Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Leadership From Below

Yesterday’s post generated a thoughtful comment, and that comment spurred another thought in my mind. “Iron sharpens iron . . . ” so the wise preacher said. So, indeed, it does.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born into what could arguably be called one of the most aristocratic families in Germany. His father was a leading psychiatrist,  both of his parents came from aristocratic, if not regal, blood lines. Growing up Bonhoeffer was keenly aware of the primacy of position this placed him, and there are clear statements where he admits this was troublesome to him.

In the church struggle that Bonhoeffer was so deeply involved, he quickly realized that it was not the ecclesiastical aristocracy that was going to stand up against Hitler and defend Christ and the church. It was going to be the masses, the people in the pews, the “commoners.” Time and again he begged the leaders of the German churches to take a stand against the Nazis, but they were concerned about their position, they were concerned about the legal structures that existed in Germany,  they were concerned about finances, they were concerned about everything but what they should have been concerned about – the purity of the church. The support Bonhoeffer (and his compatriots) received came from below – the members of the church that, according to church laws then current, really had no official voice. When the pastors lost their income (the pastors of the Lutheran and United churches were supported by the government, who paid their salaries out of taxes levied against all citizens), the church members stepped up. When the Gestapo closed seminaries and threatened churches, the members opened other doors of education and worship. Bonhoeffer learned what it was to lead “from below.” It confirmed for him what he had  always been uneasy about – aristocracy comes from blood lines, but genuine Christian obedience comes from the heart.

In congregations all across the religious spectrum today, and certainly within the Churches of Christ, there is the “aristocracy” that is concerned about everything except what they should be concerned about. Politics, money, power, even social issues such as abortion and gun rights can co-opt a congregation and leave its members floundering. I do not want to be some “Pollyanna” or “Dorothy” and think that we can click our heels together three time and return back to Kansas. But, hopeless romantic that I am, I do believe that there are Bonhoeffers and Bethges and Niemoellers* out there who are willing to risk their reputations and even lives for the sake of the church (Martin Niemoeller was a U-Boat captain in WWI, he received an Iron Cross for his service. He spent WWII in Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp.)

Let us learn how to lead from below.

*I apologize to the historians and Niemoeller legacy, I know that his name is spelled with an unlaut over the “o,” but I cannot figure out how to put one there. Actually, Bonhoeffer’s family name was originally spelled with an umlaut over the second “o,” but the spelling had changed by the time he was born. Seeing as how my family name was in all probability spelled “Smyth” or even “Smythe” at one time, I can relate to the vagaries of generational name shifts.

When Your Sacred Cow is Gored

I believe that one of the real “acid” tests for our profession of faith in Christ comes when one of our “Sacred Cows” is gored. By that I mean a cherished belief is questioned, a matter of absolute life and death is declared to be nothing more than mere opinion. Let me illustrate with three examples, one from Scripture, and two from Christian history.

The first is the well-known conversion of the Pharisee Saul to the disciple Paul. Saul was convinced with every fiber of his body that the sect of the Nazarenes had to be extinguished. So convinced, in fact, that he devoted his life (or at least a major part of it) to the persecution of that sect. Then, on the road to Damascus, Saul learned that this mission was, in fact, directly opposite of what he thought it was. In fact, he learned that his prior life as a Pharisee was the false religion that he believed the Christian Way to be. His “sacred cow” was gored to death. He spent the remainder of his life proclaiming this Jesus of Nazareth to be the Son of God, and called all men to accept that Jesus as both their savior from sin and Lord of their life.

The first example from history would be the combined efforts of Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, and their many co-workers. Both of the Campbells and Stone were raised in and promoted the Presbyterian (Calvinist) interpretation of Scripture. At varying points in their lives, the Campbells, Stone, and others had this “sacred cow” gored. To their everlasting credit they made the decision to follow Scripture where Scripture led them, and they allowed that “cow” of denominational creedalism to pass away.

The second of my historical examples is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German theologian educated in the most liberal of theological universities, and the heir of the other major church reformer, Martin Luther. In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Bonhoeffer had his theological “sacred cow” gored, and he would eventually suffer death as a result of his passionate efforts to reform and renew the German church.

What did Saul turned Paul, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer all share in common? Not a theological background – Saul was a Jew, the Campbells and Stone were Calvinist Presbyterians, Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran. Not a historical epoch – Saul died in the mid first century AD, the Campbells and Stone in the mid 19th century, and Bonhoeffer in the mid 20th century. Not geography – Saul in Palestine, the Campbells and Stone in America and Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany. What united these pioneers of faith?

Perhaps many things could be listed, but the one thing that stands out to me is their willingness to be open to the Word of God as it was revealed to them. Saul (Paul) had a miraculous revelation of Christ, the Campbells and Stone were caught up in the fires of the Second Great Awakening, Bonhoeffer was caught up in an entirely different kind of fire. The biblical Saul, the ante-bellum Restorers and the Nazi resister Bonhoeffer were faced with unique and world-changing situations, and each responded to the call of Scripture in almost the exact same manner: they listened to the Word of God and rejected their former beliefs, even up to and (in the case of Saul and Bonhoeffer) including the sacrifice of their own lives.

These all ascended by climbing lower.

I don’t think our Christian mettle is proved when we sit in an auditorium and hear a sermon, the content of which we have heard hundreds of times before, and with with we agree completely. We are not proven to be disciples of Christ when we demand that every word that we hear, or read, comes from a “sound” gospel preacher (whatever in the world that means). We do not “study to show ourselves approved” when we never allow ourselves to be challenged or have any of our “sacred cows” gored.

I am thankful for all the faithful preachers and teachers who have been influential in my life. I am especially thankful for those who have demonstrated to me the ability, and in fact the necessity, of the strength of character to have my own “sacred cows” gored, so that I can decide if the voice I am following is that of the Good Shepherd, or that of the accuser of mankind.

May we all be blessed with that strength of character!

 

June 6, 1944

There is a beautiful phrase in the book of Hebrews, tucked neatly in the author’s paean to those heroes of faith so vast that he could not name them. He wrote, as the section drew to its close, “. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

On this, the anniversary of the great allied invasion of Normandy, I cannot help but meditate on that phrase.

I think of the thousands of young lives lost that day – American, British, Canadian (and others) – on the sea and in the air. I think of their resolute composure. They were not fearless – but they overcame their fear with the realization that their mission, what they were tasked to do, was so much more honorable than the goal of their enemy that they set aside their fear in order to meet the challenge.

“. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

I think of the commanders, those in the field and those well behind the lines. They knew the losses would be catastrophic. Maybe they were not fully aware of the carnage that would meet the Americans on Utah beach, but they knew General Rommel was in charge of the defenses. I cannot imagine the weight that rests upon the shoulders of a man who must send other men into the face of withering gun fire or anti-aircraft shells. I wonder about their conscience. They were tasked with a mission, and the mission would cost lives. Many lives. What goes through the mind of a man who looks into the eyes of young men who, within a few short hours, will offer the greatest sacrifice?

“. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

I think of the medics and the chaplains who tried to save the wounded and who gave comfort to the dying. What do you say to a young boy from Kansas who, up until a few days ago, had never seen an ocean and now, thousands of miles away from home, will never see another wheat field? How do you give spiritual comfort in a battlefield that resembles the mouth of hell?

“. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

I think of those who piloted the transport craft ferrying the soldiers to the beaches, and the airplane pilots who carried the paratroopers over the drop zones. Many of them would not survive either. The C-47 drop planes were supposed to bring their planes over the drop zones at 1,000 feet. For those who do not understand, in terms of firing anti-aircraft guns 1,000 feet is the equivalent of a knife fight. Yet, many would make the same trip, over water and through the air, ferrying soldiers, retrieving wounded, and dropping supplies.

“. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

I question whether the United States could win another such war. I do not doubt our soldiers and sailors one little bit. I stand in awe of their willingness to serve, even if I deeply question the civilian commanders who blindly and stupidly send them into battle. But I simply do not believe in the moral fabric of our American culture anymore. We are a nation of narcissists and cowards. We hide behind our “rights” and our “freedoms” and we no longer have the strength as a people to shoulder our responsibilities. A pathetic little coward who cannot even stand on two feet during the playing of the national anthem is regarded as being “brave” and a “hero” by many. His disrespect for those who have served this country and have given him the freedom to spout his hatred is beyond repugnant – but such is the time in which we live.

Cowardice is called bravery, hatred is called love; respect is called bigotry.

When the United States collapses (when, not if), will we look back on those young men who gave their lives on June 6, 1944 as the high point of our civilization?

“. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

I try to honor the sacrifice of those young men every day, by living according to the highest standards given to us in Scripture. I know I fail all too often – but their memory still haunts me.

May we all aspire to live lives worthy of their sacrifice. May their deaths not be in vain.

The Bible’s Greatest Silence . . . and the Church’s Loudest Cry

I don’t know what got me started on this, but something dawned on me the other day. The Bible says absolutely nothing about a topic that, you would think from the amount of ink (and pixels) it receives, is the most important subject in the entire canon. That subject is making the message of the Bible relevant, or “contextualizing” it, to the culture to which it is spoken. You can search from Genesis to the maps in the back of your Bible and you just will not find God telling his prophets (or authors) to make sure they write, and speak, so as not to offend or criticize their audience. Yet, again, you would think that the greatest offense of the church in the twenty-first century is doing just that.

I guess I started thinking about this because in my daily Bible reading I am reading through Isaiah and Jeremiah. Both of these prophets are just brutal when it comes to pillorying their opponents, the idolaters. Or, if you would like, read Ezekiel and see what he thinks of those who say they are married to God and yet sleep with other gods. Keep going and see how Micah, Amos, Hosea, and the other “minor” prophets deal with apostasy, idolatry, and social injustice. I think Amos calling the aristocratic ladies of Israel a bunch of “fat heifers” (in the West Texas translation of the Bible) was a brilliant stroke of political correctness (not!).

Yet, in today’s limp-wristed, namby-pamby world of emotionally insecure snowflakes, such language is just atrocious (see what I did there?). Preachers have to be “culturally sensitive” lest they be accused of being “tone deaf,” “judgmental,” and “unfeeling.” Grrrr. If you remove all the “tone deaf, judgmental, and unfeeling” sections out of the Bible, what are you left with? Remember Jesus called his opponents a bunch of snakes? I am not suggesting we today have the same kind of clairvoyance that Jesus had, but honestly . . . to think that he never offended anyone is just ludicrous.

But, but, but – what about Paul and the Athenians, you ask? Okay – let’s go there. First, Paul was invited to speak at the Areopagus because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection, not because he was espousing Plato and Aristotle. Second, it did not take Paul long at all before he got to the point about God’s judgment and the need for the Athenians to repent. And finally, while he did have some success in Athens, Luke leads us to believe that the majority of Paul’s audience either mocked or just ignored him. The problem was not Paul – it was the Athenian refusal to hear God’s word.

God never berates his spokesmen (and women) because they do not “contextualize” their message. In fact, it is the very opposite. God only blames the hearer, not the preacher, for unbelief. Such audiences have “ears to hear, but do not hear, and eyes to see, but do not see.” If the message is God’s message, then the responsibility is on the hearer, not the preacher, for acceptance. God never  reprimanded Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel or any other prophet because the people’s ears were plugged up or because their hearts were hard as stone.

I don’t think today’s problem in the church is that we do not contextualize the message.

I think the problem today is we don’t believe the message ourselves – so why should the world think any different?

No King but Caesar

In my daily Bible reading today I came across this phrase (John 19:15). In their zeal to protect their position and have Jesus executed, the chief priests uttered one of the most, if not the most, blasphemous statements recorded in Scripture. I believe John wanted his readers to hear the irony. They were trying to force Pilate’s hand by making him choose between Jesus and Caesar. They wanted Pilate to know they stood firmly with Caesar, and if he chose Jesus, then he would be committing treason. And in so doing, they denied the God they claimed to worship.

As I read and and listen and ponder the discussions involving our national politics I fear the church is sinking to the level of the chief priests. Just consider – the Chief Priests were the visible connection between the faith of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and later Moses and David and all the prophets toward God. They maintained the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly worship in the Temple. They were the mediators between the nation of Israel and God. And yet, when their position was challenged, when they feared losing their power, they did not defer to God for their protection, but to a Roman emperor. The death of the Son of God did not matter so long as they maintained their grip on power – and undoubtedly the physical benefits that were attached to their position.

And so today, when challenged by economic problems, or political problems, or ethical problems, the church is not responding with the message of the gospel – it is responding by clinging to the Constitution or the Bill of Rights or some undefinable right or freedom. When we do that we are simply and plainly repeating the cry of the Chief Priests. Jesus is on trial each and every time we are faced with a choice between the way of the cross or the way of the world, and by appealing to some form of human government or secular philosophy we betray our Lord and savior.

When Jesus confronted the disciples with a particularly hard teaching, whether it was stated or not, a question was attached – do you want to follow the world, or do you want to follow me? On one such occasion Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go -you have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:67) Even though his faith was imperfect, Peter got the point. Once you commit to following Jesus, everything else pales in significance.

When we confess that Jesus is the Lord of our life, when we confess that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died to set us free, we are making a profound political statement. That statement is somewhat hidden in our language, but in the first century the word Lord was attached to only one person – the Roman emperor. To call Jesus Lord was to make a politically subversive – read treasonous – statement. It could, and sometimes did, result in the death of the one making the statement. A person did not make that confession lightly. It had radical implications for the way one lived his or her subsequent life.

Today, when a person says they can be a Christian if their constitutional rights are protected, if certain laws are passed or are not passed, if a certain political party is in the seat of power, if the tax code is changed to their benefit, if they are allowed to write or say or protest, if they can benefit from the system of supply-side economics, or any one of a dozen other ifs, then what they are saying is that there is something that stands between them and Christ. They are saying they have no king but Caesar.

On the other hand, the apostles had no right to bear arms, they had no right to free speech, they had no right of a fair trial, they had no right of free assembly, they faced confiscatory tax laws, they faced summary execution on the accusation of treason, they enjoyed neither the protection nor the blessing of their national government. And they not only survived – they flourished. They had no Lord but Jesus Christ.

“We have no king but Caesar.” Those are chilling words. The cold harshness cuts like a knife. John intended it. He wanted his readers to hear that blasphemy.

Are we willing to hear it today?

Charlottesville, Racism, and a Chilling Prospect

Trigger alert: the following blog post contains some truths that may be difficult for little snowflakes to handle. If you cannot consider any opinions that differ from your rigid worldview, you might want to skip this one.

I’m sure the topic of the Charlottesville, VA riots were the topic of many sermon addresses this morning. I happened to think my thoughts on the book of Job were more appropriate for the moment, but that does not mean I do not have some thoughts on the events of the weekend. My reaction is threefold:

  1.  The rhetoric and the beliefs which underlie the white supremacist movement are vile, repugnant. That much is without question and every Christian of every ethnic background should be loud and clear in denouncing the “alt-right” movement, the KKK, and every other neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology. I have been pleased that the response of virtually every Christian leader that I have seen has been uniform and unequivocal. There can be no quarter given in opposing this worldview.
  2. However, the most troubling response to me is the one I have NOT seen, not after this weekend nor for the past eight years. For these eight years, and largely with the complicity of the sitting president, there has been a racist movement that has rioted, looted, destroyed property, and ruined lives. Throughout these same eight years, I have been told that these racists are fully justified in their actions, that I should wring my hands in horror at the “injustice” they have be subject to, and that I share in the guilt of the nation simply because of the color of my skin. The very spiritual leaders that are (correctly) denouncing white supremacy were either stone cold silent as the rioters destroyed homes and businesses, or they symbolically joined in, trying to absolve themselves of the guilt of their “white advantage.”

Well, folks, racism is racism, no matter what the color or ethnic background of the racist. I am glad to see some preachers, editors, and other spiritual leaders denounce the “alt-right” and their ignorant minions, but their complicity and silence as the “BLM” movement terrorized large portions of a number of cities is deplorable. Why is the racism emanating from one race acceptable, if racism from another race is to be deplored?

3. Beyond the hypocrisy of an astounding number of individuals, there is another terrifying aspect to the events over the weekend. Many are calling for a ban on the freedom for certain groups to be able to speak. This is a chilling development, and if it is not opposed with the most vehement objections we can mark this point in history as the beginning of the end of the United States. I vehemently reject the hate and violence of the “alt-right,” the KKK and the BLM movements. But, as the classic saying goes, I must defend their right to speak (speak, not perpetrate violence) to my dying breath. If they do not have the right to speak their lies, how am I to be guaranteed that I can speak my truth to their lies?

It has already been proposed in many places that limits should be placed on “hate speech” that would include denouncing sexual perversion as a sin. If hate-mongers can be legally muzzled simply because we object to their tirades, what will prevent the prohibition of the preaching of biblical truth? The “slippery slope” argument is an argument that is fraught with danger, but there is another danger here that is real and profound. We must not, we cannot, prevent some idiot from speaking just because we think his words idiotic.

What would have happened this past weekend if those who disagreed with the white supremacists had simply moved to a different part of town and held a counter demonstration, replete with racial unity and a vehement, but peaceful, denunciation of the weirdos across town? But, no – hatred was met with hatred; violence was met with violence, and the world must wonder what ever happened to the great American dream.

As much as I do not want to hear them, I have to allow the bigots to have their say. But I do not have to listen. Let them march – and vacate the entire region around them. Let their words fall on empty streets and vacant buildings. Ignore them – but not their hate! Ignore their presence, but reject their ideology!

Christians must unite to condemn racism. All racism, no exceptions, no excuses.

[editor’s note: I had to correct the location of the riots – sorry, I have been a little distracted, and did not pay close attention to where the riots happened.]

How NOT to Handle a Controversy (Apparently)

A follow-up to the unfolding saga of Eugene Peterson and the confession that never was. Here is what I have been able to discover so far. (All of this can be easily confirmed – I subscribe to Christianity Today online, and all relevant links are embedded in the stories)

  1.  Eugene Peterson was approached about conducting a phone interview by Jonathan Merritt. He agreed, and agreed to having the interview tape recorded. The interview lasted approximately 33 minutes
  2. Merritt had some hints (the language here gets kind of nebulous) that Peterson no longer held the traditional view of homosexuality (if he ever did) and that he now endorsed homosexual marriage. At the conclusion of the interview Merritt posed two specific questions regarding this possibility.
  3. Peterson answered the first question (regarding homosexuality) in somewhat of a rambling answer, basically saying that culture has evolved, the question of homosexuality has been answered, and he had no problem in accepting practicing homosexuals in his church. He even mentioned his acceptance of a practicing homosexual as music minister for the church where he had recently retired.
  4. Merritt then asked if he was approached to perform a same-sex marriage, would Peterson perform the ceremony. Peterson responded with an unequivocal, “yes.”
  5. When Merritt published the interview an instant storm blew up, and one of the largest Christian booksellers threatened to pull Peterson’s books off of the shelves – this was no idle threat. Lifeway Books does not mess around with authors they feel have rejected clear biblical teaching.
  6. A day after the interview went public, Peterson had a strange “Damascus Road” moment of conversion, recanted what he had said about homosexuality and same-sex marriage, claimed to have been distracted by a flurry of hypothetical questions, and concluded with perhaps one of the biggest equivocations in history, “I affirm a biblical view of everything.”
  7. Apparently (I have not viewed the video), Merritt responded to the recantation by providing a video in which Peterson certainly leaves the door open that his views on homosexuality were changing.
  8. Somehow or another, as is so often the case in these situations, Merritt is being made to look like the bad guy, when all he did was report on an interview that was pre-arranged and was in no way coercive or deceitful.

I have some additional thoughts to my post of yesterday.

  1.  Peterson’s mea culpa sounds forced and overly affective. What in the world does “I affirm a biblical view of everything” mean? Why, if Peterson does not accept the traditional view of homosexuality (as being aberrant and a human perversion) would he approve of a practicing and unrepentant homosexual being hired as a congregational music minister? But, why, if he thought the issue was decided in favor of committed, faithful homosexual relationships, would he then so emphatically deny he accepted homosexual behavior as being blessed by God? Why even attempt such a nebulous statement like, “I affirm a biblical view of everything?”
  2. It really bothers me that Merritt has been attacked as being the heavy here. Peterson has such a cult following that, apparently, some people cannot stand to see the altar of Baal being destroyed. Instead of searching their own culpability in the situation, they want to kill the messenger (see Judges 6, also 1 Sam. 5). As I wrote yesterday, it should not come as any shock at all that Peterson accepts the homosexual lifestyle as being compatible with Christianity. Although he may nowhere confess such a belief, it is thoroughly reconcilable with his voluminous writings.
  3. Peterson’s defense that he was temporarily confused or distracted by a hypothetical question has got to rate in the top five of all sophistic statements of all time – right up there with Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman.” If Peterson was a pastor for a large congregation in the Presbyterian Church, he was inundated with hypothetical questions every week, if not every day. He cannot argue that one fairly straightforward question somehow tripped him up – unless he is dealing with the onset of dementia, and that is something that no one is suggesting. I hate hypothetical questions – but I learned how to recognize them a LONG time ago. If I knew that an interview was being taped, and I sniffed out a hypothetical question that was virtually impossible to answer (and Merritt’s question was really very direct), I would have blown it up. If Peterson is only half as intelligent as his defenders claim, that question should have caused no problems at all. And, that is exactly my point. At the time of the interview, Peterson answered with a direct, unequivocal “yes,” indicating he understood the question about conducting a same-sex marriage and his willingness to officiate such ceremonies.
  4. All of this goes to demonstrate how NOT to handle a controversy. Peterson’s original answers have caused a tidal wave of accusations, counter-accusations, recriminations and other fall-out that directly relates to the esteemed position he holds in the minds of many. His recantation sounds forced and artificial. Merritt’s motives and his integrity have been impugned. He has further angered many with his attempts to defend his initial reasons for asking Peterson the questions he did.

No one knows how this whole sordid affair will end. Quite possibly it will dissipate as does a little tempest in a tea-pot, with everyone going away licking their wounds and vowing never to trust the “enemy” again. There may be some residual damage to either Peterson or Merritt or both. But it does illustrate that the best policy is to state what you believe with conviction, defend your convictions with the facts you hold to be true, and when challenged, answer with grace and humility.