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The Cost of Discipleship

The famous theologian and Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, had a lot of time on his hands as he sat in a Nazi prison in 1943. Before prison, he was a very active person so among his frequent thoughts while incarcerated was that he was “wasting” a lot of his life in a prison cell.

“Time lost is time in which we have failed to live a full human life, gain experience, learn, create, enjoy, and suffer;” he wrote in a collection of his prison writings; “it is time that has not been filled up, but left empty.”

He may have felt that, but he didn’t waste his prison time, writing and reading extensively and leaving a treasure of wisdom for the rest of us.

Felt Numbed

Besides time, Bonhoeffer also thought a lot about the world outside, and the struggles against Nazism – for which he was confined to prison and for which he would pay with his life – and the fellow Germans who felt numbed in the face of the overwhelming popularity of a brutal regime.

“Disappointed by the world’s unreasonableness,” he wrote, “they see themselves condemned to ineffectiveness; they step aside in resignation or collapse before the stronger party.”

Bonhoeffer, and some members of his family, were fierce opponents of the Nazi regime and its leader, Adolf Hitler, and it didn’t take long for the Nazis to strike back in their campaign to eliminate all opposition.

Bonhoeffer was convinced that Nazism was not only brutal and anti-Christian, but that it’s principles of extreme nationalism and anti-democratic authoritarianism were irrational. And he was astounded that so many of his countrymen, whom he thought were reasonable and supportive of democracy, had become rabid supporters of such evil.

No Defense

“Against folly we have no defense,” he wrote from prison. “Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is of no use, facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved – indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions.”

Such a person, he continued, “can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make him aggressive.”

Any of this sound familiar? It does to me. I believe there are lots of parallels to what is happening in the U.S. today. In my opinion, reason and truth are taking a beating in the public arena. Ignorance is, indeed, bliss.

I recall that in my seminary ethics courses a distinction was make between “culpable” and “non-culpable” ignorance. The later was the kind of ignorance we all have. We don’t know everything and we’re just smart enough to know it. And we’re open to new knowledge and new facts.

“Culpable” ignorance is the kind that occurs when we lack knowledge and are unwilling to acknowledge it. We know better but choose to accept lies and lying propaganda, maybe because it makes us feel good to have that in common with others whom we admire.

Lifelong Commitment

Bonhoeffer, I believe, saw through this in his own society. And what helped him see it was his profound faith and his lifelong commitment to it. He cut through the propaganda, and its popularity, to recognize that Nazism was thoroughly antithetical to Christian values.

The question for all of us: Which comes first, our politics or our faith? If it’s our faith, we should pay attention to what our faith teaches about justice, treatment of others and love of God and neighbor. After that, we can choose the politics which best serves that faith.

People searching for the God of love – especially in the Christian tradition – can take no better example of the importance of truth and justice than that provided by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His kind of faith doesn’t come easily, however. Thus, the title of one of his most famous books, “The Cost of Discipleship.”

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