Posts tagged with: suffering

Dietrich BonhoefferWhile imprisoned by the Nazis at Tegel military prison, and shortly after learning of the last failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned a short poem for his friend, Eberhard Bethge, titled “Stations on the Road to Freedom.”

I’ve come across the poem before, but in recently reading Eric Metaxas’ fine biography of the man, I was reminded of its power and potency in describing the essence of Christian freedom. It becomes all the more compelling given its context, serving as a “distillation of his theology at the time,” as Metaxas describes it.

Though we must be careful to appreciate the time and place from which it sprung, it brings with it plenty of implications for the ways in which we order our lives and allegiances. Indeed, in his prodding toward obedience, discipline, and submission to God — features many would find contradictory or in opposition to freedom — Bonhoeffer’s embrace of this profound paradox dovetails quite nicely with Lord Acton’s famous notion of “defining liberty not as the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”


This morning at Acton University I attended a fascinating lecture by Dr. Edd Noell, “Origins of Economics: The Scriptures and Early Church Fathers.” I have briefly examined one ancient Christian perspective on wealth in the past (here), but Dr. Noell’s survey today was far more expansive. For the benefit of PowerBlog readers, I would like to reflect on some of the major themes of his talk here as a sort of preview of what one could expect once the audio is available for sale. (more…)

This country suffers no shortage of heroic tales. For the Union soldier who served under Ulysses S. Grant, there certainly was no greater leader. Often referred to by detractors as “a butcher” for the wake of Union dead left after his victories, he took the fight to the Confederacy. After the Wilderness campaign in 1864, where 17,000 Union soldiers died in just a few days, Grant unlike all the Union generals before him refused to lick the Federal wounds and retreat across the Rapidan River to resupply and reorganize. Instead Grant famously turned his massive columns not North, but South towards the heart of the Confederacy. Towards Richmond. Those that have studied the Civil War are familiar with the iconic story, as war whoops, hat waving, and wild cheering echoed across the forest. There was no doubt that The Army of the Potomac, which had suffered a barrage of whippings by General Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy, was under new leadership.

It was moments like this, and not Grant’s largely unspectacular two terms as president, where one can understand why his funeral procession was seven miles long. Grant’s Final Victory by Charles Bracelin Flood is not a book about his time as commander of the Union or president, but the fascinating and heroic tale of his race against time to publish his memoirs and save his family from financial ruin.

In 1884, Grant was embroiled in one of the first famous Ponzi schemes on Wall Street, and his son’s partner at Grant & Ward, an investing firm, bankrupted the company and fled. Grant and his entire family was wiped out. Grant wrote his niece, “Financially the Grant family is ruined for the present, and by the most stupendous frauds ever perpetrated.” He was personally embarrassed having lent his name and prestige to the company. Doubtless many assumed it was on firm footing with the hero of the Union watching over it. In reality, Grant had little knowledge of the day to day operations of the firm.

Soon after the scandal, Grant was diagnosed with terminal mouth and throat cancer. He was said to partake in an average of 20 – 25 cigars a day. He rushed to write his personal memoirs of the Civil War. Before his financial destruction, he was on record as having little desire to write his own account of the war. Grant eventually settled on an agreement with his friend Mark Twain that would give his widow Julia 75 percent of the profit of the book sales.

As he toiled away with his pen, sometimes writing as many as 25 – 50 pages a day, The New York Times and publications across the country offered daily updates on Grant’s condition. His suffering was immense. His throat had to be constantly swabbed with cocaine to relieve the pain. As the illness progressed, it literally began to suffocate him and he would often wake at night in a panic, trying to gasp for air. Just swallowing was especially agonizing.

Grant received an abundance of personal letters and well wishes from North and South. He felt his illness was helping to further heal the sectional divide and noted as much. The author notes Grant was especially touched by a letter by A.M. Arnold from Rockbridge Baths, Virginia. Arnold wrote:

I hope that you will allow one, who, when but a boy, laid down his arms at Appomattox and gave his allegiance to the Union, to express his warmest sympathy for you in your hour of affliction. Dear General, I have watched your movements from the hour you gave me my horse and sword and told me to go home and “assist in making a crop” – I have been proud to see the nation do you honor . . .

May the God who overlooked you in battle and who has brought you this far give you grace to meet whatever He has in store for you. And may He restore you to health & friends is the fervent prayer of one who at 15 years of age entered the lists against you and accepted the magnanimous terms you accorded us at Appomattox.

Grant had his share of well wishers in the South because of the respect he showed for General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox and the brave men of the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant also later intervened on Lee’s behalf when President Andrew Johnson and others in the federal government wanted to arrest Lee and have him tried and hung for treason.

Grant, a lifelong Methodist, was not particularly known for devoutness. Nearing death he spent more time with his Methodist pastor and was baptized for the first time in his life. Flood suggests that Grant may have at times kept his pastor at arms distance because he thought he might have been being used by the clergyman so the minister could cement his own notoriety as Grant’s pastor. Grant refused public communion near his death, writing his pastor:

I would only be too happy to do so if I felt myself fully worthy. I have a feeling in regard to taking the sacriment [sic] that no worse sin can be committed than to take it unworthily. I would prefer therefore not to take it, but to have the funeral services performed when I am gone.

As Grant declined he was moved to a cabin in upstate New York where the climate better suited his illness and suffering throat. He sat on the porch working feverishly to complete his memoirs. Former generals and military men paid their last respects, and Grant mostly communicated through notes by now. Well wishers often walked by his cabin and if they were fortunate Grant would tip his cap to them or raise a hand. One minister upon seeing Grant writing on his porch while suffering in such agony expressed that the image was “the finest sermon at which he had ever been present.”

Grant died three days after completing his memoirs in 1885. He dedicated the publication to the “American soldier and sailor.” When it was suggested that maybe he should change the dedication so that it read “the Union soldier and sailor,” he declined. The healing of the nation was always on Grant’s mind and at the conclusion his optimism shined as he stated his belief that the healing would continue. As Grant peacefully departed this life, his son stopped the clock at 8:08. The hand of the clock still remains fixed on that time in the cottage where Grant passed away. The cottage is Wilton, NY is heavily visited today and is an enduring symbol of Grant’s courageous life and death.

The well wishes poured in for one of the most beloved leaders in American history. Church bells across the country chimed 63 times, one for each year of Grant’s life. The former Confederate General James P. Longstreet called him “the soul of honor,” adding that Grant “was the highest type of manhood America has produced.”

While his funeral was epic affair of state, it clashed with the humility that Grant would cast in his memoirs. Often memoirs of great generals or statesmen are puffed up affairs, but Grant’s work would be forever known as a chronicle that praised the men around him, with the attention focused not on himself but the battles and conflict. The chronicles avoided flowery speech and was straightforward and honest, much like many of the fellow Midwesterners Grant led. Flood has written a powerful story and helps the reader to see why Grant was so loved even through faults and poor choices. It could be easily said that no American in the 19th Century was more admired than Grant and did more to save the country.

I had the privilege of lecturing at last week’s Acton University on the topic of Lutheran Social Ethics. In preparing for that session, I was struck again at just how “Lutheran” Dietrich Bonhoeffer sounds every time I read him.

Here’s an example. Last week I asked, “Whither justice?” and noted some of Luther’s words on the subject. Here’s Bonhoeffer, from Life Together, virtually echoing Luther:

What does it matter if I suffer injustice? Would I not have deserved even more severe punishment from God if God had not treated me with mercy? Is not justice done to me even done to me a thousand times over even in injustice? Must it not be beneficial and conducive to humility for me to learn to bear such petty ills silently and patiently?

Blog author: jballor
Monday, June 30, 2008

The latest issue of Christian Scholar’s Review (vol. 34, no. 4, Summer 2008) features a contribution from me, “Bonhoeffer in America—A Review Essay.” Using the rubric of Bonhoeffer’s two trips to America in 1930-31 and 1939, I examine his reception in the United States and the broader English-speaking world via a number of recent texts by and about the German theologian.

Earlier this month, the United Methodist Church recognized Bonhoeffer as a Christian martyr, the first recognition of its kind for that denomination.

One of the books I consider in the review essay is Craig Slane’s excellent study, Bonhoeffer as Martyr: Social Responsibility and Modern Christian Commitment. One of the nice things about this book is its attention to the historical development of martyrdom and suffering as a phenomenon in the Christian church, as well as the focus on bringing their significance to bear in the modern West.

Also forthcoming from me in the more distant future is a contribution to the International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest: 1500 to the Present on the assassination plot of July 20, 1944, related to the work of the resistance circle of which Bonhoeffer was a part.

A feature film, Valkyrie, starring Tom Cruise is due out next February and “is based on the July 20 Plot of German army officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler.” (An interview with Ralph Winter, who produced previous films by Valkyrie director Bryan Singer, appears in the Autumn 2005 issue of Religion & Liberty.)

As part of our participation in the blog tour for Chuck Colson’s book The Faith, we got to submit a question for Chuck to answer. Here’s our exclusive Q&A:

PowerBlog: You talk about the history of the faith and tradition in your book a great deal. What do North American evangelicals stand to gain from examining more closely their own history and traditions? In what sense ought Protestantism be understood as “catholic”? Part of that great Christian tradition has to do with the witnesses to the faith, which you survey in the book. What do the concepts of martyrdom and suffering have to do with a Western context where most Christians live comfortably and without the threat of persecution?

Colson: “All true Christians confess the creed: we believe in one holy, catholic, apostolic church. Protestantism of course distinguishes itself from the Roman Church doctrine, but regards itself as part of the one body of Christ, one holy catholic apostolic church.

It is crucial that Christians understand history and tradition. Just look at how America was founded in the midst of a Great Awakening led by George Whitfield, who had been greatly influenced by the Wesley Awakening and by Wesley himself. Look at the role of Jonathan Edwards, not only in shaping the early structures of American society but in producing some of the great writings that is part of our own heritage, both as Americans and as Christians. The Encyclopedia Britannica said that Edwards was the greatest mind produced in the western hemisphere. We also need to understand the history of revivalism and how it profoundly affected the shaping of American society and culture. Christianity’s role in bringing educational institutions to the new world is indispensable.

On the subject of martyrdom and suffering, we’ve had some, but precious little. We’ve lived in a largely contained and protected environment. And that may be one of the reasons why secularism is advancing so rapidly even in the church.”

Be sure to check out the rest of the blog tour, along with all of the other Q&As to come. Next up today: The Dawn Treader. Also, be sure to raise questions in the comments section below. The word is that Chuck will be answering some of the questions raised in the comments throughout the blog tour. (Be sure to comment and raise questions at other stops on the tour, if you find the topics raised there to be of more interest.)

Readings in Social Ethics: John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty, part 2 of 3. There are six sermons in this text, based on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. This post deals with the second pair. References are to page numbers.

Sermon 3:

  • A summary and introduction to the series of sermons: “The parable of Lazarus was of extraordinary benefit to us, both rich and poor, teaching the latter to bear their poverty with equanimity, and not allowing the former to be proud of their wealth. It taught us by example that the most pitiable person of all is the one who lives in luxury and shares his goods with nobody” (57).

  • Those who are involved in worldly affairs are not exempt from studying the Scriptures: “What are you saying, man? That attending to the Scriptures is not for you, since you are surrounded by a multitude of cares? Rather it is for you more than for them [monks]. They do not need the help of the divine Scriptures as much as those who are involved in many occupations” (58).
  • The redemptiveness of punishment: “For punishment is not evil, but sin is evil. The latter separates us from God, but the former leads us towards God, and dissolves his anger” (65).
  • Suffering in one form or another is unavoidable in this life: “So if human beings do not persecute us, yet the devil makes war on us. We need great wisdom and perseverance, to keep sober and watchful in prayer, not to desire others’ property, but to distribute our goods to the needy, to reject and repudiate all luxury, whether of clothing or table, to avoid avarice, drunkenness, and slander, to control our tongue and keep from disorderly clamor…to abstain from shameful or witty talk” (68).
  • The question of the theodicy of suffering is raised: “‘But why,’ someone asks, ‘are some punished here, but others only hereafter and not at all here?’ Why? Because if all were punished here, we would all have perished, for we are all subject to penalties. On the other hand, if no one were punished here, most people would become too careless, and many would say there is no providence” (71).
  • The right view of suffering: “In summary, every punishment if it happens to sinners, reduces the burden of sin, but if it happens to the righteous, makes their souls more splendid. A great benefit comes to each of them from tribulation, provided that they bear it with thanksgiving; for this is what is required” (73).

Sermon 4:

  • Why the theodicy of suffering is important: “Nothing tends so much to disturb and scandalize the majority of people as the fact that rich people living in wickedness enjoy good fortune while righteous people living with virtue are driven to extreme poverty and endure a multitude of other troubles even worse than poverty. But this parable is sufficient to provide the remedies, self-control for the rich and consolation for the poor” (82).

  • On corruption and the conscience: “But the court of conscience cannot yield to any of these influences. Whether you give bribes, or flatter, or threaten, or do anything else, this court will bring forth a just judgment against your sinful intentions. He who commits sin himself condemns himself even if no one else accuses him” (88).