Monday, April 9, 2012

Bonhoeffer: Pastor

Friday was Passover with its glorious full moon, reminiscent of what it might have looked like when it shone down on the Jews fleeing Pharaoh. In a rare coupling this year, Passover coincided with Good Friday. Skipping back 488 years, you may recall that Martin Luther came back from his fortress hideaway on Good Friday (see last week’s post for a chronicling of that event.) The interplay of historic and recent events has been on my mind lately as I’ve been reading an awesome book: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. It is very relevant to this blog because Luther’s legacy inhabited the German psyche that Bonhoeffer ministered to and the Third Reich exploited with its own caricature of theology. I have immense respect for this man; his courage, intellect, and faith created a Confessing Church out of one that had lost its orthodoxy and was being coerced into following an antichrist. He compared his lot with Jeremiah’s; quite fitting since both suffered as solitary witnesses to the demise of their countries. 
At page 257 (where I am now), Dietrich is still “free” but you can hear the goose stepping boots in the distance. I’d like to take you through his earlier years and transfer some of the passages that I highlighted. I will concentrate on the ones that relate especially to Luther’s Baggage.
Dietrich was one of eight children in the home of Karl and Paula and they had a wonderful family life that reminded me of the Van Trapp family in Sound of Music (after Maria marries Georg.) The Bonhoeffer family was highly educated, well mannered, very talented, and gregarious. Dietrich thrived in its atmosphere. The following are selected quotes from the book:
“Though Dietrich had a sharp intellect, he loved to teach children about the Bible. He said that if one couldn’t communicate the most profound ideas about God and the Bible to children, something was amiss. There was more to life than academia. Nonetheless, when he earned his doctorate in theology from Berlin University he did so as a summa cum laude. Soon after graduating in 1939, Dietrich pastored a German speaking church in Barcelona, Spain. He found the place interesting, but not very intellectually stimulating. But in Barcelona, Bonhoeffer’s heart awoke to the plight of the poor and the outcast. He said “I have met many people who feel homeless, [both literally and figuratively] who begin to thaw when one speaks to them with kindness - real people; I can only say that I have gained the impression that it is just these people who are much more under grace than under wrath, and that it is the Christian world which is more under wrath than under grace.”
“At seminary, one of his best friends was Franz Hildebrandt. “Franz’s father was a renowned historian and his mother was Jewish. By the German standards of the time, Franz Hildebrandt was considered Jewish, which brings us to the thorny issue of Jewishness in Germany.”
“Many Jews in Germany, like Sabine’s (Dietrich’s sister) husband, Gerhard, and Franz Hildebrandt, were not merely culturally assimilated Germans, but were baptized Christians too. And many of them, like Franz, were devout Christians who chose to enter the Christian ministry as their life’s work. But in a few years, as part of their effort to push Jews out of German public life, the Nazis would attempt to push them out of the German church too. That these “non-Aryans” had publicly converted to the Christian faith meant nothing, since the lens through which they saw the world was purely racial. One’s genetic makeup was all that mattered; one’s most deeply held beliefs counted for nothing.”
“To understand the relationship between Germans, Jews, and Christians, one has to go back again to Martin Luther, the man whom Germanness and Christianity were effectively united. His authority as the man who who defined what it was to be a German Christian was unquestioned, and it would be used by the Nazis to deceive many. But when it came to the Jews, Luther’s legacy is confusing, not to say deeply disturbing.”
“At the very end of his life, after becoming a parody of his former cranky self, Luther said and wrote some things that, taken on their own, make him out to be a vicious anti-Semite. The Nazis exploited these last writings to the utmost, as though thy represented Luther’s definitive take on the matter, which is impossible, given what he’s said earlier in life.”
“In the beginning of his career, Luther’s attitude towards the Jews was exemplary, especially for his day. He was sickened at how Christians had treated Jews. In 1519 he asked why Jews would ever want to become converted to Christianity given the “cruelty and enmity we wreak on them - that in our behavior towards them we less resemble Christians than beasts?” Four years later in the essay “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew,” he wrote, “If I had been a Jew and had seen such dolts and blockheads govern and teach the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a hog than a Christian.”
“But the initial cheeriness and optimism [that they would respond to Luther’s different attitude and become Christians] would not last long. For much of his adult life Luther suffered from constipation, hemorrhoids, a cataract in one eye, and a condition of the inner ear called Meniere’s disease, which results in dizziness, fainting spells, and tinnitus. He also suffered mood swings and depression.”  [All of this caused his behavior to deteriorate as he grew older.]
“Years later, Eberhard Bethge [a very good friend of Dietrich’s] said that most people, including him and Bonhoeffer, were unaware of the anti-Semitic ravings of Luther. It was only when the arch-anti-Semite propagandist Julius Streicher began to publish and publicize them that they became generally known. It must have been shocking and confusing for devout Lutherans like Bonhoeffer to learn of these writings.”
After Barcelona, Dietrich spent 9 months in America. He was wowed by the size and vitality of New York City, but his main purpose was to attend Union Seminary. “Bonhoeffer went to Union with a bit of a chip on his shoulder and not without reason. German theologians were unsurpassed in the world, Bonhoeffer had studied with the best of them. With his doctorate, he could almost as easily have been lecturing at Union as studying there. 
When Bonhoeffer experienced things firsthand at Union, he found the theological situation worse than he’d feared. To his superintendent Max Diesel, he wrote:
“There is no theology here... they talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The students are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level.” the conflict between determination for truth with all of its consequences and the will for community, the latter prevails. This is the characteristic of all American thought, particularly as I have observed it in theology and the church., they do not see the radical claim of truth on the shaping of their lives. Community is therefore founded less on truth than on the spirit of “fairness.”
The one notable exception, which I will elaborate on in the next post, is what Bonhoeffer experienced in the “negro churches.”
But I will close with what Bonhoeffer did on his last Easter in America. He wrote to his grandmother:
“[I didn’t realize that one] had to get entry tickets ahead of time in the larger churches. Because I didn’t know that, nothing remained but to go hear a famous rabbi here who preaches every Sunday morning in the largest concert hall before a full audience; he delivered an enormously effective sermon on corruption in New York and challenged the Jews, who make up a third of the city, to build from this city the City of God, to which the Messiah would then truly be able to come.
It’s remarkable that on the only Easter he spent in New York, Bonhoeffer attended services in a synagogue."

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