Century Marks

Century Marks

Practical Christianity

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1931, he was looking for "authentic Christianity," says Bon­hoeffer scholar Clifford Green. Union disappointed Bonhoeffer. After a vigorous class discussion, he reportedly asked Reinhold Niebuhr, "Is this a theological school or a school for politicians?" Bonhoeffer found the "cloud of witnesses" he was looking for in the black church, especially at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. A circle of friendships he formed with other students left an indelible mark. Jean Lasserre, a French pacifist, convinced Bonhoeffer to revise his Lutheran theology and put the Sermon on the Mount at the center. Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship was inspired by his discussions with Lasserre (Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 62:3–4).

Incredible evil

A member of the Polish underground came to the U.S. in the summer of 1943 to tell American Jewish leaders what he knew about the Holocaust in progress. After his report, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter said, "I am unable to believe you." A Polish diplomat asked whether Frankfurter was calling the informant a liar. "I did not say this young man is lying," said Frankfurter. "I said I am unable to believe him. There is a difference" (Roger Moorhouse, Berlin at War, 2010).

Prepare a table before me

The people at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Durham, North Carolina, knew that members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Hutchison, Kansas, were planning to hold an antigay protest outside St. Paul's. The pastor said worship would proceed as usual and that the congregation would pray for the protesters but not confront them. As a symbol of God's protection under tense circumstances and as a sign of hospitality toward the protesters (Ps. 23:5a), the pastor placed on the church lawn a table set with china, silverware, water and wine glasses, candles and a centerpiece. The protesters left when the service began. It isn't known if they caught the significance of the table, but the people at St. Paul's have talked about it for a long time (Jackson Carroll, As One with Authority, revised edition, Cascade Books, forthcoming).

Graveyard of empires

Major fighting has gone on in Afghanistan this fall, but the media haven't paid much attention and the war was not an issue in the recent election. Democrats didn't campaign against the war because it has become Obama's war, and the Republicans don't want to sound soft on national security. The counter-insurgency strategy ("take, clear, hold and build") isn't working, says Middle East expert Juan Cole. The offensive in Marjah begun last winter still has not cleared the insurgents out of an 18-square-mile area. Afghanistan has more than 251,000 square miles (Informed Comment, November 16).

God and the foxhole

There may be no atheists in foxholes, but few soldiers show up for worship services at bases in Afghanistan. Army captain Michael Cummings reports that a typical service attracts only three or four soldiers. At the large 30,000-strong Bagram Air Field, only about 30 people show up for worship. Cummings explains that religion is "not cool" in the army. Chaplains tell him that soldiers tend to seek religious resources when no one else is around. Veteran Kathleen Johnson, an atheist who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, has another perspective: soldiers aren't openly religious unless they are compelled to be so by their commanders and chaplains. "The real irony is that commanders like these truly believe they have the duty and right to force their faith on others and when that 'right' is impeded, they see it as an infringement to their religious freedom," Johnson said (New York Times, At War, November 5 and 16).