Posted by: Mark Nielsen | May 8, 2009

Church, Peace, & the Courage to Break With the Crowd

“The incense you bring me is a stench in my nostrils! Your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath day, and your special days for fasting–even your most pious meetings–are all sinful and false. I want nothing more to do with them. I hate all your festivals and sacrifices. I cannot stand the sight of them! From now on, when you lift up your hands in prayer, I will refuse to look. Even though you offer many prayers, I will not listen. For your hands are covered with the blood of your innocent victims. Wash yourselves and be clean! Let me no longer see your evil deeds. Give up your wicked ways. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the orphan. Fight for the rights of widows.” (Isaiah 1:13-17, New Living Bible)

     I’ve been watching the 2003 Martin Doblmeier documentary “Bonhoeffer” this week, and the above passage from Isaiah rang true as a bold, angry yet compassionate voice from scripture that is echoed by the courage of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Desmond Tutu. It is a rare and possibly prophetic church leader who speaks of Christ and peace in the midst of angry mobs, those only out to shed blood and to get what they think is coming to them.

(Bishop Tutu of South Africa is interviewed in the documentary, and poignantly invokes Jeremiah as another biblical comparison to Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi German theologian and pastor. It makes sense. Bonhoeffer was more of an unwilling but obedient prophet –a friendly, thoughtful weeper like Jeremiah instead of a shouter and preacher and singer like Isaiah.)

Yet the social gospel and pacifist tenets of Bonhoeffer’s theology came more from the Sermon on the Mount than from these ancient prophets. Here’s an intriguing quote from the film (I don’t know if it comes from a personal letter or from one of his books):

“The restoration of the church will surely come from a new kind of monasticism, which will have nothing in common with the old but a life of adherence to the Sermon on the Mount, in imitation of Christ.” 

With the aid of immense contributions from Barth and Niemuller in Germany, and Reinhold Niebuhr’s social ethics in the U.S. (Bonhoeffer studied some with Niebuhr), Bonhoeffer imitated the healing, peacemaking God, the one concerned with the oppressed, the God of which Isaiah had spoken many centuries earlier. In practicing the merciful and monastic love that he preached, Bonhoeffer was one of the first German Christians to publicly speak out for the aid of oppressed Jews in pre-war Germany. He was enthusiastically ecumenical and only 28, in the throes of birthing the Confessing Church and establishing its first seminary. And whether due to his young age or his natural humility and peaceableness, he asked his students to call him Brother Bonhoeffer, instead of Herr Director.

For me, having grown up Roman Catholic, it feels odd to have only recently discovered the spiritual depth and peacemaking theology of the ancient religious orders (the monastics… now suddenly in vogue again among the emergent church and mainline Protestants, and with good reason). So to read the above passage and yet recall all the incense and pomp and whatnot of my early church experience, I get worried that maybe God doesn’t like the Roman Catholic symbolic practices that grew out of the ancient Jewish ones in that Isaiah passage.

On the other hand, the Benedictines’, Carmelites’ and Franciscans’ commitment to peace and to being –for the poor– a living Christ, a giving church, in community, seems so right. It also seems so similar to Bonhoeffer and Tutu’s own convictions and actions. And it strikes me that all of them –the ancients and the moderns– learned about the connection between contemplative prayer, worship and social justice from passages like the above section of Isaiah.

But now comes the tough question:

Who are the Isaiahs, St. Francises, Desmond Tutus and Dietrich Bonhoeffers of our day? Who in the churches and synagogues of 2009 has both the position of international respect, and the courage of their convictions, enough to speak up loudly like Isaiah — to organize, and break with ridiculous nationalism or hollow church tradition, to try to stop the unnecessary (and ineffective) bloodshed in the Middle East, the creation of still more orphans by yet another generation of so-called Christians?


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