Total Pageviews

Friday, July 5, 2013

Things I Learned on Vacation: Thinking the Unthinkable

I am back for a few days so wanted to blog. While on break I began reading Bonhoeffer:Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Minister who was involved in the conspiracy against Hitler. He was executed (murdered) by the Germans as the war was winding down.] Bonhoeffer was Lutheran, but he was a popular theologian at my Roman Seminary in the 1980's. His book, The Cost of Discipleship, was highly recommended and I read it back then. It is famous for the term "cheap grace" and his insistence that faith and grace do not rule out a life of commmited, obedient service.

He was born over 100 years ago and grew up during WWI. He came of age during Hitler's ascendency and the book views Nazism through the lense of Dietrich's own biography. Reading it made me understand why so many of my professors were enamored with him. They were all a bit younger than him, but had lived through the same hell of WWII. The outright evil and horror of Nazism cannot be exaggerated. Belgians suffered greatly under its heavy hand. Bonhoeffer for them was not history, he was connected to their life.

I am no stranger to history, but it has been quite a while since I read books from this era so I am rediscovering things I already knew. What really struck me is that the shape of the German society changed pretty dramatically and the unthinkable became reality in a decade. It is a reason why I worry about trajectories in many of our current situations. Jews in Germany did not act quickly enough in the face of their social changes. I hear distant parallels in our contemporary society which give me pause.

I want to share a few things from the book:
  • "God's cause is not always the successful one." Bonhoeffer said that we could be unsuccessful but still on the right road. While he knew that his resistance to Hitler was God's will, he also realized that "winning" may not be part of the deal for staying faithful. He recognized the central role of the cross.
  • He was struggled with doubt and uncertainty. "I became increasingly isolated" which has "shaken my confidence so that I begin to fear that dogmatism might be leading me astray." He wondered "why should I be right" when other capable pastors disagreed with him. I have often felt the same way so it is a consolation to hear the heartfelt struggles of this good man. In the end, Bonhoeffer was willing to suffer (the cross again) and that is the great corrective for any 'prophetic' act and the true test of motivation. Once again, winning does not matter as much as faithful obedience.
  • On his visits to the US (in the 1930's) he noticed that "tolerance trumps truth" in this country. This has only gotten more intense in our own day. Attending Riverside Church in New York, a leading light of Liberal Christianity, he found the preaching "quite unbearable." While he was a genuinely balanced and accepting person (he was taught by Harnack, one of the Fathers of Liberal Christianity and spoke at a gathering to honor him), Bonhoeffer had harsh criticism for the American brand.
  • The sections on Bonhoeffer's assessment of American Liberal Christianity included this declaration: "idolatrous religion", promoting "libertinism, egotism, indifference." He said it lacked the Bible and was devoid of the Gospel. He predicted that "[McCombs church] will one day be a center of resistance when Riverside Chruch has long since become a temple of Baal." His prophetic insight into Hitler and Germany gives one reason to fear for Riverside!
  • He chose to model his illegal seminary (for ministers who refused to make an oath of allegiance to Hitler (think about that one!) on a Benedictine model of reciting psalms and meditating (lectio divina) on passages. I am currently focusing on the Benedictine way of discipleship. I found this supportive of what I am trying to do here in my parish.
At any time and in any place, there is always a chance that an evil leader will emerge and people will be led into some awful, unthinkable things. Bonhoeffer is an example of holy and faithful living in the face of hell being unleashed among us. I appreciate his witness (martyria in Greek) and pray that we will be faithful to Jesus and His Kingdom when we are tested in the days ahead.


  1. I am so glad you are reading that book! It is wonderful, terrible and wonderful. I share his birthday and hope to share some tiny bit of his courage and insight. I'm so glad Metaxas wrote this book, and it made me want to read his others. (Do you know he also has written for Veggie Tales?....)

  2. "God's cause is not always the successful one."
    When He says "I will always be with you," that doesn't necessarily mean he will help you succeed or even that he will protect you, it means he will be waiting for you.

    I received a tremendous insight into this idea when I (accidentally) read Dr. King's Kitchen Prayer. I felt that he realized what his end might be and welcomed it, because of Christ's assurance.