Saturday, December 24, 2016

A Guest Blog by Chuck Stephens


The Four Gospels of Our Time
By Chuck Stephens, South Africa
There are many variations of this tale, but four exemplary church leaders come to mind from the past century:
1.     Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s stand against the Holocaust
2.     Martin Luther King’s stand against Segregation
3.     John-Paul II’s stand against Communism
4.     Desmond Tutu’s stand against Apartheid
Bonhoeffer was born into a well-to-do aristocratic family before World War I.  As a teenager he decided to become a theologian, although his siblings were eminent scientists and lawyers - like so many of his relatives were.  After completing his doctorate at age 21, he spent periods of time working in Spain, the USA and England, so he was able to see Fascism for what it truly was, when it emerged between the two World Wars.  His ecumenical and global contacts provided a counter-balance to run-away German nationalism.
The dark side of Hitler promoting an Arian super-race was that he singled out a minority for genocide.  These ideas were somewhat in line with social Darwinism, the scientific trending of that era.  But they did not align with historical Christian values and beliefs.  This did not deter Hitler and his inner circle from their plans to corrupt theology, systematically absorb the church, and then redeploy it.  For example, in 1933 the new “Reich Church” was told to merge ALL church youth groups with the Hitler Youth movement.  The state church was to become a cultural institution to support the Third Reich.  The philosopher Nietzsche became its prophet (e.g. “Morality is the herd-instinct in the individual”).  The contrast to Martin Luther’s theology was shocking – instead of Grace, the Reich Church worshipped Power.  Its bishop was a former Navy chaplain.
Bonhoeffer opposed this hijacking of the Protestant church and declared the Reich Church’s theology to be heretical.  First he started a Pastors Emergency Council and later the underground Confessional Church.  In due course, during World War II, this led him to get personally involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler - as the extent of Nazi Anti-Semitism with its death camps and extermination of the mentally ill became clearer.  But for his role in this failed attempt at regime change, he was sentenced to death for treason.
All the same, he is truly revered by churches everywhere as a Protestant saint – for coming to the rescue of the Jews in the face of state sanctioned genocide.

Martin Luther King was also a pastor, but not a Lutheran in spite of his middle name!  He was a great orator – like Bonhoeffer.  In the mid-1950s, he took up a political cause – the segregation of schools, buses and restaurants, and the practice of not allowing blacks to vote that prevailed in some southern states.
Like Bonhoeffer, he was well-known to the authorities.  By the time Lyndon Johnson became President, King was on a roll.  He visited the Oval office more than once.  He took his mission to Selma, Alabama, to march to the state capital and demanded to register black voters.  The march across the bridge at Selma in 1965 turned into a Sharpeville scenario – 5 years after the incident in South Africa.  Covered by the media - on national TV - this encounter galvanized support from other states and countries.  Effectively, the federal government had to intervene and tell the state government to “correct” its ways.
Unlike the Jews in Germany, African-Americans were an underclass.  German Jews were well-to-do and well-educated.  Names like Freud and Einstein come to mind.  But African Americans – even a century after the Civil War ended slavery – were still a marginalized majority.  The Civil Rights Movement gradually changed all that.  Of course there are still nasty attitudes that linger, but they are not prevalent.  The election and re-election of President Obama was evidence of that.

Karol Wojtyla grew up in Communist Poland.  It was part of the “East Bloc” namely eastern Europe which was controlled by the Soviet Union.
Poland had a proud history of being independent and of course resented its occupation by Russia.  It was and is a devoutly Roman Catholic country, and had put forth great heroes like Marie Curie, who won two Nobel prizes - in two distinct disciplines.  Wojtyla stayed true to his faith, his role-models, and decided to go to Seminary even though the church was experiencing persecution in all of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
Every “struggle” can put forward secular heroes as well as church leaders.  In Germany one thinks of courageous citizens like Sophie Scholl.  In America, musicians like Woodie Guthrie and Peter Seeger.  In South Africa, a lawyer and activist called Nelson Mandela.  In Poland, it was a plumber in the trade union Solidarity, called Lech Walesa.  When he climbed over a fence to come over and speak to the media, it was clear that the fear of oppression was waning.  Holes were rusting through the iron curtain!  That was in 1980.  The Berlin Wall came down in 1989.  Between these two dates there was Glasnost first, then Perestroika in Russia.  Walesa went on to become President of Poland!
One factor may have sparked Solidarity’s courage in 1980 – the election of a Polish Pope in 1978.  This was a prophetic act, if there ever was one.  The Curia’s strategy in electing Karol Wojtyla to be Pope John Paul II may have been unspoken, but he did not miss his cue.  John Paul II was a man on a mission, and that political objective came to pass – on his watch.  The “Second World” all but disappeared, leaving only the First World and the Third World to trundle on under a single superpower.  Except for its vestiges in Cuba and North Korea, Communism crashed. 
Apartheid was able to hang on as long as it did because of its shared anti-Communist position.  However, by the time Mandela was moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison in 1982 it was clear that even the Boers were hatching a contingency plan.  Winds of change were blowing.
The question of sanctions was vexing.  In the 1980s, many including the UK’s Maggie Thatcher argued that sanctions would actually hurt blacks in South Africa more than they would help their cause, because of the negative impact it would have on the economy.  Commonwealth leaders kept up the pressure on her and the UK to relent and impose economic sanctions.
At the time, the South Africa Council of Churches had a general secretary named Desmond Tutu.  He was invited to visit Demark, and while there, he was interviewed on TV.  Although he was a pastor and a theologian, he signaled his support (for sanctions) to help end Apartheid.  Upon his arrival back in Johannesburg, he was visited by the secret police.  They gave him 24 hours to publicly retract his statement, which had made the world news.
That night, as he agonized over what to do, his wife Leah said that she would rather see him happy on Robben Island, than miserable at home in Soweto!  Women of influence include Bonhoeffer’s mother and of course Coretta King, who never remarried after her husband was assassinated in 1968.  The year that oppressed people in Sharpeville re-lived the nightmare of Selma, Alabama in 1963.
Tutu did not recant his view.  But he was not arrested after all, because of the ecumenical and international support that he commanded.  It was just more of the intimidation church leaders get from speaking truth to power.

These vignettes of four gospels – to the Jews, the African American, the Poles living under Russian domination, and the blacks of South Africa – are related for a reason...
How can a President say – at a church conference yet! – that the church should stay out of public life?!
Does he want our churches to become like the Reich Church?  Heretical in its absolution of government crimes?  There has been no genocide in South Africa, but there has been xenophobia, patronage, corruption and waste.  And there was an African genocide – in Rwanda – during the years of Mandela’s presidency.
No, the church has a mission.  The gospel is told and re-told in different settings, situationally.  South Africa is well evangelized and deeply religious.  Its greatest leaders are churchmen like John Dube and Albert Luthuli.  The light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness will never put it out.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that "if you get on the wrong train, you can’t fix it by running down the center aisle of the carriages in the opposite direction that the train is moving."
The point is to get off the train at the next station, and start moving in the right direction.
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