Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Church Burnings

With all of the other lunacy going on today, the burning of five churches in Alabama seems to be another irrational act aimed at religion. I feel the pain of the members of the three churches destroyed—Ashby Baptist, Pleasant Sabine and Rehobeth Baptist—as well as those of the two churches—Old Union Baptist and Antioch—damaged. And I wonder at the motive of the arsonists.

I am reminded of the church burnings that took place in the South during the early 1990s. However, as I remember those incidents, all, if not most, of those churches belonged to congregations that were primarily Black. Those burnings were probably racially motivated. But the congregations of the churches burned this week were not all Black; thus I wonder at the motive. Of course, my thoughts go to the lunacy of the riots, killings, death threats, and burnings done by Muslims to punish Westerners for the Danish-published cartoons. Could these burnings relate to religious hatred rather than racial hatred?

Last night I watch the PBS documentary on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Buildings were set afire in Bonhoeffer's Germany, too: synagogues and businesses and homes owned by Jews. Bonhoeffer was one of the first Christian theologians to condemn Nazi persecution of the Jews. He appealed to the Christian Church to stand with the Jews and all victims of Nazi hatred. Although few responded to his appeal, he remained true to his opposition to the Nazi evil—and, in the end, paid with his life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has long been one of my heroes. While in seminary, I read most of the books he wrote. I was especially influenced by three: The Cost of Discipleship, Ethics, and Life Together.

In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote of “cheap grace,” by which he meant the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. The follower claims that he/she wants to follow the Way of Christ, but at the same time retains the right to dictate his own terms. If the cost of being a disciple becomes too expensive for the follower, then she/he simply stops following—or redefines Christ’s terms so that they seem to be less costly. The “cost” Dietrich Bonhoeffer eventually paid for his honest discipleship was to be hanged by the Nazis for his part in the plot to kill Adolf Hitler.

In Ethics, Bonhoeffer alludes to his decision to oppose the Nazi government, although he never wrote a specific justification for his refusal to obey the Nazis or his determination to resist them even to his death at their hands.

My favorite book written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer is Life Together. He wrote this while directing an “underground” seminary to train pastors willing to stand in opposition to the Nazi government. He wrote of the joys and problems of living in a close knit community. In this small volume he wrote words that have guided my life since the day I read them:

The Christian brother knows when I come to him: here is a sinner like myself, a godless man who wants to confess and yearns for God's forgiveness.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have been 100 years old a few days ago, last February 4th. However, he lived what he wrote and on April 9, 1945, at the age of thirty-nine, Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis in Flossenbürg prison.

I wonder if there are any like Bonhoeffer today willing to oppose those who are burning churches and embassies? I wonder if any have the courage to look into the eyes of another human being and say, “here is a sinner like myself, a godless man who wants to confess and yearns for God's forgiveness.”

Somehow, unfortunately, I doubt it.


  1. I never knew... thanks for sharing this info.

  2. annejelynn—you’re welcome! Thanks for visiting!

  3. ex-Louisville Guy Retired in TucsonThursday, February 09, 2006 1:09:00 PM

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer was spoken of frequently in the old E & R church. I’ve not heard him mentioned in many years. I appreciate you reminding me of him and his story.