Resembling Religion

The secular movement: Here to stay. But what will it become?

In the continuing saga of the seculars in 21st century America, one question keeps occurring to me: Whose particular path might we be following, among the societies that have lessened their attachments to organized religion?

Are we going the gradual way of Western Europe, which began devolving religiously in the late 19th century and secularized slowly? Are we lurching toward Quebec, which went from being one of the more churchy regions of the Western world to one of the most anticlerical, in the space of little more than a decade (roughly the 1960s)? Or are we finding our own way in America, toward a religious future that’s hard to predict but will be exceptional in any case?

Another theoretical possibility is that the rise of the so-called “nones” is a passing fad. By way of his must-read Faith Matters blog, Bill Tammeus brings my attention to a commentary in the current Psychology Today that rejects this scenario. Titled “Why the secular movement is here to stay,” the article by attorney and secular activist David Niose offers several reasons, having to do partly with motive (a deep aversion to the politics of the religious right) and opportunity (secularists everywhere are now able to link up with each other through the Internet). Niose is president of the Secular Coalition for America, an anti-religious-right organization.

In other words, the seculars from this point on shall always be with us. “I think the author is right about that,” Tammeus argues, “but I don’t see any impending collapse of the number of Americans who say they believe in God (still above 90 percent in most polls) or who claim to be adherents of this or that religion.”

The award-winning religion writer continues:

In many ways—most good, some awful—religion is at the core of the American soul. Yes, its influence has waned and/or changed over time and some of that change has been for the better. (Tossing out prayer in public schools led by people whose salaries come from taxpayers is an example of a good change.)

But America is a landslide for religion, and it’s going to take a long, long time to undo that. My guess is that if it ever happens (doubtful) it won’t happen in the next several generations.

That said, it would behoove people of faith to listen to and learn from the secularists and to respect them as a legitimate subgroup of Americans.

I think Tammeus is right when he says Niose is right that the secular movement isn’t going away. And I don’t doubt religion is here to stay as well. But I’m not ready to predict that America will remain an overwhelmingly religious nation, for at least several generations and probably forever. There’s still the question of where we are, on the broad historical map of faith. Are we simply arriving late to the secular party, as England and Quebec did in the 1960s and ‘70s, following France, Holland, etc. Or will the turnout remain relatively small for that new social gathering space in the United States? Will religion keep a clear upper hand?

I don’t know. I don’t even know if those questions will be meaningful a decade from now. Maybe the lines between belief and unbelief, the secular and the religious, will be less stark than they seem today.

It’s possible that the seculars will eventually find a fairly ordinary place in the grand and vital scheme of (if you will) faith life in America. They’ll have their own communities, perhaps even denominations of sorts with differing perspectives on truth, ultimate reality, and the good life. They’ll have their own rituals. They’ll attend interfaith potluck suppers with the Hindus or Methodists down the street. They’ll come to resemble, not resent, religion.

Now that would be exceptional. …read more

The God Who Could Not

Last week, NPR’s Morning Edition presented a thoughtful, in-depth series titled “Losing Our Religion.” Reporters tracked down an interesting array of people who had turned away from organized religion, though not necessarily from spirituality and prayer. I was struck by how many of them had lost faith as a result of a personal tragedy, especially the death of a loved one. I was even more struck by an assumption they seemed to share with the most fervent religious believers.

The assumption is that any deity worth its salt must be omnipotent. God (if there is one) must be able to stop a deranged gunman from storming an elementary school in Connecticut, or catch a falling tree just in time to spare the lives of a young couple walking their dog in Brooklyn at the onset of Hurricane Sandy. But what happens if God could not?

One person who has agonized over this is Rabbi Irving Greenberg, former chair of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. He has peered at the question continually through the horrific lens of the Shoah. “In the presence of burning children, how could one talk of a loving God? I once wrote that no theological statement should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children,” Greenberg said of its victims, in an interview adapted in The Life of Meaning, by Bob Abernethy (and me).

Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Greenberg recalled that as a young Orthodox rabbi, at times he could barely speak the words of the prayers recited daily by observant Jews. “It would be almost a mockery of the children to speak of the God who—as we do in our central prayer—redeems the children and saves them for the sake of his great name,” he explained. “How could you say that in a generation where there was no liberation?”

Between Belief and Unbelief

Greenberg’s message to those interviewed by NPR would be, to start with: I hear you. “Even for the most devout people, there are moments when the ashes of the smoke of Auschwitz choke off any contact with God or heaven. Therefore, I came to see that the line between the believer and the doubter is much thinner than I once thought,” he said (in what was originally an on-air interview conducted by Susan Grandis Goldstein for Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly).

But he has kept his faith, partly with a fresh appraisal of covenant. In his interpretation of that biblical concept, God enters into a partnership with humans—and “self-limits,” as Greenberg puts it. God surrenders power, so that his/her Creation would have it.

Elie Wiesel … once suggested that the messiah, the all-powerful, deus ex machina God who saves us against our own will and ability—if that kind of messiah would come again now, it would be an outrage. It’s too late for such a messiah to come. It would have been a moral monster that could have come to save those children or to save those people and didn’t come.

But a God who wanted to intervene, and could not—that’s different, says Greenberg.

In a sense, to me, that’s the starkest, ultimate outcome. The fairy tale, the God of the white beard in heaven, all’s well with the world, the one who does it all for us, I think, is no longer credible, no longer possible. But a mature understanding of God who loves us in our freedom, who has called us to responsibility, who is with us at every moment—I think such a God is, if anything, more present and more close, and maybe, having suffered together and having shared our pain infinitely, is more beloved and maybe more inspiring to follow.

I don’t dismiss the perpetual question: If there’s an all-powerful God, how can such terrible things happen to the most innocent people? I just think the “if” could use some careful attention. …read more

Even Less Moral

Niebuhr on Time’s cover, March 8, 1948

In December 1932, a 40-year-old theology professor who had recently left his Michigan pastorate drew nationwide attention with his book, Moral Man and Immoral Society. Two sentences into the introduction, the author, Reinhold Niebuhr, was already walking back the title, saying the distinction it suggested was too unqualified. Reflecting on his classic work of social ethics three decades later, Niebuhr wrote that a better encapsulation of his thesis would have been, “Not So Moral Man and Even Less Moral Society.” By then he had become one of the principal definers of 20th century American liberalism.

The notion behind the title was that while individuals might be able to muster sympathy “for their kind,” human groups and societies have little such capacity for self-transcendence. It might have been the least emphatic argument of this unsettlingly unsentimental book, which can be as startling today as it was 80 years ago, in the throes of the Great Depression.

Niebuhr wrote Moral Man in a time arguably not unlike our own, when both economic and political power had concentrated in fewer hands. The wealthiest Americans had succeeded in making government “more pliant to their needs,” he argued. But the professor at New York’s Union Theological Seminary did not unleash his brash analytical power on plutocrats alone. He aimed squarely at his fellow liberals, who believed in the efficacy of moral suasion and rational argument, and who imagined that “men of power will immediately check their exactions and pretensions in society, as soon as they have been apprised by the social scientists that their actions and attitudes are anti-social.” Niebuhr’s intent was to disabuse them of these illusions.

One essay in this volume that seems to especially evoke our situation today is titled, “The Ethical Attitudes of the Privileged Classes.”

The attitudes have largely to do with economic inequalities. The chapter starts with a bow to the truism that such gaps are inevitable and stem partly from different levels of talent and skill. Niebuhr’s clear-eyed view of human nature and destiny could hardly make him suppose that inequality, along with a fair bit of misery, is unnatural. But he quickly adds that personal attributes never explain extraordinary degrees of wealth inequality. These are due chiefly to “disproportions of power,” he says, alluding in part to money’s grip on politics.

For Niebuhr, the task of plutocracy or government by the wealthy is to justify this power and privilege. Plutocrats do so by identifying their special interests with the general good. “Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold,” he observes.

Such thinking requires a certain amount of self-deception, according to Niebuhr. But he says it also involves hypocrisy—in that the privileged often salute one thing (the good of all) and engineer something else (narrow self-interests). He continues:

The most common form of hypocrisy among the privileged classes is to assume that their privileges are the just payments with which society rewards specially useful or meritorious functions. As long as society regards special rewards for important services as ethically just and socially necessary … it is always possible for social privilege to justify itself, at least in its own eyes, in terms of social function, which it renders. If the argument is to be plausible … it must be proved or assumed that the underprivileged classes would not have the capacity for rendering the same service if given the same opportunity. This assumption is invariably made by privileged classes.

As Niebuhr further limns this mind, he points to its understanding that the masses of people are economically unfit not simply because of their lesser intellects or purported lack of opportunity. They are also seen as succumbing to character flaws, namely their inclination toward what the Puritans (his spiritual ancestors in the Calvinist fold) styled as “laziness and improvidence.”

Plutocracy Revisited

Niebuhr’s analysis echoes in current debates. For instance, Chrystia Freeland, author of Plutocrats, notes a tendency among the super rich to “confuse their own self-interests with the common good.” Niebuhr’s plutocrat, though at times a cardboard figure, finds voice in billionaire activists such as Leon Cooperman (quoted in Freeland’s book), who wrote a open letter a year ago to President Obama, enumerating services rendered by his class: “As a group we employ many millions of taxpaying people … fill store shelves at Christmas … and keep the wheels of commerce and progress … moving.”

The “special rewards” today might include Wall Street bailouts, preferential tax rates for capital gains, and the carried-interest loophole that withers tax bills for hedge fund managers like Cooperman. “Specious proofs” abound with the notion, for example, that half of all Americans will never “take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” as Mitt Romney declared in his famous behind-closed-doors remarks about the 47 percent.

Yet few commentators would match Niebuhr’s unrelievedly unsentimental view.

Most decent people would hope to see different parties and factions engage in good-faith dialogue about the common good. Niebuhr would say: Don’t count on it. Because he saw reason as largely subservient to self-interests, he felt that relations between groups must always be “predominantly political rather than ethical,” meaning that those who favor greater equality should rely on sheer power and political mobilization, not just cogent arguments and appeals to conscience. The clear message: Expect little from conversations with plutocrats.

Among the many who found little uplift in Niebuhr’s critique was Niebuhr himself. “All this is rather tragic,” he said at the end of the book. He was speaking of unpalatable means toward the goal of greater equality, such as appealing to raw emotion and even resentment.

At times it’s hard to tell if Niebuhr is endorsing such behavior or trying to whip up an air of crisis. He certainly preferred loftier means such as civil discourse—provided they were effective. But a word he used favorably in this context is “coercion,” directed at the powerful, by the people through their government; he also saw an eternal need for power blocs such as labor unions and the pressures they apply. This would be “class warfare” by today’s squeamish standards.

Niebuhr Now

Moral Man and Immoral Society was Niebuhr’s first major work. At the time, many readers and reviewers (including his fellow liberal Protestant clergy) were understandably alarmed by what they saw as his cynicism, and Niebuhr’s response was characteristically defiant. Gradually, however, he gave a little more due to the possibilities of grace and goodness in political life. He also turned a scornful eye to self-righteousness on the left as well as right.

At the same time, Niebuhr applied his thoughts about the “brutal character of all human collectives” to an increasingly dangerous world. He inspired many a liberal Cold Warrior—and a latter-day adherent, Barack Obama, who calls Niebuhr his favorite philosopher. In recent decades the Niebuhr brigades have arguably been filled with neoconservatives more than liberals, animated by their interpretation of Niebuhrian realism, the idea that the search for perfect justice is dangerously utopian.

Still, Niebuhr was always a creature of the left. He cofounded the liberal Americans for Democratic Action in 1947 and opposed the Vietnam War, which was still raging when he died in 1971. And he remained a sober prognosticator of the human condition. He often said that the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine was Original Sin, which he found more steadily reliable than any belief in human perfectibility.

With his acute sense of tragedy and paradox, Niebuhr would not put full faith in grand designs of economic justice (if those existed today). But he would also doubt there could be even proximate justice, apart from a confrontation with privilege and an unabashed plying of worldly power. …read more

A Word About the Weather

As I write, I’m also packing my toothbrush and notebooks for a conference on Catholic social teaching and climate change, beginning tomorrow at Catholic University in Washington. The climate part needs little explanation, especially after the latest climatic disaster known as Hurricane Sandy. The part about Catholicism or religious faith in general is another matter.

Even TheoPol is not quite prepared to say that theological and moral perspectives are especially critical to discussions of climate change. One would think facts and science—the inconvenient truths, as far as we know them—should be uppermost in the public debate. But theology has a way of crashing parties, including the political ones.

For now, I’ll say there’s an important link between theological ethics and at least one aspect of global climate change: relationships between rich and poor nations. In their 2001 pastoral letter, Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good, the U.S. bishops zeroed in on four points about equity in these relationships.

1) Rich and poor nations alike have a responsibility to address the climate threat;

2) Historically the advanced economies have generated the highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions known to cause climate disruptions;

3) In addition, wealthy nations have a greater capacity to lessen the threat of climate change, while many impoverished nations “live in degrading and desperate situations” that lead them to adopt ecologically harmful practices;

4) Advanced economies should bear the heaviest responsibilities for solutions to climate change. “Developing countries have a right to economic development that can help lift people out of dire poverty,” the bishops noted. “Wealthier industrialized nations have the resources, know-how, and entrepreneurship to produce more efficient cars and cleaner industries,” and they should “share these emerging technologies with the less-developed countries….”

These too are inconvenient truths. Undergirding them are moral and theological principles, among them solidarity and the biblical “preferential option for the poor.” Of course, all this is tendentious drivel if you think global warming is a hoax. Which brings us back to science—until further word. …read more

Listening to Vatican II, 50 Years Later

Pope John XXIII at the start of Vatican II

While an enormous mass of people still lacks the absolute necessities of life, some, even in less advanced countries, live sumptuously or squander wealth. While the few enjoy very great freedom of choice, the many are deprived of almost all possibilities of acting on their own initiative and responsibility, and often subsist in living and working conditions unworthy of human beings.

Hearing those words, you might think they were delivered by the likes of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, perhaps in his address to the United Nations General Assembly last month. Or they may sound like something out of the Frankfurt Declaration, the principles articulated in 1951 (and updated in 1989) by the Socialist International. But you’d have to go looking farther to the right to find the people behind the “many are deprived” statement.

Proper attribution actually belongs to the Second Vatican Council—which was called to order 50 years ago, on October 11, 1962, in Rome. The world’s Roman Catholic bishops made the observation in the signature document of Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes (“joy and hope” in Latin), also known as The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The declaration itself was released two years later, on the day the Council ended.

In calling attention to extreme economic inequality, the fathers of the Council were not tapping into the currents of romantic leftwing internationalism that began flowing around that time. They were channeling traditional wisdom, which is what religious social teaching does, at its best.

Part of that wisdom is to affirm the idea of a hierarchy of values. In other words, some things we may pursue, like wealth, are lower on this scale than other values, such as happiness and care for one’s neighbor. Some things we may prize as a society, like economic growth, are really just means toward other goals, including broadly shared prosperity. They aren’t ends in themselves, although they’re often passed off that way.

Why are so many of us moderns confused about this? I think the Council fathers nailed it when they explained, in Gaudium et Spes, that many people “seem to be hypnotized, as it were, by economics, so that almost their entire personal and social life is permeated with a certain economic outlook.” It’s the kind of trance that leads some to think that the inequalities named by the Council are necessary and just.

The Great Hypnotizers

Economists, of course, are the impresarios of this collective hypnosis. But the wisest of them—including some Nobel Prize winners—would have no quarrel with the men in Rome on this count.

From the moderate left, there’s Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. In his 2000 collection Development as Freedom, Sen drew on Aristotle’s understanding of wealth as “merely useful and for the sake of something else,” and he submitted that the “something else” is human self-realization (including full participation in society). That’s a non-economic value.

From the moderate right, there’s Nobel laureate Robert William Fogel, whose starting point is the question asked by Socrates: What is the good life? He too speaks of self-realization, defined as the achievement of a moral and satisfying life (in his 2002 book The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism).

Sen and Fogel are rare, though. As a whole their profession lacks a teleological view, a sense of ultimate purposes beyond the flow of goods and services. In the absence of that, what we often see are “means parading as ends,” in the words of the iconoclastic economist E.F. Schumacher. This isn’t purely theoretical. In the past decade, the parade passed through debates over global labor and environmental standards, for example. Foes of these measures often complained that such protections would interfere with free trade (a means often mistaken for an end).

It’s all part of the hypnosis, which leads some people to contend that the “losers” in our economy are just that, losers. After all, what else is there to say about people who don’t succeed according to the criteria of the marketplace? Or they’re branded as “takers,” because they might get unemployment insurance or other government benefits.

At Vatican II, the bishops exposed this presumption, under the heading of inequality.

“The development of economic life could diminish social inequalities if that development were guided and coordinated in a reasonable way. Yet all too often it serves only to intensify the inequalities,” they said, adding—“In some places it results in a decline in the social status of the weak and in contempt for the poor.”

More recently the contempt has been known to turn itself on roughly 47 percent of the people. …read more

Jihad on the D Train

Photo by REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid

I’d like to say it’s been a quiet week in my hometown, as Garrison Keillor recites at the beginning of his monologues on public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion. But I’m never able to say that, because I’m not from Lake Wobegon. I’m a New Yorker by birth and by attitude, though not by residence over the past nearly three decades.

The commotion in recent days has been over an ad posted in subway stations that equates the Islamic principle of jihad with savagery. “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man,” says the ad, sponsored by a pro-Israel citizens group. “Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

Let’s skip over the part where I acknowledge that people have a right to express their opinions. And let’s skate over the place where I hold that civilized people try to build bridges of understanding between religious traditions. They don’t dynamite them.

What should be noted is that the ad is also theologically untrue. Maybe that’s beside the point, but it communicates that jihad is essentially a principle of bloodletting. That’s like saying the Trinity or the Chosen People are vile notions, because some fundamentalist Christians and right-wing Israeli settlers, respectively, are doing odious things in the name of those beliefs. I wouldn’t expect to look up and see that message on a cardboard poster while riding the D train into Brooklyn.

Jihad is usually taken to mean “holy war” in the West and, fair to say, in the violent precincts of Muslim extremism. But in the vast reaches of Islam, it refers primarily to a different kind of struggle—to improve our world and, first of all, ourselves.

Nearly a year after the atrocities of September 11, 2001, I had a conversation about this with University of Virginia religion scholar Abdulaziz Sachedina, who had just written a book titled The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism. He pointed out that Mohammed spoke of an “inner jihad,” a struggle against one’s baser instincts. In fact, Mohammed called this the “greater jihad,” as distinct from the “lesser jihad” of struggle against external enemies.

Turns out that for those Muslims who don’t point their guns randomly at infidels (in other words, nearly all of them), jihad may have less to do with war than with reconciliation. “The ability to forgive requires a jihad against one’s anger and resentment in order to restore one’s spiritual station by participating in the divine attribute of forgiveness,” Sachedina wrote in his book.

To me it sounds a lot like the Augustinian notion of the inner self as a battleground, a clash of wills between our lower and higher selves.

Try fitting that message onto a subway poster. But I take some assurance in the live-and-let-live philosophy of New Yorkers, one of whom was quoted in a Reuters dispatch. “It’s not right, but it’s freedom of speech. To put it on a poster is just not right,” said a 29-year-old man as he strode through the Times Square station. “But it caught my attention and I support freedom of speech, so you got to live with it.”

Reuters said most subway riders passed by the ad in a tunnel there without even noticing it. That’s a bit assuring, too, though I also saw, in another item, a photo of a young woman in traditional Muslim headdress, staring at the ad. I can only imagine what she was feeling at that moment. …read more

We Interrupt this Culture War to Report …

A church burns in India

I don’t know if Mitt Romney really believes that 47 percent of all Americans will never have a sense of personal responsibility, will never “care for their lives.” How can anyone think such a thing let alone speechify about it? I also don’t know if he truly believes that one man in America is amassing the power of government to persecute its citizens just because they’re religious. But in an ad last month, the GOP nominee renewed this line of attack on Barack Obama. He and his surrogates have continued to argue, with a wary eye toward the administration’s birth-control mandate, that the president is waging a “war on religion.”

There’s certainly a culture war over religion, and it has apparently come to my quiet neighborhood in Andover, Mass. Walking back from town the other day, I noticed a blue and white sign on a front-porch railing that read: “Stand Up for Religious Freedom.” It’s part of a national campaign targeting this alleged jihad against people and institutions of faith.

I’ve known my neighbors to get up in arms about pressing matters such as parking restrictions and overgrown trees, but this was a bit of a surprise for me. The debate over religious freedom in America has been one of the oddly unexpected features of the 2012 elections. If it were a reality show, I’d be grateful to see a news bulletin break in: We interrupt this broadcast to report that there are people in the world who are actually suffering religious persecution, and not one of them lives in Andover, Mass., or any place like it.

John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter provided such a public service during a forum at Boston College this past April, titled “Is Religious Freedom Under Threat in America?” As the forum’s moderator, he interrupted the panel discussion—entirely about the domestic squabble—to point out that an estimated 150,000 Christians die each year in religious violence in places like Egypt, Nigeria, and India. “In the past hour, 17 Christians have been killed on this planet,” Allen reported, extrapolating from the average toll.

Allen committed the faux pas of talking about actual religious persecution abroad, when he and others on the panel were supposed to be speaking seriously about dubious religious persecution at home (and they did speak seriously and thoughtfully on the subject, from different perspectives).

I hesitate to add that I wrote an article about that forum for Boston College Magazine, and my paragraph on Allen’s intervention was edited out—for perfectly sound editorial reasons, I’m absolutely sure. But it’s just another indication of how the issue of religious freedom has been domesticated. In some hands it has become a political football.

More about this in a month—when thousands are expected to take personal responsibility and turn up in Washington for an October 20 “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” rally. Undoubtedly there will be some 47 percenters among them. …read more

The Bonhoeffer Café

Dietrich Bonhoeffer—theologian, pacifist, almost assassin of Adolph Hitler—continues to fascinate. This summer will bring the perennial crop of academic conferences about the German Lutheran’s life and legacy. The Beams Are Creaking, a biographical play about Bonhoeffer, is currently being presented by Houston’s A. D. Players. And I just heard this past week about a new café not far from where I live—Bonhoeffer’s, in Nashua, New Hampshire, which uses proceeds to aid orphans and refugees in impoverished countries.

Bonhoeffer was on the menu this past February at the always-strange National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. During his keynote speech, bestselling conservative author Eric Metaxas claimed that George W. Bush had recently read his 2010 biography of Bonhoeffer. Then he handed a copy of the 608-page doorstop to the man sitting a few feet away from him—Barack Obama—and said jejunely, “No pressure.” With Obama straining to smile, Metaxas also suggested that legal abortion was akin to Nazism.

Bonhoeffer is in perpetual “vogue,” as the Christian literary review Books & Culture has pronounced. That’s an ironic way of commending the clergyman who railed against superficiality in all matters religious, and could not indulge what he called “cheap grace,” the easy path to discipleship.

One lesson of Bonhoeffer’s witness is that the Christian Church must always be a church, must always pay ultimate loyalty to God, not to false gods, which for Bonhoeffer included Nazi ideology. While still in his twenties, Bonhoeffer, who began his theological career at the University of Berlin, emerged at the forefront of the Confessing Church, an ecclesial movement that arose in 1934 with a call for German Christians to resist the Third Reich.

Bonhoeffer’s Choice

There are incongruities in the Bonhoeffer story, and the most tantalizing has to do with the choice that sealed his martyrdom. He was a pacifist who never renounced his belief that violence is antithetical to Christian faith, as revealed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. And yet beginning in early 1938, he joined in a succession of conspiracies to murder Hitler, while spying for the Allies. This turn from pure nonviolence has led some, including conservative Christians like Metaxas, to fancy that Bonhoeffer would have cheered America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But this conjecture seems to miss an essential point about the man and his thinking. Scholars note that Bonhoeffer—who recorded his thoughts in letters smuggled out of prison—did not rationalize his actions other than to say that the situation was extreme. The theologian felt that his decision to join in the conspiracies against the Fuhrer “was not justified by law or principle, but rather was a free act of Christian responsibility, for which he threw himself on the mercy of God,” Clifford Green, a Lutheran minister and eminent Bonhoeffer scholar who taught at Hartford Theological Seminary, told me a few years ago.

This ethic may be too subtle for retail politics, but it’s powerful still. In the most acute moral emergencies, we can do what we have to do, to stop a tyrant or head off genocide. But let’s not fool ourselves. There will be plenty to atone for, and little cause for self-congratulation.

What is indisputable is that Bonhoeffer accepted “the cost of discipleship,” which are the title words of his 1937 classic. On the morning of April 9, 1945, at the Flossenburg concentration camp, he was stripped, led naked to the gallows, and hung for his part in the plots to assassinate Hitler. At that moment, historians say, Bonhoeffer could hear American artillery in the distance.

He was 39 years old. Two weeks later, the Allies liberated the city. …read more

The Blessings of Unfreedom

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: mugshot in the gulag

Yesterday, an estimated two thousand people filled the National Cathedral in Washington for a memorial service that celebrated the post-incarceration life of Charles W. Colson, the Watergate conspirator-turned-evangelical who died last month. Colson was part of an infamous group of men in the Nixon White House who could be charitably described as revolting. In 1974 he went to prison for Watergate-related crimes including the cover-up that toppled a president. Seven months later, he was “born again,” as he proclaimed upon release—a changed man.

Many were skeptical of his jailhouse conversion, then and for years afterward. But Colson eventually proved them wrong as he dedicated the second half of his life to serving the spiritual needs of his fellow sinners in the slammer, through his organization, Prison Fellowship Ministries.

This basic story line and its variations are not unfamiliar. Many have gained remarkable insights into themselves and their world, peering out from behind bars. Some, like Colson, were incredibly guilty; some were ultimately vindicated; others were prisoners of conscience or of politics. Nelson Mandela, to name a revered one, was a violent revolutionary, overflowing with resentment (and not without cause), when thrown into the cramped prison cell that contained him for 27 years, courtesy of South Africa’s white minority regime. He came out a reconciler. Mandela’s honored guest at his 1994 presidential inauguration was his white jailer.

Some inmates have reached a level of consciousness where they could see themselves as radically free. They might even look upon the rest of us, on the outside, as existing in a kind of spiritual incarceration. Such was the illumination given to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn during his eight years in the Russian gulags after World War II.

Mistaken as Alive

In his 1973 classic The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn recalled when he and his fellow political captives were transferred from one slave labor camp to another, on a regular passenger train. They were dressed in ordinary clothes because the gulags were a state secret. “You sit on ancient passenger benches, and you hear strange and insignificant conversations,” he wrote of train-station palaver about trivialities such as family members who don’t wipe their feet after they walk through the apartment door. “The only one there who is alive, truly alive, is incorporeal you, and all these others are simply mistaken in thinking themselves alive.”

These quotes come from a handy sourcebook, Foundations of Theological Study, edited by Richard Viladesau and Mark Massa, S.J. Solzhenitsyn continues:

So what’s this about unwiped feet? And what’s this about a mother-in-law? What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want, I’ll spell it out for you right now. Do not pursue what is illusory—property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life—don’t be afraid of misfortune; and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes see, and if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart—and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well.

Viladesau and Massa note in their introduction to the excerpt from The Gulag Archipelago that Solzhenitsyn’s train-station experience amounted to a spiritual awakening. Though his circumstances were extraordinary, he seemed to speak for Mandela, Colson, and many others unknown when he wrote: “I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: Bless you, prison!” …read more

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