The Cost of Freedom

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. (

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. (  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.

They do.

We do.

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 …



The Power of Guilt

The Obama administration is wrestling with whether or not to get minimally involved in Syria, meaning there will be limited military strikes,  letting Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad know that the United States does not approve of his apparently having used sarin gas against his own people.

Fourteen hundred people were killed.

While it is annoying and frustrating that the United States is so often running to the aid of other countries, sometimes, it seems, with a hidden nationalistic and imperialistic agenda, perhaps our nation in this instance is acting out of a sense of guilt. We did nothing during the Rwandan genocide (, a fact which apparently still haunts former President Bill Clinton, and we did nothing to help the Jews who were slaughtered during the Holocaust. Not only did we, but other nations were silent as well. As a result, way too many people died. We as a nation bear a burden of guilt for our non-action.

President Obama, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, said that he was elected to end wars, and indeed, much of his time and energy has been spent ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Even he, however, as much as he seems not to believe that war is the answer to all issues, seems to be  haunted some by guilt.”When people say that it is a terrible stain on all of us that hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered in Rwanda, well imagine if Rwanda was going on right now and we asked: ‘Should we intervene in Rwanda?'” the president said. “I think it’s fair to say that it probably wouldn’t poll real well.”  (

It is frustrating that the conflict in the Middle East just will not end. It is equally as frustrating that “we the people” really do not know all of what is behind decisions to go to war; we were not privy to that information in the past and we are not privy to it now.  But there is something to be said for being a superpower and turning a blind eye and deaf ear to the suffering of others.

Some would argue that the nation turns that same blind eye and deaf ear to the suffering of its own citizens.  Ironically, our nation seems to feel no guilt for the way too many of its own people live.  In spite of the superpower image, far too many people here live in poverty, some in that predicament even though they work. They do not make a living wage, but there’s no outcry and no guilt felt about that. Likewise, there are far too many people in this country suffering and dying from treatable diseases, but there is no guilt. In fact, there is a fight against working to get health care for all Americans.

But guilt (and, probably, a hidden agenda) seems to be a driving factor in the debates over whether or not to get involved in Syria. Should Congress vote President Obama’s resolution down that would make the way for our intervening in Syria, and al-Assad continues his attacks on his own people, the guilt will grow exponentially. We are trying to make up for ignoring Rwanda and Hitler…

Here’s an observation, though. Guilt doesn’t work. Guilt only makes individuals and nations act impulsively, doing things they later regret. And, it too often turns out, the dissemination of an action based on guilt is wasted energy, because the situation that produced the guilt doesn’t go away.

It would seem that instead of jeopardizing the lives of even more Syrians, and, of course, Americans, that there is a diplomatic answer to the problem and presence of al-Assad. A boycott or some such participated in by all of the members of the United Nations, for example, might get his attention.  We would be doing something, not ignoring the suffering of the Syrian people, and therefore would still be in position to assuage our guilt. A military attack, I am afraid, is only going to stoke the fire of irrationality that al-Assad has already shown. He wants that kind of fight, and guilt is pushing us to play his game.

It doesn’t seem wise.

A candid observation …