Sunday, December 31, 2017

After One Year

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, 2017, A16).

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 days. 

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 Madison). 

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 tyrants?

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.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Post-WWII Debates over the Roman Catholic Church in Nazi Germany

Earlier this week the NYT reported a story about the sentencing of twenty-nine former officials from Argentina who were convicted of murdering civilians by throwing them from aircraft. These crimes took place during the military dictatorship there from the mid-'70s to the early '80s. Part of the story is the apparent complicity of the Roman Catholic Church in the junta’s crimes. According to the Times, while "no member of the clergy was accused in the trial, ...prosecutors alleged that church officials were complicit in hiding detainees from international human rights inspectors." For more on this story, go to:

In the same week, Pope Francis was criticized by human rights officials for not referring by name to the Rohingya people during his visit to Myanmar. It was widely thought that the pope needed to tread carefully regarding what he said about Myanmar's persecuted Muslim minority while in that country, at least partly out of concern for his own Catholic flock there. Only yesterday, on the eve of his departure from Bangladesh to Rome, did he publicly state, "The presence of God today is also called Rohingya."

These stories brought to mind a recently published book by Mark Ruff, a professor of history at St. Louis University. His 394-page book, The Battle for the Catholic Past in Germany 1945-1980 (Cambridge, 2017), explores the public post-war debates in Germany about the Roman Catholic Church's actions during the Nazi regime. Ruff's well-written and carefully researched study sheds a light on the very acrimonious exchanges in the German media during those years when Roman Church critics and Roman Church defenders waged their struggles against each other. To explain the intensity of these conflicts Ruff reconstructs the political, ecclesiastical, and intellectual networks in which this particular "culture war" occurred. These networks "controlled levers of funding, regulated access to historical documents and served as a gateway to the international media at a time when most documents lay under lock and key and a modern scholarly infrastructure with its ubiquitous conferences and research centers was in its infancy."

Ruff shows that the range of participants in these public arguments crossed national boundaries and German political parties and included professors, public intellectuals, international journalists, Communist propagandists, and leaders from multiple religions (including Vatican officials and also Pope Paul VI). The book opens a window to many of these personalities. In the end, the reader will have a better understanding of the less savory aspects of these public disputes--the involvement of the East German government, the actions of Vatican officials against church critics at Catholic universities and religious institutions, the course of lawsuits (and "the court of public opinion" about them), efforts at press censorship in Germany and other countries. Still, the book also provides a very insightful investigation into intellectual history, with aspects of political, social, and cultural history serving as the larger framework.

I definitely plan to assign portions of the book near the end of my undergraduate course on Christians in Nazi Germany, when we examine how Christians and others in the post-war period sought to come to grips with what Christians had done (and not done) during the Third Reich.

In the interest of full disclosure I need to mention that Mark Ruff is a dear friend. I have known many members of his extended family since 1986, when I lived in the home of one of his great aunts, Dorothy Ruff, who was a member of Emanuel Lutheran Church, Lancaster, Ohio, where I did my year-long pastoral internship (vicarage). Later, for nearly a decade, Mark and I were close colleagues at Concordia University, Portland, where he taught history. (Mark is also an excellent organist. He played the organ at my father's funeral.) My wife played matchmaker for Mark and his future bride, Lynnae. I was best man in their wedding. Mark's father, a retired LCMS pastor, is also a good friend, as are another aunt and uncle. (They recently participated in my Reformation tour to Germany.)

Still, I think I'm a fair judge of quality scholarship when I see it, and Mark's book is certainly of very high quality! I learned a lot from reading it.