the born, everyone.

I am confident that’s already true across the board. But that’s not seen when we make a big deal out of our American political stance. All that does is alienate others. We should not care ourselves one bit as to where we do stand politically. That’s all beside the point. The wise words of Abraham Lincoln can help us here:

Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.

None of us at all are on God’s side. But yes we can be and are, and we need to live accordingly, only in and through Jesus.


developing an awareness of and sensitivity to systemic evil

There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court
and detest the one who tells the truth.

You levy a straw tax on the poor
and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.

There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times,
for the times are evil.

Seek good, not evil,
that you may live.
Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,
just as you say he is.
Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy
on the remnant of Joseph.

Therefore this is what the Lord, the Lord God Almighty, says:

“There will be wailing in all the streets
and cries of anguish in every public square.
The farmers will be summoned to weep
and the mourners to wail.
There will be wailing in all the vineyards,
for I will pass through your midst,”
says the Lord.

Amos 5:10-17

We are very much aware of the evil of abortion. The supposed woman’s right to choose. What about the evil of “white privilege?” The only ones unaware of that are many of us whites who don’t face what African-Americans face here on a daily basis. And then there’s the poor. Yes, there are programs to help them, and of course we should do what we can as well. But all too often the system is stacked against them. Like being hired in places not full time, and not much over minimum wage. So that they are on their own as far as healthcare. And if you make a bit too much, you’re not covered. And often the poor don’t do what’s considered basic healthcare such as a biannual or even annual trip to the dentist, not to mention an annual checkup with a doctor. Supposedly healthcare is something people should figure out themselves, not provided as in every other first world nation. Not to mention that they don’t have a living wage. Of course everyone has to be held accountable, and there are no easy answers for everything. And climate change caused by human consumption, greed, misplaced values impacts especially poor nations and the poor.

I consider all of this, and there’s surely more, as nothing less than systemic evil. I’m tired of government being considered evil. And corporations are not? Please. They sold us down the river during the last recession, and we had to bail them out. Main Street bailing out Wall Street with taxes. And our nation continues to spiral into further and further debt funding the military with more money than the next several nations combined. So that the national debt it has to pay will soon exceed what is spent on the military. And yet we don’t have enough funds to provide needed healthcare to the poor and middle class, the latter losing their homes sometimes because they became ill or have some disease, lost their job, and didn’t have adequate healthcare insurance, which by the way, they couldn’t well afford in the first place.

All of this is chalked down to politics and then summarily dismissed. But it’s not at all about politics. And as far as I’m concerned the Democrats overall are just as guilty as the Republicans. I don’t even care to get into the political aspect of it, with all the finger pointing, and white washing that goes on. Washington is broken no doubt. And government with the political impasse is in crisis.

But that’s in a way neither here nor there with me. What we as Christians need to address in word and deed insofar as we can along with much prayer are matters that have to do with loving our neighbors as ourselves. And loving our enemies as well, by the way. But Jesus was talking to his disciples, to be sure.

It is all messy, what to make of what’s going on, and trying to figure out just what our role should be as Christians, and as the church in relation to the state. It’s a tall order. But we shouldn’t be shy at expressing our thoughts and concerns. We shouldn’t be known as either Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, progressives, liberals, or whatnot. When people look at us they should have trouble pinning us down in ways like that. But they should know that whatever our mistakes, we are committed followers of Christ, and the church, not at all subservient to the state. Except to pray for government leaders, pay taxes, participate in the democratic process as we’re led to, as we choose, and wish the best for everyone.

We can’t cut the prophets out of scripture, in so doing cutting a large part of Jesus out, too. We must echo them. But always in love, along with justice and mercy always together. As we pray for God’s kingdom to come, and his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. In and through Jesus.

what does it mean to be “pro-life”?

For a good number of us in the United States, the recent video of the Planned Parenthood official giving details about organs to be used for donation highlights for us the evil of abortion. Best case scenario in terms of the videos themselves, we consider this to be the taking of human life, the death of a baby in a womb which otherwise would have come to birth.

Last evening a Facebook share from an esteemed friend who seems often conservative in their politics, I found striking (as well as a bit surprising), and I shared it since I’m more in line with this way of thinking:

I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would you think that I don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there.

That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.

—Sister Joan Chittister
Benedictine Nun, Author and Speaker

Kirk Whalum on Instagram

I understand profoundly that there is a basic problem and issue with this statement. I know friends who are conservative Republican, some libertarian –and there are surely many– who do care about the poor. And many good works come from such. So this statement is a non-starter with them. And arguably the entire discussion may fall prey to the political issue before it even gets off the ground, which would be a shame.

What we need to grapple with is just what we’re facing as a nation and the factors involved. Of course the sexual revolution of the 1960s preceeded by a morality based on majority opinion with the blip being the needed resolve and sacrifice during World War II is undoubtedly an issue here. People think they can engage in sexual activity with no consequences as in no births. And the lie that the fetus is nothing more than a woman’s tissue in her body which she should be allowed to do with as she pleases. Of course there is mercy and forgiveness for all who have had abortions in and through Jesus.

There is the issue of how the poor should be helped. Some insist that the government should not be involved at all. In the United States, “we the people” are supposed to be the government. I’m afraid that has been no longer the case for some time due to “special interests,” the lobbyists, and to get more specific: corporations and banks. It seems to me that politics too often has become as much or more about getting wealthy as in serving the interests of the people who elected the politician.

But to the issue: I would argue that churches can’t do it all. And in fact overall seem to be doing not enough in their own neighborhoods. Many conservatives would likely argue that if the government would step aside and fulfill its calling, limited to Romans 13, than the church could step in along with private entities to help the poor. I think it’s not a question of either/or, but and/both. It seems to me that God judges every human society on how its people treat each other and especially how they treat the poor. Certainly for the church helping the poor among us as well as in society is a high priority on what we’re called to do.

If the poor are helped, then arguably there would be less abortions, which historically since Roe V Wade has supposedly been the case. And not only should the women in difficult places be helped so that they can give birth to the baby, but they should be helped to give the child a life in which the needs of the child along with opportunities to do well in life are in place. Encouraging as well, responsible choices on the part of everyone.

When I hear of pro-life as in some organization or candidate, I know it refers to abortion. That’s good, but not good enough. As someone aptly shared with me recently, if the money and effort to get “pro-life” candidates elected and Roe V Wade overturned would have instead been directed to efforts to help curb and eliminate underlying factors contributing to abortion, we may have reduced actual abortions significantly.

At any rate we should have this conversation. Even if we agree in the end to disagree. As followers of Jesus and as his church, we have the same goal: to see lives saved and people flourishing through the gospel to the glory of God.

the death penalty

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death yesterday for his horrific, murderous act at the Boston Marathon of 2013. There is no doubt that he deserves such a sentence. The question remains, what position are we as followers of Christ to have and advocate on such matters? Many of us claim to be “pro-life” in our opposition to abortion. But are we pro-life across the board?

The state has its God-given place in the mess of this world, to keep a necessary, provisional order in place. It invariably exceeds its bounds, but death may occur in its just function, even as it tries to avoid such. Execution is an entirely different matter.

What place does the cross of Jesus have in this discussion, with reference to his death? What role did that death play? And with reference to what happened yesterday? I would say (and I said it on Facebook last evening): Death penalty, no, period. Jesus’ once for all sacrifice is for the sins of the world, all sin, including the terrible act of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. He should be confined, hopefully redeemed through Jesus. Jesus’ death ends the need for execution.

We say that something new is in place in the world through Jesus’ resurrection. Nothing less than new creation, but still in this old creation which eventually is to be made brand new. Old things, not just in personal lives, but systemically are passing away now, new things are being set in place in and through Christ.

The church doesn’t have to apologize to the world for the new face in Jesus it brings to the world. Which contradicts so much that the world stands for. We have the better way, yes indeed, the best way in and through Jesus, a way that comes not from this world politic and order, but is for this world politic and order. But a way that can never be co-opted into this world system. Yet at the same time bringing accountability and ultimately judgment.

Jesus bore the sins of the world as well as the guilt of the world on that cross. While murderers may well have to be kept in prison, their lives should be spared with the hope that they will have a change of heart and life through the redemptive work of Jesus on that cross.

Perhaps the Apostle Paul should have turned himself in to authorities for at the very least his complicity in the death of Christians such as Stephen. He could have had his day proclaiming the gospel he had embraced before his just excecution. By and by Paul was executed, tradition says beheaded, for his witness to the gospel. Should the Auca Indian (I don’t have his name) who appeared to us in chapel at Our Daily Bread Ministries where I work turn himself into authorities for execution? He was among those who with their own hands murdered Jim Elliot and company, missionaries who were there to share the gospel with them. Afterward their wives returned to continue that witness of the gospel and nearly the entire tribe was converted to Christ. Today the grandchildren of those who were murdered call him grandpa, and God’s love and joy radiate from his being.

No. Abortion is wrong and so is capital punishment. We advocate mercy over judgment even for the state. Because in and through Jesus the possibilities of his redeeming work know no bounds. Even while in this evil world we await the day when final judgment and salvation comes at King Jesus’ return.

against abortion

All of life is precious, from the womb to the grave. When a society loses moral grounding, or somehow violates the moral basis on which it has existed (and what society sooner or later doesn’t, or is completely without fault?), then it can damage its basis for a societal existence or normality. Sadly in our society, life is cheap. At the least the life in the womb.

Abortion is the taking of human life. Of course there is always free and full forgiveness for all who confess their sin certainly including abortion, in and through Christ.

The church in the early centuries not only was opposed to abortion, but helped women who were pregnant, and promoted adoption of unwanted children. That good tradition continues to this day. There is some complexity in the thinking of the early church on this, but not in terms of accepting abortion as a viable option as some hold today. The church to be true to the teaching of scripture must uphold the sanctity of all human life, beginning in the womb, I take it from the time of conception. And must see all of life as precious both in precept and practice.

loving our neighbor as ourselves (politics, health care and abortion)

A question: Is politics and political considerations a place at all for the consideration of loving our neighbor as ourselves? This is the second commandment like the first and greatest commandment, to love God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind. And yet when I hear politics expressed by Christians, it often doesn’t have anything to do with this, at least not directly.

Political considerations are complex and a quagmire if one completely sells out to this or that position. It seems to me that the only thing we’re to be sold out to as followers of Jesus is the grace and kingdom of God come in him. We have to be careful not to buy totally into any ideology apart from that, I would think.

I am struggling lately on the health care issue. Not because I don’t have a rather clear-cut idea of what I ought to do now, concerning it. Nor because I don’t have a view. I have both, even if humble and not set in stone on either side. In other words, even though I think I may be basically pointed in the right direction, I also think I have plenty to learn, and that there’s plenty of room for improvement as to how it should be done. As well as thinking that we have to be careful in this present existence and world not to expect too much of anything, and to expect problems, sometimes serious, at nearly every turn.

I believe people of their own free will should help the poor. But I also believe that any good society will have a systemic push in that direction. The poor were helped with laws in Israel’s theocracy in the Old Testament, such as leaving some of the harvest behind so that they could glean what was left. And the debts being canceled in the year of Jubilee. No society is a good one if it’s all about everyone looking out for number one. Or even simply for their families. As if personal responsibility, as important as it is, trumps everything else. It doesn’t. In fact what trumps everything else, once again, is what Jesus said is the first and greatest commandment and the second like it: To love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.

Now how that is worked out in the politics of the world certainly can differ. Political entities can and should help encourage private donations. Unless one is libertarian and believes government should not be involved in much of anything at all, except perhaps the military in the national and police in the state and local levels. With societal matters looked at in a different matter.

As for myself, I think we should push for certain basic justices in society at large through government, one of them being universal health care. Christians should raise their voice to enact good legislation. And we need to live with both the inevitable imperfection of what will be incomplete with sometimes misguided laws in place. We must remember that just because a law is the law of the land such as abortion, that we as Christians live by another law, that of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount. So that we don’t support abortion. But even on that issue, we work to reduce their number with the hope that they will someday be all but gone, even in this society.  For those who want to cut them off completely now, a worthy goal (and I applaud and would want to help where I can in that), there must also be set in place policies which help prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place, as well as helping those who are pregnant, especially the poor and those who are young to carry their babies to full term. Making adoption more accessible to good families would be one important help to that end.

For me it’s not a case of either/or, but and/both. We need to give generously and wisely in helping the poor in our world and in the world at large. And we need a society which not only encourages that, but has laws in place to foster and actualize helping the poor. For example to have the basic health insurance everyone else has. The “Health Savings Account” pushed by the Republicans may be a no-brainer for personal and family considerations (even as it may not help the cause for the poor, who could not benefit much if at all from such an option). But we in Jesus are called to a different consideration and ethic entirely. A love which embraces our neighbor as ourselves. Which is particularly concerned for the poor, for those in need. Even as we continue to pray: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

N.T. Wright on abortion and capital punishment

You can’t reconcile being pro-life on abortion and pro-death on the death penalty. Almost all the early Christian Fathers were opposed to the death penalty, even though it was of course standard practice across the ancient world. As far as they were concerned, their stance went along with the traditional ancient Jewish and Christian belief in life as a gift from God, which is why (for instance) they refused to follow the ubiquitous pagan practice of ‘exposing’ baby girls (i.e. leaving them out for the wolves or for slave-traders to pick up).

Mind you, there is in my view just as illogical a position on the part of those who solidly oppose the death penalty but are very keen on the ‘right’ of a woman (or couple) to kill their conceived but not yet born child…

From where many of us in the UK sit, American politics is hopelessly polarized. All kinds of issues get bundled up into two great heaps. The rest of the world, today and across the centuries, simply doesn’t see things in this horribly oversimplified way…

While we’re about it, how many folk out there were deeply moved both by the reading of the 9/11 victim names and by the thought that if they’d read the names of Iraqi civilians killed by your country and mine over the last ten years we’d have been there for several days?

N.T. Wright, American Christians and the death penalty, Washington Post.

For N.T. Wright’s take on what is “the big moral issue of our time”, see the last half of this interview by the National Catholic Reporter.