Fundamentals in Film: lessons from history

I haven’t pulled back from the monthly movie classes with the boys and this month I took us even deeper and darker than where we’ve gone of late (The Dark Knight and The Ghost and the Darkness). Last week we watched two segments of an excellent BBC documentary entitled The Nazis: A Warning From History.

It’s a six-part series (available through Netflix) that looks at the social and political turmoil in post-WWI Germany that gave rise to the National Socialist Party, the intimidation and co-option of the church and citizenry leading up to the war, the atrocities of the war itself and the fall of Hitler and the aftermath of the war. The two episodes I focused on were “The Wild East” and “The Road to Treblinka.” The first described the dividing of Poland between Germany and Russia and the “Germanization” or ethnic cleansing of the German-held Polish territories which included the forced resettlement of the Polish and Slavic peoples. “The Road to Treblinka,” obviously, dealt with the events leading up to the persecution and “ultimate solution” regarding the Jews in Europe. Both episodes were grim, gritty and explicit.

My purpose for showing them was I didn’t want the boys to fall into the easy belief that the Nazis were generic boogey-men taken out of the Hollywood props closet whenever a handy bad guy was needed. Neither were they cartoon caricatures as in the old Hogan’s Heroes TV shows where Sgt. Schult’s signature”I know notthhink!” line was really a macabre parody of the German people willfully ignorant of the horrors going on around them. Actual footage from the relocation and concentration camps, clips of hangings and other executions and interviews with survivors — and with soldiers, townspeople and others that took part in the midnight raids, the extortion and outright theft. It was amazing that these let themselves be interviewed and compelling to watch as they tried to explain the rationalizations they used to justify their actions, or to let themselves sleep more or less peacefully.

Afterwards we talked about how surreal it must have seemed to the people at thetime, living in civilized Europe, to be rousted from their homes in the middle of the night and loaded on trucks, to see their neighbors herded through the streets and to wonder what the world was coming to. We also discussed the possibility that that kind of evil wasn’t necessarily destroyed in 1945, but continued in the killing fields of Cambodia, Bosnia and Africa, and twitches like a restless leg beneath the flannel trousers in Russia, Georgia and the Ukraine today.

“What would you do?” I asked the boys, if given the opportunity to move into a Jewish merchant’s home, or had the opportunity to sell black-market bread to those starving in the Lodz or Warsaw ghettoes, or put in charge of sorting the people that came off the trains at Treblinka and directing them to the hygiene procedures or medical center? What standard would you use, what rationalization would come most easily?

Most of the group were engaged enough to come back this week for a special encore that was really the main thing I wanted them to see: Martin Doblmeier’s excellent documentary, Bonhoeffer. It is the story of a man who acted on his deepest faith and principals in the face of the darkest times. I wanted them — and you — to know who Dietrich Bonhoeffer was, what he did and why. To frame it for you, here’s what I wrote on this blog about Bonhoeffer on April 9 of 2005, the 60th anniversary of his death:

“This is the end — but for me, the beginning of life.”

Those were not the words of Pope John Paul II, but of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed 60 years ago today by the Nazis in the closing days of World War II.

I thought of these words this week as the world honored the Pope and I listened to commentators in every media try to put their political spin on what a life of faith should look like. And when I thought of their words in the context of this anniversary, I could only shake my head at the subtleties of God and offer a bitter smile. Bitter at the foolishness and presumption, but a smile nonetheless in order to share in the laugh God must have been having.

Bonhoeffer is one of my heroes. Supremely talented and perceptive, he saw spiritual truth in a clear light and threw himself into writing it down and vigorously living it out in total commitment to the lives of those around him, yet he was also capable of the loneliest touch of inner doubt. He was one of the earliest and most unyielding voices in opposition to Hitler as far back as 1933 and struggled to shine a light on Hitler’s co-opting of the German church and to reconstruct Christian ethics.

Fearing for Bonhoeffer’s life, his friends arranged a position for him in America ahead of the coming war, only to have him turn around and return to Germany almost immediately, saying:

I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.

A pacifist, he ultimately saw the need to try and throw a spoke into the wheel of the Nazi war machine and was arrested in 1943 and accused of being part of a plot to kill Hitler. Over the next two years Bonhoeffer wrote prodigiously and powerfully, cramming each paragraph with stunning clarity and revelation almost as if he sensed his time was short (he was 39 – younger than I am now – when he died). As he watched the German church crumble around him and embrace the unbiblical tenets of Nazism, he exhorted his followers and his country that obedience and belief were bound together, saying “Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who obeys, believes.”

You can find out much more about his incredible and courageous story here on the pages hosted by the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, but let me return to the present and the spirit of our age so much in evidence the past few weeks, and what Bonhoeffer might wryly refer to as another example of:

…the vigilant religious instinct of man for the place where grace is to be obtained at the cheapest price.

What he meant was that we all too easily fall into iniquity by trying to determine for ourselves and by our own standards what pleases God. Today there is a lot of easy talk about spirituality as we boomers age and find that our first commandment – “Love thyself” – doesn’t sustain. Christian or otherwise we seek to set our own standards for what is “good enough,” forgetting what it cost those who came before us to raise God’s standard. Journalist David Brooks calls it “building a house of obligation on a foundation of choice,” or, “orthodoxy without obedience.”

You can be thought to be spiritual merely for acknowledging there is a need for spirituality without admitting that you have any responsibility to live up to it in any way. It is a spirituality that honors teachers but not a Messiah. It is what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” and described as being the greatest threat to the Church. The threat, however, wasn’t from the world but rather from within the Church.

The complacency of cheap grace allowed Nazism to subvert the gospel in the German church, and the spiritual complacency of America in the 50s and 60s germinated the seeds that bear so much bitter fruit in our culture today. (Btw, you might find it an interesting study to compare the origins, thinking and actions of the original Nazis with the origins, thinking and actions of those who are the first to label others as Nazis today.) It is this “cheap grace” with which we try to cover a multitude of sins while projecting a rich aura of tolerance and enlightenment. As Bonhoeffer wrote in his classic, “The Cost of Discipleship”:

This is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without Church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without contrition. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows Him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered Him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

In what I have read of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and – though I am not a Catholic – what I have seen in the life of Pope John Paul II, I sense they both understood that their own lives were not too dear a price to pay for the sake of future generations. As Bonhoeffer wrote in one of his letters from prison:

The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.

I would not have the coming generation live in ignorance, complacency and hopelessness.

One thought on “Fundamentals in Film: lessons from history

  1. This was a very interesting post to read and I agree with much of it. However,

    “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance”

    Forgiveness is something that I had been tackling since my teen years. It’s implied that to be a good person, a spiritually grounded person, that you must forgive ‘those who trespass against you’. And I tried. I really really really tried. But I couldn’t help be angry at the man who abused us and tried to kill me. Especially one who I knew would NEVER admit he had done any wrong, one who certainly would never ask for forgiveness unless it was on his deathbed.

    And yet I was able, finally, to forgive him.

    Should I have waited until he repented? I don’t know. I do know that it wasn’t until I was free from my anger that I was able to do anything. Anway, I know I am rambling. I guess I just wanted to say that even without repentence, I don’t think that forgiveness is cheap.

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