Tuesday, February 21, 2012

BONHOEFFER by Eric Metaxas

I read through this biography by Eric Metaxas very slowly, trying to study it as much as read it.
by Charlie Leck

Eric Metaxas is a good writer – as least of the biography. His earlier book, Amazing Grace, about William Wilberforce (and, in many ways, about John Newton also) was a tremendous commercial success and led to the extraordinary cinema by the same name. Last year another biography by Metaxas hit the best-seller list – Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet and Spy.

I finished the book up early last week and closed it with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. The book closes with the account of his execution in April, 1945, and then recounts the memorial service for him at Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London. Bonhoeffer’s parents listened to the service on the radio from their home in England. The gospel lesson was from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.

“Beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; and ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles.” [from the Sermon on the Mount]

I set the book aside for a few days, clearing away some strong emotions and then I went back and reread sections of it that I had marked for rereading.

Over the years, I’ve read an awful lot about Bonhoeffer and an awful lot of Bonhoeffer’s writings. Nevertheless, the book by Metaxas seemed fresh and new. It moved me and pleased me and I recommend it fully to any of you who would like a full, rich and inspirational account of Bonhoeffer’s life.

Essentially, that is the conclusion of this particular blog. However, I am appending a letter to it that I wrote in answer to an email I received from a young man in Germany (Wiemar, Thuringia) who wondered if I could answer some questions for him in his effort to complete a paper that was a requirement for his graduation from high school. Robert had read some of my Mississippi Blogs about my experiences in that state in 1964. He is writing a paper about the Civil Rights movement in America and wanted to know if I would take the time to answer seven (7) questions for him. If you’d like to eavesdrop or peek over my shoulder, the following is my answer to the young man.

Answers to Questions from Robert Hertrich

Hello, Robert, it is good to make contact with you. Yes, I’d be happy to answer your questions and they will follow these few comments that I’ll make.

First, good luck (viel glück mit ihrem project).

So, you are from Weimar, Thuringia. It is an interesting part of Germany. My background is German on my father’s side. My grandfather Leck came from Germany (Bremerhaven) where he worked in the ship building trades. My grandmother (Emma Vey) came with her parents from Bavaria.

I have been to Germany a number of times and I have enjoyed traveling there. I am 71 years old now and I want to make one more trip to Germany so I can visit the small village of Leck that is up near the border of Denmark.

I have recently finished reading a biography on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), a German theologian. It was written by an American, Eric Metaxas. It is an extremely good book and only one of many I have read about Bonhoeffer. I consider myself something of a Bonhoeffer expert and have always admired the man’s courage and consistency of faith. I hope you know of him. He was one of the church’s great heroes during the period of the Third Reich in Germany.

Forgive me for rambling and now for answering your questions slightly out of order.

Your question two (2) is:
Who or what influenced you the most in fighting for the rights of Afroamerican people? [
Wer oder was hat sie am meisten im kampf für die rechte der Afroamerikanischen menschen?]

Bonhoeffer had a very strong influence on me. In 1963 and 1964, after finishing college, I was studying in a theological school and hoping to become a pastor. During that school term, I took a class in “Christian Ethics” and there was a great deal of conversation about the pitiable situation of the African-Americans in the southern states here in America. Our lecturer spoke a great deal about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his incredible courage in Germany. Bonhoeffer had studied theology in Berlin and also under the famous theologian, Karl Barth, in Göttingen. As I remember it from so many years ago, we were assigned to read two of Bonhoeffer’s books, Ethics and another called The Cost of Discipleship. In the former, Bonhoeffer urges us to give up concentrating on the two usual ethical questions: (1) How can I be good? (2) How can I do something good? Instead he encourages us to look at an enormously different question: What is the will of God?

What is the will of God?
I was very taken by this idea and the possibility of applying it to all one’s acts and actions.

In that second book, Bonhoeffer concentrates on what it takes to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and on the entire concept of grace as it ought to be understood. I won’t go on with this, I promise you, but it is important for you to understand what gave me motivation (and it is also important for me to write it after all these years). Bonhoeffer affirmed that, indeed, God’s grace is freely given to us. He is afraid, however, that this idea of “free grace” will then be confused as “cheap grace.” NO! It is quite the opposite, he writes. To accept God’s grace and to choose to follow Jesus Christ is extremely costly. The cost of discipleship is frighteningly expensive; for it requires our lives.

To the fishermen, Jesus had said: “Put down you nets and come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” As Bonhoeffer explains it, the call from our Lord asks us to give up our life as we know it and come take the difficult road and follow him.”

I wrote about Bonhoeffer in a 2007 blog: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945).

Bonhoeffer was a complete pacifist but, as a Pastor during the rise of the Third Reich in Germany, he was forced to consider the question about whether he could kill Adolph Hitler if the occasion arose. You see? Now you can understand the question about the will of God. One doesn’t ask: How can I be good? Nor does one ask: How can I do something right? The only question is: What is the will of God?

As you know from your study of history, a number of assassination attempts on Adloph Hitler failed. Bonhoeffer and a military organization he belonged to (das Abwehr) were behind a number of those attempts. For that, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned in 1943 and he was executed in 1945, just a few days before the allies arrived at his prison to set free those who were held there.

Okay, Robert, here is what influenced me to go to Mississippi (in America’s Deep South) and fight “for the rights of Afro-American people.”

In that ethics class, we spoke a great deal about what was happening in Mississippi, Alabama and the Carolinas. In early 1964, when the Mississippi Voter Registration project for the summer was announced, we began to talk about it in our class. Our professor, James B. Nelson, announced that he was going as a representative of the National Council of Churches in America, to act as an observer and a facilitator of communications between the arriving freedom workers and the white citizens of the state (the Citizens’ Councils). He wondered if any students were willing to go along to help on that project.

Many of us thought about making this trip, but, for many reasons, I was the only one to accept the professor’s invitation. I had great respect for this teacher. He was incredibly brilliant and had studied at Yale under some very well known theologians. He was also a very kind, loving and gentle person. Somehow, I felt quite awful that no one was accepting his invitation (or was it a challenge?) to go to Mississippi. Because I had no job lined up for that summer, while classes were out, and because I could financially afford it, I volunteered.

So, briefly, here is the answer to your question number two (2): I think my motivation and inspiration came from both my professor, Herr Docktor Nelson, and from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his writings. [Ich war von der guten Herr Docktor Nelson and von Dietrich Bonhoeffer and sine schriften inspiriert.]

I had not asked the Bonhoeffer question: What is the will of God? Instead, I said: “I can afford it. I’ve got nothing better to do. I should go! Yet, the bravery of Bonhoeffer and the kindness of my good professor were my inspirations.

Your question number one (1) is: When did my interest in the Civil Rights Movement begin? [Wann hat mein interesse an der Bürgerrechtsbewegung zu beginnen?]

As a small boy I grew up in a very rural, little community. It was really an all white town. I remember my father using words that would not be acceptable today to talk of other races and types of people – words like waps (Italians), kikes (jews), spics (Puertoricans) and niggers (blacks or African Americans). Somehow, even as a boy, I could sense that there was something wrong with these words and that they were disrespectful. I do not know how I came to believe so early that all people deserved to be treated with utter respect and that no people of any particular nationality or color should be considered better or worse than anyone else. I do not know it with a certainty, but this value may have been instilled in me at the church I attended with nearly perfect regularity. Though my parents were not regular attendees, they insisted that I never miss Sunday religious classes. I was very enamored by the Pastors who served in that church as I grew up; and I became quite close friends with each of them. To this day I consider they were a great, great influence and inspiration on my life and behavior.

Suddenly two black young men (brothers) appeared on the scene in my little town. They, like my two brothers, were six or seven years older than I. These two African-American, young guys were treated generally okay, but occasionally I would witness very negative and unkind reactions to them. One of my brothers was an enormously strong guy, who could be very tough. I remember him being a great defender of these two brothers and he would take on anyone who acted disrespectfully toward them.

It was this early, when I was ten (10) or eleven (11) years old that I began to have concerns about racial injustice. Then, when I was fourteen (14), following an order by the U.S. Supreme Court, the federal government tried to desegregate the schools of the American south. There was a terrible and violent reaction among white people in the south. President Dwight David Eisenhower had to send military troops into Arkansas to force the Governor of that State to allow African American children into the white schools. This story was in all the newspapers and was talked about at our school and all over our town. I was very much influenced by this moment in our history and I knew that I personally stood on the side of the black race in America and I couldn’t understand how anyone could not.

So, the short answer to your question is that I grew interested in the questions of Civil Rights very early in my life (around 10 or 11 years of age).

Your question number three (3) is: How and where did you become active during the Movement and what exactly did you do (sit-ins, marches, ...)? [Wie und wo haben sie sich während der Bürgerrechtsbewegung und was genau haben sie getan?]

The trip to Mississippi was the beginning of my active involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. I arrived at the railroad station in Canton, Mississippi on 21 June 1964 (it is a very important date in the history of the Civil Rights Movement). My first act of defiance – or act of protest – was to go into the waiting room at the station (bahnhof) that was clearly marked “Colored People Only!” I tell that story of the Mississippi experience and my work there in a series of six blogs that begin with Remembering the Sixties [http://chasblogs.blogspot.com/2007/12/remembering-sixties.html].

After that experience in 1964, I still had to complete graduate school, and I was involved in civil rights activities mostly in the summers, when school was closed. In the summer of 1965 I was involved with activities in Chicago for a couple of weeks when that became a very volatile racial situation. I participated in marches and protests to try to secure more freedom for African-Americans in that city. In the fall of 1966, now ordained by the Church, I became a pastor of a church in a primarily black section of the city of Minneapolis, in Minnesota. I was very active in both civil rights work and anti-Vietnam War protests for the three years that I served as pastor of that church. In the summer of 1967 my congregation gave me a period of time off so I could return to Chicago to protest with Jesse Jackson in a program he had organized called Operation Bread Basket – an attempt to get more jobs for black people in Hi Low Grocery Stores in black neighborhoods. I also had an opportunity then to meet the famous community organizer, Saul Alinksky, and I attended classes that Alinsky taught about how to organize people to make change in their lives and living conditions.

In 1970 I discontinued my work as a pastor and took my activities in a more political direction. I worked on projects for Civil Rights (including many marches and sit-ins) and on activities that protested America’s war in Vietnam. I thoroughly opposed that war and, beginning in 1968, I got very involved in the political fight to stop it.

Your question number four (4) is: Do you think that the president did everything in his power to better the situation at the time? [Do sie denken, dass der Präsident alles in seiner macht getan, um die situation an der zeit besser?]

The answer to such a question, if thorough, would have to be long and complicated. I’ll try to make it extraordinarily brief and, in so doing, I’ll probably make it a bit too simplistic.

In my view, the modern civil rights movement started in the 1950s while Dwight David Eisenhower was the President of the United States. Prior to that Eisenhower had been, as you probably know, a great American war hero who was the commander of Allied Forces in the war in Europe against the Nazis. Desegregation of the schools of the South was the great civil rights issue during Eisenhower’s time. The Supreme Court of the U.S. had ruled that the southern schools must be desegregated. It fell upon Eisenhower’s shoulders to make sure that happened. In my view, Eisenhower did an outstanding job. It was hard on him and he tried to avoid it, but he was eventually compelled to send military troops into Arkansas to get the job of integration done. It would take two more decades before the schools of the South were truly integrated and a number of presidents would have to deal with this problem.

I think the next president, John F. Kennedy, also did a good job with moving the south toward desegregation. I believe it is one of the things that cost him his life. He was very unpopular in the South and among libertarians. Kennedy’s successor was Lyndon Baines Johnson and he served from 1964 through 1968. Johnson did a very good job with the Civil Rights questions and I think I would give him a top grade for his accomplishments.

Richard M. Nixon took office in 1969 and racial questions were subsiding as the Vietnam War became the most controversial issue of his presidency. On the question of race, however, I would give President Nixon a failing grade for being so much less supportive of these issues than he should have been. He did not think highly of Martin Luther King, Jr. (the great African-American leader of the freedom movement in America). He could have done much more.

Your question number five (5) is: Do you think the Civil Rights Movement changed the people in the USA in a positive or negative way or didn´t it influence the people? [Glauben sie, dass das Civil Rights Movement verändert die menschen in den USA in einem positiven oder negativen weise oder nicht beeinflussen sie die menschen?

Robert, this is an extraordinary question; however, there is no single answer to it. The movement changed many, many people in the U.S.A. in both ways. For instance, it had a remarkable impact on me and altered my life enormously. Some of the ways it changed me were very positive; while others were clearly negative. My attitudes about race were altered very positively and I came to understand things about race and race relations that I never would have understood had I not spent so much time with African-Americans in their own settings (Sitz im Leben). On the other hand, it disrupted and weakened my own family life (fortunately, that has all turned out very well now) and caused some degree of personal pain. Some people stopped being my friend because of my activities; but, on the other hand, I made many new friends I wouldn’t have made otherwise.

Of course, major changes were made in the lives of black people. Would we ever have elected an African-American to the Presidency of our nation if the civil rights movement had not happened? I don’t think so.

Did some people become even more hateful of people of color because of the movement? I am certain so.

But, measured on the large scale and in balance of good and bad, I do think (yes) the civil rights movement changed America in a good and positive way. Racism is still real and alive in America, but it is not so blatant and the new protections of the law are helpful in assuring a higher degree of equal justice for all people.

Your question number six (6) is: Are there any results of the Civil Rights Movement to be seen in the USA today? [Gibt es irgendwelche ergebnisse des Civil Rights Movement in den USA zu sehen ist heute?]

Oh, my goodness yes! I could not possibly list them all for you; however, you can begin with President Barrack Obama. Would we have elected an African-American to the highest office in our land without the civil rights movement? Absolutely not!

Our public schools, colleges and universities are now integrated. When I was a young man, Negroes were not allowed into the hotels and motels in which I stayed. Recall my mention earlier of my first protest act in the Civil Rights Movement – I entered a waiting room designated for “colored people only.” There are no such things now. African-Americans in the South had to use drinking fountains (for water) that were designated for them only. In the South, they couldn’t sit at a lunch counter or even enter most restaurants that were designated for “whites only.” It was rare for a man or woman of color to be elected into important political offices. Now the Congress of the United States is significantly represented by people of all colors. African-Americans may eat in any restaurant they please and they are members of our exclusive country clubs and social clubs. No hotel restricts them. It is totally illegal to do so. There are thousands of black lawyers, medical doctors, college professors and many very successful black business leaders.

This doesn’t mean to say there is no racism left in America. There certainly is, but in another generation or two even most subtle racism and prejudice will begin to decrease to very, very small incidents.

Your question number seven (7) is: Do you think Barrack Obama and the government are doing everything they can for Afro-Americans? [Glauben sie, dass Barrack Obama und die regierung alles tun, sie können für Afroamerikaner?]

Robert, the question today is much less racial and now significantly more economic. African-Americans and Native Americans today still are too heavily represented in the lower economic classes. In other words, these non-whites continue to make up too large a percentage of those who live in poverty and poor economic conditions. Why? This is a tough question with which our nation continues to struggle.

Education is Key!
My personal opinion is that we must do a much better job in this country of educating those who continue to make up the largest percentage of the poorer classes. All statistics show that there is an unacceptable gap in the quality of education between white people and people of color. In America we have come to believe, as Germany has always believed, that education is the key to personal success and national success. We must figure out how to educate our people more thoroughly and in a manner that will enable them to achieve personal success and achieve levels of employment that will be satisfactory to them. Enabling people to become more personally successful will also enable the nation to be stronger and more healthy economically.

Well, Robert, I think I’ve done it. I was unable to follow your option of just answering very briefly with single words or single sentences. Questions like this are too complex for that and always require qualification and explanation. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed the exercise and I will share all this with my readers on tomorrow’s blog.

Thanks for contacting me and I’d love to hear how you do on your project. I wish you extreme good luck! [Viel glück!] Do you use that expression in Germany?

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