Archives for May 2012

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 Return of Mother Jones

Coming to a post office near you?

With all the problems to ponder—war, hunger, intolerance, and the like—it’s impressive that some on the left would find time to push for getting one of their foremothers onto a 45-cent stamp. But that’s what some are trying to do with the dowdy visage of Mary Harris Jones, better known as “Mother Jones.”

The latest lobbying of the U.S. Postal Service on this front has come in an article published last week in the Huffington Post, under the headline, “If Elvis can get his own stamp, why not Mother Jones?”

“By all accounts Mary was a brilliant, charismatic speaker, and a fearless, dedicated champion of social justice,” Los Angeles playwright David Macaray wrote. He was speaking on a first-name basis about the Irish-born labor activist who fought captains of American industry for decades around the turn of the 20th century, and often prevailed. “The authorities (politicians, mine owners, business groups) were terrified of her,” Macaray reports.

The fusty image of Mother Jones, in her laced black dress and black bonnet, has crept back into political consciousness over the past few decades. Some have discovered her through the left-leaning national magazine that bears her name. Others have encountered her fiery rhetoric on T-shirts, like one that proclaims: “Pray for the dead, but fight like hell for the living.”

For the American Left, or what’s left of it, there’s much to commemorate here. There may also be some inconvenient truths about Mother Jones, depending on one’s particular leftish leaning. And these make her all the more interesting, someone I’d actually like to see on a postage stamp.

Jones biographer Dale Fetherling found the right label for the mother of all union agitators. He called her a “conservative radical.”

She was a God-fearing widow who saw her labor activism as a divine calling: “We are doing God’s holy work. We are putting the fear of God into the robbers” of the poor. She broke with the socialists, ridiculing their ideology as “mostly sentiment, and that’s why it [socialism] will never work.” She appalled the suffragists, declaring that “home training of the child should be her [women’s] task, and it is the most beautiful of tasks.” (She herself had lost her husband and four children in a yellow-fever epidemic that blazed through Memphis in 1867.)

Mother Jones was a lifelong Roman Catholic, albeit an irreverent one. She saved some of her sharpest barbs for priests and nuns who fled the fight for social justice. During the Colorado coal strike of 1913-1914, she called the Sisters of Charity “moral cowards … owned body and soul by the Rockefeller interests.” The sisters had let the state militia use their hospital in Trinidad as a prison for union organizers—including Mother Jones.

In the end, she was feted far and wide. On May 1, 1930, her 93rd birthday, even John D. Rockefeller Jr. cabled a warm message to her in Washington, D.C., where she spent her final years with friends. In a reply dictated from her sickbed, Jones told her natural enemy he had “a Christian heart.”

Seven months later, Jones passed away. She was given a high requiem Mass at St. Gabriel Church in Washington, where thousands came to view her body in a gray casket with black rosary beads wrapped around her fingers. …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

When the Group Becomes God

Over the edge

Extreme nationalism appears to be strutting back into the news. It is a bit like extreme sports, in that it usually involves a high level of danger, although cliff jumpers and other athletic extremists pose a danger mainly to themselves, unlike their political counterparts, who are inclined to take entire societies over the edge. Ultranationalists are conspiring in many places including Turkey, where fascists are once again threatening to massacre Armenians; India, where Hindu nationalists have been dragging worshipers out of Christian churches and thrashing them; and even in Holland, where anti-immigrant Dutch nationalists are stirring in one of the world’s most politically correct countries.

Some of the reporting has come by way of remembrance. Last month the world marked twenty years since old hatreds rematerialized in the former Yugoslavia, which was splitting apart as nationalism replaced Communism. Serbian forces bombarded Muslim neighborhoods in Sarajevo, launching the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and nearly a decade of extreme ethnicity throughout the Balkans. “Ethnic cleansing” became a grim catchphrase.

In a May 3 Op-Ed in the New York Times, a 31-year-old physical therapist in Queens told of how, as a seven-year-old “Bosniak” (a Muslim in Bosnia), he pledged with his classmates to spread unity in what was still Yugoslavia. He did so at a multiethnic school, in front of his favorite teacher, a Serb. Five years later, he bumped into that teacher, who had traded in his chalk and clipboard for a Serbian Army uniform:

“Hey, teacher,” I called. He knocked the grocery bag out of my hand, saying, “Balije don’t need bread.” (“Balije” was a slur for Bosniak.) Holding me by my hair, he rested his rifle against my head. “It’s jammed,” he complained. As I ran away, I caught him waving a three-finger salute, a gesture of Serbian nationalism based on the Orthodox sign of the cross.

Note the “sign of the cross.” There were many symbols of faith deployed in the ethnic crossfires, which led otherwise astute observers to a specious conclusion about the nature of that conflict in the former Yugoslavia. At the time, the redoubtable Henry Kissinger declared that it was a “religious war,” not an ethnic one, “since all the groups are of the same ethnic stock”—Slavs, namely. But of course, Yugoslavia had been Communist, and its population largely atheist or at least secular, for nearly a half-century before the Balkans exploded again. So, Kissinger and others left us chewing on the paradox of a religious war fought largely by irreligious people.

Ultimate Concern

In a way Kissinger was right, though not in the way he intended. In the throes of such fanaticism, one’s ethnicity or nationality takes on a kind of absolute significance. It becomes an “ultimate concern,” not merely a “preliminary concern.” It turns into a god.

Here I’m speaking the language of Paul Tillich (1886-1965). “The religious concern is ultimate; it excludes all other concerns from ultimate significance; it makes them preliminary,” the German-born Lutheran wrote in his classic Systematic Theology (Vol. 1). This ultimate concern is total, Tillich adds: “no part of ourselves is excluded from it; there is no place to flee from it.”

What happens when something less than the divine—or less than a transcendent value—is invested with ultimate concern? People begin bowing to false deities, Tillich says.

Idolatry is the elevation of a preliminary concern to ultimacy. Something essentially conditioned is taken as unconditional, something essentially partial is boosted into universality, and something essentially finite is given infinite significance …

More than nationalism comes to mind. National security or the market can become a creeping absolute, especially in a time of international crisis or extreme inequality. Tillich also italicizes—“Our ultimate concern is that which determines our being and non-being.” In the case of exaggerated nationalism, it is all too predictably a path to non-being—over the cliff. …read more

God and Consolidated Edison

During this year of recrimination over a supposed “war on religion,” I’ve been collecting tidbits about a special flock of writers and intellectuals who want to make love, not war, with organized religion. Every last one of them is a card-carrying atheist.

This crowd is rebelling against the so-called New Atheists, who served up a brash assortment of down-with-God books during the mid-00s and who are now apparently the old-new atheists. One of the really new atheists is the Swiss-born London intellectual Alain de Botton, who has turned heads on both sides of the Atlantic with his book Religion for Atheists. In it, de Botton argues that one can be “left cold” by religious doctrines and still treasure “the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring.”

He would like to see your local atheists build “a temple to anything that’s positive and good,” like friendship. Or mimic other faith establishments like the Franciscan retreat house—by opening up “a secular hotel for the soul,” a place of quiet reflection and personal enrichment, he suggests.

Among the new-new atheists, I also count the Harvard evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson (beliefs in immortality and divine justice “give priceless comfort” and “steel resolution in difficult times,” he writes in a new book); German philosopher Jurgen Habermas (liberal democratic society cannot flourish without “the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love,” he concludes); magazine publisher Bruce Shelman (An Atheist Defends Religion is his offering to the genre); and other secular souls in that choir. Their standard refrain is that religion contributes to both social cohesion and personal contentment.

What does all this tell us other than the obvious—that not all atheists are damning religion? I might have to get back to you on that, but I can’t think of much offhand. These writers are commendably fair-minded, but they aren’t showering us with insights about faith and society. They’re the latest in a long and fairly insipid tradition of believers and unbelievers alike who have applauded religion as a useful buttress of society—a public utility of sorts. They seem to have trouble distinguishing between religious faith and the National Grid, between God and Con Ed.

A stinging response to this flurry of faith-friendliness has come from the impious British literary critic Terry Eagleton. Writing in The Guardian he pointed out that some great thinkers such as Machiavelli, Voltaire, and Diderot held to the view that “I don’t believe myself, but it is politically prudent that you should.” That slogan is alive and well, Eagleton reports. Back in January he had this to say in a preview of de Botton’s Religion for Atheists:

What this book does, in short, is hijack other people’s beliefs, empty them of content and redeploy them in the name of moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure. It is an astonishingly impudent enterprise. It is also strikingly unoriginal. Liberal-capitalist societies, being by their nature divided, contentious places, are forever in search of a judicious dose of communitarianism to pin themselves together, and a secularized religion has long been one bogus solution on offer.

Invisible Mortar

I don’t think Eagleton doubts that religion serves all these ends and then some: he points without elaborating to Machiavelli’s observation that religious ideas are an excellent way to “terrorize the mob.” The question, which reaches beyond his polemic, is whether the public-utility view of religion is adequate. It does have its merits. It reminds us of how religion has often provided a sense of shared purpose, “a kind of invisible mortar for our common life,” as described last week by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, author of Bad Religion. But as Douthat notes, religion has also supplied moral critiques of our public life. That too has been a vital function though not an unmixed blessing.

Martin Luther King and the liberal ministers, rabbis, and priests who coalesced during the 1960s epitomized the less-convenient role of religion in America. They called on the forces of faith to confront society and its unjust structures, not prop them up. Like the Hebrew prophets they condemned far more than they condoned.

Then came the conservative evangelicals in the late 1970s. They showed that two ideological sides could play this unruly game of prophetic politics. Conservative Catholics and Republican office-holders increasingly allied with them. So now we have a culture war against the so-called “war on religion” and other furious confrontations—a style of religious-political engagement sure to stay with us through the election year. …read more