Dietrich Bonhoeffer Subtweets PEOTUS

Jack Jenkins, religion reporter at Think Progress, recently asked his Twitter followers: “what theology are you reading right now to cope?” (Cope with the disturbing presidential election results, that is.)

Many of us are reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the German Lutheran pastor who devoted his career, and eventually gave his life, to opposing the Nazi regime and the complacent strain of Christianity that chose to accommodate it. The resistance movement that Bonhoeffer and others led is probably most famous for this warning against fascism’s insidious creep:

First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”

Bonhoeffer’s writings always offer a bracing dose of courage. During these especially anxious days they also serve as quiet rebukes of the incoming Swaggerer-in-Chief. He was hanged by the Gestapo the year before the PEOTUS was born, yet Bonhoeffer offers antidotes to the odious bombast that surrounds us. In the vernacular of Twitter, in other words, he’s a divinely gifted subtweeter.


PEOTUS: Part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich.

Bonhoeffer:  Earthly goods are given to be used, not to be collected.


PEOTUS: You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.

Bonhoeffer: Strict exercise of self-control is an essential feature of the Christian’s life.


PEOTUS: The world was gloomy before I won – there was no hope. Now the market is up nearly 10 percent and Christmas spending is over a trillion dollars

Bonhoeffer:  It is very easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements in comparison with what we owe others.


PEOTUS: Hillary Clinton is the vessel of a corrupt global establishment that’s raiding our country and surrendering the sovereignty of our nation.

Bonhoeffer: Nothing that we despise in other men is inherently absent from ourselves.


PEOTUS: Working together, we will begin the urgent task of rebuilding our nation and renewing the American dream. I’ve spent my entire life and business looking at the untapped potential in projects and in people all over the world. That is now what I want to do for our country.

Bonhoeffer: If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.


Three Quotes for Uneasy Times

For these uneasy times, here are three quotes from my favorite theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr.

It’s likely that most readers have not heard his name before, although most are familiar with his most famous prayer: “Lord, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change that I can, And wisdom to tell the difference.”


Niebuhr lived from 1892 to 1971. Few theologians exerted more influence in their time on the secular world. During the Great Depression, he championed workers’ rights and racial equality in Henry Ford’s Detroit. In the 1930’s, Adolf Hitler’s rise in Germany caused him to discard his pacifism. In the 1950’s, he was a foe of Soviet communism and equally the foe of American conservatives who were inclined to think that the evils of communism demonstrated the virtues of American democracy. And Martin Luther King, Jr. credited Niebuhr with curing his early “superficial optimism about human nature.”

  • On humor and its relation to faith:

“The intimate relation between humor and faith is derived from the fact that both deal with the incongruities of our existence. … Laughter is our reaction to immediate incongruities and those which do not affect us essentially. Faith is the only possible response to the ultimate incongruities of existence, which threaten the very meaning of our life.”

  • On America’s exceptionalism and aspirations to empire:

“The same strength which has extended our power beyond a continent has also interwoven our destiny with the destiny of many peoples and brought us into a vast web of history in which other wills, running in oblique or contrasting directions to our own, inevitably hinder or contradict what we most fervently desire. We cannot simply have our way, not even when we believe our way to have the “happiness of mankind” as its promise.”

  • On religion and confidence:

Humanity is fond of thinking that religion is confidence in our highest social values. “Nothing could be further from the truth. True religion is a profound uneasiness about our highest social values.”

Sheltering All Our Homeless Children

The state is greeting Governor Patrick’s proposal to provide shelter for some of the Central American children now crossing the border into the U.S. with both praise and derision.

Some are applauding the Governor for rekindling the Massachusetts tradition of leading by example: like Governor John Winthrop, he is calling on us to recognize that we are as a city upon on a hill with the eyes of the world upon us. Others are scornful of the notion of opening our doors to these speakers of other languages and their rumored crime and drug-resistant diseases.

Gone is the consensus that prevailed in 2008 when President George W. Bush signed into law the Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act, under which the nation resolved not to send children from countries other than Mexico and Canada entering the U.S. alone back to their country of origin before hearing their claims to stay. Now resolutions disapproving of the Governor’s policy are being introduced in the Legislature and a “send them home” rally at the State House is being planned.

One popular rationale for rejecting the Governor’s proposal is the state’s own homelessness problem: “While I appreciate the desire to be sympathetic and helpful,” House minority leader Brad Jones told the Globe, “the state already faces enough of a challenge trying to care for its own homeless children.”

Representative Jones has a point, although it must be said that meeting that challenge has not been a high priority for him or for most other state lawmakers. In fact, the Legislature has been largely content to allow the Governor to continue his policy of denying emergency shelter to families with homeless children unless, as his regulations require, “the children of the household are in a housing situation not meant for human habitation, and where there is a substantial health and safety risk to the family that is likely to result in significant harm should the family remain in such housing situation.” This policy, the Patrick administration believes, serves as an important deterrent to those who would otherwise flood the system.

In the past nine months alone, nearly 2400 families with children — a far greater number than the 1000 children the Governor is proposing to help — obtained shelter in the state only after braving these risks by, for example, sleeping in cars and abandoned buildings. The Globe’s Yvonne Abraham, whose column yesterday described the acutely perilous journey of one nine-year old girl from Central America to the U.S., also wrote nearly two years ago about the dangers facing the state’s homeless families when the Governor’s policy was put into effect. In yesterday’s story, Dayanna from El Salvador was not raped. But in the October, 2102, as Abraham reported, Ginna from Boston, the mother of a 17-month old daughter, was not so fortunate.

Both these stories illustrate the point the Governor made last week: we are “great when we open our doors and our hearts to needy children, and diminished when we don’t.” Is there a good reason to be selective about who the needy children are?

Honoring MLK by Honoring His Teacher

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., born 84 years ago today, wrote that the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) had profoundly influenced his thinking. Niebuhr, King said, taught him that his “superficial optimism” about human nature was wrong: “The more I observed the tragedies of history and man’s shameful inclination to choose the low road, the more I came to see the depths and strength of sin. My reading of the works of Reinhold Niebuhr made me aware of the complexity of human motives and of the reality of sin on every level of man’s existence.”

A few decades later, New York Times columnist David Brooks, upon learning that Niebuhr was one of the favorite philosophers of Senator and Presidential candidate Barack Obama, asked Obama what Niebuhr had taught him. Obama’s response: “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”

Niebuhr’s relevance continues today. When free market ideologues like Paul Ryan assert that ANY critique of the excesses of present day capitalism amounts to an endorsement of Stalinist central planning, they cite as authority Ayn Rand, of course, but also the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek and his 1944 work, The Road to Serfdom. Niebuhr, who reviewed the book for The Nation, articulated the weakness of Hayek’s theory in a way that has not been surpassed:

No social philosophy dealing with only one of two contrasting perils which modern society faces is adequate to our situation. Dr. Hayek sees the perils of political power clearly enough, but there is nothing in his book to indicate the slightest awareness of the perils of inordinate economic power. He writes as if the automatic balances of a free competitive system were still intact, or would be, if the world had not been beguiled by collectivist thought. There is no understanding of the fact that a technical civilization has accentuated the centralization of power in economic society and that the tendency to monopoly has thrown the nice balance of economic forces — if it ever existed — into disbalance.

Happy birthday, Dr. King, and thank you, Professor Niebuhr.