Part II: "Are We Still of Any Use?"

Part II: "Are We Still of Any Use?"

The Rev. John H. Thomas is General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ. This is the second of two lectures at the 2004 Craigville Colloquy in Craigville, Mass.

What we have suspected for nearly two years, we now know to be true: that it was more about words of mass deception than about weapons of mass destruction, that the "axis of evil" pivots to its own demonic attractions and not simply to the moral ideologies of the current inhabitants of the White House and the Pentagon, that September 11 has become a rallying cry for those with imperial rather than humanitarian ambitions, a means of manipulating a frightened public rather than an occasion for communal reflection, national repentance and corporate consolation. Saddam Hussein has been deposed, humiliated, and brought before the bar of justice. The infamous prisons have been emptied of political prisoners and torturers, though now housing scenes of our own nation's moral disgrace. The secretive night flights of silenced young men and women returning to anguished families continues, while the names and numbers of Iraqi dead, enemy and innocent alike, are suppressed. Oil is flowing again under more reliable American control, and the transfer of power has occurred, also under American control. Rebuilding is taking place to corporate America's advantage and, we trust to humble Iraqis as well. Iraq may become, we pray, a more humane place, though the cost has been and will be high. But does anyone believe that the so-called war against terror has really been advanced? Grisly pictures confront us every day and we are constantly warned that there will be terror strikes in the future. One senses, to borrow abysmal words from a former president who has readily admitted their moral emptiness, that they did it "because they could." Would that they might have at least done it with less enthusiasm.

Yet enthusiasm there was, enthusiasm cloaked and fueled with religious sanction and fervor. The need for sound teaching is urgent. Its distortion by many is disgraceful. Its silence, either through intimidation or distraction, discouraging. Shall Michael Moore's be the only attempt at prophetic voice? Listen:

The hour is late. The world is choked with weapons, and dreadful is the distrust which looks out on all men's eyes. The trumpets of war may blow tomorrow. For what are we waiting? Do we want to become involved in this guilt as never before? We want to give the world a whole word, not a half word - a courageous word, a Christian word. We want to pray that this word may be given us today.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's call to us resounds across seven decades from the ecumenical conference at Fan?. Here is the courageous voice anticipated by Barmen, "Jesus Christ is God's mighty claim upon our whole life. Through Christ befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures."

"Are we still of any use?

Bonhoeffer was increasingly to become acquainted with the pervasiveness of those "godless fetters." Eight years later, at the end of 1942 in a New Year's letter to companions in the conspiracy, Bonhoeffer asked himself the haunting question that must challenge the church in each generation as it confronts the "excessive accommodations" those godless fetters have exacted:

We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?

By the time Bonhoeffer wrote these words the sound teaching at Barmen had become a distant memory. The equivocation and pretense referred to as the war dragged and as the crematoria burned hot were not abstract concepts, but took on deeply personal meaning as Bonhoeffer reflected on the failure of the church and its pastors to resist. Eberhard Bethge writes that in 1938 in the aftermath of the church's failure to effectively and as one resist the loyalty oath, Bonhoeffer "was ashamed of the Confessing church, the way one feels shame for a scandal in one's own family." In a letter to his brother Karl-Friedrich that same year he confessed that "it has been to some extend quite depressing in recent weeks to see how many people use all kinds of reasons and pretexts to look for quietness and safety." Are we still of any use?

The question should haunt us as well in the post- 9/11 world where violent events have proceeded, frequently with the church's blessing, complicity, silence, and even when courageous, with its apparent impotence. Are we still of any use? And is sound teaching, even when present and proclaimed, sufficient? On September 10, 2001, I was visiting the leaders of the Church of the Rhineland at their church offices in Dusseldorf, just a few kilometers from Barmen. In the lobby of the church headquarters is a striking piece of sculpture commemorating the Synod at Barmen. It is made of bronze in the shape of a cube, perhaps two feet to a side. From a solid base rise multiple figures. Two thirds of the figures are identical, standing in lock step facing one direction, arms upraised in the familiar salute. Behind them, backs symbolically turned, is a smaller cluster of figures, men and women, children, old people. They are stooped, looking terribly vulnerable, gathered around a huge open book. "Jesus Christ. . . the one Word of God we have to hear, trust, and obey in life and in death." The image of resistance founded upon sound teaching have accompanied me in these months since September 11. But beneath the lobby where this reminder of sound teaching rests are the archives of the Church of the Rhineland, and they tell a much more mixed tale of complicity, of distortion, of betrayals of pastors by superintendents and bishops, those very offices charged with the stewardship of the teaching office of the church. The Church Struggle, and Bonhoeffer's place in it, and indeed these past two and a half years, offer a hard word for us: Sound teaching apart from costly discipleship is not enough. Crucial. Yes. Foundational. Yes. Sound teaching exposes us to the excessive accommodations in each generation. Yet its very discerning apart from the urgent call to act can become the occasion for "quietness and safety," perhaps the "heroic extrication from the affair" that Bonhoeffer admonishes about in the New Year's Letter. Even the "soundest" of teachings is always subject to the fine arts of equivocation and pretense, and to the lure of respectability that often poses as orthodoxy.

The opening words of Discipleship reminds us that "it is not ultimately important to us what this or that church leader wants." And I take that to mean not just a General Minister and President, but all who share the corporate responsibility for sound teaching. No, what "we want to know [is] what Jesus wants." Yet our preaching, Bonhoeffer suggests, comes with "so many dissonant sounds, so many human, harsh laws, and so many false hopes and consolations." Sound teaching is always struggle and, perhaps inevitably is compromised. Thus Bonhoeffer's central place for discipleship, for responsiveness to "the word and call of Jesus Christ himself." It is the character of our discipleship in "the whole of life" that is the criteria against which the church's teaching is ultimately deemed sound or unsound. It is not "how we can heroically extricate ourselves from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live" that is the ultimate question for the responsible person.

When sound teaching is not enough

Indeed, there may be times, and certainly it seems to be the case in Bonhoeffer's own life, when the call of discipleship defies what has been accepted as sound teaching or even what the Christian himself has come to believe about the truth of the Gospel. Obedience to God's Word is not necessarily "right thinking" but, Bonhoeffer tells us, the scripture "leading us right into the wager of faith." This striking phrase, "the wager of faith," implies a gamble, even the possibility of betting on the wrong hand, in Bonhoeffer's case of entering into a violent conspiracy against everything he has come to understand in the Sermon on the Mount. Remember what he wrote in the mid-1930's?

Jesus speaks of enemies, that is, of those who will remain our enemies, unmoved by our love; those who do not forgive us anything we forgive them everything, those who hate us when we love them; those who insult us all the more, the more we serve them. . . . But love must not ask if it is being returned. Instead, it seeks those who need it. But who needs love more than they who live in hate without any love? Who, therefore, is more worthy of my love than my foe? . . . The more animosity the enemy has, the more my love is required.

Can one square this teaching with the conspiracy? Hardly. Perhaps this is what he was thinking of when he wrote in the New Year's Letter, "Civil courage, in fact, can grow only out of the free responsibility of free men. Only now are the Germans beginning to discover the meaning of free responsibility. It depends on a God who demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith, and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture."

If it is true that sound teaching in and of itself is insufficient for confronting the demonic forces in our world and in our communities, those things Pelikan called so "inherently alien to the gospel. . . that they cannot be baptized but only exorcised," and if it is also true that the call of God sometimes may even require tossing what has been accepted as sound teaching toward the abyss like dice at the gaming table, then we must look not merely at sound teaching, but also at the quality of "life together" that nurtures discipleship and shapes our response to Jesus' call. It might be that we could remove the obstacles to clear and coherent sound teaching in the United Church of Christ that I described in my first lecture. Yet even if we were to take on that important task, would that be sufficient for confronting those imperial projects in our day which, as in any age, defile and destroy? Sound teaching may be diminished, impeded, even distorted by the inner contradictions in the life of the church. But ultimately we must confront the reality that our "life together under the Word," as Bonhoeffer says, "is a life together "in the midst of enemies. There [we] find our mission, [our] work." In the midst of enemies, sound teaching, as the overwhelming majority of those in the church struggle discovered, can be overwhelmed and rendered impotent.

The Finkenwalde experience was forced upon Bonhoeffer and his students by the increasing pressures exerted against the Confessing Church. Yet it became for those involved a crucial and ultimately a cherished laboratory for exploring the nature of Christian community seeking to be faithful both to the task of discerning sound teaching and to the call of Christ to discipleship amidst enemies. Even by the summer of 1935, only a little more than a year after Barmen, the limited and partial capacity of theological statements alone - no matter how compelling and clear - to stem the tide of a determined imperial project gradually inundating a wavering church community must have been clear to Bonhoeffer and his students. Seventy years later greed and imperialism take on different colors from those of National Socialism. But the call to resist in the name of sound teaching continues. Are there clues about the character of our own life together that Finkenwalde offers? Can resistance to the excessive accommodation of the church to today's version of totalism acted out in elaborate pagan public liturgies be nurtured by a renewed form of life together under the Word?

The service of listening

In addition to the disciplines and practices described in the "day alone" and the "day together," Bonhoeffer describes three key elements of life together as the service one renders to another. The first service I alluded to yesterday is the service of listening. It is a service rooted in the reality of "the listening God." "God's love for us is shown," says Bonhoeffer, "by the fact that God not only gives us God's Word, but also lends us God's ear. [Thus] we do God's work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them." The "counter-cultural" aspect of this work is particularly challenging for pastors, says Bonhoeffer, who "think that their only service is always to have to 'offer' something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking." The inability to listen "long and patiently" leads us to "talk past each other," or, even worse, to the presumption that we already "know what the other person has to say." "Christians," Bonhoeffer writes, "have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been entrusted to them by the one who is indeed the great listener and in whose work they are to participate. We should listen with the ears of God so that we can speak the Word of God."

Sound teaching, costly discipleship, and the service of listening are intimately related to one another. How well have we listened to one another in our churches, particularly in these last two and a half years as we have been confronted with violent challenges in the vulnerable world we had largely been privileged to ignore, and as we have been swept along in an international path conditioned by the metaphors of war and the images of banditry in the wild west? Within an hour of the reports of the attacks on the World Trade Center, I had a German reporter's microphone in my face asking me for a comment. Leaders are expected to offer a word at crucial moments such as these and I attempted to fulfill my obligation. And there have been numerous occasions since when alone, or with others, I have been urged to speak. But as I think back over the past months the discipline that has nurtured courage for the costly discipleship required of resistence, what literally has encouraged me, has been the discipline of listening. Listening to a delegation from the World Council of Churches who came not only with words of consolation for the American church, but also gentle reminders of vulnerabilities experienced in their own nations: Palestine, Lebanon, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Africa, Russia, vulnerabilities now exacerbated by warfare against terror. Listening to pastors in retreats across the conferences of the United Church of Christ yearning for the proper words in their ministry among congregations both yearning for an alternative voice to the imperial drumbeat yet also deeply accommodating to the culture of which they are a part. Preparing a set of Bible studies during Holy Week, coinciding last year with the invasion of Iraq, Bible studies shared with pastors so that we might together listen to the texts from Palm Sunday's gates to the Emmaus Road, texts that might encourage not only sound teaching, but faithful and courageous discipleship. Listening to my ecumenical colleagues at our annual head of communion retreat where we spend a day in silence and then a day listening to one another in our shared vocation. Listening to clergy and laity in pastoral visits in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey on the first anniversary of September 11.

I think especially, however, of days spent in the spring a year ago as I gathered about twenty five pastors from the Boston, New York, and Washington, DC, colleagues whose ministry had been deeply shaped by the impact of September 11 in their communities and congregations. Our days in the Church House in Cleveland were given over to Biblical and theological reflection, to rich liturgical experiences, to story telling. This was not a therapeutic retreat for wounded healers, but a time for renewing ministry and for nurturing resistance by listening deeply to the great texts of the Tradition and to the poignant texts of life and ministry in communities made profoundly vulnerable by the shock of terrorist attacks. Our goal was not to get the message right; no "message" was issued from our gathering. Few even know that it occurred. I even asked staff in our offices to "leave us alone" for those days. The only real question before us was Bonhoeffer's haunting one, "are we still of any use?" The only real task was to help each other find the proper words.

The church, with its institutional demands and responsibilities, is full of itself, its words, and its plans. But hear again Bonhoeffer's admonition: "Those who think their time is too precious to spend listening will never really have time for God and others, but only for themselves and for their own words and plans." Ministry that is not paralyzed by the false choice between the pastoral and the prophetic will occupy itself with listening. Resistance to the excessive accommodation is born not from the cacophony of strident voices seeking attention, but within a community that listens. Discipleship that leads to bold word and witness is formed of a life together that returns again and again to humble hearing and listening within congregations, among pastors, in judicatory settings, among the theological community, with ecumenical and global partners. Here we discover amidst our laments at ecclesial obstacles to sound teaching that it is not so much a matter of polity, but of purpose. Our eagerness to speak the truth in love must not overwhelm our capacity and desire to listen for the truth in love.

The service of active helpfulness

The second service Bonhoeffer describes is that of "active helpfulness." Here we must be prepared to have our agendas altered, even agendas bearing the noble labels of prophetic ministry or yes, even sound teaching!

We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God, who will thwart our plans and frustrate our ways time and again, even daily, by sending people across our path with their demands and requests. We can, then, pass them by, preoccupied with our more important daily tasks, just as the priest - perhaps reading the Bible - passed by the man who had fallen among robbers. When we do that, we pass by the visible sign of the cross raised in our lives to show us that God's way, and not our own, is what counts.

It is this daily and, admittedly, often annoying discipline of allowing our routines and agendas and plans to be interrupted by the neighbor, that ultimately shapes a life together that is always a life for others. It is the helpfulness we offer daily to the detriment of the appointments on our calendar that witness to the posture of the church in the larger interruptions of a world of enemies. Bonhoeffer's life story is hardly a model of strategic career planning, but of responsiveness to the interruptions brought upon by forces in Germany and in the church that laid victim and vulnerable alike on his doorstep.

The United Church of Christ is often criticized for a feverish and frenetic responsiveness to the needs and agendas of the world whether it be slavery in the 19th century, racism and apartheid in the 20th century, or now same gender marriage in the opening years of the 21st century. Fads, some allege, have replaced faithfulness. As suggested in my first lecture, ecclesiology has often been set aside for the pressing demands of the neighbor. But if this active helpfulness is indeed a dimension of life together under the Word - and that is an important qualification to which must always attend - then I for one would rather be accused of extravagant engagement against those demonic forces that threaten to demean and devour the lives of the future generation than of a heroic extrication from the affair. And make no mistake, the architects of today's imperial project would like nothing more than for the church to tend its own affairs, "as though," says Barmen, "there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords."

The service of forebearance

Listening. Helping. Finally, Bonhoeffer turns to the forebearance of others that means enduring and suffering. Here Bonhoeffer reminds us that life together under the Word is not only a life in the midst of enemies, but a life together with the sinner, with those who are different and demanding, and I suspect sometimes quite literally with the obnoxious and the difficult! Life together means that others will be burdens to us (and Bonhoeffer wrote this, of course, before the advent of email!).

The other person is a burden to the Christian, in fact for the Christian most of all. The other person never becomes a burden at all for the pagans. They simply stay clear of every burden the other person may create for them. However, Christians must bear the burden of one another. They must suffer and endure one another. Only as a burden is the other really a brother and sister and not just an object to be controlled.

"The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you.'" These words have profound import, I think, for our ecumenical vocation. But they also are significant within a church seeking clarity about sound teaching yet also deeply attentive to the culture that conveys that teaching even as it coopts us to gain our complicity in its projects.

The freedom of the other is, of course, what is at the heart of the burden of others. By allowing others the full expression and embodiment of their freedom we surrender our capacity to impose a comfortable and comforting uniformity, whether it be under the banner of UCC Christian or American Christian. In the ecumenical and global life together of the church there will be much to endure and to bear that is not easy for any church grown comfortable with itself and its culture and even with its own version of sound teaching. Yet it is precisely in learning the disciplines of "bearing with others," of enduring the freedom of others, that we enrich the texture of sound teaching and are challenged to even more costly discipleship. "Bearing the burden of the other," says Bonhoeffer, "means tolerating the reality of the other's creation by God - affirming it, and in bearing with it, breaking through to delight in it." The free other shapes resistance to the culture that seeks our excessive accommodation, for the other burdens us with a truth we have grown blind to or never saw to begin with. I think of a wonderful UCC laywoman in New Hampshire in her 80's who regularly finds herself in front of a judges charged with criminal trespass for her witness against militarism and its corporate allies, usually sentenced to jail by judges whose rulings are tempered by grudging admiration for a faith that will not accommodate itself to our nation's project. It may be too much to say that they "delight" in this burden that regularly arrives at their court room. But it may not be too much for us to delight in this burden that implicitly judges the cheapness of our own discipleship.

Bonhoeffer summarizes by saying, "Wherever the service of listening, active helpfulness, and bearing with others is being faithfully performed, the ultimate and highest ministry can also be offered, the service of the Word of God." Just as finding the proper words requires finding the sister and brother, so it is that sound teaching in the service of the Word of God requires the nurturing environment of a life together where costly discipleship finds the currency to resist. Here is where the answer to the question "are we still of any use?" is to be determined. Not only the soundness of teaching, but also the character of community leads to discipleship capable of resisting whatever the imperial scheme of the day may be. But just as we cannot be justified by the orthodoxy of our teaching, neither can we be justified by the perfection of our community or the rigor of our discipleship. Thus Bonhoeffer concludes Life Together with a word of grace embodied in confession and the Lord's Supper. In a community of faith where confession is met with assurance rather than judgment, with humble solidarity rather than priggish self- righteousness, "we no longer need to pretend. In another Christian's presence," Bonhoeffer writes, "I am permitted to be the sinner that I am, for there alone in all the world the truth and mercy of Jesus Christ rule." The countless words of self-deception that accompany the public words of mass deception in Bonhoeffer's day or in our own are confronted along with all our equivocation, pretense, and cynicism. Confronted not to condemn us, but to offer "signs of God's truth and grace."

To help each other find the proper words amid the excessive accommodation to cultures that violently demean the whole of life in countless ways is surely the challenge and the goal of sound teaching. Too often today in our church, and in many churches, that has meant a war of words. So it is that Bonhoeffer's last admonition to those eagerly seeking sound teaching yet also burdened by the haunting question, "are we still of any use?" is to engage in a Eucharistic Table talk where the Word is enacted and met in sacrament. This is not cheap ritual, but costly ritual, made costly by the mutual confession that accompanies it and by the crucified One who is encountered in it. Here the warfare of words that so often accompanies ecclesial life today is replaced by prayer, and the frenetic search for sound teaching is supplanted by the Word that finds us and meets us in Christ. So we end not with a new catechism of proper words, nor even with a confident answer about our continued usefulness, but with the words our Evangelical Synod forebears used when approaching the Table about the relationship that can lead to the resistance of discipleship and, ironically, toward an orthodoxy more vivid in the future than in the past:

Lord Jesus, for Thee we live, for Thee we suffer, for Thee we die. Lord Jesus, thine will we be in life and in death. Grant us, O Lord, eternal salvation. Amen. 

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