Saturday, September 7, 2019

By Gracious Powers

I remember it was a bitter, cold day standing amongst the ruins of the Dachau Concentration Camp, the first of many such camps established by the German Nazi regime in 1933 to house political prisoners and those believed to be unfit for life in the glorious White Aryan Third Reich some twenty or so miles outside of Munich. Munichen means “by the monks,” recalling the Benedictine monastery that once stood on the site of this now bustling modern city of innovation, culture and commerce. I was standing outside of a modern Carmelite monastery attached to the outer wall of the Camp, and built under the direction of a survivor of the camp, Dr. Johannes Neuhäusler, one of thousands of clergymen who were sent to Dachau as “enemies of the state” for preaching against the regime – all culture including religion was required to conform to Nazi  White Supremacy ideology.

As I wandered alone from our group which had come from America as a protest to visit the Perlacher Forst in Munich while our President, Ronald Reagan was in Bitburg honoring dead SS Troops buried there. Perlacher is where Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans and other young people who were part of The White Rose, a resistance movement to the Nazi regime, are buried having been executed for their efforts to warn German citizens what was happening. We had met with some White Rose survivors the night before taking the train to Dachau. It was a sobering privilege to be amongst them as we were enacting our feeble little protest of the Bitburg visit by our President. What did they think of a U.S President honoring the very troops who had executed their comrades? As we waited for the train to Dachau I was talking with Ernie Michel, himself a survivor of Auschwitz where he had been interned at age 16. Growing up in Mannheim, his family would visit Munich and he said he could still recall the sickly-sweet stench of burning flesh in the Munich air all the way from Dachau some twenty miles away. Ironically, Munich which had once been the home to Benedictine monks had been declared “The Capital of the Movement.”

As I walked across the vast expanse of now empty space, snow flurries floating in the air, I see a man in a beret on a bicycle making his way toward me over the gravel that now covers much of Dachau. He hails me, stops and begins talking in mixed German and English with wild gesticulations. He had been interned in Dachau as a young man for leading a youth group in his church. Thousands of clergy and church lay people had been held in Dachau, worked to the bone, and many thousands were gassed or shot in groups. He presses a small pamphlet into my hand and rides off into the snow. I imagine he comes here every day to remember. Though liberated in 1945, he still cannot leave. Elie Wiesel, a mentor of mine, writes about our need to pay attention to the mad men and women who really are prophets trying to gain our attention to what is really happening in this world of ours. The Madman of Dachau is one of these.

As I read Luke 14:25-33 over and over this week in which Jesus says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost…”, all I can think of is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship. Written in 1937, four years after Dachau  was established, the book was a warning against “cheap grace,” a phrase he had learned while attending church at Adam Clayton Powell Sr’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem while at Union Seminary: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” He goes on to write about “costly grace”: “Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’" The Cost of Discipleship also includes Bonhoeffer’s critique of the Imperial or Triumphant Church’s use of the cross once the Emperor Constantine declared, “In hoc signo vinces” – In This Sign Conquer. Crusaders had the cross emblazoned on their shields as they slaughtered not only Muslims and Jews, but Christians of whom they did not approve across Europe, Jerusalem and the Middle East, making it no longer a sign of sacrifice, service and redemption for the whole world.

Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran Pastor and Theologian, and others in his family, was an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime and its ideology and actions against Jews, invalids, homosexuals, gypsies, immigrants and anyone who dared to challenge White-Aryan Supremacy. While on his second visit to the U.S. he was encouraged by many at the seminary to remain here until things resolved, but he was compelled by his own theology to return to carry the cross and follow Jesus. Like Jesus in Luke whose face was “set toward Jerusalem” to confront the powers of religion and the Roman Empire, Bonhoeffer returned and continued to work in the resistance like the members of the White Rose I had met in Munich. He was eventually arrested, and was executed April 9, 1945, at the Flossenburg concentration camp just days before the camp’s liberation, having paid the cost of discipleship.

As the new year began in 1945, Bonhoeffer sent a letter home to his mother. In it was a poem. The poem speaks directly to the circumstances of both his incarceration and the madness of evil that had taken over what was once perhaps the most cultured and Christian of European nations that had given the world Beethoven, Bach, Goethe, Martin Luther and so many others. His words, like those of Jesus in Luke chapter 14, are both hard in their unflinching realism, and yet at the same time powerfully inspiring for many who have faced tragic circumstances in their own lives and treacherous times in their own countries. Translated by the British Methodist minister and hymnodist F. Pratt Green, and put to music by many, Bonhoeffer’s words of strength and hope in the midst of crisis remain amongst the most powerful words and hymns of the Twentieth Century. Whenever I read or sing them, I recall that day at Dachau, the Madman of Dachau, and the thousands of fellow priests and clergy and church lay leaders whose lives were ended in that place for having carried the cross and followed Jesus.

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
And confidently waiting come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning,
and never fails to greet us each new day.

Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented,
Still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
Oh, give our frightened souls the sure salvation
for which, O Lord, You taught us to prepare.

And when this cup You give is filled to brimming
With bitter suffering, hard to understand,
we take it thankfully and without trembling,
out of so good and so beloved a hand.

Yet when again in this same world You give us
The joy we had, the brightness of Your Sun,
we shall remember all the days we lived through,
and our whole life shall then be Yours alone.

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