Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!
by Ken Kovacs
One book that is providing theological perspective and inspiration in these days is Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).
For some time now, I’ve been interested in the experience of the Confessing Church, the resistance movement (from 1933 to 1945) within German Protestantism against the policies of the Third Reich. Marsh’s remarkable biography of Bonhoeffer, who was an active member of the Confessing Church, provides a fascinating window into the emergence, objectives, activities, struggles, and many disappointments of the movement.
Most striking is the way Marsh charts the changes in Bonhoeffer’s own theology, as he internally wrestles with and actively engages the demonic principalities and powers of National Socialism. Bonhoeffer’s activism and call to resistance were in response to, “The absurd, perpetual state of being thrown back upon the invisible God” (156), as he put it, to renewed Christological commitments, as well as a new interest in the centrality of prayer, worship, and life in community. “And the church,” Bonhoeffer said, “that calls a people to belief in Christ must itself be, in the midst of that people, the burning fire of love, the nucleus of reconciliation, the source of the fire in which all hate is consumed, and the proud and hateful are transformed into the loving” (204).
While it is false (I hope) to say that the present climate in the U.S. is exactly parallel to what happened in Nazi Germany (though there are eerie similarities), the church can be informed by what happened then as it seeks to be faithful today. Bonhoeffer witnessed a swift increase in authoritarianism, xenophobia, aggression toward the feminine, populism, and the dangerous conflation of religion, politics, and belief in an illusory national myth.
And, significantly, he soon realized that the church, along with its theological faculties in German universities, were theologically weak and ill equipped to withstand the collective force of what was happening around and in them. The Barmen Declaration, for example, expressed potential political resistance, but was largely ineffective and didn’t constitute real resistance. (Some of the Confessing Church members at Barmen were also members of the Nazi Party.)
Marsh maintains that, “[D]ogmatic proclamation would never be enough” for Bonhoeffer, because “every confession of Christ as Lord must bear concretely on the immediate work of peace. Obedience could not be separated from confession. The kingdom of heaven does not suffer lip service” (225). These are challenging words for all of us, especially for pastors and preachers.
Ken Kovacs has served as pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, since 1999. Catonsville, situated in Baltimore County, borders Baltimore City to the east and the wealthy suburbs of Howard County to the west. As a result, their ministry reflects the experiences and needs of an economically-socially-politically-racially diverse demographic. Ken’s academic work is in practical theology, which explored the relationality of the Holy Spirit and the human spirit.