Transverse (adj. "situated, arranged, or acting in a crosswise manner") Markings (n. "observations") provides one person's theological commentary on matters divine and human. This Christian theological daybook, partly inspired by Dag Hammarskjöld's famous journal, periodically shares brief pensees or observations in "a crosswise manner."
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At the end of March, I was privileged to host on our campus Pr. Dr. Munib Younan, bishop emeritus of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL) and the past president of the Lutheran World Federation (2010-2017). He preached in our chapel on Palm Sunday and later spoke to my students about the challenges that Palestinian Lutherans face in his native Jerusalem and the West Bank. He shared some of these same concerns with a group of local Lutheran clergy that met with him on that Monday of Holy Week. The bishop's visit here was organized by Valpo's Office of Church Relations. I should add that Bishop Younan's son is a Valpo alum.
Pr. Dr. Mitri Raheb in Valpo's Chapel
I was greatly honored to have been invited by Dr. Mitri Raheb, former pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church, in Bethlehem, Palestine, and the founder and president of Dar al-Kalima University there, to write the introduction for the new edition of the Augsburg Confession and Luther's Small Catechism in Arabic. (Dr. Raheb was also on campus last month. He preached in our chapel on Good Shepherd Sunday. Over lunch the next day, we began discussing plans for a theological conference that we hope to co-lead in 2020.) This new Arabic edition of the AC and SC was a joint project between Valparaiso University and Pr. Raheb and is based on Dr. Younan’s earlier Arabic translation of these important Lutheran documents. (One of my Arab students will have to check the translation of my intro, since I don't read that language!) The new edition was presented to Dr. Younan on the occasion of his retirement in 2017, which coincided with the observance of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation.
At Dinner with Bishop Emeritus Dr. Munib Younan
When Dr. Younan and I had dinner during Holy Week, I was able to thank him for his work on the important LWF document, From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017 (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt; Paderborn: Bonifatius, 2013), which I used when I led 108 pilgrims to Germany for the observance of the 500th anniversary last October. At dinner, I also learned a great deal about the “back story” to this document, including Bishop Younan’s important conversations with Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. Some of you will recall that in his role as president of the LWF, Bishop Younan jointly participated with Pope Francis in an historic reconciliation service in Lund, Sweden, in 2016.
In addition to having served as president of the LWF (145 member churches in 79 countries, ca. 70 million Christians), Bishop Younan is a key ecumenical leader in the Middle East. For example, he is past president of the Fellowship of the Middle East Evangelical Churches and has been a central figure in the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land, which is comprised of leaders of Jerusalem's Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities. So he is in a position to tell you what he sees on the ground in his part of the world. It is a not a pretty picture. Witness, for example, the front-page photos and accompanying news stories in today's edition of the New York Times.
"We are hurting," he told me. "Your president's decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem denies human rights in East Jerusalem and it hurts Christians in Palestine and the Middle East. Jerusalem must be for three religions and two states.... The conflict is political, not religious, and the problem needs a political solution."
When I asked him what he hoped Christian leaders in our country--particularly Lutheran Christians--would do, he said very plainly, "I hope your voice can be stronger. I hope it can be clearer. I hope that you would explain to your fellow citizens that anything that harms us, harms you. I want to hear more voices that are critical of Christian Zionism in the United States. It is a heresy." (For the 2006 Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism, which was signed by Bishop Younan, go here.) "I hope you will visit me in Jerusalem, so you can see the reality, so you can see what Palestinian Christians have been suffering."
Despite the obvious pain and frustration that Bishop Younan expressed during his visit, he also gave voice to an abiding, sober hope: "I'm not optimistic in the short term. Nevertheless, we have learned not to give up hope. My hope is in the living God who was in Jerusalem. My hope is in the risen Lord." (I hope the Cresset could get permission to publish Bishop Younan's Palm Sunday sermon. It was powerful.)
Seventy years ago today, the state of Israel was established. Its creation was not the fulfillment of any biblical prophecy but the result of Zionist (Jewish nationalist) calls for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. The murder of six million Jews in Europe radically changed the context for that aim. Its execution has led to ongoing conflict and outright war with Arabs and Palestinians who had been living on lands that were taken over and occupied by Zionists. That occupation has not ended. Instead, to quote today's main editorial in the NYT: "Unilateral action, rather than negotiation and compromise, has served the purposes of successive right-wing Israeli governments. They have steadily expanded Jewish settlements in the West Bank, on land Palestinians expected to be part of any Palestinian state."
Today is a day for heeding the words of the Jerusalem Declaration, including these:
"We call upon Christians in Churches on every continent to pray for the Palestinian and Israeli people, both of whom are suffering as victims of occupation and militarism. These discriminative actions are turning Palestine into impoverished ghettos surrounded by exclusive Israeli settlements. The establishment of the illegal settlements and the construction of the Separation Wall on confiscated Palestinian land undermines the viability of a Palestinian state as well as peace and security in the entire region.prophecy. It was the start of an occupation that continues to this day."
Finally, I want to go on record as fully endorsing the statement sent out this afternoon by my presiding bishop:
May 15, 2018
Like so many here in our country and around the world, I am appalled and saddened by yesterday’s escalation of Israeli military action against protestors in Gaza. Many reports indicate that at least 60 Palestinians, including six children, have died and more than 2,000 have been injured as a result of Israel’s disproportionate use of force. Our church will support a planned medical mission from The Lutheran World Federation’s Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem to Gaza to assist the wounded.
I join Bishop Sami-Ibrahim Azar of our partner church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL), who today said:
We mourn with the families of the dead and dying and pray for the recovery of the injured. We believe that violent actions against the Palestinian civilians will hinder the potential for peace and reconciliation efforts between Israel and Palestine and will only lead to more violence and bloodshed.
I endorse his call “upon the Israeli government to show restraint and to pursue negotiations with Palestinian leaders rather than choosing violent action against unarmed protestors.”
Yesterday’s events should also be seen in the context of the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. When that decision was announced late last year, I said:
This unilateral action would not support the cause of peace and a two-state solution but rather would unnecessarily create further tensions and possible violence that would make efforts to bring them back together for talks much more difficult.
I also support the ELCJHL’s long-standing position, affirmed by Bishop Azar today, that “any final status agreement will include Jerusalem as a shared city for Jews, Christians and Muslims with free access to holy sites for all and that it must serve as capital of both Palestine and Israel.”
Always, but especially in this time of deep distress, I urge us all to join his call to “continue to pray, advocate and faithfully work towards a peaceful and just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Martin Luther has been blamed for just about everything “bad” that has happened in the western world since the sixteenth century. That list is long, given those 500 years that separate us from him. It includes everything from the multiple schisms within western Christendom and the promulgation of anti-Semitism and religious bigotry, to secularism, the Puritan Revolution, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, socialism, Bismarckian “blood and iron” ideology, the Russian Revolution, radical pluralism, ethical relativism, nihilism, and on to German National Socialism, Hitler, and the Holocaust. According to Michael Massing, one must now add to that list American-Evangelical support for President Trump. If you want to understand why an overwhelming number of white Evangelicals support Trump, look first to the sixteenth-century reformer. Luther has paved the way for Trump! So asserts Massing. For his article in the April 19th issue of The Nation, go here.
What are we to make of this thesis?
The number of errors and misrepresentations in such a short article are striking. The author has misconstrued Luther’s theology and social ethics and has misunderstood basic Christian teaching that is commonly taught across all Christian traditions. While no doubt many conservative Lutheran Christians in Michigan and Wisconsin helped to elect Donald Trump as president, don’t blame Luther for this. More to the point, midwestern American-Lutheran support for Trumpism is at odds with central theological and ethical emphases in Luther’s own theology.
Permit me to identify a few of the problems in Massing's article.
He has completely ignored Luther’s own sermons on the Sermon on the Mount and the reformer's basic teaching that "faith is to be active in love." As I point out in an online article about Bonhoeffer, Luther himself did not preach or teach that the Sermon on the Mount is merely an impractical ideal that Christians are incapable of heeding and obeying in the world. He rejected interpretations of the Sermon in his day that taught that the only way one could fulfill Jesus’ teaching was to withdraw from the world, for example, by living in a monastic community or by completely avoiding involvement in secular institutions or by radically reforming those institutions to form a Christian theocracy (as John Calvin would attempt to do later, actions that have had a far greater influence on American Evangelicalism—and the development of the republic—than Luther’s theology ever has had). There is no evidence in these sermons by Luther to conclude that Christ’s teaching is impossible for the baptized Christian to follow in the world or that this teaching was intended merely to reveal the sinful condition of the Christian. Rather, for Luther, the teaching of Jesus is directed to the individual disciple as a real summons to follow Christ concretely in this world (the world of sixteenth-century Saxony). The outcome of such faithful following will be faithful obedience, otherwise called “the fruit of faith, which the Holy Spirit must create in the heart” (WA 32:309; LW 21:15). At the same time, Luther taught that individual Christians cannot leave or forsake the world, but must live responsibly within it. This situation creates the deepest challenges for the individual Christian in the world: he or she is to live faithfully in obedience to Jesus’ statements and commands in the Sermon on the Mount and at the same time live as an individual in the world, taking part in its burdens, joys, complexities, and responsibilities. Luther was no antinomian. His sermons on the Sermon on the Mount are about as anti-Trumpian as they come.
Massing has mischaracterized the content, tone and tenor of the majority of Luther’s writings and sermons. If one spends even a little time reading through Luther’s multiple commentaries on various biblical books and his many homilies and catechetical materials (which altogether comprise more than half of the 120+ large volumes in the critical edition of his works), his demeanor is irenic and edifying, not polemical. To be sure, he could at times be mean-spirited, combative, harsh, repugnant ("I was born to war with fanatics and devils"), especially in his writings against the Jews (on this, see my post here), but he was hardly unique in this regard, especially in his context. Yes, Luther's words could occasionally be violent. There's no question about that. But in the totality of his writings, the feculent ones are thankfully a repellent minority. (I don't think Melanchthon’s quotation from Erasmus that he used in his sermon at Luther’s funeral offsets the opprobrium: Luther indeed displayed too much severity but "because of the magnitude of the disorders, God gave this age a violent physician.” Erasmus, who suffered from thin skin and was prone to be Protean—the one condition of his that likens him to Trump—did write once that “Luther’s abusiveness can be condoned only on the ground that perhaps our sins deserve to be beaten with scorpions.”) It should also be noted that Erasmus did not criticize or shun Thomas More, despite the latter’s ability to be "as virulent and vulgar as Luther” (Bainton, Erasmus of Rotterdam, 241). Surely other debates were more vitriolic, e.g., More vs. Tyndale, Erasmus vs. Hutten. Even Erasmus could express anti-Semitic remarks that were just as reprehensible as Luther's.
He could also be bitingly sarcastic and even rude. He was not as "civil" as Massing suggests. For example, see what he wrote about Luther in his 1523 letter to Markus Laurinus, which was later made public, or what he wrote in his Sponge against Hutten (which indirectly attacked Luther), not to mention what he includes in the venomous first part of his Hyperaspistes.
The fact of the matter is, if Erasmus had wanted to stay in the Roman Church then he had to write against Luther. Erasmus gave in to external pressure, from Henry VIII and from the pope. As such, Erasmus started the conflict with the Wittenberger, not the other way around. Luther of course tried to persuade the esteemed humanist scholar to keep silent on matters about which he had only superficial knowledge, but that didn't work. Erasmus seems not to have been able to comprehend that he was attacking the very center of Luther's theology, not a mere unnecessary triviality about which the scholastics might have debated ad nauseam. (For his part, once the conflict got rolling, Luther didn't help matters by misunderstanding Erasmus' position on grace as well as his statement about being a "skeptic," nor was he particularly clear in a few statements that seem to assert that humans lack freedom even in earthly matters, something Luther elsewhere clarified he did not intend to do. While he tried his best to defend sola gratia sola fide, the mention of "reward" in the NT remains a sticking point against some of what Luther asserted. Still, Erasmus does not come off very well in this debate. Theologically, Luther's critique is largely justified. It certainly cannot be properly understood to be any kind of attack on humanism or on "reasoning" or against rigorous university scholarship. Humanism continued to thrive in Lutheran territories, especially in the universities there. Academic freedom is one of the positive consequences of Luther's reforms.)
At the end of the day, Erasmus and Luther had two very different understandings of human beings and their capabilities vis-a-vis God. While Erasmus thought otherwise, theological anthropology and the doctrine of predestination are not "useless," non-essential, adiaphoristic matters in the Christian faith. If faith is a gift of God—as all theologians in the sixteenth century agreed—and if God gives such faith to some and apparently not to others, and if justification can be received only by the gift of faith, then predestination is involved in the doctrine of justification by faith alone. This is a point that Augustine, the Council of Orange, and many other Christian theologians before and after Luther have underscored. God, who is omnipotent and omniscient, can foreknow only what God has foreordained, as Paul teaches in Romans (8.28-30; 9.15ff.; cf. Eph. 1). That being said, even some of us Lutherans hold out hope that God will ultimately have mercy upon all (Rom. 11.32). If Erasmus had trouble comprehending paradoxes, his trouble was not with Luther, but with St. Paul.
Nor was Erasmus able to avoid contradicting himself on Paul's teaching about predestination, when he elsewhere defined the church as “the hidden society of those predestined to eternal life….” How can one who denied the doctrine of predestination speak of the church “as the society of the predestined”? That Erasmus was persuaded in part by Luther’s theological arguments is evident in the fact that Erasmus later (in 1532) changed his commentary on divine election in Romans 9 to align more closely with Luther’s basic position. Erasmus struggled mightily to soften the rather plain teaching of Ex. 9.12, Mal. 1.2-3, and Isa. 45.9, which got re-worked by Paul in Romans 9-11 and then again later by Augustine. If all (both the outwardly good and the manifestly evil) are under the power of sin (Rom. 3.9) and in fact despise God, then “no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law” (Rom. 3.20). The justification of sinners is solely by grace, apart from good works. Such sinners receive the righteousness of Christ as a total gift by faith. As to the issue of theological anthropology, when one minimizes the power of sin within human beings before God, one minimizes Christ and what he has accomplished for all sinners.
Massing asserts that Luther prefigures modern-day American Evangelicalism, and he implies that American Evangelicals are familiar with Luther’s “fierce ideas, vehement language, and combative intellectual style.” He thinks that American Evangelicals are simply transferring that Lutheran style into the realm of American politics today. Based on my twenty-five years of teaching large numbers of students who come from American Evangelical backgrounds, 99.9% have never read anything by Luther, let alone any of his polemical writings. Massing’s assertion here strikes me as a perfect example of post hoc propter hoc. Might Evangelical anger have more direct and recent sources than Luther’s sixteenth-century polemics? Why now? American Evangelicals haven't always expressed such anger in public, even when they have been a minority presence in some parts of the country. Why the anger now? And why in this way? Luther is not a part of the answers to these questions.
Massing misunderstands Luther’s description of his so-called “Tower Experience” and confuses it for an example of what American Evangelicals call “a born-again experience.” The Tower Experience, which may or may not have happened in just the manner that Luther described in 1545, was a moment of joy, a discovery of God's graciousness toward the sinner, of God's gift of forgiveness, new life, and salvation, but it was not a "re-birth" experience in the manner of American Evangelicalism. For Luther, one is spiritually regenerated in baptism, not through some extra-baptismal emotional experience. Moreover, being “born anew” or “born from above” is not a one-time event, according to Luther. Rather, the baptized Christian dies daily with Christ through remembrance of his or her baptism, and then rises anew with him for loving service in the world. Luther did not oppose adult baptisms. He celebrated every baptism. (To be sure, in his day most people were baptized as infants.)
Massing completely distorts Luther’s actions during the so-called Peasants’ Revolt. Shortly after reading the Twelve Articles of the peasants, Luther wrote his Admonition to Peace. He began by chastising the princes and rulers and blamed them—not the peasants!—for the social unrest. He clearly stated that the peasants’ complaints about injustice were well founded and eminently just. Luther even underscored that for the sake of peace, the princes should accommodate themselves to the peasants’ demands. Only after chastising the rulers did he turn his attention to the peasants. He told them that their rebellion violated the gospel and both the teaching of Jesus and natural law. Their violent actions displayed a basic mistrust in God. While Luther sympathized with the peasants, he criticized their efforts to obtain earthly justice through violence. In the third and final section Luther chastised both princes and peasants and told both sides that each was acting contrary to Christian teaching. Only when he learned more fully about the open rebellion of the peasants, did he write his harsh treatise, Against the Robbing…. Given Luther’s apocalyptic views, he was convinced that no devil was left in hell; they had all gone into the peasants. While we today--500 years later--should rightly criticize Luther’s harsh words (and not merely because of what we know and he didn't, namely, that the world was not coming to an end in his time), one can understand why he wrote those words, given his theological presuppositions about social order, the rule of law, and the non-coercive nature of the gospel. Luther preached a gospel that promises that salvation is received, not achieved. It is not achieved through violence. (Since Massing refers in passing to Martin Luther King Jr., one is inclined to ask him what impact Luther had on Dr. King's father, so much so that Michael King changed his name after visiting Germany in 1936. What about that influence of Luther on America?)
Massing also misunderstands the place of the Bible in the life of all Christian church bodies, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant alike. American Evangelicals are hardly the only Christians who teach that the Bible is the central source and norm of divine Christian teaching. Massing’s favored Erasmus understood the New Testament as the written word of God, which is why he produced a critical Greek edition of it, one that Luther used when he translated the NT into German. Most of the writings of the church fathers are nothing but commentaries on biblical books, sermons on biblical texts, and devotional writings that seek to expound biblical teaching. What was the debate about between Luther and Erasmus, if not about how to understand certain disputed biblical passages?
What nonsense to assert that Luther taught that “ordinary believers” have been empowered “to define their own faith”! Christian faith is normed by the clear teaching of Holy Scripture, not by the personal whims of the individual biblical interpreter. Serious exegetes seek to avoid eisegesis. That is as true for Roman Catholic exegetes today as it is for those who belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a church body that many within the contemporary American Evangelical world would not consider "evangelical." (How many members of the ELCA voted for Donald Trump? Probably many more laity than clergy. As my previous blog posts have indicated, I didn't vote for him.) Missing in Massing’s article is any reference to Luther’s biblical hermeneutics and his canonical criticism (e.g., Romans is far more central to Luther’s theology than the book of Revelation or the other antilegomena, all of which he suggested are non-canonical). Luther’s critical perspective vis-à-vis the biblical canon anticipates the development of historical-critical methods for biblical study (which American Evangelicals tend to reject). His understanding of biblical authority, grounded as it is in the sharp distinction between law and gospel--and the central witness to Jesus Christ, crucified and risen--is quite different from how conservative American Fundamentalists understand biblical authority. What American Evangelical will reject the whole law of Moses as outdated for the followers of Christ, as Luther did? Or will reject the apostolic injunction to avoid eating food with blood in it? (Luther loved blood sausage.) Or will reject as binding the NT command for women to wear a head covering? Did not Luther appeal to “clear reasoning” in his famous reply at Worms? The slogan “sola Scriptura” really tells us very little about Luther’s actual understanding of biblical authority and how biblical texts function within his theology. For him, Scripture was never alone. The one interpreting it was always using his or her reason, more or less. I would like to see the list of “the many key points” where the teaching of Southern Baptists parallels Luther’s university theology.
Massing asserts that Luther “refused to endorse measures that would concretely address [peoples'] needs.” This statement is false, as Luther’s sermons on the Sermon on the Mount and his Admonition to Peace alone demonstrate. What about Luther’s teaching that God’s law functions in civil society to restrain evil and promote the common good? What about Luther’s praise of human reason as a gift of God to be used to help the neighbor in need? While good works are not salvific (given what the apostles Paul and John teach about faith apart from human actions), good works do help those who need our loving service. Faith is to be active in love. What about Luther’s specific ordinances for poor relief? for setting up the common chest? for taking measures to alleviate local suffering? for establishing schools (for girls and boys)? What about Buggenhagen’s provisions for civic health care? for establishing hospitals? And what about Luther’s strong criticism against greed and usury? That alone is sufficient to see how vast a chasm exists between the Reformer’s teaching and modern American Trumpism. Luther was completely disgusted with “the calculating entrepreneur.” “He was convinced that the capitalist spirit divorced money from use for human needs and necessitated an economy of acquisition” (Carter Lindberg, “Luther on Poverty,” LQ 15 , 85-101). Martin Luther was no American Evangelical capitalist. I think I can safely say that Luther would be disgusted with Donald Trump, were Luther magically to be transported 500 years from his world into our own. He would find much to criticize in our world, especially the greed, the excessive individualism, the fantasy of human autonomy, and how the poor are mistreated.
Suffice it to say, Massing’s article does not accurately present Luther’s teaching about “the two kingdoms.” They do not correlate to the terms “secular” and “spiritual,” nor are they “to be kept rigorously apart.” In addition to referring to “the kingdom of God” and “the kingdom of Satan,” which are in continual conflict throughout the world, Luther referred to the two dimensions of human life, namely, one’s relationship with God (“the kingdom of God’s right hand”) and one’s relationship to creation (“the kingdom of God’s left hand”). The “right hand” relationship with God is established by God’s gift of forgiveness and righteousness through Christ that is received non-coercively by faith in the gospel promise. The “left hand” relationship is also established by God in service to the neighbor for the sake of the common good of society. Unlike the right-hand operation of God through the word and sacraments, this “left hand” working of God in creation is coercive, grounded as it is in natural law and retributive justice. Moreover, God’s “left-handed” work in the world occurs through three “walks of life” (Robert Kolb's helpful phrase), namely, the church (as a human institution), political action, and the family. God has commanded duties and responsibilities for each of these “walks of life.” Important here, too, is Luther’s understanding of “vocation,” which Massing simply ignores. I wonder if he is familiar with John Witte’s excellent book, Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation? Much in this book speaks against Massing’s unconvincing thesis.
In addition to speaking at Peace Lutheran Church, Salem, Oregon (on Dietrich Bonhoeffer's theology of the cross), I have been invited to serve as the teaching theologian at a retreat of the Columbia River Chapter of the Society of the Holy Trinity, a pan-Lutheran ministerium of ordained clergy. That retreat will take place at the Benedictine Monastery at Mt. Angel, Oregon, on March 15-16. Several of the professors from the Catholic seminary and monks from the monastery will be participating in the retreat as well.
I have been asked to present on Luther's engagement with Holy Scripture, focusing especially on his understanding of the relationship between Scripture and tradition.
While the retreat center's overnight lodging is now full, the dean and organizer of the conference has indicated to me that anyone who would like to attend my two 90-minute presentations during the daytime, may do so by making arrangements with him:
The Reverend Dr. Joseph W. Hughes, STS Dean
Columbia River Chapter, Society of the Holy Trinity
My first presentation, on the relationship between Scripture and tradition in the theology of Luther, will be on Thursday, March 15, 4:30-6pm in the Engelberg Room in the guest house of the monastery. My second presentation, on Luther's hermeneutics, will be on Friday, March 16, 9-10:30am, in the same room.
Dr. Matthew Becker, professor of theology at Valparaiso University and a native of Salem, will be giving a free public lecture at Peace
Lutheran Church, 1525 Glen Creek Rd. NW, West Salem, Oregon, on Wednesday, March 14, 2018
at 6:30 PM. His presentation examines "Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Theology of the Cross," a topic
particularly relevant as we are seeing far too much "silence in the face
Prisoner, pastor, prophet, theologian, martyr: all these describe Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who voluntarily returned to Nazi Germany to participate in resistance efforts against that regime and who was eventually executed for his actions.
Dr. Becker's presentation will be held in the main sanctuary,
which is accessible to all.
One year is normally not such a long time in the life of an
adult American, but given how quickly the tempo of the national news cycle has increased
over the past eleven months and eleven days and how turbulent and perplexing the
reported content therein has been, 2017 has seemed more like a decade than a
mere annum. There has been just too much to ponder and remember from one day to
the next, let alone from one week to the next or from one month to another. The
most recent moment of presidential shock and disgust has frequently
overshadowed all such previous moments, and stories of disturbing gravitas
(e.g., Mr. Trump’s feud with a Gold-Star widow, the Las Vegas massacre, the
hurricanes and Puerto Rico’s ongoing crisis, the president’s repeated
accusations against President Obama, the president’s defense of white
nationalists, etc.) have faded. Mr. Trump’s “tornado of news-making has scrambled
Americans’ grasp of time and memory, producing a sort of sensory overload that
can make even seismic events—of his creation or otherwise—disappear from the
collective consciousness and public view” (Matt Blegenheimer, NYT, Dec. 30,
At some point this past year—I don’t remember exactly when—I
gave up on Twitter. It got to be too distracting and disruptive, although I
still got bits and pieces of it (what else does one receive?) via
mainstream sources, which was more than sufficient. I also stopped the daily
visits to Facebook. Weekly peering, or even fortnightly, was enough—and then only to
see the latest photos from family and friends. In view of the administration’s
attacks against “the media,” I was motivated instead to renew my print and
digital subscription to “the failing New
York Times” and to take out digital subscriptions to The Wall Street Journal and The
Washington Post. These publications seem to be supervised by adults, have
more stable content (which thus helps to form longer-lasting memories), rely on vigorous fact-checking, and correct their errors. So my morning devotions continue to include praying while
reading these newspapers. On weekends, when there’s a little more time for such
petitioning, the meditation expands to include the Economist, The New Yorker,
and Der Spiegel.
Tonight I am grateful for memory, the capacity to learn from
the past and to recall lessons from the past, both one’s own past and that of
others (i.e., “history”). Santayana’s aphorism still rings mostly true: “Those
who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Kurt Vonnegut’s cynical response: “We're doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That's what it is to
be alive. It's pretty dense kids who haven't figured that out by the time
they're ten.... Most kids can't afford to go to Harvard and be misinformed.”) As
a qualification to the Harvard professor's bon mot
and as an outright criticism of Vonnegut’s rejoinder, on this night I want to
carry forward Reinhold Niebuhr’s more hopeful, if also realistic view: God is “a divine judge who laughs at human
pretensions without being hostile to human aspirations.” History, I believe, does not repeat itself in endless cycles, one damn thing after another, so
to speak. It may echo itself more or less, especially given the evident
inevitability of humans to sin and be destructive, the instances of which do indeed
share striking resemblances to one another, but it doesn’t form a
never-ending circle, thank God, even if people regularly fail to learn from
their past mistakes and those of others. Despite human destructiveness, human
creativity blossoms, even (especially?) in times of political turmoil and
crisis. American political satire and comedy seem to be doing pretty well these
Since, as the Christian believes, God has entered time and space in a
very particular way through the enfleshment of God’s Word in Jesus of Nazareth,
God has graciously disrupted the flow of history itself. There is thus the summons to hold sober hope
for the future, to trust that in the long run God's promise of ultimate justice and peace, of perfect mercy and love, will be fulfilled. God is in Christ reconciling the world to God! And that makes a
difference for one’s present and one’s future. “Be reconciled to God!” God
does not despise humanity; the divine Word became human for the sake of
humankind. That promise makes all the difference in the world--and in the presence of God. “Go, and sin no more….”
There is freedom and responsibility in these gracious imperatives: “Be reconciled to God” “Go, and sin no more.”
“History does not repeat, but it does instruct.” That is the
first line from Timothy Snyder’s important little book On Tyranny, published this past year by Tim Duggan Books. Snyder’s
twenty imperatives echo several lessons I have tried to impart in my course on “Christians
in Nazi Germany.” Snyder stresses the need to defend institutions (e.g.,
mainstream press, the justice system, public schools); to watch one’s language (words
have implications); to believe in truth; to criticize lies and propaganda; to
investigate (“Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative
journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on the
internet is there to harm you…. Take responsibility for what you communicate
with others” [I would add: make regular use of fact-checking by more than one reputable,
self-correcting news organization]); to establish and maintain a private life;
to support charities and non-governmental organizations; to keep calm in times
of national crisis since tyranny arises “on some favorable emergency” (James
In my course we also wrestle with the questions: why did so many
Christians support and defend Hitler? Why did so few Christians resist him and
his policies? Why have evangelical Christians supported tyrants and wanna-be
Another important book from 2017 is One Nation after Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned,
the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported (St. Martin’s Press), by E. J. Dionne,
Norman J. Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann. Not only does it provide perceptive
insights into “the perils of Trumpism,” but it does summon one to active
engagement. Some of the same lessons that Snyder sets forth appear here, too:
the need to support mainstream print media (investigative, accountable, self-correcting
journalism); to practice and defend moral norms in our civic life (character counts; virtue matters); to criticize
authoritarianism and the fascist politics of the far right; to renew democracy;
to reform the American marketplace to provide opportunity and justice for all.
And lest you think that tyranny and fascism cannot take root
in the US, may I encourage you to read or re-read Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 prophetic novel, It Can’t Happen Here.
Tonight I am also grateful for the capacity to forget. Such an ability is a gift of divine grace. While we may not and should
not forget the past, that is, to dis-remember it intentionally or to trivialize it or ignore its terrible aspects or refuse to learn from it, God promises to forgive and forget our sinful past--and this should have consequences for how we treat our past and that of others. God’s own
forgiveness of our sins is connected with God’s promise to forget our sins and
remember them no more. “I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own
sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isa. 43.25). In the New Testament, too, God promises to be merciful toward sinners’ iniquities. “I will remember their
sins no more” (Heb. 8.12). That God promises to forgive and forget our past sins should have a bearing on how we treat the past, both our own and that of others. There is a kind of gracious forgetting involved in receiving God's forgiveness. In this way, we do not allow the past to dominate our present. We do now allow the past to overcome us and paralyze us. There is thus something promising about giving up
one’s past to God, of letting it go in repentance and faith, of letting the
past—all of it—go under, of letting it be buried under God’s grace and mercy, of
letting it become forgotten by grace. As dangerous and irresponsible as this notion could be, there is a kind of grace wrapped up in "forgetting" the past.
Remembering and forgetting are both essential aspects
of responsible Christian living.
Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which
we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only
that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ
our Lord. Amen.