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Commentary :: War and Militarism
Are the 1930s Returning? and God is Different
25 Dec 2016
Faith, Soren Kierkegaard said, is the death of the ego and the wonder of the infinite transcendent God. God is "total help in total need," said the theologian Karl Barth in 1933 when Hitler seized power. Children can be astonished. Children see things differently. Being astonished is hard for us adults.

By Paul Mason

[This article published in Blaetter 11/2016 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

Events are now following one another at a breath-taking speed: Brexit, the coup attempt in Turkey, the Islamic massacre in France, the encirclement of Aleppo and the candidacy of Donald Trump. From the US and France to Great Britain, we see an enormous amount of public racism and hostility to foreigners reflected in the torrents of politicians with double-digit poll numbers. This raises the question: are we witnessing a return of the 1930s?

On the surface, the two periods seem to have many things in common. The British vote on the EU exit shows a parallel to September 1931 when Great Britain in a panic abandoned the gold standard – and was the first important country to alight from the global economic system. The threatening division of the Labor Party reflects that historical rupture that kept the party from power for 14 years. The economic background at that time – depression and bank crisis – is echoed in the present situation. However, some insist our present situation is better and more hopeful than the 1930s. In our view, we are worse off than at that time.

After the Wall Street crash two years before, the economic downswing spread in 1931. Bank failures occurred on both sides of the Atlantic. Austerity measures were imposed on political economies that were already weakened and governments reached for tariffs, currency blockades, and economic nationalism. Elites created the firewood when they applied pressure on wages through mass unemployment. Then militarized and genocidal fascist groups supplied the spark that caught fire. Only two years passed from Hitler's first breakthrough at the ballot box until the NSDNP gained 37% in the 1932 Reichstag election. This was followed in 1934 by the demonstration of millions of right-wing radicals in Paris and the rebellion of Asturian miners in Spain crushed by the army. Germany's rearmament began in 1935. In 1936 the Spanish Civil War broke out. Masses of workers occupied factories in France and the US and Stalin began the "Great Cleansing."

At this point, the 1930s were characterized by the capitulation of democracy, the certainty of war and the march into the death of masses of civilians.

Today we live in a globalized world economy. The interdependence of our economic system is qualitatively higher which is why self-sufficiency is understood as suicide… This discovery forced the disoriented elites at the G20 summits in London and Cannes 2009 and 2011 to extraordinary economic measures to ward off a collapse as in the 1930s. All those who like me called the resolutions unsatisfactory should admit the summits – with all their shortcomings – occurred in the right spirit. The elites criticized that "pro-cyclical" economic policy that once plunged the US into depression and Germany into fascism. This happened everywhere – and right-wing extremism was bridled up to now.

The problem is we have gone beyond the 1930s politically in one regard. Can you force yourself to pay attention to the subtext of social media and the organized hatred against the black actress Leslie Lones for her role in Ghostbusters, anonymous hatred, hostility to women, the habitual combination of hatred for the left and Islam? Can you force yourself to look only once at what some people see every day: black youths who are murdered by US police officers, Syrian youths who are blown to pieces by Assad, Russia or the US air force, bloggers who are publically crucified by IS and the destroyed bodies of French vacationers on the promenade of Nizza…?

A whole generation of humanity has been brutalized today – whether by witnessing massacres, rapes and torture themselves or by only seeing the pictures and hearing the stories. When one reads memoirs from the 1930s and the war years, one nearly always has a moment of discovery: what a corpse looks like, that prisoners can be shot or that the Geneva Convention can be ignored.

The sheer brutality is, unfortunately, greater today than in the 1930s. The Geneva Convention is not in force today in the battles between governments and civil populations. The worst thing in the present – and millions of people feel this – is the leap toward a Big Bang. That everything fades away in a boring standstill cannot even be imagined.

What Turkey's Erdogan does in imprisoning democratic journalists and torture and rape belonging to the routine according to Amnesty International also happens in other nominal democracies.

Still, we have something the 1930s lacked. Billions of educated persons skilled in reading and writing live on this planet and we have the concept of universal and inalienable human rights.

When I read Stephane Hessel's' "Be Outraged!" at the beginning of this unrest, I asked why he focused so long on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hessel was a resistance fighter and co-author of the 1948 Declaration. Turning to youths in the tent camp, he explained why they fought so intensely over the word "universal" instead of "international." We must guard against the argument of complete sovereignty which the state likes to use when it commits crimes against humanity on its soil.

Hessel's generation understood that a global and universal system of human rights would leave behind a lasting legacy. When journalists or NGO members meet at the scene of a massacre, they think first – if they are rightly educated – of gathering evidence for a court and then of a sensational scoop.

No, our times – with drones in the air and trolls on the net – are not the 1930s. We have a resistant global system – and we must defend it. Only a glance at an uncensored social media timeline shows what flourishes.


by Pastor Norbert Giebel

[This sermon on Rom 11, 33-36 from 5/22/2016 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

Dear Community,

Mostly we have forgotten this. Children can be astonished. Children do not need to learn this; it is inborn to them. It is a reaction and an inner attitude. Their mouths are open and their eyes become larger. They become speechless. They are completely filled by a great miracle that they do not understand.

Children can be astonished – by a great excavator and its power or a humming top and how quickly and colorfully it turns. They see a wheel for the first time and are astonished! Joy and curiosity seize them. They are fascinated by these marvelous things that they do not understand. "Oh," they say. "Oh, what an excavator! What a Ferris wheel!" Nothing diverts them anymore. Nothing is more important. They didn't even know something like that existed! They are astounded and amazed. "Oh" is a cry of astonishment. For a child, the excavator or humming top is just as marvelous as the starry sky. They cannot classify everything. It is without comparison. Wow, how great is that! Children see things differently – without boring routine – even a cane or stone on the ground. Being astonished is hard for us adults. We have seen everything already. We think we understand everything. We think we know everything.

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
For who has known the
mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.'
Rom 11, 33-36

Today, dear community, today we praise God. We praise the living, great, unfathomable God who created the world, the cosmos, the stars, and planets. He is enthroned above everything. No one can comprehend him. Today we praise the inconceivable God who makes himself small in Jesus Christ. We praise God enthroned above all things and who is here. God is near to each of us in his Holy Spirit.

Paul is astonished and praises God as the one who comes before everything we see and experience. Nothing is without God; God is in all things. Everything can only exist and live through God. Everything has its goal in God and goes to God. Everything we see and experience is from him, through him and to him. – Who can understand this? – Paul is astounded like a little child before a great excavator. Paul knows God and lives with him. But what he recognizes now in God bowls him over. His ideas and notions are overwhelmed. That throws him back and shows him how small his thinking often was! He wanted to explain God. He thought he knew everything. He wanted to bring faith in God into a system. One could only believe as he believed. Only he and his Jewish mindset as a Pharisee were right. Now he realizes how much greater God is. God is inexhaustibly rich and rich in himself. Everything comes from him; he doesn't abound in riches. No one can measure God's wisdom. God leads paths into the lives of people, families, and nations in his salvation history… that no one could have dreamt up or imagined.

Paul praises God. But this praise has another tone than we are accustomed to. "How incomprehensible are your decrees and unsearchable are your ways! O god, how good you are, you know our hearts and fulfill our longings!' Aren't these the words of a complainer or plaintiff when one doesn't understand God anymore? How incomprehensible are your judgments and unsearchable are your ways! Do we raise questions when our faith doesn't "function"? When has faith ever "functioned"? If faith functioned, God would be a robot or machine that we only need to use correctly and then it functions like a coffee machine. "I come to you and pray and you bless me. Done. Finished."

We are hurt when we believed in the past God would quickly make everything good. This really doesn't happen. Such a God does not exist. Previously people thought they knew everything about God, how he leads and gives us presents. They felt secure with their own lives. God is my good shepherd so I want for nothing. God always leads me to green pastures. Now God encounters me very differently – sorrowfully, hidden, and incomprehensible. Now I am in the dark valley and must learn how his rod and staff comfort me. As the good shepherd leads his sheep in the dark, I did not have to learn in the past. But he leads and comforts. I experienced that very differently in the past.

A suffering stands in the background for Paul. The sermon text stands at the end of Romans 9-11. Over three chapters, he grapples with the question what will happen with the Jews and whether Israel will be saved. Paul suffers under this. That people are lost is not indifferent to him. For Paul, it is a question of God's faithfulness. Paul does not understand God. Paul does not know how God will lead his sisters and brothers out of Israel. But he receives peace and certainty. Israel will recognize its messiah one day.

Great questions are still open for Paul. This leads him to praise. "God is much greater than I thought. God leads very differently than I thought. I cannot grasp him with my mind. But I trust this God. Oh, how inexhaustible is God's riches! How deep is his wisdom and how immeasurable is his knowledge! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unfathomable are his ways!"

Paul finds comfort and an answer in his Bible, in the Old Testament. In the Book of Job, we hear "Who has given something to God so he must repay?" This question is rhetorical. There is only one possible answer: no one. No one has given God anything. Therefore God does not owe anything to anyone. No one can obligate God to anything. No one can bind God to a certain action. No one can claim to understand and influence God's ways. God is not obligated to anyone.

Job made this experience. If anyone ever had a claim to God's goodwill or favor, it would have been Job. "There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil," the book begins. God says about him: "there is none like him on the earth." But that did not help him. Everything was taken from Job. Job did not praise God for that. Job complained: "Let the day perish wherein I was born and the night which said, a man-child is conceived!... Why did I not die at birth… For the thing that I fear comes upon me and what I dread befalls me."

Job's comfort at the end is that God tells him he is not to blame for his broken life. His friends wanted to convince him of that. Job didn't have to seek the cause of his suffering with himself. Job complains. He is really miserable because of what he had to experience. He was not to blame. Why was he plunged into such deep tragedy and was finally delivered from it was hidden from Job. That God's ways are incomprehensible is a relief for him. He didn't have to doubt or question his relation to God. He didn't think God abandoned him when his life was unspeakably hard.

Paul quotes a second verse from the Old Testament, from the second part of Isaiah: "Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord or as his counselor instructed him?" Isaiah (ch. 40) looks back at the lost wars against the Babylonians. He looks back at the fall of Jerusalem. Many Jews were abducted to Babel in present-day Iraq. They had to learn to believe completely anew. They had to learn to believe without the temple and without sacrifice. Is God also strong in Babel? Are Babel's gods stronger than he? Can God be worshiped in Babel? Is God with them and far from Jerusalem? What does it mean that every individual stands before God and when God is directed to individuals and no longer to the people as a whole? Israel's faith developed and became deeper through the exile. Such suffering experiences change faith but don't make it poorer.

"Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord or as his counselor instructed him? asks Isaiah. Sometimes God takes strange ways and we do not understand them. With Job, the kidnapped from Israel, and with Paul, what they experienced with God changed their faith. Their old picture of God was widened or expanded. God does not "function" in any system that we build and is much greater than we think.

There are many jokes where God is the subject. In 90% of the cases, the jokes begin with the words: "A man enters heaven…" The God who appears in these jokes is an older humorous gentleman with a beard. But God is always a God of the beyond in these jokes and doesn't occur on earth. He has nothing to do with the earth and is first encountered after death. Then he is lively, funny, and strange.

We always first have to do with God in these jokes when we are dead. Then the dear God can be easily convinced we believe in heaven. This dear God in heaven does not exist. This is a fairy-tale god. This is the imagined god who doesn't amaze us.

Another widespread picture of God is the teaching assistance, God as a moral authority, a God with whom I can threaten, a God who teaches children how to act… People make God into the servant of their morality… We abandon people who have long clung to God.

The ceremony master is another way of misusing God. God whom one invites to one's family celebrations ensures for a certain flair. Obviously, he must be present at a wedding. He cannot be absent at birthdays. He must ensure a proper farewell at the funeral. God once said through the prophet Amos: "I hate and despise your feasts!" Daily God awaits our coming in the daily routine; he is expected at our feasts.

Others hold God to be a nature God, a field-, forest- and pasture God experienced in the free nature, in the rustle of leaves or in contemplating mountains and valleys. God – the man for romantic hours in green spaces who is obviously not responsible for floods, disasters, and earthquakes. Like an old man with a beard in the sky, God as the event manager, the God who appears in nature, the fair weather God does not exist. All this is man-made. Where do we domesticate, tame or enclose God? What is our system in which God should operate? To what rules must he hold? What must we do to widen our idea of God?

Today is Trinity Sunday. Therefore we praise God. That is also mysterious and cannot be understood. The eternal, incomprehensible God has become a person - comprehensible, visible, and near to each one of us today by his Holy Spirit; mysterious like the wind but near to each of us. Paul praises God because he is so incomprehensibly GOOD! The inconceivable God introduced us to a person named Jesus. That changed all Paul's thinking about God. He became weak for us, he suffered for us and he died for us. He stands at the right side of God from where he will come and from there draw those who trust him to himself.

"Who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?
Or who has given a gift to him
That he might be repaid?

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Jesus was a Socialist
26 Dec 2016
Peter Dreier is a Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College.

to read hisarticle "Jesus was a Socialist" published on 12/25/16, click on