Barth and Bonhoeffer…why them? why now?

A couple of nights ago I was having trouble getting to sleep. I kept thinking about Karl Barth and  Dietrich Bonhoeffer…why?

I remembered my preaching instructor (and others!) in seminary liked to quote a statement often attributed to Karl Barth: “We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” In other words, we cannot divorce what is going on in life around us from what the Bible calls us to do and be. We must be informed both of the news and events surround us but we must also be biblically literate. (Please note–I did not say “literalist.” There is a significant difference.)

With my spiritual advisor, I’ve spent a lot of time reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German pastor in the 1930s. Barth, a Swiss theologian, was forced to leave Germany and return to Switzerland, as Hitler rose to power. Bonhoeffer took a different path. He came to the United States for post-graduate education at Union Theological Seminary, but returned to Germany in 1931. He watched as Hitler came to power–and was a staunch foe from the beginning. He saw in Hitler a danger to the church, a danger he watched as more and more church leaders either actively supported the Nazi movement or passively stood aside.

In 1933 Bonhoeffer accepted a post in London, but he returned to Germany in response to Barth’s question of him: “And what of the German church?” They needed strong pastors.

Bonhoeffer–and Barth–felt that something had to be done…something had to be said to call Christians to repentance. They were responsible for the formation of the Confessing Church, which basically was a resistance movement. They wanted to preserve traditional Christian beliefs and practices. And in 1934, they drafted a statement known as the Barmen Declaration. In this document, they laid out their position that Christ–not the Fuhrer–was the head of the church. It was a pointed rebuke towards Hitler and his movement.

As I lay in bed, the thought kept coming to mind that perhaps it was time for a Barmen Declaration for our day and time.

I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised when I received a link to a statement by Princeton Seminary faculty members related to the Trump presidency and the current political situation in the United States. As I read it, I thought “Yes, this is our Barmen Declaration.” I was pleased that each member who signed it did not feel that they had to agree to every word–that they worked together as colleagues to draft a statement that they were each comfortable signing.

I have seen statements questioning why religious leaders and ministers should be speaking against Trump–sometimes with the specific question of why are we not praying for him? I believe many are praying for him…but also believe that in good faith, they must speak against those policies, statements, and actions that are not representative of who Christ calls us to be.

I am grateful for this statement…and I agree with it.

“He says what I think”

For me, one of the most frightening statements to come out of this year’s election (and post-election) is this: “I (voted for/support) Donald Trump because he says what I think.” Why do I find that frightening?

Let me make a couple of things clear. I do believe that there are legitimate discussions needed about our immigration system. There are too many people caught in limbo, waiting for years for their citizenship applications to be approved. There are challenges with border security that need to be discussed–and that needs to include discussions about the economic factors that cause people to come illegally. We live in a world where there are many, many refugees–and we need to work with other countries to create a policy that acknowledges their needs and fears and tries to find ways to meet them.

However…

When I hear people say that, it usually goes along with negative statements towards those who are seen as “other” in some way. It seems to relate to demonizing others…grouping all members of one race/religion together, while seeing nothing wrong with one’s own race/religion. I hear it in reference to statements about those who are poor and who need help to get back on their feet…those whose sexuality/gender identity is not easily understandable.

And I am reminded of something in the Bible. In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus is talking to his followers. Not to them alone, but after he has been asked questions by those who didn’t believe in him…who wanted to trap him. They were religious and political leaders of their day, and they found Jesus’ teachings frightening because they challenged the status quo. Jesus taught…healed…challenged.

He told those who were listening to love their enemies…to do good to all…to pray for those who abused them…to give more than they were asked to. He told them to do unto others as they would have done to them. He called on them to be merciful…to not judge…to see the hypocrisies in their own lives before calling out others.

And then…

Then he gave this response: “…it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”

So what do our words say about us? What do we really think?

Do Donald Trump’s words really reflect what we think? They don’t for me…

God is Other

Several years ago I started meeting with a wonderful friend who is my spiritual advisor/mentor. Sometimes those meetings have been challenging, forcing me to confront aspects of myself that I haven’t particularly liked. Sometimes they have been comforting as I have dealt with difficult life situations. Sometimes they raise more questions than answers…but always they call me to go deeper into my relationship with God.

Much of what we talk about has been stimulated by various books we have read through the years. I sometimes think that God must have a wonderful sense of humor, because so often either the entire book–or a specific passage–is so appropriate to either my own life situation or to what I see around me. We are currently reading Ronald Rolheiser’s Sacred Fire…a book that challenges me to go beyond the basic questions of life into the questions one faces as one grows older. It’s a wonderful discussion of looking at discipleship in new ways…and more specifically, what it means to be mature disciples. The questions he raises deal with the struggle to give our lives away–just what does that mean for each of us?

We’re almost through the book, and in our last meeting I was struck by a couple of quotes. In this particular chapter, Rolheiser talks about “ten commandments for the long haul”–something he describes as simplifying our spiritual vocabulary. Very briefly, here are the commandments for mature discipleship (which he sees more as invitations than commands):

  1. Live in gratitude and thank your Creator by enjoying your life.
  2. Be willing to carry more and more of life’s complexities with empathy.
  3. Transform jealousy, anger, bitterness, and hatred rather than give them back in kind.
  4. Let suffering soften your heart rather than harden your soul.
  5. Forgive–those who hurt you, your own sins, the unfairness of your life, and God for not rescuing you.
  6. Bless more and curse less!
  7. Live in a more radical sobriety.
  8. Pray, affectively and liturgically.
  9. Be wide in your embrace.
  10. Stand where you are supposed to be standing and let God provide the rest.

There is a lot that can be said about each of these–but the one that struck me especially hard was #9 – be wide in your embrace. Rolheiser suggested that we live in a time that lives up to a Chinese greeting that may be both a curse and a blessing: “May you live in interesting times!” We are facing challenges both in our faith traditions as well as in our broader communities of trying to understand what it means to be accepting…and our boundaries and understandings are being stretched almost to the breaking point.

But in this section, he quoted from a couple of writers–quotes that really made me stop and think and that I want to share. The first is from David Tracy in his book On Naming the Present: Reflections on God, Hermeneutics, and Church:

For anyone in this troubled, quarreling center of privilege and power (and as a white, male, middle-class, American, Catholic, professor and priest I cannot pretend to be elsewhere) our deepest need, as philosophy and theology in our period show, is the drive to face otherness and difference. Those others must include all the subjugated others within Western European and North American culture, the others outside that culture, especially the poor and the oppressed now speaking clearly and forcefully, the terrifying otherness lurking in our own psyches and cultures, the other great religions and civilizations, the differences disseminating in all the words and structures of our own Indo-European languages.

Rolheiser acknowledges that this is not easy. He is not calling for us to ignore our own roots, boundaries, and borders. As he says, “True acceptance of otherness and difference means something only if someone first has a strong identity, complete with real boundaries and cherished borders to protect.”

As he continues his sharing, Rolheiser suggests that we cannot avoid that which seems “foreign” to us. Our planet is too small for that. And…as a follower of the Christ, one of my major challenges it to welcome those who are other and different. All the way through scripture, God is defined as “Other”–outside what is familiar to us, beyond imagination.

And that’s why this other quote–from Parker Palmer in The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America’s Public Life struck me so strongly. It is the challenge especially before us in this place and this time:

The role of the stranger in our lives is vital in the context of Christian faith, for the God of faith is one who continually speaks truth afresh, who continually makes all things new. God persistently challenges conventional truth and regularly upsets the world’s way of looking at things. It is no accident that this God is so often represented by the stranger, for the truth that God speaks in our lives is very strange indeed. Where the world sees impossibility, God sees potential. Where the world sees comfort, God sees idolatry. Where the world sees insecurity, God sees occasions for faith. Where the world sees death, God proclaims life. God uses the stranger to shake us from our conventional points of view, to remove the scales of worldly assumptions from our eyes. God is a stranger to us, and it is at the risk of missing God’s truth that we domesticate God, reduce God to the role of familiar friend.