Saturday, 27 February 2016

The Mercy of God: An Excerpt From a Sermon of Karl Barth's Given in a Swiss Prison

For God has made all men prisoners, that he may have mercy upon all. (Romans 11.32)

"Since God's mercy is divine and not human, it is poured out on all people, as emphasized in our text. In his letter to the Romans Paul interprets this mercy by insisting that it is extended to Jews and the gentiles- to those near, or at least nearer, to God and those far away from him- to the so-called pious and the so-called unbelievers- to the so-called good and the so-called evil people- truly to all. God has mercy on all, though each in his own way. God's mercy is such as it described in the parable of the lost sheep, of the lost coin, and of the prodigal son. 

Let us pause here for a moment. As according to God's holy word, spoken in Jesus Christ, he has mercy on all, each one of you may and shall repeat- not after me, but after him- 'I am one of them'. God as mercy on me and will have mercy on me. The one great sin for anyone right now would be to think: This is not meant for me. 'God does not have mercy on me and will not have mercy on me.' Or even worse- 'I do not need mercy. I do not want it!' This would be the one great sin which we had rather not commit this morning. God has mercy on all, including you and me. As a result you and I may and shall live from this 'yes' spoken to all men, spoken to us, and live here and now. 

But wait a minute! Because according to the word that God has spoken in Jesus Christ he has mercy on all, we may and we must repeat in our hearts: 'Among all people on whom God has mercy are this man and this woman, this fellow-creature beside me, in front of me or behind, whom I don't like to remember. Perhaps he did me wrong, or I am not pleased with him for other reasons. Perhaps I must consider him as my enemy, and myself as his enemy.' God has mercy on all- even on this other fellow! His 'yes' is also valid for him. The one great sin from which we shall try to escape this morning is to exclude anyone from the 'yes' of God's mercy. In  our thoughts, words and deeds we may live, and we must live, with each neighbour as with one to whom God is compassionate.We not only pray 'Lord have mercy on me!' We also pray 'Lord have mercy on us, have mercy on us all!' This has been the prayer of the Christian Church from the very beginning, and this is the true prayer for us today."

-Delieverance To The Captives, Sermons in a Prison in Basel.

Friday, 26 February 2016

A Thought From Blumhardt

"As I see it, God's wrath is sweeping over the Christian West precisely because a proud culture and pious Christianity have been pushed into the people, while at the same time they are despised. To forget that all of us belong to God-whether pagan or Christian- is hardhearted and dishonest. The whole of Western civilization is tainted, much as the Romans were with their Caesars, regarding the rest of the world as dirt or as an opportunity for exploitation.

How can this go on? God must intervene and open our eyes; that is the only the only help I know of. The ruling prince of this world should not be allowed any more victories (1 John 3:8). He has trampled emerging humanity into the muck a hundred times already. He must no longer be allowed to do this."

- Christoph Blumhardt, german theologian and Christian socialist, 1842-1919. Everyone Belongs To God, Plough Publishing 2015.   

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Trump: The Leader The Free World Needs (Satire)

It's tempting to think did Bernie Sanders would be the best candidate for the presidency. He seems so caring, so decent. No doubt he has sincere good intentions. But you know what they say about good intentions! Sanders wants to be a father to the nation, caring for all of its citizens like children. Yet children are not what make a strong democracy or a functional society: responsible adults do that. What does America need? A parent? Is the greatest nation on earth a giant nursery? Or does America need a leader?

The hard fact is that in today’s world the US will benefit no one by becoming a giant hospital ward. What the US needs is not to function like a permissive family, but to function like a business. America needs to be strong, efficient, creative, and competitive. America needs a leader who can and will fight to make her great again. America needs Donald Trump. In Trump’s own words, unvarnished sure, but straight from the hip and right to the target: “Look, we will bring the American dream back. That I will tell you. We're bringing it back, Okay? And I understand what you're saying. And I get that from so many people. 'Is the American dream dead?' They are asking me the question. 'Is the American dream dead?' And the American dream is in trouble. But we're going to get it back and do some real jobs.... How about the man with that beautiful red hat? Stand up! Stand up! What a hat!" (Town Hall, Rochester, NY, 9-7-15)

Sanders is an uninspiring mix of petty bureaucrat and ranting socialist, kind of a mix of Adolf Eichmann and Josef Stalin. Would you want a Nazi communist running the U.S of A.? I wouldn’t. Trump, by comparison, is a champion of individual rights and personal freedoms. When he was not fulfilled in his two previous marriages he divorced and moved on. He wasn’t a slave to the legalistic social norms and moral straightjackets which domineering busybodies are so quick to fit on other people. When he realized business ventures were failing- according to to CNN Money, “no major US company has filed for Chapter 11 more than Trump’s casino empire in the last 30 years”- he was not bullheaded or chained to the past. He was humble enough to declare bankruptcy and liquidate shareholdings, yachts and even airlines in order to be true to those who has helped him and pay them back in the American way. Sanders wouldn’t even have the balls to try to start a Casino in the first place.

The Christian Angle

Christendom is under attack. What is left of Judeo-Christian morality in America is disappearing, and the barbarians are at the gate. We need a leader who will defend our country- not with the platitudes about loving strangers and talking to your enemies Sanders is so fond of! No, with force and cunning. What will happen to a country that reaches out it’s hands to the criminals of every nation and meets enemies with “good vibes” and nice words? It will be decimated, that’s what. What good is a Saviour who lets himself be shamed and beaten down by any Tom, Dick or Harry? As Trump said after he was attacked by the Pope (who Luther called the Whore of Babylon with good reason, everyone knows he’s in the pocket of the Mexican government): “if and when ISIS attacks the Vatican the Pope will wish I had been president”.

Some argue that Trump’s political positions don’t echo those of Jesus, and therefore Christians should not vote for him. Jesus, after all, did urge his followers to “love your enemies (Matthew 5:44)” and not to love money (Matthew 6:24, Matthew 6:19), two principles no one could accuse Trump of embodying. Jesus also said that his followers would be judged not by whether they called him Lord but whether they fed and clothed the poor and cared for the sick (Matthew 7:21). Jesus also said that the blessed “thirst for righteousness” “make peace” and inherit the earth through “meekness” (Matthew 5). Everyone knows, however, that Jesus did not say these things because he wanted people to do them but rather to show how impossible it is to do what’s really right! The true Christian does not suicidally try to love enemies, cultivate false humility, and treat the vulnerable like babies in need of coddling, but rather does what they have to do and trusts in Christ’s redeeming righteousness alone to save them.

The fact that even Paul, who explained redemption through faith, advises his followers to be loving, humble, nonviolent, and holy in their personal conduct does not prove anything either. Those verses can be twisted to mean whatever you want! The same Paul says, in words which cannot be misunderstood (Romans 13): the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” True Paul was talking here about the sinful Roman government, and other pagan governments who are tools of God’s wrath in the Bible are then judged and condemned by God’s wrath themselves. Folks, we are not talking here about pagan government, but Christian government! When Christians wield the sword it is to make peace throughout the world, not like Rome. It’s unfortunate that Paul goes on to tell people to submissively pay their taxes (Romans 13:6-7). If only Trump had been an apostle! Then he’d have been in the greatest book of all time, not just the second greatest (The Art of The Deal)! And he’d have set Paul straight on a few things, I mean “done a few real jobs!”

Some have doubted Trump’s Christianity on the basis of his lack of involvement with his own Church, his two divorces, his involvement in the gambling industry, and petty faux-pas like dropping money in a communion plate or saying “two Corinthians”. These people’s legalism and focus on externals just shows them to be the whitewashed tombs they are (Matthew 23:27). Sanders, of course, is not only not a Christian but not even a real Jew! Let’s talk turkey folks: Sanders is a socialist, and socialism doesn’t work. The combination of deregulated Capitalism and militaristic foreign policy has brought peace and freedom to billions. That is what made America great, and will make it great again! We need a dragon from the dragon’s den (Revelations 12) to knock the stars from the sky and put an American flag there where it should be.  

The Final Solution

In the end this is what it comes down to: do we want to look back to the failed values of an earlier America or do we want to look forward to restoring America’s greatness? Sanders has only one constituency: hippies and disenfranchised millennials playing the politics of envy. Trump inspires everyone- heck, even the Klu Klux Klan endorses him! Before politics made her two-faced Clinton even went to his wedding! The man’s charm is unstoppable. It’s time to pull America out of the pit that Obama dug (thank God the Republicans didn’t let him do anything!) and restore the dignity of the presidential office. Vote Trump.

Friday, 19 February 2016

In The Days of Bernie Sanders: Karl Barth on Socialism

Bernie Sanders rise to become the contender for the presidency has been a wonder to behold. In recent days articles exploring his democratic socialism and Jewish ethical core have appeared in various places (see here for the latter). Religion New Service recently argued that Sanders may be the most Christian candidate. I thought I'd post this provocative quote from Karl Barth for those pondering Bernie's socialist politics from a Christian perspective:

"I have become a socialist in a very simple way, and I live socialism in a very simple way. Because I would like to believe in God and God's kingdom, I place myself at the point where I see something of God's kingdom break through...I think I can see the mistakes of socialism and its proponents very clearly. But much more clearly I see the grounding thought, in the essential endeavor of socialism, a revelation of God which I must recognize before all and about which I must be delighted. The new society, which is based on the foundation of community and justice, instead of capriciousness and the law of the jungle, the new order of work in the sense of common activity for all instead of the in the sense of exploitation through egotism of the individual, the new connection of humans as humans over the barrier of class and nations...finally the way to this goal: the simple brotherhood and solidarity [that appear] first among the poor and under-priveleged of all countries-I must recognize all these new features, which socialism brings into political and economic life, as something new from God's side...Socialism-despite its imperfections, which people should discuss calmly and openly-is for me one of the most gratifying signs for the fact that God's kingdom does not stand still, that God is at work, and hence I may not and cannot stand against it indifferently....From the sentiment of duty, that tells me: this is where you belong, if you take God in earnest. Through my membership in the Social Democratic Party I believe to confess a very important point in complete plainness to myself and to my parish that God must come to honor...People may cling to religion and still associate themselves with another party or remain without a party...But I cannot find the kingdom of God there, where people again and again make money more important than the human beings, where possession is again and again the scale of all value, where people set the nation over humanity in anxiety and small mindedness, where people believe more in the present than in the future."
(From a 1915 sermon, in Paul S. Chung, Barth: God's Word in Action)

Thursday, 11 February 2016

What About Hitler? Bonhoeffer and the Bomb

Operation Valkyrie

On July 20, 1944 Claus Von Stauffenberg excused himself to go to the bathroom before going to a meeting with Hitler. He unwrapped and armed a bomb hidden inside his briefcase, putting on the shirt it had been wrapped in. Once inside the meeting Stauffenberg took his place beside Hitler while they and several others listened to a presentation from General Heusinger. He put his now deadly satchel under the table a few feet from Hitler, knowing it would detonate in 5  minutes. Unknown to Stauffenberg the massive oak desk was supported by two “socles”, thick wooden plinths. The socle near Hitler would redirect the force of the blast and save the life of the Dictator. As Eric Metaxas writes, “It is a fact and a mystery that the course of history hinged on a quirk of furniture design” (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, p.480-2). Several men in the room were killed by the blast, but not Hitler. As a result of Hitler’s survival, all of the members of the vast conspiracy behind the attack, including in some cases their wives, children and associates, would be hunted down and sent to concentration camps. Among them would be Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a highly gifted Lutheran pastor who had been working for years against Hitler and was among those plotting his murder.     

Love Your Enemies

Most people, even if they know little about Jesus, grasp his most famous teaching: love your enemies. This love is not just a sentiment but is a program. It is the way the Kingdom he declared advances. We are to love both neighbour and enemy even to the extent of praying for our persecutors and refusing to kill our attackers. As Jesus died with words of forgiveness and prayer for his killers on his lips, so too are his followers to do. Christ-followers become black holes of reconciliation eating up the violence of the world. Hatred and violence are thrown into them and they return love, like trees eat carbon dioxide and give back oxygen. The cycle of violence which started with Cain and Abel thus comes to an end through refusing to participate in it.

Most people have a problem with such an ethics even if they admire it, and truth be told so do most who claim to follow Christ . Although early Christian teachers unanimously preached and lived it, ever since the marriage of Church and State under Constantine this message has been endangered among believers, despite the central place it had in the life and teachings of Jesus himself. Though the application of this teaching in the average person’s life is more along the lines of not becoming angry with those who offend or hurt you, or not seeking revenge upon them in word or gesture, people often leap to the most extreme examples: what about a murderer attacking your family? What about Hitler?

Bonhoeffer and Hitler

Bonhoeffer was reluctant to be involved in the plot to kill Hitler. He agonized over it and was not proud of it. In fact he considered it a sin but felt that in such radically horrific circumstances it was the “right” thing to do. Stauffenberg himself, a Catholic, stopped to pray on the way to the assassination attempt. Earlier he had asked a priest if there was any way to be absolved from the sin of murder.

When I first read of the “salvific socles”  I was amazed. Where was God?! I wondered. How could the bomb not have worked? Did, horror of horrors, God spare Hitler? His survival seemed nothing short of miraculous. In fact this was the way that Hitler himself interpreted the incident: “It was providence that spared me. This proves that I am on the right track. I feel that this is the confirmation of all of my work.” (Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, p. 481).  

Gradually though I went from seeing God’s absence in this story to seeing his presence. As perilous as it is to speculate about the ways of God, if one has any belief at all in God’s presence in history one has to wonder about this story. Imagine for a moment what success would have meant for God’s kingdom, what signal it would have sent. It would have become known that several Christians, including Bonhoeffer, had assassinated Hitler. They would have become heroes and examples to many others to emulate. A great Christian theologian would have become a hero for defeating evil with the very tool that Jesus refused to use: violence. Maybe God did spare Hitler, for the sake of His Kingdom.

The results of the plot are instructive and point out the problems with even the seemingly most justified of murders. What were the actual results? Hitler was strengthened in his confidence; many good more good people died than might have (including Bonhoeffer). Were the other people in the room who died deserving of it? Maybe (they were Nazis) but maybe not (so was Stauffenberg). Lastly, do we know that Hitler’s death would have stopped the Third Reich? What if other Nazi leaders, no doubt power hungry and vicious immoralists themselves, took over and did a better job of leading the Reich to survival than Hitler did?

I am not, of course, suggesting that nothing should have been done to stop Hitler. I am, however, arguing that the inherent dangers and ambiguities of using violence to further your aims mitigate against the wisdom of doing so when Jesus himself forbade it. Look at the maelstrom of violence and suffering unleashed by America’s destruction of the government of Saddam Hussein. History provides surprisingly few, if any, examples of the long term success of violence, and the greatest and most transformative movement in the history of religion and culture was started by a Rabbi who did not defend himself in the face of Pilate.