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 …



O God, Where Art Thou?

If, as Ross Douthat says in his new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, “at the deepest level, every human culture is religious,” then what in the world is wrong with this world?

Religion supposedly gives us as individuals, the guide for living moral and right lives; almost every religion teaches that love is central to all things good.  Religion teaches us, supposedly, that we as human beings created by an Other greater than ourselves, are mandated to treat each other as worthy of love and respect.  Most of them teach that we are to forgive each other, we are to love even our enemies, we are to know that because we believe in God, however any given religion refers to that entity, that we are held to a higher standard.

And yet, the world is messed up, filled with way too many humans who are self-serving, and not service-oriented. In spite of the mandate to love each other, we use and manipulate each other and take advantage of each other whenever we can.

Dr. Martin Luther King mentioned, over 40 years ago, that the presence of materialism, militarism and racism were problems in American society which were eating away at the moral fiber of this nation, but it often seems like the moral fiber was skewed from the beginning.

Because capitalism and the free market system presupposes that some people will “have” and others will not have, there has been built-in, not only in American culture but in dominant cultures throughout history. Religious people throughout the Bible lived under economic and social oppression – from Egyptian oppression, to Assyrian, then Babylonian, Persian and finally Roman. In spite of a “living God,” people have dismissed the precepts and requirements of God continually.

So, it should not be surprising, what’s going on today. The history of the world is one of division and conquest; militarism in order to support imperialism; capitalism trumping over anything that might be called socialism, or an economic system which in theory makes sure less economic oppression is possible. There has been racism historically; America has her own unique racism, but in the Bible, the Greeks and the Hebrews didn’t get along; in early American history, the Italians and the Irish didn’t get along. Nations, including Germany and Bosnia and Africa has been a part of human history.

And my questions are two: ” Why?” and “God, where are you?”

I don’t think I have a fairy-tale expectation of God, but I am rather surprised that this God who made everything and everyone has not been able to do something drastic to make people act more civilly toward each other. I am surprised that God has allowed such horrible interactions between people He created. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is said to have said, “God put us on earth so we could learn to live without God.” Whatever for?

I have watched and listened with quiet horror and dismay the goings on surrounding the Trayvon Martin case. I have been irritated by the lack of people understanding the desire of another people to simply want justice for a child gunned down. I have listened to snide comments by people who most likely believe in God…and yet, there has been no “religious tolerance” or even an inkling of the type of love demanded of us by God.

Douthat says that in America, religion has been “steadily marginalized.”  It seems that for many, the “rightful place” of religion is at a conservative core which has a fairly arrogant and exclusive of who is American and who is rightly religious. It would seem that few conservatives understand that for many non-white Americans, religion has been marginalized from the beginning. So many non-whites have been cast aside by “the religious” of this country, with the words of the Bible being used to justify such treatment.

The words of scripture have been used to justify everything from sexism to racism to militarism to materialism, to homophobia. God has allowed a sizeable portion of people He created to be marginalized in his name.

The answer to my query, “God, where are you?” would be succinctly and perhaps tritely answered in a nice, short sentence. “God is not absent; God is within us.” Seriously? Well, then, have we all tucked God away? Have we put God in a safe room, to keep him/her quiet until a moment of personal need or crisis?

Obery Hendricks, in his book The Politics of Jesus, argues that the Jesus of the Christians mandates that we “treat the needs of people as holy,” but we clearly do not do that. We don’t as individuals, we don’t as a nation, and the world doesn’t in general.

Christopher Hitchens, an avowed atheist, says that “religion poisons everything.”  If that is true, then why is it? Could it be that in spite of claiming to be religious, that we religious types are really quite secular with religious leanings when needed? Could it be that it is because we really do not take God seriously, but know enough to use God when it suits our purposes?

I hold onto God, with every fiber of my being, because…because I need to. I hold onto God because I truly do believe in God’s creative genius. The world and all that is in it fascinates me, and though I attribute the accomplishments of science, I honor more the creative God who made the minds that made such accomplishments possible.

But I am disappointed with God as well, because I so dislike the state of this world full of religious people. There is enough food that nobody need be hungry; there are enough abandoned homes that banks could invest in so that nobody need be homeless. I am not pushing socialism; I am pushing mere humanity, a sufficient amount of which the world seems to lack. I cannot believe that God is pleased …and yet God does nothing.

I am not going to abandon God, though I feel like I turn from religion in a heartbeat sometimes. At the end of the day, God is the best answer, in my mind, for a world in which we as humans treat the needs of each other as holy, as Hendricks says, though historically, we have just never done it.

A candid observation …