One of my favorite books is Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s The Cost of Discipleship. Though by the time of the Nazi terrorism of Germany Bonhoeffer was a world-renowned scholar, writer and teacher who could have stayed in America and pursued an illustrious and prestigious career, he chose to go back to Germany to fight for justice and to, in his own words, “to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany.” In Germany, he worked for the political underground movement but was soon arrested and was placed in prison first, and later, in a concentration camp. He was executed by special order of Himmler at the concentration camp at Flossburg, just a few days before it was rescued by the Allies. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Cost of Discipleship. p. 26)
I thought of him as I read this weekend of instances of injustice that are happening in our country, even as the conversation swirls around us about helping (or not) the people in Syria who apparently must worry that their leader, Bashar al-Assad, will continue to allegedly use chemical weapons against them, and while I appreciate the sentiment that we as a nation must be concerned about injustice “over there” somewhere, I absolutely know that we are remiss in not recognizing and doing something about the injustice occurring right here on our own soil.
For example, a most disturbing story appeared in The Washington Post about homes in the D.C. area that are being foreclosed upon. The story, called “Left With Nothing” shows the picture of an old man, sitting in what seems to be a barren space. The verbiage attached to the picture says that he “owed $134 in property taxes. The District sold the lien to an investor who foreclosed on his $197,000 house and sold it.” The man, the verbiage continued, “and many other homeowners like him, was left with nothing.”
The man, who is a retired Marine veteran, is old and is suffering from early stage dementia. He apparently forgot to pay the bill …and thus got caught up in a predatory system that has no regard for human life and suffering here. Judges in the D.C. area are apparently supporting this practice of slapping liens against property owners, and then, adding exorbitant legal and court fees, multiplying an original property tax debt to levels homeowners cannot afford…resulting in many long-time homeowners losing their homes and having no place to go. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2013/09/08/left-with-nothing/?hpid=z1)
That’s only one area of injustice that is running rampant in our own country. There is also the issue of police brutality (still!), mass incarceration, supporting the growth of the Prison Industrial Complex, abject poverty in every state in this nation, the fact that too many people are not making a living wage, and the erosion of voting rights put in place by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In North Carolina, a group of people who have been feeding people on the streets for six years have now been told that it is illegal to do so. If they want to give the homeless coffee and sausage biscuits, they have been told, they will have to pay $800 to the city every time they go out to do it. (http://lovewins.info/2013/08/feeding-homeless-apparently-illegal-in-raleigh-nc/) It would seem that there is a need for Bonhoefferian commitment to discipleship and the work of freedom …but the reluctance to even see what’s going on, much less to get involved, is palpable.
It is clear that the cost of freedom is hard work and sacrifice, two things that we in a capitalistic, consumer-driven economy do not want to talk about. The whole tax lien situation described in The Washington Post might safely be said to be the outgrowth of pure, unchecked greed – the same type of greed that has driven predatory lending companies to sap poor people of what little resources they have, trying to pay back debts that will never be paid. Bonhoeffer chose to walk away from the comfort that would have been provided him by a capitalistic democracy – meaning, that there is freedom for those who can afford it – and to walk, instead, toward people who had no understanding of how to fight the injustice called Nazism before them. He died working for freedom for “the least of these.”
Bonhoeffer believed that God grieved because of the suffering of His/Her people. He wrote a poem while he was in prison,m called “Christian and Unbeliever,” in which are found the words:
Men go to God when he is sore bested;
find him poor and scorned, without shelter and bread,
whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead.
Christians stand by God in his our of grieving. (p. 25)
Even as Americans protest against this nation intervening in Syria, a position I share at this point, we ought to be reeling with the pain and the stench of injustice being wrought here. We close our eyes, as tightly as we can, when it comes to seeing what is wrong here. If at all possible, we bypass the places where evidence of poverty and injustice is most stark. As we do that, we strengthen a far-too widespread belief that everything in America is good and right and just. We do not want to know what is really going on. We want to be a superpower with all of the glitz but without the responsibility of being such.
Bonhoeffer believed that “nationalism belongs to God and that it is a sin against him and his call for fellowship with other nations if it degenerates into national egotism and greed.” (p. 28) For Bonhoeffer, Hitler was “the Antichrist, the arch destroyer of the world and its basic values.” (p. 28)For us, whether we want to admit it or not, the Antichrist seems to be capitalism, which has no regard for “the least of these” and in fact gobbles them up and spits them out, as if they do not count.
Bonhoeffer was hung by the Nazis, but he never lost his zeal for working for “the least of these.” He understood that he work for freedom and justice is costly, and he paid the price. We don’t like to hear about that kind of stuff.
A candid observation …