Religion & Politics Fit For Polite Company Tue, 16 Sep 2014 21:35:37 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Us v. Them: The Pitfalls of Righteous Rhetoric Tue, 16 Sep 2014 17:33:13 +0000 (Beverly LaHaye, courtesy of Concerned Women for America)

(Beverly LaHaye, courtesy of Concerned Women for America)

Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America
By Leslie Dorrough Smith
Oxford University Press, 2014

On June 19 of this year, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) hosted its second annual “March for Marriage” in Washington, D.C. An article posted on NOM’s website two days before the march expressed hope that the event would “encourage each of us to continue standing up without fear in the legal, political, and cultural spheres to preserve marriage and every child’s right to both a mother and a father.” In an email to supporters sent out the same day, the national lobbying group Concerned Women for America (CWA) also promoted the march, saying that “God’s model for marriage is under attack, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to stand for truth in this area.” This urgent, battle-ready language is typical of conservative Christian rhetoric on the issue, which depicts gay marriage as a force that will debase American families, victimize children, and ruin the nation as a whole. Meanwhile, supporters of gay marriage portray groups like NOM and CWA as the real threats to the nation’s values, its children, and its families. The pro-gay Family Equality Council recently filed an amicus brief in a Virginia gay marriage case, focusing on the children of same-sex couples and arguing that “the denial of marriage as an option for their parents affects their legal well-being, personal self-esteem, and sense of purpose.” On both sides of the debate, activists and spokespeople identify themselves as “supporters of marriage” and portray their adversaries as dangerous forces, not only in terms of this issue but also in terms of Americans’ well-being and the well-being of America.

Leslie Dorrough Smith has a new name for this kind of political reasoning, which she argues has deep roots in American political history. She has coined the term “chaos rhetoric” to describe it, and she offers a rich analysis of its uses and significance in her new book, Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America. Smith defines chaos rhetoric as a particular kind of “emotion-laden” narrative of national decline, which focuses so intently on a perceived threat “to a beloved entity” that it draws attention away from any gaps in the speakers’ logic or any shifts in their priorities. Smith argues that “chaos rhetoric’s signature is not necessarily its connection with reality, but its persuasive value.”

Smith takes as her case study the recent rhetoric of Concerned Women for America (CWA), the self-proclaimed “largest public policy women’s organization in the United States,” and a powerful force within the modern Religious Right. CWA was established in 1979, the same year that Jerry Falwell inaugurated the Moral Majority. Beverly LaHaye, the group’s founder, is a well-known figure in conservative evangelical circles, both for her political engagement and for her popular books on Christian marital and family life. To people outside of these circles, she is more commonly recognized as the wife of Tim LaHaye, a co-founder of the Moral Majority and author of the bestselling apocalyptic fiction series Left Behind. Over the past 35 years, CWA has grown into a powerful lobbying organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., and supported by hundreds of local chapters across the country.

Smith focuses on the CWA website as a rich and representative source of chaos rhetoric, which operates, first and foremost, through a division of the world into categories of “us” and “them.” This is perhaps most obvious in CWA leaders’ frequent appeals to the “real women” of America—women whom they represent as conservative and religious, proudly feminine and “family-oriented.” In CWA rhetoric, women who fall outside of these categories—especially feminists, lesbians, and pro-choice women—are not “real women,” and they pose significant dangers to American values.

This is another function of chaos rhetoric. By focusing on looming threats to “the nation,” chaos rhetoric reflexively defines what the nation is and whom it excludes. Or, as Smith puts it, the chaos rhetoric that CWA employs is “almost always constructed in such a way that the reader cannot identify with CWA’s opponent while considering herself reasonable and moral.” CWA presents an understanding of the nation that conflates national priorities with the organization’s priorities and national health with the organization’s gains. Thus, feminists are represented not only adversaries of CWA but as enemies of the nation as a whole. At the same time, chaos rhetoric allows the organization to set the nation apart from the government or even from public opinion by arguing that the government is controlled by elites who do not have the nation’s best interests at heart, while most members of the public have been duped by those same elites into acting against their own well-being.

A defining feature of chaos rhetoric is its flexibility, and this too is particularly apparent in CWA’s approach to feminism. The organization is centrally opposed to liberal feminism, and has been since its founding. In my own work on CWA’s early years, I examine how Beverly LaHaye relied on the specter of feminism to explain why she founded CWA in 1979. When she moved the organization’s headquarters to Washington, D.C., four years later, she announced at a press conference: “This is our message: the feminists do not speak for all women in America, and CWA is here in Washington to end the monopoly of feminists who claim to speak for all women.” More than 30 years later, opposition to liberal feminism is still a central CWA concern. Yet CWA has also recently joined with other conservative Christian women’s groups in identifying with the label “conservative feminism.” They claim to be the rightful heirs of an early twentieth-century feminist movement that the Left has distorted and betrayed. This simultaneous identification with and against feminism is made possible through chaos rhetoric, whose binary logic allows CWA to argue that feminists are not real women, and are therefore disqualified from representing women’s interests.

The book’s focus on CWA in particular and conservative Christian politics more broadly requires a discussion of the ways in which religion and politics interact. Smith offers a nuanced discussion of religious and political diversity among American Protestants. In an effort to avoid essentializing religion or implying that it is something that exists outside of culture, Smith chooses to treat “religious speech as political speech, and presume that separating the two creates a false dichotomy.” But while the religious speech of organizations like CWA is almost always also political speech, Smith’s decision to treat “religion as a tactic” risks implying that her subjects are insincere in their religious beliefs or that they only deploy religious rhetoric cynically, for political gain. The book’s focus on rhetorical analysis ends up characterizing both religion and politics as mainly strategies for gaining power, without making room for considering how religious and political belief function in people’s lives. This analytical gap stands out in a study that otherwise deftly balances empathy and criticism.

Smith rightly notes that both popular and scholarly interpretations of the Christian Right in the United States often situate this movement as uniquely absolutist, argumentative, and even illogical. In a predominately liberal academy, Smith argues, scholars have tended to characterize the language of the Religious Right as unique in part because it is easier to recognize chaos rhetoric in the language of groups whose political views clash with one’s own. Indeed, Smith asserts that scholarly interpretations of the Religious Right have sometimes amounted to “chaos rhetoric about chaos rhetoric,” which presents conservative Christian groups as particularly uncompromising, strident, and detrimental to civil political discourse.

Smith argues that the Religious Right is not especially absolutist, although conservative Christians often portray their values as unchanging and rooted in tradition. Tracing the history of conservative Christian activism through the twentieth century, Smith demonstrates that the priorities and positions of Religious Right organizations have shifted along with the dominant culture just as in any other political movement. CWA’s changing approach to feminism is one example; its stance on working mothers is another. Whereas Beverly LaHaye once blamed working mothers for juvenile delinquency and national moral degeneracy, CWA now officially condones mothers’ choice to work outside of the home as long as they continue to put family first.

CWA stands in as the case study at the center of Smith’s analysis, but the book offers much more than a narrow examination of a single organization. In her final chapter, Smith broadens her scope beyond CWA in order to make a compelling case for applying the framework of chaos rhetoric not only in analyzing the language of the Religious Right, but also in considering arguments from across the political spectrum. Analyzing the language of two liberal groups—the National Organization for Women and the People for the American Way—Smith highlights how both rely on the tools of chaos rhetoric, including a binary “us vs. them” worldview, an insistent focus on impending danger, and a conflation of the organization’s values with the values of the nation writ large. So while CWA represents “radical feminists” as “anti-family” militants “blinded by a searing lust for a woman’s right to abort her child,” the National Organization for Women characterizes Religious Right groups including CWA as “anti-woman” fanatics for whom “[m]isrepresenting ideology as science is a favored tactic.”

Indeed, what makes this book so valuable is not just that it offers an insightful analysis of an important national organization. It also provides a significant new framework for understanding contemporary political rhetoric across the political spectrum. Chaos rhetoric is not solely a mechanism of the Right, as Smith’s final chapter makes clear. While CWA lauded the recent Hobby Lobby decision as a victory for religious freedom, one Planned Parenthood appeal presented it as evidence that “we can’t count on lawmakers and politicians to do the right thing—protecting women’s health and rights is up to us.” Smith’s framework offers new insight into the rhetorical strategies embedded in each of these claims, and helps to explain how—and why—groups like these continue to talk past each other in such critical debates.

Emily Johnson is a Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She completed her Ph.D. in History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University in 2014.

]]> 0
For Michael Brown, Justice Is Not a Gift. It’s a Right. Tue, 09 Sep 2014 14:05:28 +0000 (Alex Wong/Getty)

(Alex Wong/Getty)

“This whole Michael Brown thing,” a local white business owner informed me, “is a case of reverse racism!” The Saint Louis native continued, “Those people over there on the north side kill and shoot each other all the time and nobody says a word. Now that it’s a white cop, it’s suddenly a big deal.” As he brazenly brushed aside the “no free refills” sign at the coffee shop in order to refill the beverage he bought yesterday, he continued without a hint of irony, “And I’m glad they released that video of him stealing, they tried to paint that kid as an angel. He wasn’t no angel. He was a thief!”

Black and/or impoverished people steal. White and/or wealthy folks enjoy customer perks.

“This kid was a criminal,” he maintained, “plain and simple. You can’t expect to steal, assault a store clerk, and then expect to get away with it.”

I asked him why, then, Wynona Rider or Lindsay Lohan do not end up fatally shot when they shoplift or engage in familiar, reckless young adult behavior? Or why police officers did not accost the seven privileged 18 and 19-year-olds who recently broke into NBA all-star Ray Allen’s Tahiti Beach home in Coral Gables?

He responded, “Look, I don’t have all the answers okay.”

But he did have the parameters by which a just inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown should occur. He concluded his lunchtime soliloquy by stating, “Look, those people over there just need to work on their own problems before they blame or ask the police for anything and expect any sympathy.”

Residents of a nearby suburb expressed similar sentiments to a New Republic reporter. Under the condition of anonymity, a group of white residents gathered in a coffee shop chimed in with disputed narratives about the crime, followed by certainties such as “I don’t even know what they’re fighting for.” Another embellished, “The kid wasn’t really innocent … he’s got a rap sheet already, so he’s not that innocent.” In reality, Mike Brown does not have a criminal “rap sheet.” In fact, Mike Brown’s juvenile record is stellar compared to that of white teen idol Justin Bieber. But Brown does have another kind of rap: he is black. African Americans and those living in underserved communities, are expected to somehow pull off the herculean feat of proving themselves fit for justice in the eyes of the wealthy and elite before they can “rightfully” petition for a just investigation.

These local spokespersons resonate with their national religious counterparts.

MSNBC host and activist, the Rev. Al Sharpton, spoke for many when he employed a similar trope during his eulogy for Michael Brown. The Obama administration, according to one former top Obama aide, “sort of helped build him [Sharpton] up” because the White House needed someone “to deal with in the African-American community.” As the anointed one, Sharpton is considered the point person in all things black and B/brown. At the funeral he sharply and rightly criticized national policies but then made a caveat: “What does God require?” he asked rhetorically. “We’ve got to be straight up in our community!” Certain expressions of youth and hip-hop culture and especially “black-on-black crime,” he told the congregation, are seen by many (and perhaps himself) as “justifying” malicious and neglectful policies toward black communities. Since the expression “white-on-white crime” (also an all too common occurrence) does not exist in the everyday lexicon, black communities are stigmatized and pathologized. Justice is then intricately tied to the perceived communal standing of black people. When black neighborhoods (finally) begin the process of internally rectifying all their ailments, the plot lines goes, then black and poor people will prove themselves ready for justice. Sharpton made it plain: “Nobody,” he enlightened mourners, “gone help us if we don’t help ourselves.”

Perhaps Iyanla Vanzant best put this sentiment in motion. The acclaimed spiritual guru, celebrity life coach, and star of her own show “Iyanla: Fix My Life” on the Oprah Network (OWN) has helped countless followers and admirers navigate personal and family crises through her spiritual wisdom. The stated purpose of her special televised visit to Ferguson was to “join the community in finding a path from violence into healing.” Looking into the OWN cameras she stated, “We are heading off to Ferguson, Missouri, hopefully to bring a healing bond to a very hurt and angry outraged community. A community that’s calling for justice.” After praying, singing a Negro spiritual, and making a water offering to pay homage to Michael Brown, she talked with locals, and then sat down with Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson and Brown’s great uncle, the Rev. Charles Ewing. After Ewing expressed his emotions and fears, Vanzant asked the chief several apropos questions about the investigation—How did this shooting happen on his watch? Why was there no police report made immediately? Why the tear gas, etc. Seeing the chief flummoxed, however, she relented and asked what he needed in order to conduct a thorough investigation. “Fourteen days of peace,” he responded. Vanzant asked Ewing on camera if he could agree to such terms. He did. The peaceful protests were actually the result of an incompetent investigation shrouded in secrecy and nondisclosure (the lack of an officer statement, no immediate police report, etc.). However, for Vanzant and her crew, black protest was the cause of the slack legal proceedings. Stopping the protest would be a show of good faith by African Americans, and the condition by which justice and transparency would flow freely.

My respective encounters with these echoing critiques left me with one question: Why must black people and black communities always prove themselves worthy of receiving justice?

Local and national discussions in the aftermath of Brown (as before the shooting) continually link just proceedings in the case to black performances of respectability and decorum. Justice is held up as a gift bestowed upon “model” minorities and their communities. Equal treatment under the law is not deemed a right. It’s a prize.

As my coffee shop lecturer kindly told me, “See, look at you,” he said, dressed in his shorts, t-shirt, and sandals. “Look at how you dress. You aren’t scary and intimidating like those folks over there on the north side.” My necktie won me the prize of his gracious presence, comments, and the benefit of presumed innocence and worth. Glad I wore a tie on my day off.

This local and national mood, and the religious language that complements it, is deeply flawed. Spiritual guidance that calls for racial minorities to prove their individual and collective abilities and respectabilities before they can expect justice or seek the accountability of their elected officials is paralyzing. Moreover, as Howard Thurman wrote in The Luminous Darkness in 1965, it further entrenches the ideology that the wealthier classes and those in power are the rightful and “sole judges of who should and who should not be granted the rights and the responsibilities of citizenship.” Everyday people are rendered as idle patients of democracy or undeserving beggars waiting on the diagnosis and alms of elites. Once black communities get in line, “black leaders” can then bargain for equality on their behalf.

When a local or national religious professional and/or celebrity cleric unintentionally espouses such “politically debilitating” spirituality, as Jeff Stout points out in his book Blessed Are the Organized, that minister can be said to be negligent at best. If the spiritual guru is intentional in such effects, “something harsher should be said.”

One thing can certainly be said now: Part of the work of doing justice and pursuing equal treatment under the law in the aftermath of the Brown shooting is to eschew all rhetoric, monologues, dialogues, and reasoning that unwittingly or purposely supports ideas of black pathology (black-on-black crime) or places black and/or poor communities in the position of proving that they are worthy of due process and the resources of justice American law provides all its citizens.

This kind of freedom language may not be abundant in the chatter of coffee shops across the region and nation or in the pronouncements of national media, celebrity ministers, and life coaches. However, I have heard it echoed countless times during peaceful marches, in local faith communities like Christ the King, Washington Missionary Baptist Church, and Eden Theological Seminary, as well as in the meetings of local groups, such as the Organization of Black Struggle and the Metropolitan Congregations United and their partners, and in many classrooms at Washington University in St. Louis. The call is the same: Just investigations are guaranteed under our constitution for all U.S. citizens regardless of race and class. It is not a gift. It is a right.

Without this shift pervading both our local and national conversations, we will have missed one fundamental lesson of “this whole Michael Brown thing.”

Lerone A. Martin is Assistant Professor of Religion and Politics at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

]]> 0
The Religious Roots of the Wilderness Act Tue, 02 Sep 2014 14:00:47 +0000 (David McNew/Hulton Archive/Getty).

(David McNew/Hulton Archive/Getty).

When Howard Zahniser was drafting the Wilderness Act—which marks its 50th anniversary today—he confided to a colleague that he wished he were writing poetry instead. “If I had to do this again,” he wrote, “I would much prefer to state all this in iambic rhyming couplets or even in the sequence of sonnets.”

Zahniser drafted his bill in prose, of course, and its details, at least initially, seem prosaic. The Wilderness Act bans all kinds of motors, roads, and permanent structures from large tracts of American territory. It provides a legal definition of wilderness, as land that’s “untrammeled by man” with a “primeval character and influence.” Over the last half-century, the federal government has used the Act to preserve more than 100 million acres of land. It may be the most comprehensive, stringent land protection bill in legislative history.

We take it for granted that wild, inhuman areas are beautiful, uplifting, and worthy of protection; that the natural is superior to the artificial; and that something pristine and untouched by human hands is better than something that’s been touched by human interference.

None of these ideas, though, just emerge automatically in the depths of our modern souls. When we drink bottled water with a picture of an alpine waterfall on the label, seek out foods free of genetically modified ingredients, try to mimic the eating habits of our Paleolithic ancestors, or visit one of the country’s wilderness areas, we’re reflecting a very particular way of thinking about purity, and a very particular kind of skepticism toward humanity’s ability to improve upon nature.

These ways of thinking aren’t religious, exactly. But they’re entangled with religious stories, and religious experiences. With the Wilderness Act turning 50, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the religious roots of our fascination with primeval lands, “untrammeled by man.” After all, that fascination owes much to Romantic spirituality, mountain mystics, and the Book of Genesis. Zahniser wasn’t kidding: the Wilderness Act is policy founded on poetry.

It all starts, of course, at the beginning, with a tale of three gardens.

The first is the Garden of Eden, as depicted in Genesis. Eden is portrayed as very much an agricultural paradise, as the Biblical scholar Theodore Hiebert has pointed out. Eden’s trees are selected for the quality of their fruit. The garden needs human cultivation: “God took the man and placed him the Garden of Eden,” says Genesis, “to till it and tend it.” In a description that spans fewer than 300 words, the author of Genesis still finds time to explain how Eden is irrigated.

Eden is neither a desert nor a wilderness. When the Bible does talk about wilderness, it’s usually as a kind of testing ground: the harsh lands through which the Israelites would be forced to wander for 40 years, and where Jesus would face his Satanic test. In Isaiah, the prophet foresees a time when a voice will proclaim “Clear in the desert / A road for the Lord! / Level in the wilderness / A highway for our God!” Suffice it to say that such activities would not be permitted under the Wilderness Act.

Over time, Eden evolves, which brings us to our second garden, the earthly paradise that issued from the imagination of John Milton. In Paradise Lost, Milton takes the spare prose of Genesis and elaborates it into thousands of lines of elegant pentameter. Milton’s Eden, like that of Genesis, is watery and lush. But Milton takes the Garden and makes it a bit wilder. The agricultural details fade away. Eden, now, is ringed by mountains and dense forests, “a steep wilderness” that’s “grottesque[sic] and wild.” Eden’s river, in Milton’s rendering, has a rapid current and a waterfall. There are grottoes and caves nearby. The land is beautiful, pastoral, and poetic. Eden isn’t just a garden. It is, in Milton’s words, “a Lantskip.” A landscape.

Paradise Lost was a bestseller, and Milton’s description of Eden would, among other effects, help revolutionize English gardening, making it more apt to mimic natural forms. (In this detail, and others, I’m indebted to the work of the historian Mark Stoll). It would set off, too, a slow-burning Eden fever. In the 1790s, a certain Thomas Butts visited the poet William Blake and his wife, Catherine, at their home in London. They were in their garden, naked, reciting sections of Paradise Lost. “Come in!” Blake is reported to have said. “It’s only Adam and Eve, you know!”

To Romantic thinkers like Blake, Eden wasn’t necessarily an actual geographic place waiting to be discovered (as many explorers have hoped), nor was it a kind of theological promise, the Zion to which one could return through piety and divine grace. It was, more than anything else, a state of mind—a state of mind that ran counter to the strictures of civilization. It could be discovered, perhaps, in the back garden of a London suburb. As Parita Mukta and David Hardiman write in “The Political Ecology of Nostalgia,” “During the 19th century, the search for Eden became displaced. No longer was it looked for in the form of a contemporary social and geographical reality, but as a state of being which had existed in the past of human society, and which would be resurrected in the future.”

That state of being could be found in certain landscapes. Our final garden sits in the mountains of California. Waters wend their way right down the middle. There are waterfalls nearby. It’s a pleasant park, ringed by steep mountain slopes. Throughout the nineteenth-century, poets, writers, and travelers visited Yosemite Valley and, as Stoll writes, they regularly compared it to Eden, with both explicit and implicit nods to Milton.

It should be noted, though, that the Romantic ideal of wilderness, which was later enshrined in the Wilderness Act, is in large part an illusion. The New World, after all, had been inhabited, for millennia, by cultures perfectly capable of trammeling the land. The landscape of North America was much further from its primeval state than most European settlers realized.

Nevertheless, Yosemite would also become the world’s first protected wilderness park in 1864. But it wasn’t just Yosemite that evoked thoughts of Milton in its visitors. Comparing the American backcountry to Eden, or to Zion, or to Arcadia, was a common pastime among nineteenth-century Americans. In a famous painting, now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole, rendered the expulsion from Eden in the style of an American landscape painting. As many critics complained at the time, Cole had blatantly plagiarized—and Americanized—some recently published illustrations, by the British artist John Martin, for an edition of Paradise Lost.

It wasn’t necessarily that Cole and others thought they had found the literal Eden. They had found a landscape that seemed to conform to their expectations of what an Edenic experience would be like: a place that seemed primeval, untouched by man, and separate from society, where the governing law was not the law of man, but a law of nature, or a law of God. This vision of Eden sounded different from an orderly agricultural paradise, tilled by Farmer Adam. It’s closer to Milton’s sublime Eden-scape, with its waterfalls and grottoes. And it expresses a very upper class, very civilized yearning for something—anything!—that seemed uncivilized.

THE URGE THAT NINETEENTH-CENTURY Americans felt to connect with a landscape untouched by the conscious working of human hands remains a force in modern society. With greater technological power, it seems, comes a greater yearning for the un-technological (the Wilderness Act, with its lengthy provisions against road-building, was passed in the midst of Interstate construction). Pay a visit to farmer’s market today, and it can feel as if you’ve entered a kind of reverse Jetsons, in which people in sleek cars, with substantial material comforts, imagine a future that looks like the past. Or chat with Paleo Dieters, who try to model their way of eating on the hunter-gatherers. These phenomena share a sense—seen in fantasies of Edenic submission; in ideas of the Noble Savage, in tune with the workings of nature; in polices that, like the Wilderness Act, ban technology—that there exists something purer, something realer, once you cross beyond the edges of human control.

Fittingly, what characterizes the heroes of the wilderness movement in the United States, above all, is their capacity for total abandon. Reading the memoirs of John Muir, it’s astonishing to realize how often Muir nearly died—trapped under a waterfall on a frozen night, after trying to glimpse the moon through the watery veil; sitting high in a tree during a mountain storm; stuck while free climbing a high cliff. Muir’s writing is ecstatic, laced with Biblical imagery and wild adventure. “Adam and Eve lose paradise through an act of choice,” writes the historian David Wyatt in The Fall Into Eden. “Muir regains it through an act of abandon.”

In a milder way, the same can be said of Howard Zahniser, the author of the Wilderness Act. The son of a Free Methodist minister, Zahniser was a devout, albeit unorthodox, Christian. After a stint with the federal government, he spent the last twenty years of the his life working for the Wilderness Society. Zahniser died in 1964, just weeks before the House of Representatives passed his Act, by a margin of 374-1.

In 1957, Zahniser had a mystical experience while camping in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. “As I lay there, inspired to worship, the words from some psalm came to mind: ‘Great peace have they which love thy law,’” Zahniser later wrote, quoting Psalm 119. “It came to me—a thought—that the peace of wilderness is indeed a peace of orderliness, of law.”

Zahniser was a bureaucrat, but his epiphany isn’t all that different from Muir’s mountain reveries. Nor it is all that different, I suspect, from the search for Eden in the vistas of the New World: namely, a hope that, when one sets aside the laws of civilization, another kind of law will appear, one that’s older, truer, and better than whatever humans have devised. Eden, after all, wasn’t just the landscape of primeval innocence. It was a fine-tuned mechanism, prepared to tick perpetually, and blessed with the most inhuman—the most divine—of designs.

BY THE 1960s, ZAHNISER was, perhaps, unusual for his explicit mixing of faith and preservationism.  “Early on, the environmental movement was deeply suspicious of religious people, and religious people were deeply suspicious of the environmental movement,” said Rebecca Gould, a senior lecturer in environmental studies at Middlebury College, in reference to the budding environmentalism of the 1960s and ’70s. As we spoke by phone, Gould was feeding her flock of five sheep. Her research focuses on the growing alliances between evangelical Christians and environmental groups, “a process that began the 1990s and has continued since.”

This deepening of Christian environmental activism, much of it oriented toward climate change, can feel fresh. But, as the roots of the Wilderness Act remind us, American attention to the environment has long been inflected with religious overtones. At times, those overtones may sound more pantheistic than Biblical. But, as Gould says, “I think underneath there’s always this love of nature as part of the American story.”

In 1967, Robert Bellah wrote a landmark, controversial essay about the concept of an American civil religion. Civil religion, in Bellah’s mind, isn’t specific to Christianity or Judaism or any other faith. It is, instead, “a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals” that permeates the public sphere, and that help the nation make sense of itself and its purposes.

Strangely, discussions of civil religion rarely touch on the idea of wilderness, even as wilderness areas become a kind of American sacred space, with sharp boundaries dividing them from other kinds of land, and with allusive names (Zion National Park). Wilderness protection, like so many religious searches, involves a search for something permanent, with a kind of order that transcends human law. In its own way, the Wilderness Act is a legislative attempt to grapple with the idea of eternity. Dealing with primeval landscapes, and with the idea of permanent protection, Congress addresses itself to timescales that are more commonly the purview of priests and paleontologists. As Zahniser told the Sierra Club in 1961, “We are working for a wilderness forever.”

Michael Schulson is a freelance writer in Durham, North Carolina. 

]]> 0
The Hope of Ferguson Mon, 25 Aug 2014 17:56:39 +0000 Canfield Drive in Ferguson

A shirt and roses are left at the spot where Michael Brown was killed by police Aug. 9 on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

In May 1970 four unarmed college students were shot to death by members of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University. The iconic image from that horrific episode is a photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, a fourteen-year-old girl, kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller on a university road. Its details—the mundane particularities of green lawns and academic buildings juxtaposed to students walking and standing around randomly, enveloped in a moment of collective disbelief and shock around the fact of a dead body—evoke both the startling specter of mortality and the terrifying suddenness with which tragedy can intrude on the business of ordinary life. Bodies ground us. At once unrelentingly specific and yet universal, flesh and blood keep us undeniably tied to the forces of life and death that we can’t escape. During the Civil War, the body of abolitionist John Brown, martyred for his attempt to foment a slave insurrection in 1859, gave birth to a song sung by Union soldiers and eventually transformed into a nationalist theme, the Battle Hymn of the Republic. And the body—first crucified, then resurrected—forms the core of the message for Christian believers, who celebrate both the particularity of the incarnation, of God in Jesus, and celebrate the universal message of salvation that Christ’s triumph over death offers them.

So, too, the mental picture of Michael Brown’s body on Canfield Drive in Ferguson has been evoked, memorialized, and etched into the minds of people within and beyond the limits of that small town over the last few weeks. The blood that escaped from Brown’s lifeless body as it lay for four hours in the road has now been replaced by rose petals, posters, balloons, and stuffed animals. But the memory of that body endures and has, indeed, been invoked as a powerful symbol in these days of frustration and sorrow. For some protesters and residents, it represents an enduring history of black bodies enslaved, lynched, and shot down senselessly, a struggle that continues. For others, it offers the hope of a renewed movement to combat injustice.

For the Rev. Traci Blackmon, the pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri, bodies are the business of the Christian church. She was already a formidably busy woman, working both as a pastor and a nurse, both professions in which intensive care for others plays a prominent role. But she has been on the run since Michael Brown’s shooting: less than five miles from Canfield Drive, Christ the King has served as a community gathering place for residents and their supporters. The church has hosted several packed meetings, and has collected goods for the residents of the Canfield Drive neighborhood who have been terrified by nights of unrest. Rev. Blackmon has counseled congregants and local residents, she has run to the grocery store for mothers stranded by the suspension of bus services, she has organized food distribution, and she is now planning a candlelight vigil for one evening and a session with Elder Bernice King, of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violence and Social Change, for the next. She attends to the bodies that remain, helping them both to commemorate the dead and to move on and work for a better way.

She is not the only shepherd of black bodies in Ferguson and beyond. Clergy and their community supporters in social work and mental health care have been meeting on a regular basis, organizing voter registration, food drives, career counseling, childcare, and even finding alternate housing for residents affected by tear gas. Karen Anderson and Tommie Pierson, two other local pastors, among numerous others, have been equally consumed in caring for bodies. To be sure, there are plenty of visitors—media, ministers, politicians, and others—who have claimed Michael Brown’s body for larger purposes: as a symptom of pressing social ills, of state sanctioned control of African Americans, of enduring economic structures that prevent social mobility. And white ministers locally have also been involved in protests, support, and community workshops to educate local Christians about the history of a city that they may never have heard.

All this is critically important, Blackmon reminds us. Christians need to advocate for peace, for justice, and for healing. But being in her presence for even a short amount of time reminds you that her focus starts with the body and its immediate needs. She is unrelentingly particular in her approach. The first week after Brown’s death, she preached a guest sermon in Kansas City, taking as her theme “The Blood Did It.” In her address she spoke about the body in Ferguson, relating it both to her own role as a mother of three children and as an African American who shared a history of distrust of the legal system. And she connected it to the blood of Jesus and the unity of believers made possible by his sacrifice. This week, her message back at her home church ranged widely, circling around Michael Brown’s death. Her main focus was on the interconnection of people: “We are not alone,” she insisted. Not the protesters, not the looters, not the police, not the Brown family. We need one another to get through this and to move on.

The essayist Rebecca Solnit has written persuasively about the need to use the past, to learn from it, but to move into the future with hope: “The past guides us; the future needs us.” So much of what has been written about Ferguson lingers on the anger and frustration, and keeps people trapped in cycles of recrimination. And there is plenty of anger to go around. Many folks, mostly whites who are sick of hearing about their complicity in racist institutions and structures, just want everyone to get over the past and move on. For African Americans, and for others who were inescapably shaped by the racial injustices of the last century, the past has been a touchstone as well as a burden, providing hope and solace along with grief. It’s a body that they can’t give up, but need to use to move forward.

But if anyone will help us find a way forward, it is the Traci Blackmon’s of this world. Traditionally there has been a division within black churches, between those who saw their main mission as advocating for political change and social justice, and those who provided food and solace, ministering to bodies but not seeking to reform structural impediments to full equality. The black churches around Ferguson reveal a very different, and more hopeful strategy. Heal the bodies, be present with bodies, resurrect the deadened bodies, and you can help them change the world.

At the conclusion of the service yesterday morning at Christ the King, the Rev. Blackmon invited those who wanted to join the church to come forward. She was met there by a young mother from the Canfield Green apartments who will join the church soon. In her introduction of the new member, Blackmon quipped that some people have said the role of the pastor is to give voice to the voiceless: “I don’t believe that there is anyone without a voice. There are only people without an audience.” Her role, as she sees it, is to find the audience, to let the residents of Ferguson speak up, participate, vote, and bring their own voices to life.

Such a strategy may bring social order, she asserts. But peace may not be the ideal outcome, as she says, “We don’t need peace right now—we need unrest.” Maybe she is implying that only death brings peace, while life offers something more complicated but more vital. A movement, not a memorial. Many clergy in St. Louis, both black and white, are hoping that communal resurrection will come from the tomb of Canfield Drive.

Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. 

]]> 0
Amnesty Is Not the Answer Without Genuine Border Security Tue, 19 Aug 2014 15:45:57 +0000 Over the last several years numerous prominent evangelical officials and agencies have assertively advocated mass legalization of illegal immigrants as a biblical imperative. They joined more liberal Mainline Protestant agencies and officials, who have for many years urged this same policy. Both liberal Protestants and evangelicals frequently cited Old Testament commands to offer hospitality to strangers as their theological justification for sweeping immigration legislation.

Evangelicals are an important Republican constituency. So mobilizing evangelical support for legalization was considered key to persuading the GOP-run U.S. House of Representatives to acquiesce to the U.S. Senate’s version of comprehensive immigration reform, which included legalization first followed by later border security enhancements.

The Evangelical Immigration Table, a program of the National Immigration Forum, was formed to rally evangelicals for the legalization cause. With generous funding, it gathered an impressive list of endorsing organizations and individual religious leaders, from Jim Wallis’ Sojourners on the left, to the National Association of Evangelicals in the center, to Southern Baptists on the right. Hundreds of clergy were flown into D.C. for rallies. There were national radio and newspaper ads. There was a very successful media campaign, with almost every major news outlet announcing that immigration “reform” was the new key issue for evangelicals.

But as one Southern Baptist supporter of the immigration push regretted, it was largely a “grass tops” and not a “grassroots” campaign. Supposedly countless polls proved that evangelicals, along with nearly all other Americans, backed mass legalization over mass deportation. But almost no House Republicans were persuaded. The surprising defeat of GOP House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his June primary in Virginia against an outspoken legalization opponent helped to ensure the death of sweeping immigration legislation in this Congress.

The Evangelical Immigration Table after Cantor’s loss was defiant, and prominent evangelicals signed a letter to the GOP House leadership insisting they pass immigration legislation before the August recess. But soon even President Obama acknowledged publicly that immigration “reform” was dead for this year.

Why were the evangelical advocates for mass legalization not more effective politically, despite tremendous funding, organization, and media? They perhaps believed their own media hype. Polls usually show evangelicals and others favoring legalization over mass deportations, if forced to choose between the two, although almost nobody advocates the latter. But polls also show most Americans, and almost certainly most evangelicals, favor security first before mass legalization. And when asked, most evangelicals favor reduced levels of even legal immigration. Even when forced to choose between legalization or deportation, evangelical support for the former actually dropped earlier this summer, despite the massive media blitz, according to a report at The Atlantic.

So why have evangelicals not followed many of their elites urging mass legalization? What is the right way for churches and people of faith to address illegal immigration? And how does the recent influx of minors from Central America affect the debate?

Nearly all polls show that evangelicals are the least supportive among religious groups of legalization proposals. Most evangelicals are conservative, and shifting them into a new cause not seen as conservative is naturally difficult. Like other skeptics of immigration “reform,” many likely are doubtful that the promised increased security that would follow mass legalization, as in the Senate legislation, would ever actually happen. The Evangelical Immigration Table pledged support for “secure national borders.” But the rhetoric of its leaders often implied otherwise. Some evangelical elites emphasized that all immigrants, legal or otherwise, are biblical style “sojourners” meriting full hospitality. Some faulted political opposition on racism and xenophobia, disregarding serious arguments for security.

Evangelicals have for decades often politically mobilized for issues like abortion, marriage, and religious freedom. These issues are closely tied to historic Christian teachings. Despite claims of “biblical” immigration policy, the Bible offers no specific policy guidance on U.S. immigration law in the twenty-first century. Christian teaching broadly affirms the dignity of all persons, and the state’s vocation for maintaining order. But the details of immigration law, like most of politics, are matters of prudential judgment about which Christians and others of good will can disagree.

The Catholic bishops, like some evangelical elites, strongly favor mass legalization. But Catholic teaching, with more nuance than often found in evangelical thought, suggests a hierarchy of teachings. Not all public policy issues have binding direction from Christian faith or equally compelling urgency. For example, Catholic teaching asserts that church strictures against abortion and euthanasia are absolutely binding. But what bishops may say about economic policy, or immigration law, while instructive and important, doesn’t claim the same binding moral authority, leaving room for prudential judgment. Evangelicals, among whom I number, can learn from Catholic thought.

Groups like the Evangelical Immigration Table, to be more effective, might take more seriously the deep concerns of legalization critics. What is the economic impact on working-class natives and legal immigrants of increased immigration and mass legalization? What are the theological imperatives for governments to secure borders? When does justice require deportations? And why not prioritize security first, which might facilitate a broader coalition for a legalization process later?

Finally, the dramatic arrival of many underage illegal immigrants at the border has aroused calls by many religious legalization advocates for the U.S. to embrace all minors who arrive at our shores. Churches are right to offer their ministry of compassion to all. But too many religious activists confuse the church’s vocation with the state’s. And often they succumb to narrow sentiment of the moment while disregarding potential unintended consequences of the future.

Many minors and adults illegally rushing to our borders did so believing de facto U.S. policy would permit their entry. Further talk of legalization or non-enforcement inevitably will encourage others to make the dangerous journey. Meanwhile millions around the world, many of whom live amid greater poverty and violence than Central Americans, wait for years for legal entry.

Evangelical elites and other religious advocates for mass legalization would be less polarizing and more persuasive if they listened to, instead of speaking for, their own constituency. They would do well to show more interest in genuine border security and to stop stigmatizing its advocates, recognizing that the Bible is not a detailed political manifesto. Churches would be more faithful to their vocation if they encouraged conversation and consensus on issues like immigration instead of contentious and dogmatic advocacy for only one side in the debate.

]]> 0
The Blame Belongs to House Republicans Tue, 19 Aug 2014 15:45:54 +0000 Long a priority of the faith community, comprehensive immigration reform is dead. Our response to thousands of unaccompanied children arriving at our southern border points to the consequences of our broken immigration system and our broken politics. Instead of using the legislative process to institute a reform that a majority of the people and their representatives favor, it appears that we are going to muddle along and deal with the issue incrementally in accordance with what best suits the Republican Party’s political interests.

What should have happened—truly for the best interests of all—is straightforward.  In 2013, U.S. Senators on both sides of the aisle created a bipartisan, comprehensive plan to secure our borders, protect intact immigrant families, and offer a pathway to citizenship for those who were in the U.S. illegally but who were willing to wait in line, pay a fine, and meet other requirements. Neither party received all of what it wanted, but the Senate nonetheless compromised and passed a good piece of legislation last July. That’s what competent, functional legislative chambers do.

Unfortunately, on the other side of the Capitol, we no longer have a competent, functional legislative chamber. The House of Representatives should have passed the bipartisan Senate bill. House Speaker John Boehner is, like his predecessors, loath to pass legislation that a majority of his party opposes. Yet at key moments, Boehner has broken this unwritten rule (called the “Hastert Rule”) and passed legislation with mostly Democratic votes in order to avoid political harm to his party (as when he reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act) or economic calamity to the nation (as when he ended the GOP’s shutdown of the federal government and prevented the Tea Party from forcing the U.S. to default on the national debt). Though he claimed he wanted to lead on immigration, Boehner was bullied into submission by his party’s right flank. His weak leadership means that, in the end, broader Republican political and electoral considerations will determine when the House GOP will, and it inevitably will, hold its nose and pass immigration reform.

The House Republican Conference is divided on the issue of immigration and, among its manifold disagreements about policy and politics, clearly lacks a consensus view on the party’s future self-interest. To most Republican leaders, it is clear that the party must expand its reach to groups other than churchgoing and/or affluent whites. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), an author of the Senate bill, warns the GOP not to be “delusional” about immigration. “If we keep playing this game that self deportation is the only answer for the Republican Party, we will have destroyed our chances in 2016 and dealt a death blow to our party” because of long term demographic changes, Graham said.

In this line of thinking, it is not only good policy but also good politics for the GOP to support immigration reform. Republicans should want to compete for the growing Hispanic vote. They should not cede it to the Democrats for generations as they did with African Americans. Liberty University’s Mat Staver and the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez argue that embracing immigration is consistent with Christian values and conservative politics: “If we ever hope to see a social conservative return to the White House, we would do well to encourage our legislators to embrace the bipartisan proposals for immigration reform.”

The faith coalition that emerged to support immigration reform was almost unprecedented in its unanimity. It was quite an achievement to bring the less reflexively partisan elements of the Christian right alongside the Catholic Church and liberal and ethnic minority Protestant groups. Conservative faith leaders are used to having their way with Republicans on sex-related issues. Catholics and moderate evangelicals are often influential because neither party owns them. I have written elsewhere about why even conservative evangelical support could not save immigration reform. It is actually quite normal for GOP leaders to defy their pastors, bishops, and denominations. They do it on non-sex-related issues every day. Faith leaders’ activism, however admirable, is rarely decisive. Greater political forces conspired to render the near-unanimous voice of the faith community virtually irrelevant. The Republican Party knows that Southern Baptists and Mormons aren’t going anywhere.

The politics of the issue are more complex than many advocates let on. Immigration reform would be a difficult vote for GOP representatives in relatively homogenous white districts. Just because the Republicans as presently constituted have no future in 2050 does not mean they cannot survive—and even thrive—as a white party for the next several decades. Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels reminds us, “Even momentous demographic changes occur slowly; non-Hispanic whites will remain a majority of the U.S. population for the next 30 years, and a majority of the electorate even longer.” In the meantime, empirical research suggests that the specter of increased immigration could create a white backlash that further benefits the GOP.

If the House GOP thought immigration reform would improve its prospects of adding to its majority in 2014, it would have acted. Many observers still expect Boehner to pass the reform next year in order to take it off the table for 2016. But if the GOP strategy is to maximize the white vote and cede overwhelming majorities of Hispanic and Asian American votes to the Democrats, it may prefer to punt on immigration through the 2016 presidential nominating contest as well. After all, there are comparatively few Hispanics in Iowa, New Hampshire, and the other winter primary states. The early states that actually do have a sizeable number of Hispanics, Nevada and Colorado, use a caucus system. In any case, few Hispanics vote in Republican primaries because they increasingly identify as Democrats.

House inaction carries one more important benefit for Republicans. In forcing the president to issue executive orders to mitigate the mounting adverse effects of our broken immigration system, the GOP can spin this as further evidence of Obama’s abuse of executive authority.

My friend Mark Tooley is correct to point out that only a small group of utopian liberals wants amnesty and open borders. But neither amnesty nor open borders was ever a part of any serious policy discussion.

Our leaders had ample opportunities to do the right thing, but a powerful minority chose intransigence over compromise and obstruction over governance. The undemocratic result was precisely the opposite of what should have been done. This ruinous course exacerbates the brokenness of Congress, divisions within the Republican Party, and the perilously fractured relationship between the executive and legislative branches. It also helps ensure that the hyper-racialized nature of our politics will continue to be prominent for years to come.

]]> 0
We Must Fix Our Broken Immigration System Tue, 19 Aug 2014 15:45:08 +0000 The U.S. immigration system is broken. Republicans, Democrats, and Independents have argued that the immigration system is in urgent need of an overhaul. Essentially we have a twentieth-century immigration system addressing twenty-first century immigration realities. The question is not whether or not we need to repair a broken system but rather what should be done to repair this broken immigration system. I am reminded of the existential question of Martin Luther King, Jr., at the height of the civil rights movement: “Where do we go from here? Chaos or community?”

As an evangelical leader, Scripture and Christian tradition help shape the principles I bring to bear on the immigration debate. St. Augustine provides a guiding question for Christians interested in moral laws and good policies. When it comes to any action or law, Augustine asks, “What is the summa bonum (highest good)?” Christians and all people of good will should relentlessly pursue the highest good. The highest good could modernize our immigration system while providing a way for 11 million people, created in the image of God, to come out of the shadows. For the sake of our shared humanity, we must find a better way forward.

While no policy is specifically endorsed by Scripture, biblical principles overwhelmingly point to practicing hospitality while not imposing undue hardships on citizens. Common-sense immigration reform can do both. Scripture continuously underscores the moral mandate of hospitality. The word for hospitality in the New Testament is “xenophilia”— love of the stranger. Love is the highest Christian principle and must always be balanced with justice. That is why I have endorsed the principles of the Evangelical Immigration Table that balance border security, fairness to taxpayers, family unity, and an earned path to citizenship. We can do all of these things. The status quo is both unsustainable and keeps the door closed to approximately 11 million people. Reform would provide a way for many of them to get right with the law and contribute to the future of our country. Few opponents to comprehensive immigration reform have provided a rational response to what do we do with these 11 million people, many of them women and children. No one argues that keeping 11 million people in a state of perpetual limbo is the right course of action.

Of course, love of the stranger must be balanced with love of the citizen. Fortunately, wise immigration policies can do both. Our country has the creative genius and economic viability to make immigration reform a win-win for everyone. Some opponents of common-sense immigration reform said we have a duty to not put undue hardships on those who are already U.S. citizens. We do have this duty, and immigration reform helps us fulfill this responsibility. Any argument that says immigration reform would do irreparable harm to our economy is premised on a false dichotomy of winners and losers that often stokes the flames of economic fears and insecurity. Just laws cannot be based on fear. Moreover, conservatives like Grover Norquist, Alberto Cardenas, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have made the case that immigration reform makes economic and business sense. A recent report from the Bipartisan Policy Center reinforced the fact that common-sense immigration reform would help both the economy and contribute to reducing the deficit. Spurious economic arguments that create zero-sum winners and losers are falling away. In short, immigration reform is not just the hospitable thing to do, it is the economically sound way forward. Our country needs bipartisan leadership to move forward on reform this year rather than kicking the can down the legislative road. No action is simply a de-facto endorsement of a broken system.

One of the most difficult tensions to resolve has been between border security and providing a pathway to citizenship. The reality remains that the border is more secure than anytime in history. In addition to a historically high number of deportations, most people enter legally and overstay their visas. Immigration reform could address the issues of both backlog and visas by modernizing our immigration system. Tragically, some have used the argument that the number of unaccompanied children entering the southwest border in recent months is a sign of a porous border. This argument is not supported by the facts. Many of those displaced children are not sneaking into the United States; they are turning themselves in at the border, seeking asylum as they flee from extreme violence and life-threatening conditions. Diverse voices such as the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the conservative columnist George Will have argued that the United States could easily integrate these children and that playing political ping-pong with the lives of these children is unacceptable. I agree.

The largest obstacle to overcome in the immigration conversation is global myopia. We need a comprehensive response beyond immigration reform. Immigration requires us to look more deeply at U.S. foreign policies and their effects on the people of the world. Immigration conversations require that we take a close look at economic depravation, gang violence, environmental degradation, corrupt governments, and global hunger. We must advocate for a robust foreign policy of sustainable development and security to address the root causes of mass immigration. Ignoring these realities will always leave us with an incomplete response to the movements of people across borders.

In short, the great commandment of “loving your neighbor as yourself” is at the core of why we advocate immigration reform. When the undocumented man, woman, or child seeking a better life dies in the desert between Mexico and the United States or in a large cargo vessel from Asia, we all mourn. Perhaps the way ahead is simply remembering the words of Christ, when he said, “I was a stranger (xenos) and you invited me in” (Matthew 25:35). On immigration reform we can and must do better. Inaction on a broken system is not viable, wise, or the summa bonum.

]]> 0
From Berlin to Jerusalem, a Lament for Gaza and Israel Tue, 12 Aug 2014 16:18:49 +0000 (Mamoun Wazwaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

(Mamoun Wazwaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

This year, I fasted on Tisha b’Av, a Jewish day of mourning for the destruction of both Jewish temples in Jerusalem. In commemoration, on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, Jews fast and read the book of Lamentations, which describes the poverty, violence, and alienation that come with destruction and disenfranchisement.

I don’t often fast, but as the day approached, fasting seemed the intellectually, spiritually honest thing to do. The ongoing violence in Gaza and Israel supplies many losses to grieve: Loss of civilians and soldiers, loss of infrastructure, loss of safe public spaces. Racist violence in Israeli streets and racist pronouncements in news and social media alienate and endanger us.

I know less and less what to say. So I ritually grieved. Grief is not a substitute for speaking; it does not anoint silence with sanctity. As the holy day approached, I mentioned my lamentations to a friend, who replied, “But you’re on the wrong side, aren’t you?”

This seems to be a refrain these days. Critical journalists, thinkers, and activists are maligned as traitors by the Israeli right (and center), accused of complicity with Hamas’s threat to their people and Europe’s malice to their nation. Conversely, those who defend the Israeli government’s actions are accused of moral complacency and callousness in the face of civilian death and destruction. The famed Hebrew poet, Bialik, wrote, “No such revenge—revenge for the blood of a little child—has yet been devised by Satan.” Bialik was quoted by Gideon Hausner, then attorney general of Israel, in his opening arguments in the trial of Adolf Eichmann, and Bialik was quoted again in Leon Wieseltier’s recent cogent analysis of the morality of the ongoing violence in Gaza and Israel.

So, as facile as it is, “Which side are you on?” remains a potent ethical question. Some would say I have no right to grieve Palestinian deaths. Others would say if I include them in my grief, I dishonor my own nation’s fallen soldiers, my own family cowering fearful in bomb shelters throughout Israel. To avoid such discomforting accusations, many of us make a daily discipline of whittling down our identities to simple, stable categories. This helps us make sense of the world, helps us know which deaths to grieve, and helps us decide where to spend our money. I’m an Israeli Jew, so (most of) the losses of July are not mine to grieve. That’s the idea. I think it’s false.

At the end of June, I participated in a ten-day Fellowship at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE), as part of a group of twelve medical students. Several historians and two physician bioethicists guided us through Berlin, Krakow, and Auschwitz, as we studied the role of physicians in the National Socialist apparatus and then invited the history to inform our discussions on contemporary questions in medical ethics.

At sites in which the Holocaust unfolded, FASPE positioned fellows to feel the horror and grief of this history. We also had to examine equally scary, less familiar relationships to this history—namely, to identify with the perpetrators, rather than with the victims. We asked ourselves: As future physicians, how will we be vulnerable to becoming perpetrators of violence? What ethical principles guard against dehumanization not just of us, but also by us?

It was all too easy to find historical relevance. Physicians were instrumental in the development of Nazi murder strategies, for example, in formulating philosophies of “racial hygiene,” planning economies for “public health,” and developing technologies and techniques of abuse and murder. In 1920, German jurist Karl Binding and German psychiatrist Alfred E. Hoche coined the German term translated as “life unworthy of life,” and justified the concept, writing, “The question of whether we can justify the expense necessary in all directions for all these burdensome lives was not urgent in the past age of prosperity. Now that has changed, and we must address it seriously.”  Over the course of the 1920s, physicians and bureaucrats used such ideas to evolve the rhetorical and technological infrastructures that ultimately became the “final solution” and the gas chambers. The logical moves animating these arguments are uncomfortably similar to contemporary bioethics discussions about futility and distributive justice. Similarly uncomfortable resonance can be found in discussions on the tolerable costs of “just war.”

So what is the proper moral calculus, and how does a perpetrator deal with loss? Berlin—the city itself—teaches us about this. The city is textured with ornaments of absence. The artist Gunter Demnig has nestled “stumbling stones” in the sidewalks. These are brass squares, the same dimensions as the surrounding cobble stones, engraved like tombstones, laid in front of apartment buildings from which Jews were captured and deported. Amateur historian Ronnie Golz has etched images and narratives into bus stop shelters, in situ histories describing wartime crimes planned or performed at the nearby addresses. Will Lammert wrought emaciated bronze figures to wait forever on a concrete platform, built into an empty lot where once a building stood. Originally the building housed elderly Jews, then briefly housed all Jews awaiting deportation, then no one, then, one day, it was gone. The grassy lawn behind the lot was a Jewish cemetery, where tombstones once named the buried. The tombstones were desecrated and removed, and German soldiers were buried above, in a mass grave. The few markers that survive now line the perimeter of the property, while the carefully mown lawn looks to the sky.

I thought it would be complicated for me to witness the grief of Germany and Poland—the grief of the perpetrators—because in some ways I see in them the cause of my grief. But my experience, though deep, was uncomplicated. Grief was recognizable and human, even in German.

My friend might say I was on the “wrong side” for these experiences, too. I am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, four Jews who fled Europe, in varying states of personal danger and with varying degrees of difficulty, between 1934 and 1942. Houses abandoned, fortunes lost, families murdered, camp guards blindsided.

But I’m on both sides, aren’t I? I have inherited survivorship, and with it a complex of anger, grief, and pain, and I will be a physician, ambitious and empowered. If I cannot see myself on both sides of violence, how will I learn to prevent it, from whichever side I awake in the morning? Both possibilities—my vulnerability to violence, my capacity to do violence—guide my ethical action. If I do not see my vulnerability to be manipulated by power, bureaucracy, habit, or bias, then how could I hope to protect others who will be vulnerable in my hands?

As FASPE ended and I traveled to Israel to visit family and friends, I was still asking these questions. It was the first week of July. Three Israeli boys had been kidnapped and murdered, with funding and support from Hamas, and the Israeli government was responding by attacking Hamas institutions. Three Israeli men also responded by kidnapping and burning alive, to death, a teenage Palestinian boy from a north Jerusalem neighborhood. In that first week of July, as I walked through neighborhoods of West Jerusalem, from my grandmother’s apartment in Old Katamon to the old city, I passed clumps of teenagers chanting for revenge. At a rally in Tel Aviv, against a war we all knew was coming, people cursed at us as they passed. Leftists called right-wing apologists fascists, right-wing demonstrators called for revenge against leftists and Arabs, and no one seemed ashamed of themselves.

Hamas’s violence toward Israelis and Palestinians is unconscionable, and many writers have written articulately about this. Does this assessment bring all Israeli actions within the category of self-defense? I have studied the doctrine of double effect and proportionality in war, but are these sufficient moral foundations for relationships among neighbors? Is there a distinct line between self-defense and immoral killing? Or is it possible that one act can accomplish both? I couldn’t help but ask these questions, walking the worn limestone streets in the Jerusalem pedestrian malls, crossing the narrow state to swim into the salty, swirling sea.

These are uncomfortable questions to ask in the Jewish state, maybe in any state. There seems to be an anxiety that allowing an imaginative or discursive space where we might be impugned as perpetrators would cost us existential rights. We like to think of our violence as limited to the moral performance of self-defense. But the categories in which we see ourselves must be flexible, or they cannot be accurate. We need to be able to see ourselves as possible perpetrators in order to make astute assessments of the political situations in which we find ourselves, and this is necessary in order to stand on moral ground.

Perhaps this flexibility is the privilege of my generation, a third generation of Holocaust survivors, who grew up benefiting from some of the healing that our grandparents and parents did. Our parents and grandparents fulfilled a moral obligation to bear witness to the insults and injuries that they so narrowly survived.

I inherit this moral obligation to witness, and perhaps it includes a moral obligation to bear witness to other injuries, too? Perhaps I am obliged to fast when someone else’s city is destroyed, even as it is destroyed in my name? Perhaps I must fast and mourn and be a friend against hatred, however disenfranchised that position?

It is important to be able to recognize myself on both sides. The book of Lamentations describes Jerusalem among her own adversaries; it counts her transgressions among the root causes of her destruction by foreign armies. This attitude does not exhaust the moral or causal relationships in war, nor would I rely on self-blame to teach me all of the necessary political lessons that must be learned. Still, this attitude teaches us to reflect critically on our own actions, to see our failures even if they are ugly. It teaches us to think about long-term consequences in the causal chain of our actions. It may teach us, this summer, that defense has not been our only form of aggression, and aggression may not be a reliable form of defense.

Yael Shinar is an Israeli American poet. She is a second-year medical student at the University of Michigan and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School.

]]> 0
Does God Hate Shrimp? When Biblical Citation Goes Awry Tue, 05 Aug 2014 17:00:42 +0000  (Gautham Narayan/Flickr)

(Gautham Narayan/Flickr)

One of the most popular “West Wing” clips on YouTube is President Josiah Bartlet’s biblically-based takedown of a conservative radio talk-show host (a thinly veiled Dr. Laura), who confidently justifies her opposition to homosexuality by citing the Hebrew Bible. Specifically, she refers to a so-called “clobber verse,” Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.” In response, the popular fictional president excoriates her by asking questions about other verses surrounding this passage. “Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? … Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads?” His pointed questions leave his interlocutor speechless.

This rhetorical theme isn’t limited to television. In 2006, then-Senator Barack Obama addressed a conference hosted by the Christian social justice organization Sojourners. In addition to describing his own spiritual journey, Obama also questioned the biblical invocations of conservative leaders, asking, “Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination?”

Among current debates in the American public square, perhaps none are more contentious and biblically inflected than arguments over same-sex marriage and related civil rights. The Hebrew Bible book of Leviticus is central to these debates. Opponents of gay rights visibly couch their argument in biblical terms, and their picket signs commonly feature Leviticus 18:22 and other “clobber” passages, as well as broad theological statements on God’s behalf. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church—whose leader, the Reverend Fred Phelps, just died in March—are famous for their simple, memorable, and memorably hateful posters: “God hates fags.”

More recently, however, proponents of gay civil rights have been doing some biblical counter-citation of their own. In addition to theological statements like those made by President Obama, or the recent book or videos by Christian author and LGBT activist Matthew Vines, rejections of Leviticus are showing up at demonstrations as well. Rare is the public protest that doesn’t feature at least a few members of the public, including plenty of Christians, holding signs declaring what other abominations God hates: clothing made of mixed fibers (Leviticus 19:19), pork (Leviticus 11:7), and the aforementioned shellfish (Leviticus 11:9-12). There’s a whole website devoted to this theme, with questions like, “Shrimp, crab, lobster, clams, mussels, all these are an abomination before the Lord, just as gays are an abomination. Why stop at protesting gay marriage?”

Let’s call this rhetorical move the “argument by shrimp.” It may be easy to see why this line of reasoning has become popular among both progressive Christians and non-religious people. It doesn’t require anyone to determine what is meant by “lying with a man as with a woman” or to parse the meaning of “abomination” in order to render it less ominous-sounding. In fact, it doesn’t require much engagement with the particulars of Leviticus 18:22 at all. Rather, the argument by shrimp works by attempting to undermine the significance of the “anti-gay” verse. The troubling verse is surrounded by other biblical commandments that, it is implied, are morally untenable (such as slavery), irrelevant (such as the prohibitions on touching pigskin or eating shellfish), or entirely arbitrary (such as the prohibition on wearing clothing comprised of multiple different fibers). What makes Leviticus 18:22 so special, when most Christians are going about their days blithely wearing mixed-fiber clothing and ordering sweet-and-sour shrimp? In the absence of this consistent observance, those calling upon Leviticus 18:22 for support are revealed to be hypocritical, ignorant of the text they purport to esteem, or highly selectively employing the Bible to affirm their own prejudices.

But despite the ostensible ability of the argument by shrimp to overcome the challenges of Leviticus 18:22, such a move may actually create more problems, particularly for liberal Christians, than it ever solves. The power of the rhetorical shift to some of the Hebrew Bible’s other commandments lies in the assumption that nearly everyone, regardless of their positions on LGBT civil rights, agrees that injunctions against shellfish and wool-linen blends are ludicrous. What kind of foolish person would believe in such a God?

But, of course, there are many people who do affirm the important of biblical commandments regarding questions like which foods may be eaten and which clothes may be worn: Jews. According to recent surveys, close to half of the world’s Jews understand themselves to be at least partially observant of the commandments regarding diet. Although this self-definition varies widely, such statistics testify to the continuing importance of dietary restrictions even among relatively non-observant Jews. Regarding the commandment prohibiting the use of shatnez, or clothing made of both wool and linen, far fewer contemporary Jews adhere to this commandment—but the prohibition is still followed by many traditionally observant Jews. And while some observant Jews may do so for reasons other than divine commandments, there are many others who certainly would affirm the divine origin of their many obligations. For these Jews, God may, in fact, hate shrimp.

The argument by shrimp, therefore, inadvertently functions as mockery of both Jews and Jewish law, whose origins lie in the verses humorously cited as refutations of Leviticus 18:22. But from the point of view of public discourse, what is perhaps more troubling is the erasure of Jews from the normative “we” imagined to comprise the public square. After all, the argument by shrimp works by appealing to the reasonable public, all of whom—with the exception of a few “fundies”—are understood to be in on the joke. The many Jews who value their commandments and the God who gave them have no voice in this conversation.

And for Christians making use of the shrimp trope, there’s another problem. The denigration of some of the Hebrew Bible’s commandments, as well as the assumption that no reasonable people observe such things any longer, comes uncomfortably close to a supersessionist theological claim—a theology in which the old covenantal relationship between God and the people Israel has been “superseded” by a new Christ-based covenant in which no outdated or immoral or ridiculous commandments are incumbent upon anyone. In this formulation, even if there are Jews still observing their commandments, they are simply doing so in the mistaken belief that the covenant in which the commandments were made is still operative when in fact it is not, Christ having done away with the law.

There’s no doubt that liberal American Christians, who have led the way in initiating interfaith dialogues with American Jews, do not mean to suggest this. But intentionally or not, the argument by shrimp effectively contains this rejection of Jews, Jewish obligation, and Jewish theology. If good interreligious engagement begins with mutual respect for the customs and convictions of the other, this public trope may be doing quite a bit more harm than good.

Even beyond its implications for Christian-Jewish relations, the shrimp argument poses a sticky theological quandary for Christians themselves. After all, the biblical texts being employed—and, indeed, ridiculed—by the argument are texts from the sacred scriptural canon of these very same Christians. In using these texts to call into question the biblically-based, anti-homosexuality argument into question, the Christians employing this strategy effectively undermine the sacrality and normativity of their own sacred scripture. While appealing to these texts as examples of the immoral, the irrelevant, or the absurd may have rhetorical value in public debate, it also requires these Christians to dismiss as immoral, irrelevant, or absurd parts of their own Old Testament and undermine its sacred status.

Importantly, this isn’t to suggest that the only “sacred” reading of Leviticus is a literal one. But the argument by shrimp doesn’t provide an alternative hermeneutic for the passage—it simply dismisses it as unimportant. Though the argument seeks to assert what the Old Testament is not—i.e. a text containing commandments which are both semantically literal and eternally binding—the response does not give any sense of what the Old Testament is, theologically. In what sense is it sacred? How does the text—even in its strangest or most troubling commandments—function as a purveyor of divine instruction for Christians? What is the value of its many injunctions? And insofar as some of the Old Testament’s commandments, even beyond the famous first ten, are frequently invoked as normative in their literal sense—for instance, those regarding the status of immigrants —how does the Christian determine which have these status and which are worthy of being dismissed when engaged in text-based, theo-political arguments? The charge of selective biblical citation, particularly from the Hebrew Bible, is just as pertinent to liberal Christians as to their more conservative counterparts, and may be just as difficult to resolve.

In the often heated and emotional debates about gay civil rights in the United States, it’s understandable that proponents would use whatever tools are available to them—and at first glance, the argument by shrimp may seem to have tantalizing rhetorical possibilities. But an argument that requires activists and allies to effectively mock Jews or Judaism, or requires Christians to undermine the significance of their own sacred scripture, is an argument that doesn’t stand up to critical analysis. Given its pitfalls, advocates for gay rights should lay this rhetorical trope to rest, lest they find themselves merely exchanging one set of problematic interpretations for another.

Emily A. Filler is a visiting assistant professor of Judaism at St. Olaf College 

]]> 0
The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Interview with Charles Marsh Wed, 30 Jul 2014 18:12:40 +0000 Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin/bpk/Rotraut Forberg/Art Resource

Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin

On April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Christian theologian who opposed the Nazis, was hanged by the regime on the grounds of a concentration camp. Nearly seven decades later, his theological writings and work continue to engage and inspire readers. In a comprehensive new biography, scholar Charles Marsh reconstructs the pastor’s life, providing intimate details using documents that recently have been made available. Earlier this month, Marsh spoke with Managing Editor Tiffany Stanley about the book, titled Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which was published in April of this year by Alfred A. Knopf.

Marsh is a professor of religious studies and director of the Project of Lived Theology at the University of Virginia. He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and the University of Virginia. He is author of seven previous books, including God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights, which won the 1998 Grawemeyer Award in Religion, and a memoir, The Last Days: A Son’s Story of Sin and Segregation at the Dawn of a New South. He serves on the National Advisory Board of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

R&P: We’re excited to talk about your book on Bonhoeffer, which is getting a lot of attention, so thank you. I know many years of work went into it.

CM: I initially signed a contract with Knopf to do a much shorter book that would have focused mainly on Bonhoeffer’s American experiences. It was actually a project called Bonhoeffer in America and, if I had known then that the project would have evolved into a cradle-to-grave treatment and taken eight years, I would have politely bowed out. I saw my editor a few weeks ago in Washington, and he confessed to having tricked me into writing about a full life. But yes, eight years is a long time.

R&P: After reading the book, I was struck because I had heard you say that originally it was going to be just his time in America and it’s so much broader than that.

CM: It’s a cradle-to-grave treatment. And what happened was that from my editor’s perspective and maybe my agent’s, it was inevitable. I didn’t know at the time because I had never written a full-length biography. There are these interesting biographies—of Einstein in Berlin, or Nietzsche in Turin, or Adorno in California. But in my estimation, to really set the stage meaningfully for Bonhoeffer’s year in America in 1930-1931, you have to do a lot of work on experiences that preceded that and fill in the gaps between the 1931 visit and the 1939 visit and by the time you’ve done that, you’ve started moving in the direction of a full life. Also, the other thing that really inspired the decision more was the availability of new documents and historical archives that made it possible, really for the first time, to write a biography of Bonhoeffer relying primarily on primary documents rather than on the great 1300-page biography that Bonhoeffer’s best friend Eberhard Bethge wrote in the late 60s.

R&P: That was something I wanted to ask about because Bethge’s book has been the seminal biography. There have been a few other Bonhoeffer biographies, notably two in 2010: Ferdinand Schlingensiepen’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance and Eric Metaxas’ bestseller Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Was it the new documents that really spurred you on? Or what context or information did you feel like you could add to your volume that previous books had missed?

CM: Bethge’s biography is, you know, a, magisterial work and has been for nearly five decades the touchstone of all Bonhoeffer scholarship. But, if you’re writing a biography about your best friend, moreover your best friend who was murdered by the Nazis, you’re going to be protective about certain aspects of his character, of his life, of your relationship. Eberhard is a dear friend of mine and has been very generous to me over the years in sharing documents. I would not regard his biography as at all hagiographic. I think he writes quite courageously in some of his interpretations of Bonhoeffer’s life. But, nonetheless, that basic narrative of Eberhard’s book is a grand narrative and it’s a narrative that shaped not only Bonhoeffer biographies but also Bonhoeffer scholarship as well. This includes Metaxas’s biography. Metaxas was using the basic script and applying his flair to that narrative in a way that really connected with a wide readership. But I had access to just a treasure of newly obtained documents through the library in Berlin, the Staatsbibliothek, and the documents appearing in published form in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke, which is now translated into English. The translation was just completed this past fall, the sixteen-volume, complete writings of Bonhoeffer. This is someone who died when he was 39 years old and whose complete writings come to well over ten thousand pages. As a discipline and in terms of my own creative process, I took all the biographies, including Bethge’s, and I hid them away and made myself, or told myself, I wouldn’t look at any biographical writing until I finished with my complete draft of my book, using only the primary materials and documents.

I remember that spring in 2007 when I was a visiting professor in Berlin, having access to what must have been 20 to 25 cases of documents that had just been sold to the Staatsbibliothek from the family of Eberhard Bethge. Bethge had died around 2000. And, just how every day brought discoveries. These were very personal documents, intimate documents, but also the kind of materials you need just to make a life vivid and give it a certain kind of cinematic clarity. Like I didn’t know how tall he was. And then, in a driver’s license or something, you see, oh, he’s 6’1”. And then the documents from his shared bank account with Eberhard or inventories of his library and his wardrobe, tickets to the theatre, or journals about his walk in the park, and shopping sprees and salon knowledge and just all of these aspects of character that begin to reveal—to me, at least—a fascinatingly different kind of portrait than the one of Bonhoeffer that I had carried with me for 25 years since writing a doctoral dissertation on his philosophical thought.

I had a friend who was one of the translators of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer works and I think one of the most brilliant of Bonhoeffer’s scholars in the world. Victoria Barnett is her name, and she’s the director of the Committee on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in D.C. She tells me around the same time, “You know, I have translated Bonhoeffer, I have read Bonhoeffer, I’ve given much of my life to Bonhoeffer scholarship and history, and I still don’t know who he was.” I didn’t really know who he was either, and so I wanted to look directly at this new body of more intimate documents and let that unfamiliar picture of this Protestant saint and martyr and theologian develop in narrative form. I would say that while Strange Glory’s not the first biography written, it’s the first one that’s relied solely on primary documents, other than Bethge’s book. It’s the first one that’s really shaped by the new treasure of documents and materials that are available in archives and this volume of complete works.

R&P: As you mentioned, this isn’t your first book on Bonhoeffer. More than 20 years ago, your doctoral dissertation and subsequent book also covered the theologian. Why return to him now? And what was that like, coming back to him and learning so much more personal information about him?

CM: That’s a really interesting question. Thanks for asking that. As a child of the church, I certainly heard about Bonhoeffer by the time I reached college. In college, I was an English and philosophy major, and I read some passages of his more popular works, The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together. But I was late coming to Bonhoeffer’s, theology as a whole and it was the sort of the more philosophical writings that comprised his body of academic work from 1927 to 1933.

All my graduate studies were very much a part of the theory-separated branch of 1980s postmodern culture, and that was exciting in its own way. But in the summers throughout my graduate years, I went to Atlanta and I worked in an inner-city community center for minority youth in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. I was living in these two worlds. In the summers I was teaching my “Body and Soul” workshop, which was poetry, basketball, Bible study, and then just doing the things of a community worker, and equally fulfilled by this practical work. Then in the fall, I would drive back to school, whether it was in Cambridge or Charlottesville, and be excited about the new year, but I would be reading my German philosophy and feeling a million miles away from the community I served. It was liberating for me to discover Bonhoeffer, as a grad student himself and as a young professor himself who struggled with the same kinds of tensions, which are the tensions of many young scholars. He tried to think through classical German philosophical tradition to locate a more socially conscious, engaged, and relational conception of self and the self as an entity. That was helpful and then I wrote the dissertation and the book.

In the early 90s, rather than to pursue my second, more technical academic and theological project, I began having all of these questions related to my upbringing in the Deep South and inquiries about my childhood and the white evangelical church throughout the last years of the segregated South. I ended up with almost no skills in historical research or certainly in ethnography. I remember, I guess it was 20 years ago this summer, getting in my car in Baltimore where I was teaching at the time, and heading South with my credit card and my microcassette recorder and a list of questions. What were we thinking about Jesus in those churches that made us think we were both the most holy and pure out of all of the Christian churches in the United States while also being completely indifferent, if not complicit, toward African Americans in the Jim Crow South?

I tried to sort a lot of these questions out theologically, and in the course of what became not only God’s Long Summer but also three books on the civil rights movement, I found myself learning how to write theology as narrative, or theology as story. Over the years I taught Bonhoeffer to undergraduates and graduate students. I have a graduate seminar on Bonhoeffer and King. Eventually, Bonhoeffer was sort of standing there, waiting patiently, saying, “You’ve written these theological narratives, these stories, and theological accounts of Dr. King and Fannie Lou Hamer and John Lewis and others. Now it’s my turn.”

I think it was helpful, obviously, to have read all of Bonhoeffer’s writings because I had a sense of his intellectual importance and place in the modern story. Then that kind of decades-long tutelage in writing narrative nonfiction was what I finally needed to come back to him with the hope and the goal of creating a kind of storied and hopefully vivid and engaging narrative of this original, brilliant theologian, this dissident, this leader/activist in the German resistance and conspiracy.

R&P: The beginning of Strange Glory portrays Bonhoeffer’s childhood and early life as one with a lot of privilege and opportunity and accomplishments. It seems like he’s sheltered and shielded from a lot of the political turmoil going on in Germany at the time. I wondered if you could place that in context. What factors later galvanized him into the activist that he became?

CM: That is true, but he wasn’t altogether indifferent to politics. His older brothers were quite astute, and students of contemporary political and legal affairs, and so there was probably some sense in which he heard Klaus and Karl Friedrich, and then Walter before he died in the war, and his father, and other members of the extended family, many of whom where legal scholars and historians, ponder all these issues. But Bonhoeffer was himself a child of much more aesthetic and artistic sensibilities, and showed kind of a very early predilection for metaphysical speculation. The way I tell the story is in a way that’s true to Bonhoeffer’s later observations of his journey. When in prison he writes to Eberhard, and he recalls that there were only two times in his life that he could observe, from the vantage point of 1943, profound personal growth and transformation. One, he said, was “a strong impression of my father.” His father was a prominent psychiatrist, director for the center of nervous diseases at the University of Berlin. The other, he said, was “the experiences of my first journey abroad, my first experiences abroad.” He meant trips to Italy, and to Barcelona and to Spain, but more than anything else a year spent in the United States in 1930-31. On the eve of that trip to America, in August of 1930, Bonhoeffer is only 24 years old, and he has by now two doctorates, and he is a straight-arrow academic primed for academic fame within the very demanding German scene. He came to America as a visiting student at Union Theological Seminary, thinking that it would be yet another chapter in his privileged life. It ended up being an experience, a kind of immersion if you will, that gave him a wholly new way of thinking about his vocation as a pastor and theologian.

People who know Bonhoeffer’s story and have read his life know that he found plenty of things to criticize in the manner of theological education, and the theological education that defined Union Theological Seminary, really the Protestant mainline in the 1930s. He found the level of education sophomoric; he thought all Protestant, liberal theology was just all sort of indistinguishable from pragmatism, that American Protestant thought was really traded on the laziest aspects of German nineteenth-century liberalism. He thought that Reinhold Niebuhr was more interested in creating a center for labor organizers than really engaging theological education seriously. Beyond his sort of grumblings and mumblings and kind of pompous criticism, he was seeing theology in a strange new light. He’d never in his life seen a professor in a theology faculty at Berlin take a group of students out of the classroom into some blighted neighborhood of the city where there were families who are going through unemployment. It just wasn’t part of the German academic scene or theological world. That ultimately excited him and broadened his imagination. I think that in fact the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr on Bonhoeffer has been understated over the years. One of Bonhoeffer’s first encounters with Niebuhr—he took both of the classes at Union—Bonhoeffer turned in a paper that was a fairly straightforward, tedious exhibition of Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith. It was a fairly typical early twentieth-century Lutheran account and Niebuhr objected. He apparently wrote in margins of the paper, “There are no ethics here. Where is the ethical dimension in your account? A concept of faith without ethics is an empty concept.” Bonhoeffer was mortified by this, but in five years he was writing a book called Cost of Discipleship, and coining a phrase that’s become perhaps the most common phrase in the Bonhoeffer lexicon— “cheap grace.” And “cheap grace” is about obedience and exactly what Niebuhr was telling him in 1930 in response to that essay on Luther.

Bonhoeffer also met a largely vanished generation of mainline Protestant social organizers. It was also the golden age of the American organizing tradition. There were students going off to do labor organizing after they finished Union or during the summers. Bonhoeffer was introduced to members of the ACLU, NAACP, all sorts of labor organizations, and he spoke very favorably. He told his brother in a letter, “We’re going to need to organize an ACLU in Germany.”

Finally, it was Bonhoeffer’s immersion in the African American church that I think inspired what Bonhoeffer said in that same letter I mentioned earlier, in 1943, which he described as his turning from the phraseological to the real. I just love that expression. A black seminarian from Birmingham, Alabama, whose father was pastor of 16th Street Baptist Church church, where three decades later, four beautiful Sunday school girls would be murdered by a Klan bombing—from that same church, this young seminarian Frank Fisher invited Bonhoeffer in the fall to join him one Sunday morning at Abyssinian Baptist Church, where the great Clayton Powell Sr. was senior minister. This really began Bonhoeffer’s intense immersion in the African American church. He became obsessed with race relations in America, with the story of African American Christianity, and also with all of the extraordinary kinds of writings and compositions and artistic expressions of the Harlem renaissance, which was in full flower at the time.

I remember one of my first days sitting in the library in Berlin, holding up a box of papers and seeing a file, larger than any of Bonhoeffer’s files from those years, of research documents on the Negro question—files of studies of lynchings, of writings, of early NAACP field reports of conditions in the South. In the spring of that year, after, for him, the extraordinary experience of becoming an active parishioner at Abyssinian, Clayton Powell Sr. invited Bonhoeffer to preach once in the pulpit, which is a huge honor of any Baptist minister to yield the pulpit to another person, and in this case a sort of erudite Berliner whose sermons were not marked, shall we say, by great exuberance. He also taught Sunday school every week to a group of young boys, and he taught frequently in the WMU, or the women’s missionary union.

At the end of the year, he and some other students took a road trip. It ended up being just Bonhoeffer and a Frenchman because they let the other students off in Chicago and New Orleans. This is one of those research areas in the book where I invested a lot of time early in hopes of finding more primary documents. Bonhoeffer was a very committed journaler—he kept diaries and journals throughout his life. I was hoping to find the journal of this road trip, when in the spring of 1931, Bonhoeffer and this Frenchman named Jean Lasserre, who was a pacifist and would become a member of the French resistance, ended up driving 4,000 miles in an old beat-up car, an Oldsmobile, and then logging another 1,200 miles on a Mexican train. We probably don’t have this in writing because Bonhoeffer was driving; they were up and driving for over 14 hours a day.

But there are observations that conclude that when they were returning, instead of going back the way they came, which would have been through New Orleans and up north to Chicago, they pointed the car east and headed right into the Jim Crow South. Bonhoeffer wanted to see, to traverse this strange landscape he had read about in his courses. I worked with a geographer and I was able to reconstruct the route. They traveled from New Orleans and they went through Hattiesburg and Laurel and Meridian, Tuscaloosa, and Birmingham. They drove within 20 miles of Scottsboro, Alabama, where that same month the Scottsboro boys’ trial was beginning, and then they drove back up the East Coast. It appears that somewhere south of Scottsboro and west of New Orleans the two men stopped on a Sunday morning and worshipped in a rural black church. When Bonhoeffer got back to New York he wrote a paragraph to his supervisor—and this from a theologian who, when he arrived in New York and America eight months earlier, had just been completely contentious toward American Protestant life and culture and didn’t think he had anything to learn—and now was saying that he heard the gospel preached for the first time. And he did not mean the first time in America, he meant the first time for him.

Bonhoeffer returned to Germany with a dramatically different perspective on his vocation as pastor and theologian. He also returned to Germany with a love of the Bible. He had studied the Bible, he’d taught classes on the Bible, he’d written essays on the Bible, but he had never read the Bible devotionally. Now he began to just pour over the gospel narratives and become similarly obsessed with the Sermon on the Mount and what for him became the peacemaking mandates of these writings. He started going to church. He’d never really gone to church. He also asked if he could serve a parish in a city section of Berlin. Maybe Bonhoeffer had seen some unemployment or poverty in Germany, but I doubt it had ever really registered with him. Now he’s moving into the inner city in Berlin to work in a parish that is really the most devastated parish of the industrial layoff in Berlin. And he carried with him a collection of recordings of Negro spirituals and gospel standards. One of my favorite images of the German resistance movement as it clusters around the Bonhoeffer story is that of a group of seminarians at a semi-abandoned estate in northeast Germany, in an area called Pomerania. They’re gathered around a piano and Bonhoeffer is playing, rather theatrically, as he was wont to do. These are seminarians who are taking part now in 1935-36 as part of an experiment in creating a seminary of non-Nazi, anti-Nazi pastors. Bonhoeffer referred to this experiment as “an experiment in new monasticism.” That’s where the phrase the “new monastics” comes from and the new monastic movement that’s been happening here in the past 15 or 20 years. That’s the phrase that Bonhoeffer used in a letter to his brother. His brother was an atheist who was trying to figure out why his baby brother was such a fanatic. And he’s saying that what we need in such a time of deception and great propaganda and lies within the now-Nazified German Protestant church is a new kind of monasticism.

And anyway, they’re drinking their beers and smoking their cigars, and they’re singing, “Go Down, Moses.” The discovery that many of the same songs and spirituals that inundated and energized the black freedom struggle in the South 20-something years later were in the 1930s at the heart of the German church resistance movement that Bonhoeffer led was just wonderful.

R&P: Given with your own work how extensively you’ve written about the civil rights movement, was it a very moving experience to see Bonhoeffer travel similar roads through the South?

CM: Yes. It blew my mind to see Bonhoeffer traversing and visiting the American South really at the bleakest years of Jim Crow. These are the years depicted in Richard Wright’s memoirs, the long, iron years of Jim Crow. He’s asking questions and making notes. There’s a passage where he says, “I had spoken with some of the Negro intellectuals,” and he is referring to intellectuals not only in New York and in Washington, which he also visited in his travels, but also throughout the South, and he says, “It appears that there is a great revolution coming, if not immediately, soon enough.” And his observations of the white southern ministers, who he found—he used the word despicable. He described some of the white pastors he apparently conversed with, who—and this has to be conjecture—were explaining to him why they did not see a contradiction between their profession of the Christian faith and their adherence to the dictates of white supremacy.

There are probably 20 pages of direct observation of the American South. I’m drawn to narrative written by outsiders, or observations by outsiders, of very familiar places. Some southerners of my generation and of my parents’ generation would refer to that as just outside agitation or the critical scrutiny of someone who really doesn’t understand our manners and habits. But I’ve always been really intrigued and fascinated, and I’ve learned a whole lot, probably more from outsider accounts than from insider accounts, of familiar landscapes. To see Bonhoeffer—I had no idea that he had made this trip.

It was a transformative trip. Within two years of returning, the Nuremburg laws had passed in 1933. And Bonhoeffer is within weeks of the passage of the Nuremburg laws and the codification of anti-Jewish church policies in the so-called Aryan paragraph, or the Aryan clause, Bonhoeffer was telling a group of Lutheran pastors—whose jaws dropped—that the victims of state violence, whether these victims are Christian or not, that it was the obligation of the church not simply to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to crush the wheel itself.

There are a number of ways of understanding Bonhoeffer’s prescience, his clarity. I mean, he wasn’t always clear, and he very often made some serious mistakes of judgment. Often throughout the years of resistance and conspiracy, he did not know what the next steps should be, and he lacked clarity, and he fled to the margins to try to mull over options and many times he left Germany thinking he would never return again. But nonetheless he saw the appointment of Hitler as chancellor in 1933 as the emergence of this great masquerade of evil. He saw that with great prescience and clarity that very few, if any, of his fellow churchmen had. Bonhoeffer was raised to have an independent and critical mind, and he had a native distrust of anyone who presumed to speak authoritatively about matters of the state or matters of the heart. I think really the heart of Bonhoeffer’s prescience was that by 1933, he understood that the God of Jesus Christ could not in any way be identified with the voice of the Fuhrer.

R&P: Once he returned to Germany from the United States, he began speaking out against Hitler quickly. You note that on a radio broadcast two days after Hitler took power, he’s already denouncing the Fuhrer. By contrast, how were the majority of German ministers and theologians reacting to Hitler at that time and shortly thereafter?

CM: With great enthusiasm. He was offering the nation redemption from the shame of the Versailles Treaty and from its humiliation after the First World War and the attribution of guilt placed solely on Germany’s shoulders. He was offering the nation redemption and salvation from the kinds of moral torpor that many of the conservatives attributed to the Weimar licentiousness and sexual and political experimentation. Bonhoeffer understood that the so-called Fuhrer could see that there was a huge spiritual void in the lives of the country, and that the Protestant churches, which had been moribund and had no kind of theologically potent resources for distinguishing between the voice of the Fuhrer and the voice of God, had been complicit in this. I think he understood very clearly why this moment was received with such widespread enthusiasm. This is a moment that offers the nation a new identity, a new way of thinking about itself.

R&P: I want to switch gears to a more personal aspect of the book. You make the case that Bonhoeffer experienced a kind of romantic love or attraction to his best friend Eberhard. While you write that the relationship remained chaste, the notion that Bonhoeffer might have been gay has received a lot of attention in some quarters. So number one, I wondered, was this finding a surprise to you in your research? And what have you made of reactions to it?

CM: It wasn’t a surprise, this observation of Bonhoeffer’s romantic attraction to Eberhard. Over the years, I’ve gone to many Bonhoeffer conferences. This subject has been discussed often over meals and drinks and beers, but it’s never been discussed in an academic session or a lecture. But there’s been conversation among scholars for as long as I can remember. What I had that scholars didn’t have, and do now, is the body of letters that Bonhoeffer and Eberhard exchanged. They wrote when they were apart during those seven years of their partnership. To be sure, I was intrigued when I found in those archives in Berlin a statement from a joint bank account. I did not realize that their partnership had that kind of formality about it as well. So Bonhoeffer and Eberhard began giving gifts together as a pair, Christmas presents and the like. They traveled and shared a room. They were soul mates of a sort. Bethge never reciprocated the intensity of Bonhoeffer’s affections. I don’t think Eberhard was gay; I simply don’t have any reason at all to think that. I think that Bonhoeffer’s love of Eberhard was one that he, Bonhoeffer, wanted to define as a kind of spiritual marriage, but Bonhoeffer’s love of Eberhard was also deeply romantic.

The challenge for trying to narrate this complicated relationship is, on the one hand, it was a chaste relationship. It was a relationship that was centered on their shared love of Jesus and shared devotional practices and it had a kind of liturgical shape to it. And yes, Bonhoeffer also was in love with Eberhard, and wanted in some fashion to secure a spiritual marriage of sorts, and Eberhard could not and did not want to finally accept that.

Of course, Bonhoeffer became engaged after Eberhard became engaged. The engagement was formalized only when Bonhoeffer was in prison. Even so, in a curious letter—I think it’s kind of a humorous letter—after Bonhoeffer had matched Eberhard’s engagement with his own engagement, he wrote to say, “Now, we can resume our partnership, and we can travel together in those places where we found so much joy, and we can leave our wives back in Germany, in Berlin, or some place.”

I’m not surprised by the response. I’m really grateful for having the resources, the documents, and an opportunity to offer such detail because there’s great beauty and poignancy to this relationship. It does annoy me when someone critical of my treatment says, “Well, this is just like Jonathan and David in the Bible.” Or, “This is just revisionist, and you’re just superimposing contemporary categories on a friendship that in the 1930s and 40s had a very different cast.” But the thing is it did have a different cast; it was different in 1935 and 1936 in Germany. Bonhoeffer’s family was liberal and open yet was initially surprised by the sudden entrance of Eberhard into the family—but accepted him and accepted their relationship. Whatever it was, it wasn’t discussed or put in any particular terms, but they were surprised nonetheless. Once they understood that Bonhoeffer and Eberhard were together, they accepted them fully into the family. Even the recollections of some of Bonhoeffer’s students made it clear that some of them thought that he was gay. So this is not my own attempt to sensationalize a relationship. If anything, I tried to capture it and respect it in its uniqueness, and not politicize it or insinuate. It was understood as a unique relationship, a different kind of relationship, in 1935 and 1936. The letters that we have now between Bonhoeffer and Eberhard are love letters, at least Bonhoeffer’s letters to Eberhard. Bethge’s letters back, I should make clear, were always more perfunctory, and the romantic quality, the quality of enthrallment and enchantment, this sort of romantic love, were not part of Bethge’s responses to Bonhoeffer. But for Bonhoeffer, they weren’t just letters, but beautiful love letters.

R&P: The Nazis executed Bonhoeffer when he was only 39. Seven decades later, why do you think his life and writings continue to have such resonance among Christians and non-Christians alike?

CM: I think there’s the power of his story and the authenticity of his example. I think that one of the aspects of his legacy that I wanted to highlight is his originality as a thinker. I do think his writings, early and late, are marked by originality and genius and also by exquisite beauty. He was a theologian who could write about holy matters in a manner that is both accessible and artful. The heart of Bonhoeffer’s deep devotion to Christ is an equally great generosity. Such generosity is in fact enabled by his full devotion to Christ.

I think one of the things, too, that brought people to Bonhoeffer’s story, aside from his life and the power of his life and the drama of his story and his conscience, was the way he wrote with such attention and out of a particular context. He used to raise as many questions as he answered. He was always willing to ask the hard questions that the scholars and the academy would often be reluctant to pursue.

When he is in prison, he’s observing the ruin of Lutheran Christendom. The resistance church he served, it’s decimated now. The Nazi ideologues were referring to the pogroms and deportations and the death camps as finishing the work of Martin Luther, which is how some of the Nazi propaganda described the architecture of genocide. So Bonhoeffer’s reckoning seriously with the collapse of Western Christendom and wondering what, if anything, might be done. In prison, he’s not afraid to say that the language of the Christian faith has been so profaned and domesticated and misused that it has lost its meaningfulness. In one of this last theological writings in prison, he asks, what should the church do now? These are powerful, and undeniably urgent, meditations.

R&P: I really appreciate you taking time to chat with me today about the book.

CM: Thanks so much for your great work.

]]> 0