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.

learning from our errors

Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.

Matthew 3:8

John the Baptist (Baptizer) was preparing the way for the Messiah, Jesus, in the mission God gave him. A sea change was coming, and the people needed to be prepared. Most of these Israelites were desiring the end of the Roman occupation and rule. They wanted God to fulfill his kingdom promises. So that alone surely increased their willingness to listen to this unusual man in his dress and manner, tell them to get ready, that he was there to introduce them to the Messiah, no less. Hushed anticipation, and readiness to do whatever to be in line, in this blessing. But for too many, on their terms.

We need to understand something of that backdrop and context to bring it forward to today. We too have our expectations, or way of life we think is good, and from God, indeed God’s will, or at least we think his blessing on it. But we may have pretty much missed the boat. What if our conception of the Christian life is hit and miss, surely some overlap by the Spirit, but still falling short of what King Jesus has for us which is a kingdom crowned in suffering, in the way of the cross no less?

I want to be ultrasensitive to the seemingly smallest points in which I fail. Never to excuse them for an instant, but instead, to change, change, yes, change. In keeping with my professed repentance in wanting to follow Jesus, and not my own agenda.

That will hurt and be painful to work through at times. But that is surely a part of the change we need to be together more and more like Jesus in this world. Living solely in his kingdom. In and through Jesus.

what hill are you willing to die on?

Then [Jesus] called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Mark 8:34-9:1

There has been a big shaking going on in society for some time now, akin to the 1960s, and I say the true color of Christians is coming out in response to that. Just where people will take a stand, what hill they’re willing to die on. One could say that where people have been for the last several decades is now being confirmed and solidified.

The question I think we need to ask ourselves is simply what our priority is, what overrides everything else. What defines us, what factors into how we see everything. What hill are we willing to die on?

Jesus made it plain to his disciples what their first priority was to be. To simply follow him, taking their own crosses, to do what he was doing. And that meant to abide by his teachings, both the general aspect and the details in it.

That meant to repent of their ideas of what the coming kingdom of God should be. What Jesus brought was not what they wanted. For us today, we need to apply what Jesus taught and lived out to the current situation. Are we taken in by something other than God’s kingdom in Jesus?

This is especially difficult when those we more or less favor are in power. So I speak to my white evangelical friends here. I’m no longer in that fold, but I’ve been a part of that tradition for decades. Why do we put our confidence in any political stance, or somehow think it’s Christian? I mean American politics. Unfortunately there’s little or more likely no understanding of the politics of Jesus, or that the gospel is political, that in a true sense everything which God is about in the world is indeed political. By political I simply mean the ordering of life: how humans live together, and how humans live on earth.

Evangelicals put politics in a different category than their faith, and yet they insist that a certain American political stand is necessary because of their faith, or for whatever reason. They are willing to talk and talk and talk about that, which indeed gives you the impression that it’s indeed important, that it’s likely a hill they’re willing to die on.

Yes, a whole bunch of issues need to be considered in light of God’s revealed will, not just one or two. We do need in love to speak out on such issues. To try to listen and learn. To pray, and hopefully discern.

But we must beware of giving ourselves to something other than what our Lord calls us to give ourselves to. We have one Lord. Are we inadvertently and mistakenly being taken into something else? Even for good reasons? We must be careful. No political party of this world deserves such commitment from us. I’m not referring to the Christians who may serve as elected officials of a political party, though they too must be wary. But to the church at large. And we in our commitment as individual Christians, followers of Christ.

However we might vote, we follow only one Lord. One politic, that which is in Jesus and God’s kingdom in him. Not two. That’s impossible. We either follow Jesus all the way, or not at all. Not easy, but the Lord will help us and see us through as we endeavor to do this with others. As we take up our crosses, the hill by God’s grace that we are called to be willing to die on. In and through Jesus.

Christ’s victory in the world’s eyes

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 22-25

What if Jesus were present today? What if he showed up in today’s world in a rerun of his first appearing? What if he came for the first time into today’s setting? Would things be different? Would he be well received by the world elites- governing and even religious?

Back when Jesus did come, the cross was the means and method of execution. Only enemies of the state were executed. Jesus ended up being counted as an enemy of the state. Why?

Well, to begin with, what Jesus did flew right in the face of the Jewish ruling authorities who were religious and wanted nothing more than God to come and remove the Romans and fulfill the promises they had long awaited. Jesus comes and proclaims repentance from their way of thinking along with the kingdom of God. Not only contradictory to what they anticipated, but actually in opposition to it. If a Roman soldier asks you to carry his baggage one mile, do it for two miles. Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you.

And then Jesus’s modus operandi: He not only spent time with the lowlifes, but even seemed to enjoy their company. Completely scandalous. And Jesus broke all the rules. He paid no attention to cleansing laws. What on earth was he up to?!?

Even though Pilate wasn’t on board with the Jewish leaders in their determination to put an end to what Jesus was about, it wasn’t long before he and the Jewish ruler in a kind of monarch position, Herod, previously enemies, had actually become friends. Why? Well possibly because of their incredulity over this Jesus. Not because of the hate directed toward him by the leaders of Israel, but simply because Jesus was not only a puzzle to them, but someone not to be taken seriously at all, in fact maybe even a threat since what Jesus seemed to be proposing as king with a kingdom was indeed preposterous to the world, and maybe even a danger of some sort that they would do well to get rid of. After all, you can’t run a nation or empire that way. Maybe somehow someway this even got under their skin a bit, even if they didn’t take it all that seriously. An enigma for sure. Of course Jesus’s way did indeed press the buttons of the religious elite.

Would it be any different today? Though it’s a different setting, the core or heart remains the same. To some extent even the church has taken on the spirit and attitude of the state, of governing authorities. Power is valued in terms of force and might. The cross is not about a way of life, but for one’s salvation so they can get on with the normal pattern here on earth with their ticket for what follows afterward in the next life.

So no, I don’t think by and large Jesus would be treated any differently today. In fact I don’t think he would be recognized as Jesus at all by many, even by those who today name his name. The question would be, do they have his spirit? If indeed they do have the Spirit, then, even with much difficulty, they would come to recognize him. But do we have his Spirit when we follow the pattern of this age, and fall in line with that? That in itself is not of the Spirit, but of the world, the flesh and the devil.

What is different about your faith in Christ? Is it just a matter of living a better life, even of love, yet within the system of this world, as a participant in that? Even imagining that with effort and the right people in place, the system can be Christianized? Or is it in the way of Jesus? A way which makes no sense to the world. Refusing to participate in the world’s way of power, but embracing the power of God’s love in a world of hate. Following in the way of Jesus. Not just about preaching the cross, but also about living it out. In love, the God who is love. In and through Jesus.

what is the narrow way which only a few find?

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Matthew 7:13-14

The small gate and narrow road which only a few find is simply about being true followers of Christ. And with an ear to his teaching, in context: the Sermon on the Mount.

Many might have faith enough to be included in God’s salvation and kingdom in Christ. Just to have faith is no shoe in, though. Many believed in Jesus at one point, but turned against him. We should never be satisfied with simply just believing so that our after life is supposedly taken care of. That is not the faith required. Our faith might start small, and often does. We are all on a spiritual journey, for sure. But the faith Jesus desires is a faith of following him. The way of the cross; the Jesus way. In and through Jesus.

what does Jesus say? (not, what does the Bible say?)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Matthew 5:38-42

Ever since I prayed to know the Lord better, to know him at all it seemed to me, shortly thereafter I’ve been undergoing a slow revolution. It’s liberating, but difficult on a number of levels. One of them is to reject all the more what’s called a flat Bible. 

By a flat Bible, I mean the tendency to want to see a straight correlation between any passage and us today. At the same time there is some application we can receive from any given passage, even if it’s remote and indirect. But to get there, we Christians have to see everything in the context of what Jesus taught, and the revelation that Jesus brings in his fulfillment of all things. The difference that makes, and it does make a marked and even contrasting difference at certain points.

For example consider the woman caught in the act of adultery. Wasn’t the man there, too? But that’s another issue, yet relevant when you consider Jesus’s life and teaching. But to the point: Jesus rejected the Law’s prescription: stoning. Instead he tells the men present that whoever has no sin should cast the first stone. And we know what happened. Beginning with the oldest, they all departed. Then Jesus told the woman to go and sin no more (John 8:1-11). We know that Jesus ends up taking on himself all condemnation, guilt and sin heaped on him at the cross. And because of who he is through that takes on himself what we deserve, so that we’ll never have to receive that ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong, it is important what the Bible says. But as Christians we read every bit of Scripture in light of the revelation of Christ, God’s final word. We have to see everything in light of Christ’s teachings, and his life. It’s the way of the cross for us always, the way of love and forgiveness, the way of mercy and grace in the reality that justice is no longer something Christ followers have to satisfy. That is taken care of in Christ himself. 

All of that to say, this certainly doesn’t make it easy. Easier in a way in that we’re now hopefully walking more squarely in the way of Christ. But harder- given the world, the flesh and the devil. Even for Jesus that way was heaped with ridicule, scorn and eventually the abuse and thorns before the cross. That is the way for us as well.

Difficult to understand. Yes. We need the Spirit’s help. Even more difficult to live, though again through the Spirit we can begin to walk in these steps. As we seek to read and understand all of Scripture in the light of Jesus. In and through him.

the politics of Jesus followers

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.”

Luke 6:46-49

We live in a crazy time. Politics is front and center here in the United States, and that will more or less be so even after the upcoming election, but all the more now. And in the Christian tradition I’ve been a part of, it’s nearly assumed that a Christian will vote Republican due to abortion, and also because of another long list of supposed things the Republicans get right in contrast to the long list the Democrats get wrong. And if you challenge one bit of that, then you’re definitely outside the norm, and really can become something of an outsider. That reflects polls which indicate that political differences nowadays are more divisive than ever. 

Part of the problem in my opinion is that Christians see politics only in terms of the world, and fail to see the politics of Jesus at all, that there is such a thing. Broadly speaking, politics is just talking about a way of life, and how people live together. That unfolds from and within the kingdom of God in Jesus, and though not of this world, is indeed meant for this world. And Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 (click link for entire “sermon”) gives basics about that politic. It is centered in love for God from the love of God, followed by love for our neighbor as ourselves, love for each other in Christ, and love even for our enemies. But there are details in it. It specifies a new way of life, how we’re to live. 

It is premised on the idea that we as Christ followers belong to one Lord, and are part of one political entity: God’s kingdom come in Jesus. Yes, we have citizenship here in various nation-states. But our citizenship strictly speaking is in the heavenly kingdom, again meant for earth, but from another place.

All that to say something like this: Whatever our position is with regard to the politics of this world, here in the States: Democrat, Republican, or whatever else, it needs to be formed from what should be our central identity, from King Jesus and God’s kingdom come in him. I think that leaves us in a place where we just are not going to be sold on any politic this world has to offer. There will always be serious critique of it.

Our politic in Jesus is always going to be different and at odds with any politic of the world, because central to life for us is not only loving our neighbor as ourselves and loving our enemies, and even those two consistently lived will set us at odds with much of the politics of this world. But we’re also to carry our cross in following Jesus, be willing to be mistreated for Jesus’s sake, and out of love for all.

We need to see this politic as in place for us now, as Jesus followers. The politics of Jesus no less, and therefore the only true politic of all Jesus followers. In and through him.

Jesus says no

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Matthew 4:17

Recently I took a simple, perhaps oversimplified Enneagram test (#2). It came out “reformer” with a description which seemed apt. I found it freeing since I’ve always resisted resisting. I really dislike challenging the status quo, challenging others. I would rather just try to make things work the way they are. But often when I’ve opened my mouth, it’s to challenge something or another, hopefully gently for the most part. Though as I’m getting older I’m trying to be more quiet. It is freeing though to recognize that we’re wired a certain way, so that we don’t have to keep wishing we were someone else, or had this or that trait or gift. “It takes all kinds.”

Jesus was a reformer for sure, indeed he not only led a revolution, but was the revolution in and of himself. His message was to repent, and that wasn’t only about personal sins. The heart of that call to repentance was to say no to all else except God’s approaching kingdom in him, in King Jesus. So Jesus was saying no to their views of God’s kingdom, indeed to their own kingdoms.

That message echoes to our present day. Directly understood relevance for that day, but really just as relevant today. Anything we idolize and hold up as the ideal, whatever it might be. Jesus tells us to repent, to change our minds, to realize that the true light and life is in him, in God’s kingdom coming and present in him. Everything is to be judged in that light, and not in any other light.

I’m sure our reply, and this includes many evangelical Christians is that the world doesn’t work that way. We can’t live in and run the world according to Jesus, his life and teaching, for example, the Sermon on the Mount. So we’re telling Jesus, no. “No, that doesn’t work. I can only go so far and no farther.” And in doing so, we’re telling Jesus no. It’s not enough to say a little faith won’t hurt for life. It’s either all the way, or not at all.

That’s what Jesus was getting at. A difficult message for sure, even impossible apart from Jesus. But Jesus says no to all our imaginations of what we think we need, what our world needs, what the world needs. It’s either Jesus, his kingdom, which means the way of the cross not just for salvation, but for all of life. Or nothing at all. It’s up to us. Will we repent or not? A call I need to hear as much as anyone else. In and through Jesus.

what difference is there in Christianity???

I’ve been wondering lately about the Christian presence in the world. It’s in the headlines quite often lately, evangelical Christian leaders speaking out on politics. There’s much astir. You start to wonder if being a Christian involves a big emphasis on a particular brand of politics. And what you see and hear from political leaders seems to be the same air these Christians breathe.

I’ve also been wondering lately just where the Jesus community really is? You can go to any number of places and hear a good sermon, message, conversation, whatever they call it. And with worship music skillfully done. But is what’s being formed there Christian? What difference does it make? Is there any distinction between that and what we might find elsewhere in the world. Sometimes I’ve honestly wondered.

When Christians seem to indicate that everything is at stake like in the upcoming election, then I’m not seeing any difference. Christians seem to be just another power player. But if I can see people humbly trying to follow Christ, his words and example, if I see something of that, that’s when my despair begins to lift, and a little hope sets in.

The church is not supposed to be a power player in the world. It should be sensitive to issues especially when the lives and good of people are at stake. To speak up humbly yet firmly and resolutely on issues like racism along with other issues is certainly more than fine, but necessary. And there is rightfully what’s called “the politics of Jesus” (see Matthew 5-7, etc.).

There’s only one difference in Christianity, one and really no more. And if other things become prominent, then that’s a sign that difference might be all but lost. That one difference is Christ. Not just Christ and Christ alone as in saving us. But Christ present with us in all of our humility and brokenness. Christ present to us for each other in the church, and for the blessing of the world in doing good works of love. Jesus. Read the gospel accounts along with the rest of the New Testament, and this will become clear.

Christ is the difference. Period. Nothing more, nothing less. Along with the distinctions that will follow. There might be plenty of rubbish to clear out of the way.

peacemaking in times of strife and division

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.

Matthew 5:9

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

James 3:17-18

If there’s ever a time during my lifetime when we need the kind of peacemakers Jesus and James were talking about, it’s today. The 1960’s were a challenging time as well. But peacemaking is always vitally important. People are often on edge, and it doesn’t take much for them to become distraught, debilitated, at least distracted from what they have to do. We know this ourselves, since we experience the same thing.

First of all we need to be settled in on the peace God has for us in Christ. It’s a peace through the salvation of the cross, to be lived out in life in the way of the cross, the way of Jesus. We think of the cross in terms of salvation, but we also need to think of it in terms of life, all of life, our own life lived out from day to day on earth. We are in continual need of forgiveness which comes through the cross. But we also are to be continually forgiving others, each other, even our enemies. We would hope that everyone would repent, but if we truly forgive the wrongdoing of others, that might help them be moved by mercy, and repent. The point that Jesus and James, the Lord’s half brother were getting at here is that peacemaking should be something we practice for the good of others.

During the current time in the world with the pandemic, and political unrest, we certainly all have our opinions. We won’t think precisely alike. That’s important to keep in mind, because peacemaking is not really about getting everyone on the same page to think alike. Instead it’s helping people who think entirely differently, and disagree on possibly serious matters to get along, to accept one another. There is something more important at stake than most of the things humans fight over. But there’s also the necessary shuffling needed if humans are to live well together. There’s no question that some matters are serious, I think of racism, and respect for all of life from the womb to the tomb. But to see our way forward to hopefully a better solution, at least as far as Jesus and James are concerned is not strife, conflict, and maybe out and out war. Instead it’s to bring peace which hopefully brings enough stability into a situation, that people can live together constructively, and hopefully find some harmony.

I know by experience, many years of it, that it’s not easy being a peacemaker when we’re not at peace ourselves, maybe with ourselves or something else. I am learning that I have to discipline myself to live in peace, to refuse to give into the strife in front of me, or even in me. Instead to seek peace both with myself and others. That means I’m willing to submit as in accept some things I won’t like or even agree with. We can’t control others, and if we could, would that be good? Clearly not, if we consider our own lives, our own struggle, and how often we’re mistaken.

I write this with the goal of living more in it. I believe the Lord has helped me to take big steps forward in this in the last months partly out of perceived necessity, and now more and more hopefully out of the conviction that this is what a Jesus follower is to be like, and my desire to be a Jesus follower. So I’m working both on understanding this, and living it out. I have much to learn, but hopefully will continue to make this a major priority of my life. In and through Jesus.