An Historical Christian Challenge

A very brief historical reflection this week……

Just about one year before he was executed by the Nazis, the Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945), wrote and sent several reflections from Tegel prison to his friend Eberhard Bethge (1909 – 2000). “What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today.” Bonhoeffer felt that perhaps the time had come for a “religionless Christianity,” because so much institutional religion seemed so alien to the Gospel.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been re-reading a lot of Bonhoeffer. Now he has been much on my mind, because of recent WWII commemorations like those for the Battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944 to 25 January 1945) and this week’s Auschwitz concentration camps liberation (27 January 1945). My Bonhoeffer re-reading has bern stimulated as well by my own theological concerns and questioning today. Perhaps I am also feeling my age? When Bonhoeffer was arrested for resistance against the Nazi regime and confined to the spine-chilling Tegel Prison in April 1943, I was just a one month old baby in a warm family environment in Southwest Michigan, USA.

During the last year or so I’ve come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity,” Bonhoeffer wrote to his friend in 1944. “The Christian is not a homo religiosus, but simply a human person as Jesus was a human person….I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith….By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God….That, I think, is faith. And that is how one becomes a human and a Christian.”

We don’t know how Bonhoeffer would have developed these ideas. I wish he could have lived longer. He was executed by hanging in Flossenbürg Concentration Camp on 9 April 1945. Ironically that was just two weeks before soldiers from the United States 90th and 97th Infantry Divisions liberated the camp. And a month before the surrender of Nazi Germany.

History does not repeat itself, but some historic mistakes are often ignored and repeated again. We can indeed learn a few lessons from the Bonhoeffer era as we witness abuses of power and the betrayals of leadership in our own days — inside and outside of the church.

Bonhoeffer was greatly alarmed that so many Christian church leaders (Protestant and Catholic) openly supported Adolf Hitler (1889 – 1945). I think he was even more alarmed that so many Christian men and women tacitly supported the inhumane Nazi regime through their own silence and inaction. Silence and inaction.

Hitler was baptized as a Catholic but was not at all a Christian believer. He and his Nazi party promoted “Positive Christianity,” a movement which actually rejected most traditional Christian doctrines. His involvement in “Positive Christianity” was driven by opportunism and a pragmatic recognition of the political importance of the Christian churches. It was promoted as well by Nazi Party condemnation of criticism from a “lying press” during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. In Hitler’s “Positive Christianity” and his exaggerated self-pride, Hitler and his Nazi zealots saw the Führer as the herald of a new revelation. He proclaimed Jesus as an “Aryan fighter” who struggled against “the power and pretensions of the corrupt Pharisees.”

Joseph Goebbels (1897 – 1945), Reich Minister of Propaganda for Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945, wrote in April 1941, in his diary, that although Hitler was a strong opponent of the Vatican and Christianity, “…he forbids me to leave the church, for tactical reasons.” In his memoirs, Hitler’s Minister of Armaments Albert Speer (1905 – 1981) wrote that Hitler “…conceived of the church as an instrument that could be useful to him.”

Tactical Christianity. The corruption of Christian moral authority. Still a challenge today.


PS In 1997, Bonhoeffer’s former student, friend, and confidant, Eberhard Bethge wrote: “Are we mature members of our society, states, corporations, and churches?… Unavoidably, we either corrupt or renew the Christian claim and faith. Even in the nuclear, ecological, and feminist age, no one eludes the demands of citizenship with which Bonhoeffer struggled.”

An Evangelical Examination of Conscience

According to the Pew Forum, white evangelical Protestants are the dominant religious force in today’s Republican Party and about 99% oppose impeaching and removing Donald Trump from the presidency.

Christianity is still the largest religion in the United States. In 2019, 65% of polled American adults identified themselves as Christian. This is down from 85% in 1990. Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing membership losses. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009. However, looking only at Americans who identify as Protestants – rather than at the public as a whole – the share of all Protestants who are born-again or evangelical is at least as high today as it was in 2009.

Evangelical Protestantism, coming from the Latin word for “gospel” evangelium, stresses salvation by grace, the importance of the “born again” experience, and the authority of the Bible, understood literally, as God’s revelation to humanity.

Evangelicalism has played an important role in shaping American religion and culture. The First Great Awakening of the early 18th century marked the rise of evangelical religion in colonial America. Prominent in that movement were animated preachers like John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards.The Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century brought what historian Martin Marty called the “Evangelical Empire.” Evangelicals then dominated US cultural institutions, including schools, and universities.

By the end of the 19th century, however, the old evangelical consensus that had united American Protestantism no longer existed. Protestant churches became divided over new intellectual and theological ideas, especially Darwinian evolution and biblical historical criticism. The same change occurred in the Catholic Church. Those who rejected these “Modernist” ideas became known as fundamentalists.

Fundamentalists defended the doctrine of literal biblical inerrancy and separated themselves from Mainline Protestant churches, which had developed a more open-minded understanding of science and biblical interpretation.

After World War II, a new generation of conservative Protestants began calling themselves “evangelicals.” The popular evangelist, Billy Graham (1918 – 2018), was at the forefront in using this term. A number of evangelical institutions were established, including the National Association of Evangelicals, Christianity Today magazine, and educational institutions, such as the multi denominational Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, California.

Reacting to the counterculture of the 1960s, many evangelicals became politically active and involved in what became known as the Christian right. On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas statute banning abortion, effectively legalizing abortion across the United States. Throughout the 1970s, certainly in part as a response to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, the Christian right became a major force in the Republican party and in American politics. Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell and other Christian leaders began to urge conservative Christians to actively involve themselves in the US political process. In response to the rise of the Christian right, the 1980 Republican Party platform took on a number of socio-ethical positions. In addition to the restoration of school prayer, the Christian right began to stress conservative positions on intelligent design, embryonic stem cell research, homosexuality, euthanasia, contraception, sex education, abortion, and pornography.

(Here I add very brief personal observation: In my own friendly and respectful conversations with conservative evangelicals I stress our shared belief in the person and message of Jesus Christ; and then move on to the many ways in which our human understanding has developed over the years. When it comes to politics, I readily admit that my parents were very active Republicans. My Dad held various Republican political offices in Michigan. Most in my family I suspect are Republican. Yes I am a registered Democrat. The genius of the American experience has been that we all, regardless of political party affiliation, respectfully work together for the common good.)

In the United States today, the Christian right has become a coalition of conservative evangelical Protestants and conservative Roman Catholics. Father Frank Pavone, for example, a Roman Catholic who is national director of Priests for Life, responded on Wednesday, January 15, 2020, to the current president’s call for prayers about his impeachment: “President Trump just asked for prayers!” he said on his Twitter account. “Let’s storm heaven against the evil that surrounds him. I pray he will have the courage to continue to fight for the Lives of the unborn!”

Before the end of 2016 there was little in Donald Trump’s life to suggest that, as president, he would be hailed as God’s appointee on earth. Over the three years since Trump took office, however, he has surrounded himself with a fundamentalist Christian cabinet and established an extremely beneficial relationship with white evangelical supporters. It is an strange alliance between “Christians” who theoretically adhere to biblical teachings about right and wrong and yet strongly support a man who has been credibly accused of sexual assault, is a notorious liar, and whom many observers see as a very cruel and demeaning human being. Influential evangelical Christians ignore the president’s moral shortcomings by portraying him as a flawed vessel for God’s will and contemporary work.

Rank-and-file evangelicals have also embraced the imperfect vessel concept. Rick Perry, the evangelical and Former United States Secretary of Energy, repeated the theory of an imperfect biblical figure for Fox News this past November. “God has used imperfect people all through history,” he said. “King David wasn’t perfect. Saul wasn’t perfect. Solomon wasn’t perfect,” Perry told Fox News, in an interview which was theoretically about Trump’s impeachment, that Donald Trump was the “chosen one” who was “sent by God” to lead the country.

There are some evangelicals, of course, who still resonate with authentic Gospel values. On December 19, 2019, an editorial, by Mark Galli, in the evangelical publication Christianity Today called for President Trump’s removal from office. “The President of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral. The reason many are not shocked about this is that this president has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration. He has hired and fired a number of people who are now convicted criminals. He himself has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”

President Trump, who began rallying his evangelical supporters right after that editorial was published, called Christianity Today a “far left magazine” and reminded his religious supporters that “no President has done more for the Evangelical community, and it’s not even close.” Franklin Graham, the son of Christianity Today’s founder Billy Graham, also criticized the Christianity Today editorial, stating “My father knew Donald Trump, he believed in Donald Trump, and he voted for Donald Trump. He believed that Donald J. Trump was the man for this hour in history for our nation.” Unfortunately one cannot interview Billy Graham about any of this….

An examination of conscience is a review of a person’s values, words, and actions for the purpose of evaluating that person’s conformity with Christian belief and morality. Evangelical Christians, and those conservative Catholics who have joined them, need to do some very serious reflection and self-examination. An examination of conscience. Right now I fear they have become “Christian” in name only…


Courage, Hope, and Confidence

17 January 2020

During the first semester of the 2019-2020 academic year, I taught an introductory course about the four Gospels. The class participants were a group of thoughtful and inquisitive retired men and women. It was a delight to be with them. (I have just been invited to teach it again next autumn to a larger group of Dutch-speaking participants.) The course had a double focus: (1) understanding the various Christian communities back then and how each Gospel interpreted and applied the message of Jesus to their life situations; and (2) asking how the message of the Gospels speaks to us today in our concrete life situations. The course was a good experience for me as well – enabling me to review my own understanding and appreciation for Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. A kind of spiritual exercise and rejuvenation….something all historical theologians need, regardless of their age and background.

This year — with so much polarization, hatred, and fear — the image of Jesus in the Gospel of John speaks to me in a special way.

Contemporary scholars suggest that the final composition of the Gospel of John dates between 90 and 110 CE. An oral tradition of eye-witness recollections of the “Beloved Disciple” evolved and began being written down around 90 CE. The final editing of the text came 10 to 20 years later, giving us a gospel composition date of between 90 and 110 CE. The location was most likely Ephesus.

We don’t know who the “Beloved Disciple” was. There is quite a variety of scholarly opinions: a truly unknown disciple, or the Apostle John, or James the brother of Jesus, or even Mary the Magdalene.

The Johannine Gospel differs from the Synoptics in style, content, and perspective. It omits, for instance, a large amount of material found in the Synoptic Gospels, like the temptation of Jesus, Jesus’ transfiguration, and the institution of the Eucharist. What stands out in the Johannine Last Supper is the washing of feet and Jesus’ exhortation “I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.” (John 13:15)

The Johannine community understood well the complexity and problems of religious polarization. In the 90s of the first century a “parting of the ways” between Jewish and Christian believers occurred. Early Christians no longer went to synagogue for the basic reason that more and more Christians were Gentile converts and the distinction between Jewish and Christian belief had become clearer. John 9.29 describes how “the Jewish people had agreed that if anyone confessed Jesus as the Christ or messiah they were to be excluded from the synagogue.”

What deeply attracts me in the Johannine Gospel is the message that Jesus is the Wisdom of God and a man of courage, hope, and confidence. Today, in our social interactions, there is such a great need for wisdom, courage, hope, and confidence.

I see texts that speak loudly and clearly to our contemporary life situation. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches (John 15) committed to love one another. We need one another: the community of faith. The branches cannot survive without the vine; but the vine cannot survive without the branches. The primary presence of Jesus is in the community. Jesus promises that his Spirit will be with us. (John 14:15-16, 15:26, 16:15) The Spirit will not abandon us. Yes we live in frightening times, but there is no reason for debilitating fear.

In the Synoptics the stress was on Divinity taking on humanity. In John, however, we see another emphasis: humanity taking on Divinity. God is truly with us: in the very heart of our being. A powerful revelation.

Yes indeed….Some of the old images of God no longer speak to contemporary people; but God has not abandoned us. Nor should we abandon God. We simply need to reflect on better ways of conceptualizing and speaking about our experience of the Divine. Source of our courage, hope, and confidence. Something for serious contemplation…. Something for shared faith stories…. Something for Lenten reflection…. (Lent begins this year on February 26th.)

With its hopeful focus, the Johannine account of the crucifixion does not stress Jesus as one who suffers, as we saw for example in Mark 15.25–39. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is the one who is exalted, “lifted up” in his moment of glorification. In John 13 to John 16, Jesus prepares his disciples for his imminent departure followed by his “high priestly prayer” in John 17. Here we see a very strong and confident Jesus. “I have glorified you on earth and finished the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, it is time to glorify me…” (John 17:4-5)

The final Johannine chapters contain the accounts of Jesus’s trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. The Jesus who stands before Pilate is strong. On the way to Golgotha Jesus carries his own cross. He does not need the help of a Simon of Cyrene as we saw in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Jesus here is strong and confident. We saw that actually in Jesus’ garden experience after the Last Supper. Roman soldiers and temple police come to seize him. “Jesus, knowing full well what was about to happen, went out to the garden entrance to meet them. Stepping forward, he asked, ‘Who are you looking for?’ ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ they replied. He replied, ‘I am he.’” (John 18:4-5)

May we all find courage, hope, and confidence in the Spirit of Christ. We have not been abandoned. A few weeks ago, I stressed the importance of prophetic witness. I stress that again today. Our witness is not just to speak, but to act: to be courageously active supporters of one another, offering hope for people today, and confidence that love is stronger than hatred; and that honesty is more effective than political deception and falsehood.

With courage, we move forward…..


War Wisdom

8 January 2020

(I usually post a reflection on Friday. Due to current developments, I post this a couple days earlier.)

In January 2003, I was invited to meet with a group of about twenty US Army and Air Force chaplains at a US base in Germany. I often met with them for what were called “days of recollection.” This time the presentation and discussion were about the “Just War Theory” and what was already being seen as an impending US invasion of Iraq. (That happened of course in March 2003.) As I explained the main points of the traditional understanding of a just war, one young chaplain became very restless. Rather emotionally he called out to me: “If I understand what you are saying, it would be immoral for the US to launch a war in Iraq.” Very calmly I said: “Yes. I think it would be immoral and unjustified.” I looked around the room. Just about every chaplain there was shaking his head in agreement. The young chaplain then said, with great restlessness, that he could not be a part of such an invasion and didn’t know what to do. Then an older chaplain, whom I have always greatly respected, said: “Young man pull yourself together. I was a chaplain in Vietnam. I understand just and unjust wars. Your responsibility is not to implement government policy per se but to travel with your soldiers and be with them in their own difficult journeys.”

Now, with President Donald Trump’s decision to kill the Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, those just war reflections jump back at me, with fears of a major military escalation. What is morally legitimate and responsible international behavior these days?

As I explained to the chaplains back in 2003, the traditional just war theory defines four conditions that must be met in order for a war to be just:

1) The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.

2) All other means of putting an end to the initial problem must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.

3) There must be serious prospects of success.

4) The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.

The first consideration, I would suggest, is not whether an act of war is just but whether or not it is wise. I remember the remark of the American writer, Issac Asimov: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” A January 3rd editorial in the New York Times, titled “The Game Has Changed,” expressed it this way: “The real question to ask about the American drone attack that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani was not whether it was justified, but whether it was wise. Many pieces of the puzzle are still missing, but the killing is a big leap in an uncertain direction.”

My second consideration would be that the traditional four-points just war theory totally ignores our contemporary situation. With today’s atomic, biological, and chemical weapons of mass destruction can there ever be a “Just war”?

Today, we need to explore and implement other ways of resolving international conflicts. We need to reinforce and collaborate with international organizations like the United Nations. We need to see that the function of the military is not to make war but to maintain peace.

I resonate with the January 3, 2020 statement by Johnny Zokovitch, Executive Director of Pax Christi USA:

The decision by the Trump Administration to assassinate Iran’s General Soleimani on Iraqi soil, reportedly by drone strike, has only succeeded in escalating tensions in the Middle East and put in jeopardy the lives of innocent men, women and children who will bear the brunt of back-and-forth retaliation between the US and Iran. This is another in a long string of failures by this administration to pursue diplomacy and act with prudence in addressing the complicated problems of the region, many of which have been exacerbated by or are the direct result of decades of bad decisions undertaken by the US in the Middle East.”

Yes. We are moving into a new decade……We must “beat swords into plowshares” and pursue peace. This is not just pious rhetoric. It is now our practical life or death reality. I think 2020 will be chaotic, unpredictable, and enormously consequential.


Human Experience & Critical Thinking

January 3, 2020

Over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, I was fortunate to be able to enjoy the company of family and good friends as well as to re-read some of my favorite authors. Among them, Aldous Huxley (1894 –1963) the philosopher and writer. He was born in England but spent the last twenty-six years of his life in the United States. Many people remember him for his science-fiction novel Brave New World, in which he describes a futuristic society, called the World State, that revolves around technology and efficiency. In this society, emotions and individuality are programmed out of children at a young age; and there are no lasting relationships.

My favorite Huxley quotation is “Experience is not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.”

Huxley’s observation is my starting point for 2020.

I hope in 2020 that I can help people seek and discover the truth. I hope other people can help ME discover the truth, that is so often hidden or totally distorted in news reports, in political rhetoric, in pious religious platitudes, and of course, in social media. Today I better understand Huxley’s fear that truth can be drowned in a sea of rhetorical irrelevance. (Perhaps he was thinking about political campaign rhetoric as well? We will certainly have a lot of that in 2020.)

Ignorance may not be bliss but it helps the ignorant feel good and surrender themselves to authoritarian leaders who gradually take control of their faithful followers, by negatively labelling and denigrating those “dangerous people” who are anchored in historical observation and critical reflection. We used to think that a written sentence had a level of verifiability to it. It was true or not true. Or at least one could have a meaningful discussion about its truth. Today, within popular political and religious movements, we see climate-change deniers who value only a climate of “alternative facts.” For them, verified information is “fake news.”

I find social media, like Facebook and Twitter, increasingly problematic. Yes of course one can find truth statements there; but they are too often intertwined with bizarre fabrications or gross distortions of the truth. When they get repeated again and again or are “shared,” the phony becomes accepted truth. Twitter for example makes it easy to pick a passage out of context, denigrate the author, and broadcast the erroneous phrase or sentence to the tweeter’s sympathetic audience. Such tweets too often become a form of hate speech, fomenting racial prejudice and violence.

It won’t happen of course, but I often wish people would document their assertions and quotations. I will try to do that and be careful to not just repost an attractive observation without checking it out. It is called critical observation and critical thinking. Critical observation and critical thinking give leaders credibility. We don’t need and we don’t deserve leaders whose only talent is making loud, inflammatory statements, many of which are spectacularly untrue.

Our big challenge in 2020 will be selecting and promoting leaders who have credibility and sending the others to the sidelines. Certainly far from center stage….

Effective change occurs when people with credibility not only speak knowledgeably but actually make changes happen. Nice words are not enough. We need to support, defend, and encourage them. We need to defend and support young change agents like Greta Thunberg.

We need to build communities of trust with truth-speakers. We need to courageously denounce the purveyors of false information and absolute lies. And….we need to practice civility and respectful dialogue with those who have a different perspective. Not always easy. The aim is not to convert but to learn how to live together. No one has all the truth. We are all truth-seekers.

Safe travels as we journey into 2020…….I think it will be quite a ride.