Sunday, March 8, 2009

Lenten Reflections inspired by a German Christian who opposed Hitler even unto death.

It's great to be back home, even when you have been treated well abroad. Still many problems and the killings continue unabated - four were murdered last night - but home is just home. Especially when you return to family, friends, co-workers, and church family. T'was just great to see, family members and my friends at work. To see friends in Christ this morning, and to hear God's Word, in God's church with God's people and to participate in the receiving and in the sharing of Holy Communion. But having returned the discipline of Lent continues and so I have been reading more, reducing my Facebook activity ,watching less television, listening mainly to the news, very little listening to talk show radio, and just trying to hear what the Lord is saying to me and to the church at this special time.

In pursuit of that objective, I came across, yet another book by one of my favourite Christian writers - Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Favourite not only because of the clarity of his writings, but because he lived in Germany during the Nazi years, during the time when 6 million Jews and many other were wiped off the face of the earth, and during the time of one of the worse periods in human history. And he resisted when others acquiesced. He returned home from the relative comfort of the USA to take part in the struggle to rescue his country when others were fleeing. He stood up and was counted among those who said 'no' to the wickedness of Hitler, while others kept quiet to save their 'skin', but lost their soul and are now judged very harshly by history. Because of his resistance he was executed in the last days of the war by the Nazis. You have to respect that kind of life.

So I am reading Bonhoeffer's classic book on " Ethics" for Lent. It's heavy stuff and requires a lot of concentration to appreciate what he is sharing with the reader. But, as the Americans say, what he has to offer is " huge". And as I read I understand even more clearly that this kind of material could only have been written by one who had suffered much, and had come face to face with evil in the heights of its powers. We in Jamaica think we are going through a rough time on account of the murder, rape, bad manners, loud and disgusting music, bad driving, and the very challenging political and economic situation. But those on the wrong side of the fence during the time of Hitler, lived through a veritable hell. An experience that we cannot even begin to imagine much less to compare. Therefore when such a person writes about the love of God, in the most profound ways, we should really ought to pay attention.
Bonhoeffer begins , what was an unfinished work, with a very deep discussion on what happened when mankind , children of Adam, came to know good and evil. Bonhoeffer asserts that:

" man in his origin knew only one thing: God. It is only in the unity of of his knowledge of God that he knows of other men, of things and of himself. He knows all things only in God, and God in all things". Then Bonhoeffer asserts that " The knowledge of good and evil shows that he is no longer at one with this origin."

This kind of perspective of what took place in the Garden of Eden is again, " huge". And, therefore explains why the forces of evil, dressed up in all kinds of sheep-like clothing, have tried to deny flatly or make mockery of the Fall of mankind from his original relationship with God. No wonder then that those who would have us believe that Darwin's great work of Evolution, with which some serious Christians do not have any major problems, is the only explanation for the origin of mankind - which all Christians reject. Because what Bonhoeffer, and the entire Christian doctrine, explains, is that God's love for mankind , as revealed in Jesus Christ, the God-Man, has its genesis in this falling away of man (who was made in the likeness and image of God) from his origin. All because we departed from knowing all things in God, and through God, and came to know good and evil.

So Bonhoeffer continues; " He ( mankind) knows himself now as something apart from God, outside God, and this means that he now knows only himself and no longer knows God at all: for he can know God only if he knows only God. The knowledge of good and evil is therefore separation from God. Only against God can man know good and evil".

One cannot read this life changing ( or again what the Americans call "game changing") stuff for too long. So I had to stop reading several times and allow my head to " wrap around" these things. As, not being entirely new in concept, but really explaining so much more clearly why all of us have the potential to exhibit such evil behaviour, I had to pause to reflect and as I write , to thank God that He led me to the bookshop in Dolphin Mall and not to Macy's in International, that day. The basic problem with, people, my people who are killing one another in Jamaica, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, in the cities of America and Europe, and places like Darfur, is that we don't understand how much this falling away from God, has programmed us to act like people who do not know God. This very same falling away from his origin, of knowing only God and others and himself through God, explains why an Austrian man can lock away his daughter for years and commit incest with impunity; why a previously trusted and deeply respected Rap singer can ruthlessly and mercilessly - behave like a veritable animal - beat up his superstar girlfriend who dared to read a text message from another woman; why a previously well respected freedom fighter can suddenly make a U -turn and become a monster; and why, in pursuit of power, previously well thinking politicians, could introduce gun violence into a once peaceful country and thus unleash an era of wickedness hitherto unknown and unparalleled in the Caribbean.
So, we delude ourselves into thinking, or have been hoodwinked, that we can know God by deep meditation; praying seven times for the day; fasting for weeks; reading the Torah or the Koran or the Bible from cover to cover or a thousand other ways; " saying Lord Lord, and worshiping God with our lips and not with our hearts". And worse that we do not really need God at all. Thus causing evil to be unleashed all over the world, and for mankind to be always, " playing catch up" with no end in sight - unless God in His mercy intervenes, which thankfully He does from time to time.
So after all of this what does this German martyr say about God's love. He begins by quoting one of the most popular Bible passages which speaks about love.
" And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing" ( 1 Cor. 13:2 and 3). This is the decisive word which marks the distinction between man in disunion and man in origin. The word is love. ( We once had a Prime Minister who unfailingly employed that term - in his own limited understanding of it). There is a recognition of Christ, a powerful faith in Christ, and indeed a conviction and a devotion of love even unto death - all without love. That is the point. Without this " love" everything falls apart and everything is unacceptable, but in this love everything is united and everything is pleasing to God. What is this love?.........The Bible does not fail to give us the answer. We know this answer well enough, but we continually misinterpret it. It is this: " God is love ( 1 John 4, 16)......this sentence is to be read with the emphasis on the word God, whereas we have fallen into the habit of emphasizing love. God is love; that is to say not a human attitude, a conviction or a deed, but God Himself is love. Only he who knows God knows what love is; it is not the other way round; it is not that we first of all by nature know what love is and therefore know also what God is. No one knows God unless God reveals Himself to him. And so no one knows what love is except in the self-revelation of God. Love then is the revelation of God. And this revelation of God is Jesus Christ. " In this was manifested the love of god toward us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him ( 1 John 4.9).....Love has its origin not in us but in God. Love is not an attitude of men but an attitude of God.........
We can now continue to follow the Bible in answering the question: "What is love"? Love is the reconciliation of man with God in Jesus Christ. the disunion of man with God, with other men, with the world and with themselves, is an an end. Man's origin is given back to him".

I will stop there. As there is so much on which we need to reflect. Perhaps none more important than Christ's seemingly very provocative and very controversial statement that : " I am the way, the truth and the light, no one cometh unto the Father except through me". This single assertion by all of Christianity has unleashed a veritable torrent of invective and charges of exclusiveness and arrogance against the professing Church throughout all of history until this present day. We make no apologies for this statement in the light of Scripture and in the light of what this suffering servant of God has to say. In fact, at the start of his book Bonhoeffer, this German Pastor, who opposed Hitler even to death by a firing squad, makes bold to say that :

" The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge. In launching this attack on the underlying assumptions of all other ethics, Christian ethics stands so completely alone that it is questionable whether there is any purpose of speaking of Christian ethics at all. But if one does so notwithstanding, that can only mean that Christian ethics claims to discuss the origin of the whole problem of ethics, and thus professes to be a critique of all ethics simply as ethics."

So what has been reinforced in my mind so far this Lent from reading Bonhoeffer and not listening to Cliff Hughes or Trevor Munroe or Barbara Gloudon or Emily Crooks, or watching movies or listening to the Temptations or Taurus Riley or spending time on Facebook?
Thank God for Jesus. For without Him there would be no reunion with God. No reconciliation of God with fallen mankind. No giving back to man His origin. No chance of ending wars. No chance of mankind repenting of his sins and being given a second chance to know God. No hope for all mankind. But, every hope of sharing in that love that is kind, is patient, is not rude, does not delight in evil, always hopes, always trusts. Knowledge that with Christ, and in Christ, and through Christ our faith will not be in vain, our giving of ourselves and our possesions will not be in vain and all our sacrifices will not be in vain. That I can truly know God and only God again, which was the original state of mankind, made in the image of God, but marred by Adam's, and my choice - my fault, my own fault, my own grievous fault. That my country can change, and that there is hope. As crime and violence and general wickedness is but only part of the reality of life in Jamaica; the greater reality is that in Christ Jesus all of mankind, wicked and pious but still full of sin, can change and once again become 'children of God' and not of Adam, and bring peace to a troubled world. Praise God.