Friday, April 29, 2005

"Downfall" -- the Movie, not the Apocalyse

I don't intend to get into the movie-review business. Every once is a while a great movie needs to be promoted, and this is an opportunity for me to do so.

Downfall is a movie that probably couldn't have been made in USAmerica -- and we are so much the poorer for it. Brad and I say that movie last night, and I am haunted by it still. It is one of the most impressive movies I have seen -- and keep in mind that I see at least one movie a week now.

This German movie concerns the last three days in the life of Adoph Hitler, during which time he was in a bunker in Berlin and at the end of which period he killed himself. It is based on the memoirs of two people (at least one of whom features prominently in the movie) who were there. Most of the movie time is set within the bunker (which neither Brad nor I remembered from our history was in Berlin). But it also includes scenes set outside the bunker in Berlin, showing the onslaught of the Russian forces and the responses by military, militia-like children, and civilians to the pending collapse of the Reich.

The movie communicated a sense of evil in ways that, e.g., Schindler's List only hinted at. It showed the madness that was Hitler, along with the complicity of supposedly sane people. And it portrayed "true believers" with such clarity as to chill my soul.

There were aspects of Kurasawa (one of my favorite directors) -- grand drama, world-collapsed-into-one-room shots, attention to detail -- with features Cecil B. DeMille might have envied. The tension never lets up. The actor who plays Hitler seems to have him bang on (when he's ranting in German, I can certainly recollect recordings of der Fuehrer. But it is, I think, Frau Goebbels who incarnates the evil at foot with the National Socialist movement -- with her absolute devotion to the cause and its "leader" and her ruthlessness and stoic cruelty.

There is some blood, but that's pretty contained -- especially given what it could have been. (On that Germans are apparently more reserved that some USAmerican directors.) But it spectacularly portrays the sense of apocalypse in a way that leaves the Left Behind books choking on its dust. It is "R" rated -- probably more for the intnse situation than for the violence (of which there is admittedly, plenty) or for the sex (of which there is -- in contrast to American movies-- virtually none).

This is a movie best appreciated on the big screen; don't wait for the DVD. It is filmed in such a way as to give the viewer a sense of the claustrophobic environs of the bunker (clever of the director to keep the low ceilings in most of the shots) and of the massiveness of the damage to the city.

This movie did as much as -- or more than -- anything else to help me appreciate the dilemma Bonhoeffer must have felt.

I commend the movie to you. Alas, peace may not be with you for some time after seeing it.

Justice Sunday

I am still recovering from "Justice Sunday," when factions of the religious right-wing, in tandem with right-wing Republicans, attempted to paint all who disagree with them as anti-faith, as anti-Christian, as against God and America (because, of course, the two are joined at the hip). But I can't resist saying this much: They have gone too far. Brothers and Sisters in Christ, you are in error and you must repent.

In the few words that follow, I'm going to sound partisan. I regret that: I am not a Democrat, nor member of any other party, for that matter; I do not subscribe many of the platform planks of the Democratic Party; I consider the Democrats pathetically hopeless in their ability to frame their policies and even to govern. (I have long said that the Democrats are incapable of governing and the Republicans are unworthy to govern. My words are certainly proving true in recent years.)

To make a particular issue -- and especially this one -- a litmust test for one's faith (especially Christianity) is to practice paganism in the extreme.

The issue of the "right" for certain judicial nominees to get a vote in the Senate is a specious "right." The Republican spokespeople lead one to believe that filibustering judges is a new thing. Nonsense. The Republicans, with a slenderer minority that Democrats have today, filibustered the nomination of Abe Fortas to be Supreme Court justice (or was it Chief Justice?). They've used it when it serves them, they just don't like to live by the rules when the rules cut against them (witness the debacle in the House with respect to the Ethics rules).

The issue is not the "right" to a vote but the qualifications of the judicial nominees. I am a lawyer and theologically trained, so the intersection of these issues is important to me (hence, this blog). Many of the appeals court nominees (the so-called "nuclear 10") are bad judges: They do not follow the law or change precedent based on reasoned opinions. That is not the basis for a valid nomination to an appeals court.

Do those "conservative Christian" brothers and sister really want to grant some special benediction over the current Republican leadership in Congress? Keep in mind that this is a group that regularly distorts facts -- and, incidentally perhaps, is never called on the carpet for doing so. The Republicans claim, in addition to their claim of never filibustering a judicial candidate, that so many of President Bush's nominees are not getting a fair shake. In fact, the number is only ten, while more than 200 have been approved. His rate of getting candidates an "up or down" vote is only slightly different from the percentage allowed President Clinton (and in fact, more of Bush's candidates have been given a hearing and a vote to date than during all of President Clinton's tenure -- at least the way I read the numbers).

Do those conservative btothers and sisters want to rish the tax-emempt status of their congregations and/or denominations for the sake of climbing into ship with one political party?

And I won't even phrase this as a question: It is simply outrageous to claim that, because you are a "Christian," and thereby supposedly have a corner on "the Truth," unless I agree with you on certain issues having to do with national politics, I am not.

It is clear that some of our "conservative Christian" brothers and sisters (ironically, I count myself a conservative Christian) are interested in this issue only because they want to use any way possible to get what they want -- judges who will give them what they want: no more abortions, no gay marriages, (secularized) Ten Commandments in courtrooms, control over feeding tubes, a Christian nation. And they want this quite irrespective of the effect their getting it will have on the future of law in this country.

Now I firmly believe that there is little evidence that the judiciary is "liberal" in this country. After all, the Supreme Court, the court of last resort, is so conservative -- and activist, but that's another story -- that it traduced established law to anoint George W. Bush president the first time around. But even if it could be shown to be, do we want the judicial branch of government -- at any level -- involved in official interpretations of the Fifth Commandment? Can anyone seriously argue for making America a "Christian nation"? (Yes, I heard some of the Christian preachers say it, but I can't believe that they were arguing rationally. Do they hear what that says?)

Thursday, April 28, 2005


Passover Thoughts

Abraham Joshua Heschel

We are all Pharaohs or slaves of Pharaohs. It is sad to be a slave of a Pharaoh. It is horrible to be a Pharaoh. Daily we should take account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation? Let there be a grain of prophet in every person!

That is from today's Bruderhof e-mail, "Weekly Dig." To it, I can only say "Amen."

Rabbi Heschel, of most sincerely blessed memory, was the author of one/two (it depends on the edition) of the three or four books that have made the greatest impression on me. His work The Prophets is simply majesterial. It changed my life.

I read him first in religion classes in college -- Concordia College, Moorhead, MN, to be exact. Whether it was the context (nice, safe, conservative, pietist school) or the professor (sincere, demanding, supportive) or the political era (Vietnam, need I say more), I was inexorably drawn to Heschel's portrait of the prophetic life, message, and destiny. The books continue to influence my thinking about all manner of theological issues, from biblical interpretation to liturgical theology.

From Heschel, I learned that prophecy, in the Biblical sense, is not fortunetelling or peering into the future. It is "speaking for" -- bringing a message from the LORD. That makes a whole lot of difference for how one understands what's being spoken. It helps, in the days of Left Behind and other off-kilter apocalypticism, sanely to parse the Scriptures for the truth -- rather than for the proof texts for one's idiosycratic political (and even venal) orientation.

From Heschel I learned that the people of God is one people -- not a conglomeration of individuals who happen to hang around together because they are alike. (That's the practical ecclesiology of 95% of pew-Lutherans and pastors, I'm convinced.) The good suffer with the bad. The suffering is related to a lack of faith -- faith, not as mind-stuff, but faith as living in the saved condition in a way that is true to the saved condition. Beautiful Amos, with his masterful opening rhetoric. Hosea, with his whore-wife and his proclamation of the seductive LORD. Isaiah, with his saving suffering servant of the LORD -- not just a prediction of Jesus, but an insight into why Jesus' suffering was salvific.

From Heschel, I learned (without being able to articulate it at the time) that the work of the people of God is not to "win souls" or to achieve their own salvation. It is to live as God's instrument for overcoming sin in the world. (This conforms very nicely to Tom Wright's discussion of Paul's theology in What Paul Really Said, which The Thinklings are reading right now.) It is other-directed (i.e., God-directed) and other-focussed (i.e., toward the world.) To fulfill that "mission," Israel was called to live a life free of sin -- of the things that made life hell. So, she was expected to practice justice, to safeguard the undefended, to care for those of little means. There is, in the prophets, I think a definite sense that God's salvation involves a preferential option for the poor. And when that is forgotten, exile is the discipline.

All of that is, of course, not just relevant for the Christian Church, but directly instructive. We are not among that people of God. The same stuff -- promise and caution -- attends to us. We are not handly Enlightenment masses of autonomy who happen to get along for our own well-being and comfort. We are one people: Check the second reading from last Sunday's mass: "One you were no people; now you are God's people" from Peter. We are not our own; our lives are not our own; our everyday decisions are not own own.

One hagiagrapher has said of Rabbi Heschel, "He walked on a higher plane than most of us." I'm not sure I agree -- I certainly don't agree with the suggestion (not intended by the writer) that he was somehow "above the fray." I think he was deeper into the stuff of life than most. That same writer said, "Some people are like commas in the text of Jewish life; Heschel was an exclamation point.) Amen.

All this from this simple reminder, provided by the Bruherhof -- who themselves embody the very witness that Heschel wrote of so beautifully.

Heschel's feast day in my calendar is 23 December, the day of his death (in 1972 -- the year I began seminary training). I invite you to light a candle in his honor that day.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Consumerism is sin

William T. Cavanaugh teaches theology at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul. He is brilliant, young, serious Roman Catholic, and very committed to living the Christian life -- by which I mean the life God intends his people to live. He would be considered a "liberal" by most people -- but it is not liberal in the classic sense. He lives his faith, though.

Bill has just published a very short article in Sojourners Magazine (May, 2005) which deals with "consumerism" and its implications. He distinguishes consumerism from avarice or greed, seeing it as a "permutation": "Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else." It is a spiritual disease that results from detachment from the "things" we need and use to live. As USAmerican consumers, we are detached from the means of production (Q: does he echo a marxian complaint about alienation here?) with the result that we "commodify" everything -- making even our own lives items to be bought and sold. With the addition of marketing, we are constantly on the make for something new. Pleasure is in the shopping, not in the acquiring.

The article is helpful for getting a handle on the problems of consuming in this society. We are guilty of greed and acquisitiveness, but even our desire for something new (whether we wish to acquire lots of it or not) reflects a sinfulness in our fundamental condition. Bill names the condition, describes its roots, demonstrates why it is wrong (because it contradicts God's creational intent for the earth), and suggests ways of fighting the sin.

Try reading the article here. Because I subscribe to Sojourners, I have no trouble accessing the article. I'm not sure whether it is quite so easy if you do not (though it sounds like it is). If you have difficulty, try here, and follow the links.)

I also recommend Bill's books: Eucharist and Torture is an important work that I have recommended before. His new one, Theopolitical Imagination, looks really great, but I'll have to wait to review it until the copy I have ordered comes in. (Its subtitle is alluring: "Christian Practices of Space and Time." I'll bet there's lots about the Eucharist in it -- as there is in the article here.)

I think the entire complex of issues for USAmericans involving money, possessions, and related issues (like self-protection) is in critical need of attention in the Church. It's easy to denounce greed -- though harder to do so when you actually define it, I think. And doesn't it come off sounding moralistic to ask, "Do you really need a new car, just because the design has changed?" And how about the whole issue of "storing up for ourselves treasures on earth" in the form of massive retirement accounts (don't I wish!), life insurance, church foundations and development offices?

But those are issues of Gospel. In fact, name me an issue that is not!

This article is a place to begin

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Benedict XVI

His Holiness, Benedict XVI, has been crowned. The catholic Church has a new Roman Catholic pope. I encourage you all to pray for him -- together with all the popes, patriarchs, bishops, metropolitans, superintendents, presidents, and others with leadership responsibility and authority in the Church.

I have been reading sporadically in the works of the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger for a few years, and I never fail to love the experience. He is a profoundly intelligent man who exudes humility before God and in the service of God's Church. He writes beautifully (or at least, he translates really well).

I also know of his reputation as the "Rottweiler" of the Vatican. (Why not Dobermann Pinscher? Because of the alliteration of Rottweiler and Ratzinger?) And I don't know what to make of that. He was, frankly, a liberal during the Second Vatican Council, and he has now spoken of his desire further to implement the reforms of the Council. But one reads his criticism of some of the directions the Vatican II reforms have taken, and one may legitimately wonder where he would direct the Church. (Well, we may not have to wonder for long.)

I think his expressed attitude toward intra-Christian dialog and reconciliation has been problematic. Despite his commitment to Church union, one gets the impression that it must be on the Vatican's terms -- and that's not really dialog, is it? But any non-Catholic who has ever met him speaks of his warmth, generosity, openness, and interest in what they have to say.

Drat! We must contend with another complex person bearing the title "Pope."

Admission: This the sixth pope in my lifetime. (I go back to Pius XII.) John XXIII (of most blessed memory) is my romantic favorite. Paul VI (of blessed memory) is way underrated.

I was studying liturgy and patristics as St. John University, Collegeville, with Godfrey Diekmann and Gabrielle Winkler (when you've studied with the best, it's OK to drop names!) when Paul VI died. I was among that Benedictine community for that mourning, for the joy at the crowing of John Paul I, the death of John Paul I, and the crowing of John Paul II (of great surprise). So all the talk of my friends and acquaintances who have "only know John Paul II as pope" makes me feel very old.

I have never before known the man crowned. But because I have followed Ratzinger's writings, I know his picture well,and it's discombobulating to see "Cardinal Ratzinger" presiding or preaching as Benedict XVI. It doesn't seem quite in sync.

God's blessing on him and may God bless his Church through the manifold talents and faith of his servant Benedict.

A Little Bonhoeffer

I have just finished a six-week course on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (It was offered by Luther Seminary's Lay School of Theology, which offers a wonderful array of -- inexpensive -- courses for those of us within driving distance of the Sem who are either disinclined or uninterested in a more formal way of continuing our theology education.) While the course was not completely satisfying to me (I think I'm the point of wanting a tutorial rather than a class), it gave me new insights and information -- and it left me with one huge question: What would (Lutheran) theology be like today if Bonhoeffer had lived through World War II? (I know that seeks pure speculation, but perhaps it's a way of continuing to mourn his loss.)

So far as I have been able to learn, Bonhoeffer never did get an "ecclesiology" into print in a form that we ordinary folks can grasp. (Sanctorum Communio, I am told, is virtually impenetrable by any by the philosophically sophisticated -- among whom I am not.) His understanding of the Church, however, is foundational to his theology, and I'd like to see some dissertations on that -- teased out from his more accessible works. Discipleship should be required reading by all Lutheran seminarians -- and discussions should not be led by pietists! Letters and Papers from Prison, arguably his most familiar book, is also arguably his worst (one friend makes that point) and leads to more confusion, I think, than insight on many points (viz., e.g., "religionless Christianity").

The existential realism of his thought is perhaps the most impressive aspect of his writing for me. That we take the ministry and words and example of Jesus into our every hour (not seeking to diminish them or to explain them away or to "grace" away their requirements) seems so correct -- and seems so to jibe with the cry of many who are on "spiritual quests." (It is no accident that so many people are converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, given their seriousness about mystery, order, transcendence, and the like.)

I'm not to the point of wanting to buy the new authoritative edition of Ethics until it is released in paperback (and I can afford it), but in reading some short passages from it, I have been struck by what a great corrective Bonhoeffer provides to contemporary Lutheranism (a fact which doesn't leave me untroubled -- how many double and triple negatives can I get into one phrase, I wonder). He dislikes so-called "classical Lutheran" talk about the orders of creation because of the tendency inherent in such a classification to isolate the orders from one another and to place them in hierarchy -- neither which is legitimate, per Bonhoeffer. He speaks, instead of "mandates" -- four of them, which I can't quite bring to mind right now. These mandates are "tasks" written into the structure of life and all of them are sort of interdependent: So, for example, family life is a mandate. Government, another mandate, exists in order to preserve order in the world, which helps assure (inter alia) the well-being of the other mandates. If, as was the case under Nazi rule, children are encouraged to "rat out" their parents, thus destroying family cohesion, government has traduced its task and faithful people are required to correct or overthrow that government.

I very much prefer that reading of the "two kingdoms" to what we often get. (I intend soon to undertake a study of the "two kingdoms" teaching of the Reformation, so while I don't encourage you to hold your breath, I do encourage you to check in once in a while to help me stay on track.) The subservience of either government or church to the other does not seem to jibe with either the scriptural evidence or the experience of history. While they have different spheres of operation, I think you might say, they are sisters -- complementary -- in the stewardship of the creation. (I'll let y'all comment on the implications of that for the current USAmerican political situation.)

Obviously, I don't know what I'm talking about here, so I'll break off abruptly until I can speak with more salience. (I confess that my brain is still mushy from too much glorious Mexican sun -- not to mention Corona and margueritas! I apologize for the failure of continuity in this post.)

One thing that remains very much a question for me is that of Bonhoeffer's pacifism. He very clearly advocates such a principled stance with respect to violence. But his involvement in the Abwehr plot really complicates any straightforward explication of his views, I think. At this point, I'm inclined to think that Bonhoeffer was not a "principled pacifist" (to quote Gary Simpson of Luther Sem, who strongly disagrees with such a posture) who refuses to use or to consider violence in any situation. (Clearly he didn't live that way, and Bonhoeffer was not one to separate his thought and writing from the way he lived his life.) But I think it's too easy to dismiss his views as allowing violence in extreme cases.

I wonder whether Bonhoeffer did not fear losing his soul by his involvement in the Abwehr plot but thought it necessary to sacrifice himself (body and soul) for the sake of overcoming the blatant evil that was Hitler and National Socialism. It would be very good Lutheranism for him to "sin boldly" -- to act in a way even clearly contrary to the will of God for the sake of the Gospel. (Such stuff as Jesus' "violation" of the Sabbath, his associating with outcasts, and the like model such action.) But the point is not to justify such sinning; sinning cannot be justified. (I just realized that that is a paraphrase of a point in Discipleship! This stuff may be working itself into my subconscious!) The point is that the correct life may have to be abandoned in certain circumstances in order to be true to the Gospel.

That would mean that we preach, teach, model, and extol non-violence, even pacifism -- not as a "principle," but as the way Jesus lived and, consequently, as the way we live. We also recognize that there may be times when to live that is either impossible or immoral in a certain circumstance. Contrary to Joe Fletcher, Bonhoeffer was not a situational ethics proponent, though. Life is contingent, lived out in a most real, concrete context. That is not to deny any of the demands of Jesus. They are not "ideals" or "idealistic" or "reserved for heaven" or anything of the sort. (Discipleship makes that very clear. See also Stassen and Gushee on the Sermon on the Mount, here.) We do not make war; we do not cheat our neighbors; we provide aid to the needy. But there are occasions imaginable in which we will not always fulfill or be true to the gospel. So on occasion we may fight back or kill.

That exception doesn't become the new standard (which it has in the so-called "just war" thinking of modern times). It remains an exception, a sin, a failure of the intentions of God. That exception is a risk of salvation. But it may nevertheless be necessary.

So may one "justifiably" be a soldier? The early church said, "no," and I think that is the correct answer. For one thing, to become a soldier is to commit oneself to an authority different from or at least in tandem with Christ -- the "state" or the command structure. (That is why military chaplaincy practiced by commissioned officers is such a travesty -- and works so little good, from the overall impressions at the VA.) To commit to violence is, in the overall schema, to doubt the promises of God and to set out to thwart his purposes. (Somewhere in Discipleship, Bonhoeffer muses that no one has ever tried to meet warlike aggression with suffering-servant humility. He suggests that it might be faithful to try.) The Church must stand against it resolutely.

But that is not to say that there might not be circumstances (and this, as I understand it, was the original point of "just war" thinking) when the use of force is lamentably considered to be necessary and is (not "may be") undertaken. It is, however, to understand that such circumstances are not a part of our ordinary proclamation.

At base, and here I'll stop this bleating that has gone on much longer than I intended, it is as Bonhoeffer said: The call of Christ leads to death (the death of self as perceived over-against Christ). If the Gospel is true, and God has won the final victory over the powers of evil, then it is either all true or false. If true, then we ignore it at our peril.

I want to get into my wife's new craze: She has been taught by my teacher-from-afar, Stanley Hauerwas, to say that ethical reflection beings not with "what would Jesus do?" or "what should we do?" but with "Who is Jesus and as a consequence who are we?" I think that's bang-on (although I'm a little jealous at how quickly she apprehended the point). But that's another day.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

A Reintroduction and an Apology

I have not gone away -- although I did go away to Mexico for a week. It was a fabulous week, but I won't go into details here, lest some of the brothers and/or sisters be tempted to the sin of envy.

Before I left and after I returned, I was/am sick -- some sort of sinusitis and/or inner-ear issue, I guess. So I have not been able to think very clearly. I have had the good sense not to try to raise any issues during my period of distraction and dibilitation.

I am on the mend, and I intend to post again soon. I have missed the interchange! So I am personally motivated to try to evoke some more wisdom from y'all.

For today, however, I offer only this, which I think is great plenty for us to ponder. I have copped it from the Bruderhof's "Daily Dig." Ponder and enjoy!

To Jesus in the Spring

Jane Tyson Clement

Oh, break the chrysalis of doubt!
Plough up the clods of thick despair
And split the buds of ignorance,
And cleanse the winter-heavy air.

Create a tumult in our hearts!
Drive us to seek what we have lost,
Until the flame of faith again
Has seared us with Thy Pentecost.