Dietrich Bonhoeffer: God Loves the Real World…
The election of 2012 is now pretty much in the rear-view mirror and for my new readers I am re-posting an older article that pretty much says how I view the world as a Priest and Navy Chaplain. I think that it may help people that don’t know me, or only know me from a few articles dealing with the election, especially the role of churches and church leaders in the election get a little bit of insight into who I am before the race to 2016 begins.
I think in the wake of such a divisive election it is imperative that people who call themselves “Christian” begin to re-look at the Gospel and our relationship to those that we see as different than us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German pastor, theologian and martyr grew up in a world where a large part of the church had surrendered any sense of Christian witness in favor of political partisanship, with many supporting the incipient Nazi movement and many becoming willing helpers of some of the worst crimes recorded in human history. In doing so they lost most of a generation to war and following that saw the exodus of many young people from the church, a decline that the church in Germany has never recovered or reversed.
Bonhoeffer was killed a few days before the liberation of the Flossenburg concentration camp where he was held. Bonhoeffer understood something that many of his generation to understand and that many American Christians likewise fail to get. It is a little something that goes to the heart of the Gospel, not the trumped up and politicized message of preachers more interested in their temporal power than people.
“God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.”
I think one of the greatest joys that I have as a Priest is when people tell me that they like me because I am “real.” It’s not so much that they think I am a great preacher, which I am not or that I have all the answers especially because my answer to many questions that I am asked is “I don’t know.” In fact what those that like me say what they like about me is that I am approachable and care enough to give them the time of day and listen to them.
My psychological and spiritual collapse following my tour in Iraq caused me to see why who live in the real world appreciate pastors, Priests or Rabbis that are real. There were very few people, especially ministers that in the years following my return that I felt that cared about me enough to share what I was going through with them. In fact I found that many were not interested or simply did not want to deal with a “bruised reed.” I think that when a minister, Priest or Rabbi expresses doubt or is in crisis be it a long term physical illness that will not be healed, a deep depression that causes them despair or a spiritual crisis that causes them to question their faith that the tendency among most ministers is to run away as if they were radioactive or that it was catching.
In fact I have heard this for years as friends or pastors that I met in their crisis expressed the pain of being ostracized by other ministers or their denominations or local churches. Likewise I have also all too often seen churches and pastors ignore or ostracize people simply because they are not easily “fixed” or those that are considered “problems” because they ask uncomfortable questions or point out inconsistency or injustice in the church. Then there are the times where the Church mistreats, abuses and uses people without any real care for them as people treating them as numbers or even more crass “tithing units.” Finally there are the times that the Church covers up the crimes of its ministers against the weak including sexual abuse and pedophilia and when found out blames the victims or protect the criminals from the justice of the state using Canon Law to subvert the justice system. Such actions are not unique to the Roman Catholic Church that most often stands accused but can be found in almost any church or denomination.
I think a lot of this is simply that many of us clergy types become so invested in “defending” what we believe that we forget that the call of Jesus is to care for those that are the least, the lost and the lonely. Without getting preachy it seems to me that Jesus preferred to be with such people and often castigated the clergy of his day for doing exactly what we do. The whole “woe to you Scribes and Pharisees…” passage should send chills up any minister’s spine because we are often no different than them.
Likewise when we refuse serve people that come to us because of denominational differences or because they are not Christians or someone of our faith tradition and then refuse to help them find someone that can we do a disservice to them and to God. Since have served nearly my entire time in ministry in some form of the chaplaincy I deal with this often. I represent a small religious tradition which is Catholic but not Roman and very ecumenical, thus I am in a distinct minority. I know man who serves as a Priest in a small communion that has many similar beliefs to my former church who told me that he loved being his denomination because when he was a Chaplain “he did not have to worship with Protestants or give them communion.” On the other hand a friend that is a Roman Catholic priest was removed from ministry by a bishop known as an “enforcer.” Unlike the criminals that many bishops shuffle around this priest was removed for his ecumenical stance as co-pastor of a mixed Catholic and Episcopal parish. And Christians act puzzled when confronted with a mass exodus of young people from the church.
One of the men that serve as a model for me is the late German Redemptorist Priest Bernard Häring. Häring was drafted as a medic by the German Wehrmacht at the beginning of the Second World War and taken out of the parish. In his service as a medic he never forgot that he was a priest and performed his duties as a priest to non-Catholics in his units even celebrating the Eucharist with them. He also took the time to serve and care for civilians, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and French in the areas that he served. One story that he told was when he told his Protestant Soldiers that their official pastor would be coming for service that they told him “There really is no reason to make any changes for us because you are ‘one of us.’” (Bernard Häring “Priesthood Imperiled: A Critical Examination of Ministry in the Catholic Church” Triumph Books Ligouri, MO 1996 p.9) Häring was transparent about exactly what he was, a Roman Catholic Priest whether he dealt with Protestant or Orthodox Christians and because he was “one of us” they accepted him and made him their pastor even without becoming Catholic themselves. A Polish parish that he served as a prisoner of war sought to make him their pastor following the war despite him being a member of the Army that brutally subjugated their country. After the war he continued with that same spirit and I have sought to emulate that spirit in my Priestly ministry.
I definitely am not perfect but I try to listen and care for those in my charge regardless of their faith or lack thereof. I just hope that in my imperfect attempts to care that people see that God loves them. My trust is in the simple message that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
As Bonhoeffer said “God loves the real world.”