Spirit Quest


Sharing the spiritual wealth
By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective

Every year I buy myself a Christmas present. This is to make sure that there will be something under the tree that I really want. Invariably it turns out to be a book to share the space with a lot of other books.  And so it happend that my choice this year was a book called Dietrich Bonhoeffer: 1906 - 1945 written by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen and translated by Isabel Best.
I was particularly excited when I saw that it was dedicated to Jean Freeman and Dr. Harold Wilke. The latter was a dear friend of mine with whom I organized exchange visits between the Evangelical Church of the Union of Germany, the United Curch of Christ USA and the United Church of Canada. Much of that visitation was done in what was then East Germany, to churches who had little contact with the West until Novemeber 1989  when the Berlin Wall came down. 
“Who is this Bonhoeffer?” It would not surprise me to hear that question coming from people, even clergy, less than fifty years of age.
“Time like an ever rolling stream bears all its sons away,” declares the well-known hymn “O God Our Help in Ages Past.” People and their names and contribution to history are too soon forgotten .
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the latest book about him, his life and his theological thinking, declares him a modern day martyr. Indeed, his statue adorns a niche in Westminster Abbey among others of this age who sacrificed their lives. There aren’t many Germans in that memorial wall.
He was executed at Hitler’s command in the dying days of World War II. As he and several others were escorted from their cells in the Flossenberg prison the sound of Russian artillery could be heard on the outskirts of Berlin. The war would soon be over but Bonhoeffer wouldn’t make it to freedom.
He was a thinker even to the very last moment. He had worked on what he hoped would be his magnus opus on the topic of Christian Ethics. Paragraphs as well as whole chapters, were later collected into a book by that name, by his friend and biographer Eberhard Bethge.
He was a Man of Resistance who led the Confessing Church, an offshoot of the Protestant Church in Germany, in their opposition to Hitler and his fascism and anti-semitism. Although a pacifist he nevertheless joined the conspirators on the Fuehrer’s life. It was for this reason that Hitler could not go to his own death without wreaking vengeance on Bonhoeffer. 
One of the most important paragraphs in his book Ethics which I bought and studied while doing postgraduate work in Germany in 1956, says,
“When the figure of a successful person becomes equally prominent, the majority fall into idolizing success. They become blind to right and wrong, truth and lie, decency and malice.....  Success per se is The Good.  This attitude is only genuine and excusable while one is intoxicated by events. After sobriety returns it can only be maintained at the cost of deep inner hypocrisy, with conscious self deception.”
Written over seventy years ago this sentence is as relevant today as it was in the forties. We are enamored by success. It is the one pervading value in business and politics. Our educational institutions are primed to produce successful professionals rather than men and women with an acute sense of right and wrong,  This has been made more than adequately evident in the recent financial crisis. Those responsible have largely escaped and are hailed today as “successful” financiers  who continue to be showered with obscene salaries and rewards.
To preach, teach and act ethically means to be prophetic, which has always been and is today a dangerous activity. It was in Bonhoeffer’s day as it was in Jesus’ time. He was crucified not because he was nice to little children and sheep but because he questioned the Jerusalem power elite. Remember how he cleansed the temple of the money changers, how he reinterpeted highly lauded laws? The Romans did the crucifying because they believed that he was one of those conspiring to head a revolt against their empire. What I miss today is a prophetic word, one that calls our success cult into question.
The author, Ferdinand Schlingensiepen (translated by Isabel Best) writes that Bonhoeffer “did not give a moment’s thought to going over to the successful side. Another  temptation is much greater, to withdraw into one’s own inner world.  For those for whom success is beyond reach, withdrawal seems a convenient option. But by so doing we empower  the cult.” Even few months before the outbreak of World War II Bonhoeffer was visiting the United States and Britain where his friends were urging him to remain and where undoubtedly he would have become a successful churchperson and theologian, but he could not. He was driven to where he believed he was most needed but also gravely endangered.
The church, mosque, synagogue and temple must not allow themselves to become havens of security and inner peace but to be outspoken against the cult that puts success before justice and humanity, profits above ecological sustainability.
As we move into a new year we are confronted with disturbing evidence. Profits trump economic responsibility. Winning votes is seen as the be all and end all for politicians rather than espousal of justice and social responsibility.
Having spent many hours during the Christmas holidays reading and reflecting on the life and times of Dietrich Bonhoeffer I have been made very conscious of the demands the spirit makes. That spirit also accompanies us along  our road. It does not make that passage easier, but infinitely worthwhile. Bonhoeffer was the proof of that.
May your new year be rich in spiritiual ways.