Sunday, November 05, 2017

Bonhoeffer's Reception of Luther: A Review

Bonhoeffer's Reception of Luther.  Michael P. DeJonge. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran. Say it again. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran. Although his long-standing association with his contemporary Karl Barth has sometimes led us to believe Bonhoeffer was more Barthian than Lutheran, and although evangelicals (that bastard Eric Metaxas chief among them) like to claim him for their cause, the truth is simple: Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran.

DeJonge opens his book with simple statistics. Bonhoeffer quotes Martin Luther more than any other theologian--870 times, and usually approvingly. Karl Barth, by contrast, gets fewer than 300 citations in Bonhoeffer, and theologians like Augustine, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, and Calvin each get only a few dozen citations.

Frequency alone fails to establish influence, so DeJonge offers a more nuanced and compelling thesis. "Bonhoeffer thought his theology was Lutheran, and he was justified in thinking so" (7). DeJonge believes this thesis has interpretive value, because taking Bonhoeffer's Lutheranism "seriously generates better interpretations of his texts in their context than readings that do not" (7). It especially facilitates coherently interpreting what are otherwise especially difficult problems in Bonhoeffer scholarship.


Offering this thesis, DeJonge then unpacks first how Bonhoeffer understood himself as a Lutheran, and second what it might mean for Bonhoeffer to consider himself a Lutheran. Much hinges on this method. It offers itself as a compelling model for interpreting any theological figure. Consider first how the author gives him or herself, their own self-understanding. Engage their self-understanding charitably. Then consider more broadly whether their self-understanding comports with a broader historic understanding of the tradition. Or, as DeJonge once more summarizes it, "Bonhoeffer understood his own thinking to be Lutheran (in a narrow, insider sense of Lutheran), and he was justified in that (in a broader, outsider sense of Lutheran)" (10).

Failing to notice the Lutheran character of Bonhoeffer's thinking results in a variety of interpretive problems. For DeJonge, chief among these is the inattention to the connection between Bonhoeffer's theology and Luther's two-kingdoms thinking. Similarly, attending to the influence of Luther on Bonhoeffer highlights Bonhoeffer's academic phase focus on "the church as the present Christ or, what is the same, the place where the gospel is preached and heard" (14).

The book opens with a consideration of Luther Renaissance scholars' impact on Bonhoeffer, with particular attention to Karl Holl. Although Holl is not widely known today, he is recognized as the initiator of the Luther Renaissance. Bonhoeffer's close engagement with Holl illustrates how early and deep Luther is in Bonhoeffer's thinking. Intriguingly, Bonhoeffer even offers a correction to Holl's hyper-focus on conscience, and instead grounds justification in Christ rather than the conscience, a move that has significantly influenced our theology of justification yet today.

Christology takes center stage in the book as a whole. DeJonge maps the influence of Luther on Bonhoeffer's single-agent Christology. "The heartbeat of Lutheran christology is the christological 'is'--this man is God--which translates into the exclusive agency of the person of Christ... if there is anything about the Lutheran tradition that Bonhoeffer sees with [special] clarity and pursues with abandon, it is the exclusive christological agency of the person of Christ" (67).

Then, from "Christ is" DeJonge notes that Bonhoeffer moves to "Christ is present" and finally to "Christ is present as Word, sacrament, and church-community." Sound Lutheran? You bet!

Something I particularly love about DeJonge's approach: he has a way of situating Bonhoeffer, placing him within a particular tradition and historical moment while also reading him generously. Having outlined a variety of theologies of two-kingdoms that arose in the 20th century, he says of Bonhoeffer that his "two kingdoms thinking is of course of a particular type... from early through the late period of his thinking, Bonhoeffer thinks in terms of the two kingdoms, although his thinking adjusts, to borrow a phrase from Ethics, in accord with reality" (102-103). This is the kind of author and scholar you want to spend time with, somebody who generously reads his subject of inquiry, and even enlists that author in the interpretation of his own development.

In the late portion of the book, DeJonge takes time to disambiguate Bonhoeffer from the Anabaptist theological lens, especially the work of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. Such disambiguation is essential, because the association of Bonhoeffer with Anabaptism "leads to a number of misinterpretations. " So he takes time in the Anabaptist chapter to demonstrate Bonhoeffer's non-commitments to nonviolence over-against the misinterpretations of Hauerwas and Yoder (143).

A book on Bonhoeffer necessarily must include notes on resistance. "There has been consensus for several decades among political historians of the early modern period that European theories of resistance found their first articulation in the Lutheran tradition" (198). So even if much has been and needs to be said about Luther's influence on Hitler and the system Bonhoeffer was resisting, failures to note the connection between the Lutheran articulation of resistance and Bonhoeffer's commitment to resistance result in a misinterpretation of the theological grounding of such resistance.


For Bonhoeffer, as for Luther, an authentic understanding of the doctrine of justification results in an abiding commitment to the vocation of a Christian, which Bonhoeffer interprets as responsibility. DeJonge quotes his World Alliance Lecture: "vocation is responsibility, and responsibility is the whole response of the whole person to reality as a whole" (249). Over-against a pseudo-Lutheranism that divides reality into independent spheres, with Christ an authority over only some of those spheres, DeJonge sees that Bonhoeffer in a deepening of Luther's key insight centers in on this concept of responsibility (Stellvertretung). Bonhoeffer is not just influenced by Luther. He also offers a "critique of Lutheran according to what he considers its own best standards" (248). In theology, there's really no better form of reception than that.


Thursday, November 02, 2017

What if every day is a tragedy?

The American Psychology Association just published their Stress in America™ survey. It's not good.
More than half of Americans (59 percent) said they consider this the lowest point in U.S. history that they can remember — a figure spanning every generation, including those who lived through World War II and Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
So. Just think about Sept. 11th. Churches across the country created the space we all needed to process our grief and fear. But what if the grief didn't have an arc arising out of a single tragic moment? What if there was a new grief every day?

As a clergy person I am convicted (but not surprised) to learn that over half of Americans of all generations (and all political persuasions) feel this is the lowest point in U.S. history they can remember. I am convicted because the church today has a significant pastoral care opportunity and responsibility. I am not surprised because, well, good Lord, can't you just feel it? I can!

But what is our responsibility? How do we minister among a people who are experiencing low-grade tragedy and trauma every day?

There are many sources of trauma. We are aware more than ever that climate change is increasing the frequency of major weather events. We wring our hands, not knowing what to do, as North Korea gains nuclear weapons. We watch the president of the United States politicize the most recent tragedy in New York City.

And it is this last low point that is most on my mind. If we're honest, I think we can recognize that we are at the lowest point in U.S. history largely because of Donald Trump... and our reaction to him. And it is honestly both of those, the president himself and our reaction to him.

Donald Trump


Even Donald Trump's emotional state is the top of the news, with articles today indicating he called the New York Times to tell them he isn't angry. 

It's like the mom whose husband has bouts of anger, so when the kids come home from school, she says to them, "Don't go in the living room, and be quiet in the kitchen, because your dad is in a bad mood."

Except the dad is almost always in a bad mood, so the whole family adapts their behavior to the mood of the mercurial father. This is what it is like to live in a Donald Trump nation. But in this case there's an added factor. Trump invades all our spaces with his daily Twitter-storm, and the press amplifies everything he writes by making his morning tweets the basis for daily news.

This can't be good, and takes us to the flip side. He's a bad president, and nothing should deflect us from the dangers of a Trump presidency, but we are also called to consider our reaction to him.

Our Reaction To Him

The APA report goes on to say:
The most common issues causing stress when thinking about the nation are health care (43 percent), the economy (35 percent), trust in government (32 percent), hate crimes (31 percent) and crime (31 percent), wars/conflicts with other countries (30 percent), and terrorist attacks in the United States (30 percent). About one in five Americans cited unemployment and low wages (22 percent), and climate change and environmental issues (21 percent) as issues causing them stress. 
Adults also indicated that they feel conflicted between their desire to stay informed about the news and their view of the media as a source of stress. While most adults (95 percent) say they follow the news regularly, 56 percent say that doing so causes them stress, and 72 percent believe the media blows things out of proportion. 
With 24-hour news networks and conversations with friends, family and other connections on social media, it’s hard to avoid the constant stream of stress around issues of national concern,” said Evans. “These can range from mild, thought-provoking discussions to outright, intense bickering, and over the long term, conflict like this may have an impact on health. Understanding that we all still need to be informed about the news, it’s time to make it a priority to be thoughtful about how often and what type of media we consume.
The survey also found that 51 percent of Americans say that the state of the nation has inspired them to volunteer or support causes they value. More than half (59 percent) have taken some form of action in the past year, including 28 percent who signed a petition and 15 percent who boycotted a company or product in response to its social or political views or actions.
So the actual stressors are not the president or other politicians, but rather a set of concerns: health care, crime, war, trust. But almost all of these topical stressors are exacerbated by, if not created by, the politicians. Then it is the media, which in this case includes the actual media, plus social networks and the use of such networks by leaders themselves, that amplifies everything in a pummeling downward spiral.

So the APA wisely recommend making it a priority to be thoughtful about how often and what type of media we consume. Personally, I recommend 14-year-old Gabe Fleischer's Wake Up to Politics, and long-form journalism.

As a pastor, I've landed on what I hope is a balanced and engaged approach, a shape for Christian witness that is pastoral and caring while also justice-oriented and active. It looks like this.

We must offer and receive challenge.

We cannot be disengaged. If the noise of the present moment lulls us into inactivity, or if we quietly avoid doing what is right, we are complicit through our silence. In a future post, I'm going to address the quietude of the American church of the 20th century that resulted in the loss of voice from which we are still recovering. Somehow Christians have forgotten that if we are walking in the way of Christ, we will meet resistance. Christians should expect to be challenged. Regularly. And they should challenge each other. 

When you are silent at the neighborhood party or on the golf course because you don't want to make waves with your neighbors, inevitably you are then contributing to a culture through your silent complicity that makes minorities and other groups far more unsafe in our community than you will ever be in your silent complicity. This is neither right nor fair. You don't get a pass.

Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. (Matthew 5)
Heed challenge and translate it into action. Repent. Get over guilt. Then "do." This reduces the stress.

It is very stressful to feel responsible while living in the absence of a possible. If you can't change anything but know things need to change, this is disempowering and frustrating. But we can always do something even if the doing isn't huge. Your letter to the editor might not change the mind of a senator, for example, but it might make your immigrant neighbor feel safer. 

The APA noted that lots of people very wisely found ways to get more involved, volunteering or taking action of some kind. I do not believe we have yet gotten to critical mass action. We need many more people to get out out of their stuckness in silence and complicity, and do things. 

If you can't write a letter to the editor, then identify a sick member in your congregation and take them a meal. Don't know how to advocate for a better relationship to Muslims in America? Then start by visiting your local mosque to meet some new friends. 

Judge for yourself.

You might be going through a lot in your life right now. Maybe you are caring for an ailing loved one. Maybe you are snowed-under at work, or dealing with a health crisis yourself. Maybe you are deep at work on your dissertation. We all have to prioritize. So if you hear the call to action, but you already believe you have to stay focused on a different set of concerns for your own well-being and the well-being of those you love, then by all means, judge for yourself.

I truly believe we are at this low point because collectively we have not and are not speaking up enough, acting enough, on behalf of vulnerable groups, or even on behalf of our best self-interests. But that is a statement about the collective, not individuals, and individually we can show each other (and ourselves) the grace to recognize that there are times and seasons in our lives when we do what we can, and that is good enough.


The Day of the Dead

Today is Día de los Muertos. One of our social justice partners, NWA Worker Justice Center, is hosting an event this evening honoring immigrants & fighting back for the dignity of the living. This is very much in the spirit of Day of the Dead observances, because it is more than anything else a reaffirmation of indigenous life.
So, if you are hearing about Day of the Dead for the first time, or if you are thinking about it in comparison to Halloween, try distinguishing it as its own holiday, with its own integrity, and learn a bit more about it. Maybe read this excellent piece on Day of the Dead in National Geographic.

Here's the event announcement:

Thursday, November 2 at 5:30pm
Marching from Thompson St. and Emma Ave. to Shiloh Square
Springdale, Arkansas

We invite everyone to come out to celebrate the NWA Workers’ Justice Center’s first annual Día de los Muertos, a sacred holiday with indigenous roots in Mexican and Central American culture that goes back thousands of years. The event will include theater, puppets, music, dances, food and altars.
The NWA Workers’ Justice Center (NWAWJC) holds this space to preserve our cultural traditions and commemorate immigrants that have died while on the job, crossing the border, and as a result of police brutality and hate crimes.
Due to the current administration, attacks on immigrant workers are escalating. Employer-mandated processing quotas and rapid line speeds are causing dangerous and difficult conditions for poultry processing workers in Arkansas; this intense time pressure often causes workers to injure themselves, as well as engage in behavior that compromises the safety of the product. Trump’s commitment to cut OSHA funding leaves the NWAWJC uncertain of continued funding for the health and safety trainings we provide for our members and the community. Cuts made to OSHA and other labor agencies by the current administration cause more dangerous and fatal working conditions.
Visiting artists from Los Angeles Mateo Ozelotzin-Hernandez and Joe Garza in collaboration with local artist Octavio Logo are spearheading the artistic direction of this event. We are presenting the event in collaboration with The Artist’s Laboratory Theatre, our members, and allies. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Read These Books To Survive These Times

Certain books written in this season are especially well-suited to survival. They're the proper mix of readable, inspiring, and strategic. These days, it's essential to see things as they are, and discover the tools necessary to overcome the anxiety born of responsibility stripped of agency.

My favorite by far is Al Franken's Giant of the Senate. Not only is it sidesplittingly hilarious, it also will teach you more about political strategy than any serious tome. Learn about "the pivot," political cover, campaigning, bipartisan strategy, with an extra helping of backstory on Saturday Night Live.

After Franken, take time to read Hillary Clinton's What Happened. You'll be caught off-guard by her humility and self-searching analysis of "what happened." She's written the book to inspire those who read it with practical steps forward from here.

I listened to both Franken and Clinton on Audible, and I highly recommend listening to the books, as they are read by their authors.

Next, I recommend you read writers on writing. My favorites of late are Toni Morrison's The Origin of Others and John McPhee's Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. Morrison analyzes the themes in her own works, which will be of interest to everyone who has read her novels and wonders how she has accomplished so much that resonates with readers. McPhee is simply glorious in his prose, and will inspire you at every turn. You'll want to write better, which in an era when great prose is in short supply, is crucial.

I tend to believe some of what is exhausting progressives in this era is their erroneous assumption that world is ineluctably moving forward and improving. It isn't. False forms of hope often protect oppressive structures, and De La Torre argues that we must "mess with" the structures themselves by Embracing Hopelessness.

This also means all of us, leaders in faith communities, needs to discover better avenues for Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age. Many previous forms of soul-care, seelsorge, pastoral ministry, were designed for a church that no longer exists, in a historical period that we've moved beyond. Today instead we're trying to figure out how (not) to be secular, which is a different assignment altogether.

We're also trying to figure out how to "not die" (see The Lego Movie). For that reason, we need books like Leah Schade's on Creation-Crisis Preaching, because we need a way of talking about the faith sensitive to eco-feminism, a language of faith committed to creation care and lifting strengthening women in community.

Finally, I recommend pre-ordering Faith In Action: A Handbook for Activists from the Faith in Action Writing Collective. Just in time for Christmas, it will offer practical direction for action by advocates, allies, and activists.