Bonhoeffer: The Transcendent Church At Easter

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Cliftonville Moravian Church (Photo by John Cooper)

“[Believers] do not believe in people or in the good in people that ultimately must triumph; they also do not believe in the church in its human power. Rather, believers believe solely in God, who creates and does the impossible, who creates life out of death, who has called the dying church to life against and in spite of us and through us. But God does it alone.”

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is on the Cross: Reflections on Lent and Easter

Weapons Of Mass Destruction: Christianity & A Call to Action.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently announced that they have moved the Doomsday Clock ahead 30 Seconds, to 2 minutes to midnight (the symbolic point of global annihilation); this is the closest to midnight recorded since 1953, the height of the Cold War.

At the Doomsday Clock announcement at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in January 2017, it was stated that: ‘North Korea’s nuclear weapons program appeared to make remarkable progress in 2017, increasing risks for itself, other countries in the region, and the United States. Hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions on both sides have increased the possibility of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation …. ‘. Added to that Vladimir Putin’s recent ‘state of the nation’ address to Russia’s Federal Assembly, where he raised the issue of potential additions to the country’s already enormous strategic nuclear arsenal.

The Christian response to the issue of nuclear weapons and the potential for a nuclear exchange, deliberate or by error, has not been uniform in its scope. Some would argue for the deterrence value of maintaining a nuclear arsenal as the ultimate guarantor of peace; others would take a radically different view and claim that possession of weapons of mass destruction, never mind their use, is morally indefensible.  For example, Christian CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) advocates on behalf of Christians ‘who want to witness on the basis of their faith against nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, while also positively campaigning for peace’. This statement, together with other information on their stance is available at: http://christiancnd.org.uk. Christian CND have produced a helpful summary of the various statements on nuclear weapons from UK churches: Church-statements-poster.

Consider also what Thomas Merton, the Cistercian Monk, Writer and Peace Activist wrote in is article entitled ‘Nuclear War and Christian Responsibility’ published in the Feb. 6, 1962 issue of Commonweal (https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/nuclear-war-and-christian-responsibility):

‘In atomic war, there is no longer question of simply permitting an evil, the destruction of a few civilian dwellings, in order to attain a legitimate end: the destruction of a military target. It is well understood on both sides that atomic war is purely and simply massive and indiscriminate destruction of targets chosen not for their military significance alone, but for their importance in a calculated project of terror and annihilation. Often the selection of the target is determined by some quite secondary and accidental circumstance that has not the remotest reference to morality. Hiroshima was selected for atomic attack, among other reasons, because it had never undergone any noticeable air bombing and was suitable, as an intact target, to give a good idea of the effectiveness of the bomb’.

Each one of us – Christian and non-Christian – is called to reflect on our position with respect to nuclear weapons; the stakes could not be any higher – it is after all undeniable that they pose an existential threat like no other. So, I want to leave you with a very sobering TEDtalk by atmospheric scientist Brian Toon; he explains how even a small nuclear exchange could destroy all life on earth and suggests ways that we can prevent such a horrific scenario coming to fruition:

‘The Killing Nurses of the Third Reich’

The perversion of medical ethics that characterised the Third Reich is painful to comprehend in both its scope and form.  From initially murdering children with disabilities, participating doctors and nurses moved on to the involuntary euthanisation of adults with mental illnesses and learning disabilities.

Although generally selected by physicians, the actual killings were normally carried out by nurses, either by passive (exposing patients to prolonged cold) or active (lethal injection) means. Why did the nurses carry out these killings? The answers are complex, deeply disturbing and instructive.

Cizik School of Nursing has created a 56-minute documentary entitled ‘Caring Corrupted: the Killing Nurses of the Third Reich’. The film explores how nurses participated in the Holocaust, and in-so-doing abrogating their professional ethics at the behest of a corrupt Nazi ideology.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of this historical reality is how easily those ethics were sidelined and debased. It provides a powerful reminder of what can occur when an entire society is gripped by an evil ideology which becomes normalised over time. As such, it is a warning to us all in general, and to those in the caring professions in particular.

You can watch this excellent film here:

 

‘Man Cannot Stand A Meaningless Life’

Carl Jung was a fascinating, engaging and pioneering Psychiatrist who had an in-depth knowledge of theology, anthropology, philosophy, archaeology and mythology; he was a unique polymath and very much ahead of his time. Jung’s ‘Analytical Psychology’ has had, and continues to have, an enormous impact in various fields of human endeavour.

Jung was interviewed in his home by the BBC in 1959; here he discussed autobiographical details, his difficult relationship with Freud, as well as the findings of his clinical work which spanned many years and included psychological types, the unconscious, and the effect of religion and death on the collective and individual psyche.

For me, one of the most intriguing insights came when he was asked about his belief in God; his response, after some thought, was “I don’t need to believe, I know.” In essence he was pointing out the intuitive nature of the psyche, and also that the word ‘belief’ has unfortunate, and erroneous connotations; the nature of God is complex and our rush to reductionism is cautioned against by Jung.

Significantly, he ends the interview by stating, quite correctly in my opinion, that “Man cannot stand a meaningless life” and that: “We need more psychology, we need more understanding of human nature because the only real danger that exist is man himself”. Indeed.

You can watch the interview in its entirety:

 

 

Combating Holocaust Denial

‘Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour’. Romans 13:7

This verse came into my mind as I watched the 2016 historical drama film ‘Denial’. Based on Holocaust Historian, Prof. Deborah Lipstadt’s book, entitled ‘History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier’, the film is a dramatised version of the ‘Irving v Penguin Books Ltd & Deborah Lipstadt’s’ case. David Irving, an English writer of military and political history, filed a libel case against Lipstadt, disputing her depiction of him as a ‘Holocaust Denier’ who manipulated and misrepresented historical evidence to make his case.  In April 2000, High Court Judge Mr. Justice Charles Gray, found in favour of the defendants.

Holocaust denial is a pernicious assault on the dignity, and memory, of those who were murdered in their millions during the second world war.  By denigrating the survivors and the validity of their experience, Holocaust deniers violate the Apostle Paul’s admonition, in his letter to the church in Rome, to show respect and honour to those who deserve it.

As someone who has read many memoirs of people who survived the nihilsm of the concentration camps, and having visited Auschwitz/Birkenau and other concentration camps myself, the historical record, and the weight of personal testimony, is clear and consistent. It behoves all of us to remember the horrors of the Shoah and to be on our guard against antisemitism, racism and discrimination of any kind. After all, we are all made in the image of God/imago Dei and are therefore called to love and respect one another; hatred has no place.

Holocaust Survivor, Psychiatrist, Founder of Logotherapy and author of ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, gives his perspective on Holocaust denial in this short clip (Source: uploaded to Vimeo by Mary Cimiluca);

‘The Courage to Suffer….’

As a Logotherapist and Existential Analyst I’m often asked what my favourite Viktor Frankl quote is. Such a difficult question! There are so many profoundly moving and insightful words contained in his writings and now very firmly ensconced in his legacy.

If I had to choose though, it would be a sentence I’ve clung onto many times as I’ve faced adversity, failure and unavoidable suffering:

But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.” (in Man’s Search for Meaning).

No further comment or exegesis is required…….

The Horrors of War….

Ben Ferencz, who at the age of 97 is the last living Nuremberg Trials prosecutor, has issued a powerful reminder of the horrors of war, as reported in the Independent in the UK.

He said this:

“…the Nazi soldiers who committed atrocities were not “savages” but “intelligent, patriotic human being[s]”, and that war can make any normal person do horrifying things.

“Do you think the man who dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima was a savage?”, he asked. 

“Now I will tell you something very profound, which I have learned after many years. War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All wars, and all decent people.”

A sobering and very insightful statement………

And so we still look to the day when ‘The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:3-4).

You can read the article here.

Holocaust Memorial Day 2017: How Can Life Go On? Looking To Viktor Frankl

The text from the Holocaust Memorial Service held in Cliftonville Moravian Church on 29/1/17:

In our Old Testament lesson, the prophet Micah brings to the fore a community that has suffered much hardship, but has brought justice and mercy to the forefront of their thinking.  Interestingly, there is a recognition that with such enormous injustice, reconciliation is difficult and takes time.  Nevertheless, Micah points to the way forward, and is calling the people to start where they are and get themselves, as we would say colloquially, that first foot on the ladder.  To do just that, takes courage and foresight and is primarily an individual endeavour rather than a strictly community-wide one, at least in the first instance.

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In the beatitudes, at the beginning of the remarkable Sermon on the Mount, we hear a powerful echo of centuries old Jewish teachings on ethics, where God seeks out the vulnerable, the suffering and the marginalised. And not only does God seek out those individuals he imparts his blessing upon them. But there’s one more thing: the beatitudes are a reminder that persecution of the righteous has always been with us – it is, sadly, not new.  We see it throughout human history.

In many senses then, the question that is posed for the 2017 Holocaust Memorial Day, ‘How can life go on?’, is at least partially answered in our two readings for today.  In the Old Testament, there are the intertwined themes of justice, mercy and reconciliation.  In the New Testament, we see God’s blessing on those who suffer and are persecuted. None of these things are remotely easy though, and perhaps that goes without saying. The horrors and sheer magnitude of the Holocaust hardly need to be reiterated; only those who have experienced first-hand the depravity of Man and the depths to which humanity can sink can comment. It is presumptuous for the rest of us to do so.

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One of those prophetic voices from the Holocaust, Viktor Frankl, is one of those remarkable people who survived and went on to write so insightfully and poignantly about their experiences.  When we read their words, their descriptions of unimaginable suffering and cruelty, it is difficult to believe what they endured.

Viktor Frankl, a Psychiatrist and Neurologist, lost all of his loved ones in the gas chambers, including his pregnant wife.  He went on to detail his experiences in that World famous book – ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.  Although it is a very slim volume, it is replete with compassion, determination, self-transcendence, and of course finding meaning in the most awful of situations. There are many lessons contained within it and it is one of these books that begs to be read again and again.

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Many people have found it to be life-changing, if that is not too grand a phrase. For me, as we gather here today to reflect on that phrase ‘How can life go on?’, there are at least three themes that we can draw on from Frankl’s experience.  These are: the ability to choose how we respond to the circumstances before us, how we view suffering and the centrality of love. These three categories are of course interlinked, but nonetheless we can tease them apart to gain more clarity.

 

The Ability to Choose How We Respond

 

Viktor Frankl’s experiences in the camps taught him a valuable lesson about choice.  He understood that even when everything is taken away from a person, we still retain the ability to choose our response.  To be more precise he wrote: ‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way’. In essence he meant that we can respond to adverse circumstances by recoiling and giving up….or we can make a stand, by altering our attitude or perspective on a situation.

 

How We View Suffering

 

Frankl said this of suffering: ‘If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.  Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death.  Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete’. He goes on to make the main thrust of his point: ‘The way in which man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.  It may (be to) remain brave, dignified and unselfish’.

 

So once again, Prof. Frankl present suffering, which he knew much more about in practice than we can even begin to grasp, from a different perspective, one in which we Christians can surely identify with.

 

The Centrality of Love

 

This, at least for me, is one of the most stunning, and perhaps surprising insights provided by Viktor Frankl in his short autobiography of his life in the concentration camps.  He says this:

 

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

 

Remarkable.  So here Prof. Frankl is setting out how love works.  When we love someone, then we enable them to be the person they can be; we give them permission, if that’s not too clumsy a term, to move beyond any perceived limitations and to flourish. In any case, we’re reminded of God’s take on this.  Consider 1 John 4: 7: Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God’.

 

Conclusion

 

In the fifteen or so minutes we have in a Sermon, we can merely scratch the surface of the topic we have before us.  But as we reflect on the question ‘How can life go on’, we at least have a framework.  From the biblical narratives that tell us of God’s constant presence to Viktor Frankl’s insights into human freedom, the nature of suffering and the centrality of love.  From the Holocaust this remarkable man has left a lasting legacy that helps us immeasurably in facing our own suffering; and it is very much compatible with our Christian worldview.

 

We can see a way, because of Viktor Frankl and his lived example, that life can go on.  By remembering the Holocaust, not just on Holocaust Memorial Day, but every day that we live and breathe, we can lament the senseless carnage, but we can also be thankful for the defiant nature of the human spirit.

 

AMEN