The Matthew Fox interview on Meister Eckhart and connecting peacemakers

Cover of Meister Eckhart by Matthew Fox

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Wake up your spiritual life with best-selling author, theologian and educator Matthew Fox. In his newest book, Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times, Fox inspires us by connecting dots between the medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart—and the lives of visionary men and women in our times who we, at ReadTheSpirit, would call Interfaith Peacemakers.

For our readers who already love inspirational reading, “Matt” Fox is well known as a global leader in opening up almost-forgotten Christian treasures to help heal today’s fractured world.

Matt has had a long, hard journey to this current popularity. In the 1980s and 1990s, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm was a religion writer for American newspapers and covered the Vatican’s investigation that eventually drove Fox out of the Catholic church. (He is now an Episcopal priest.) The man behind Matt’s inquisition later became Pope Benedict XVI. Then known as Cardinal Ratzinger, he claimed that Matt was dangerous to the Catholic church, because Matt kept insisting that God created the world in an “original blessing” rather than under the Vatican’s doctrine of “original sin.” In that era, Matt Fox headlines were about the international conflict over what became known as Matt’s teachings on “Creation Spirituality.”

FLASH FORWARD—Today, any reader of inspirational books is familiar with names such as Meister Eckhart and also Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century mystic. For example, brief writings from both of their collected works are sprinkled through the pages of Matt’s 365-day inspirational reader: Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations. (That’s a perfect gift, by the way, for friends who want to start a new year with a commitment to daily meditation.)

During their turbulent lives in the Middle Ages, both Eckhart and Hildegard faced critics. Eckhart actually was condemned by the church. However, in recent decades, the Vatican has warmed to both of them: Pope John Paul II publicly wrote about the importance of Eckhart’s writings; Pope Benedict XVI finally declared Hildegard a saint and, much more significantly, Benedict declared her one of the highly respected “Doctors of the Church.” With that official nod, Hildegard became one of only three women (along with St. Teresa of Avila and St. Therese of Liseux) to be so honored as a major, Vatican-endorsed, timeless theologian and teacher.

But, today, many readers have forgotten who began pitching for this fresh appreciation of their wisdom as mystics and teachers—way back in the 1980s. It was Matthew Fox, who produced contemporary English-language books on each of them: the 1983 book Meditations with Meister Eckhart and the 1987 book Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works: With Letters and Songs. These books represented a major scholarly effort and we can still highly recommend those two books to dig deeper into these mystics’ original writings.

Matthew Fox

Matthew Fox

NOW, as a new century is unfolding, Matt Fox headlines in the news media are about his work as a writer, educator and popular theologian working toward a more peaceful world. As he has traveled in recent years, he has heard from many of his readers that they want help in connecting spiritual dots in the works of Hildegard and Eckhart with other religious heroes who inspire us today. In his 2012 book, Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our Times: Unleashing Her Power in the 21st Century, Matt has Hildegard “meet” and compare ideas with a wide range of modern heroes from the poet Mary Oliver and the Jungian psychoanalyst and poet Clarissa Pinkola Estés.

This summer, in his brand new Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times, Foxx has Eckhart “meet” and compare spiritual notes with such heroes as Rabbi Heschel, Howard Thurman, Thich Nhat Hanh, Marcus Borg and Oscar Romero. NOTE: We are devoting this week’s entire Interfaith Peacemakers department within our website to highlighting our own profiles of these heroes.

As he has many times over the past 30 years, David Crumm interviewed Matt Fox. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF
OUR INTERVIEW WITH
MATTHEW FOX
ON ‘MEISTER ECKHART’

DAVID: I love your technique in these new books, especially this latest one on Meister Eckhart—having them “meet” contemporary men and women as you compare some of their major teachings and show the timeless importance of these ideas. Way back in the late 1970s, I interviewed TV talk-show host Steve Allen when he produced that marvelous series for PBS called Meeting of Minds. For each episode, Steve and his co-writers would have actors dress up as famous figures throughout world history and they would meet, in the TV studio, and talk. Fascinating!

MATT: I do remember watching that series and enjoying it very much.

DAVID: We’ve already dated ourselves, I guess, but let’s fix a dating problem in your Wikipedia entry, today, by establishing your birth date. Based on that Wiki entry, which has been missing your specific birth date, journalists never know your actual age.

MATT: Oh, my birthday is December 21, so I’m 73 right now. I’ll turn 74 in December.

HILDEGARD: ‘Creation formed in love’

Cover of Hildegard of Bingen by Matthew Fox

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

DAVID: I’m 59 and I’m so glad we’ve both lived long enough to get past all the controversy over the Vatican’s inquisition in the ’80s and ’90s. Today, we can actually have some spiritual fun in connecting the dots between these medieval figures and people who many of our readers consider heroes. And let’s start, for just a moment, by looking back at the earlier book on Hildegard.

MATT: I wrote that book when I heard that the Vatican was going to canonize her. And I suspect Benedict did that because he’s German and she’s popular in Germany. But, in my book, I call her a “Trojan horse,” because I don’t think the Vatican is emphasizing her most important messages. When she was alive, she was a great proponent of the divine feminine and I didn’t trust the Vatican to emphasize that properly. Hildegard was very much a critic of the patriarchal church in the middle ages and I think that’s one reason she wasn’t canonized for eight centuries.

In fact, I open my new book on Hildegard with this passage: “I heard a voice speaking to me: ‘The young woman whom you see is Love. She has her tent in eternity … It was love which was the source of this creation in the beginning when God said: ‘Let it be!’ And it was. As though in the blinking of an eye, the whole creation was formed through love. The young woman is radiant in such a clear, lightning-like brilliance of countenance that you can’t fully look at her … She holds the sun and moon in her right hand and embraces them tenderly.”

To me that amazing passage from Hildegard’s visions is a tremendous teaching on what I call original blessing.

DAVID: And then, as the book opens up, you use this technique of having her “meet” various contemporary figures. I like Joan Chittister’s Foreword to that Hildegard book in which she writes: “Those who have lived well for their own time have lived well for all time.”

MATT: Yes, in that book, I put Hildegard in the room with Mary Oliver, Albert Einstein, Howard Thurman and others and then I used that methodology again in my new book with Eckhart.

DAVID: Just to clarify, let’s explain to readers of this interview that your books are not like Steve Allen screenplays. You don’t actually imagine a dialogue between these figures. So, let’s describe your technique this way: You choose central ideas shared by these pairings of people and, then, in each chapter they “meet” as you compare and contrast their teachings. It’s very creative stuff!

POPE FRANCIS: ‘Making up for some very lost ground’

DAVID: After your many decades of feuding with Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict, I know you’ve got higher hopes for what Pope Francis might be able to do. One of the heroes in your new Eckhart book is Oscar Romero. Were you surprised by Pope Francis’s decision to go 180 degrees on Romero—from banning him as a candidate for sainthood to putting him on a fast track?

MATT: Your readers will remember that Pope Francis is from Argentina and he’s quite aware of the many sacrifices and accomplishments made by the base-community movement and the liberation theology movement. Francis has made strong statements against what he calls “savage capitalism,” which is in line with what Oscar Romero fought for and died for. Francis sees these Latin American movements as very much in line with the spirit of Vatican II. Thanks to the previous two papacies the Catholic Church has been decimated in Latin America and millions have left the church to join new Pentecostal churches. This pope is trying to make up for some very lost ground.

RUMI: ‘One spark flew …’

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad RumiDAVID: Let’s give readers some examples of famous figures, we call them Interfaith Peacemakers, who you introduce to Eckhart in this book. Let’s start with Rumi, the Sufi mystic who, to this day, is still a best-selling poet.

MATT: They were from about the same era, but they did not know each other. Eckhart was 13 when Rumi died. But there is this phrase that comes up often in Eckhart, “spark of the soul,” which is similar to passages in Rumi’s writings. There are lots of connections. I also point out in my book that Eckhart liked to refer to the Muslim philosopher Avicenna, who came before Rumi in the Islamic tradition.

DAVID: You mention the similar phrases.

MATT: One of Rumi’s famous lines is, “Ah, one spark flew and burned the house of my heart.” I compare that with Eckhart’s “In the spark of the soul there is hidden something like the original outbreak of all goodness, something like a brilliant light which incessantly gleams, and something like a burning fire which burns incessangly. This fire is nothing other than the Holy Spirit.” So, right there in the opening of that chapter you can see some of the connections.

Eckhart and Rumi were on the same path in many respects. I point out in that chapter that when I published my first big book on Eckhart in the 1980s, the very first response I got was not from a Christian but from a Sufi. I remember he sent me a 12-page article that analyzed passages from Eckhart and he was convinced that Eckhart really was a Sufi. I’ve been thinking about that connection for the last 30 years.

THICH NHAT HANH

DAVID: So, Eckhart might be seen as thinking like a Sufi, but you point out in another chapter that he almost might be considered a Buddhist. You quote Thich Nhat Hanh saying, “If we bring into Christianity the insight of interbeing and of non-duality, we will radically transform the way people look at the Christian tradition, and the valuable jewels in the Christian tradition will be rediscovered.”

MATT: And I quote Eckhart writing, “Love God as God is—a not-God, a not-mind, not-person, not-image—even more, as he is a pure, clear One, separate from all twoness.”

DAVID: And you point out that the Catholic monk Thomas Merton similarly saw connections. Merton read Eckhart along with his readings in Zen and saw kindred spirits. In the latter years of his life, the Christian-Buddhist connection was a powerful pathway in Merton’s reflections and writings.

MATT: This is another example of Eckhart’s amazing insights as a mystic. As far as I can tell, Eckhart never met a Buddhist in his life and he didn’t study Buddhism. So, how did Eckhart make these connections? Well, the answer is that Eckhart discovered bigger truths by going deep into his soul as a Christian.

Let me read from a passage in that chapter where Eckhart writes about loving God in a way that seems close to Buddhist practice. He writes, “How should one love God? You should love God mindlessly, so that your soul is without mind and free from all mental activities, for as long as your soul is operating like a mind, so long does it have images and representations. But as long as it has images, it has intermediaries, and as long as it has intermediaries, it has neither oneness nor simplicity. And therefore your soul should be bare of all mind and should stay there without mind.”

RABBI HESCHEL

DAVID: I realize that we’re talking in shorthand here—very briefly touching on some of the topics readers will find in your book. I want to continue, in this way, mentioning a few more people in your book. Our readers may find one name we’ve mentioned helpful, another irrelevant, so let’s list a couple more. And, next, I want to ask about your chapter with Eckhart “meeting” Heschel.

MATT: I have tremendous tremendous respect for Rabbi Heschel. He is one of the great religious minds and activists in the 20th century. He marched with Dr. King in Selma much to the consternation of many people who supported Heschel otherwise. He said he wanted to go “beneath the dogmas and traditional formulations of the Judeo-Christian traditions which so often have served as substitute for the root experiences of biblical faith.” He was a great scholar and teacher, yet he did not stay in the comfortable halls of academia. He went out and prophetically acted. He walked his talk.

In the title of my Eckhart book, I use the phrase “Mystic-Warrior” in the sense of a prophet being a warrior. A prophet interferes with injustice. When it comes to compassion and justice, awe and wonder, Heschel and Eckhart are on the same page.

HOWARD THURMAN

DAVID: You’ve got Howard Thurman in your Hildegard book and he’s also a figure you compare to Eckhart. And I should add: If our readers aren’t familiar with some of the figures we’re mentioning here—I’m hoping they’re going back and forth between this interview to our Interfaith Peacemaker series of profiles. Heschel is profiled there and Howard Thurman, too.

MATT: In many ways, Howard Thurman was the spiritual genius behind the civil rights movement. Everytime Dr. King went to jail, he carried his copy of Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited with him. And Thurman had actually studied Eckhart. As a young man, Thurman studied under the Quaker teacher Rufus Jones, who often cited Eckhart. There are many connections here, but one of them is Eckhart’s sense of social justice.

Eckhart was very aware of the oppression around him in his day and he stood up and was counted by courageously stepping on the toes of the powerful. And that really is what led to his condemnation for many many years—it was a political act against him for his activism on behalf of the poor. Eckhart was the first intellectual to preach in German. At the time, German was associated with the peasants. He was preaching to the peasants in their language about their being noble people who were bringing Christ daily into the world. At the time, this was considered very offensive by the powerful.

MARCUS BORG / JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN

DAVID: And I was pleased to see our friends Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan featured in your new book. You write that Eckhart was a pioneer in sorting out what today we would call “the historical Jesus”—separating Jesus the teacher from the Christ figure who is lifted up by Christianity after his crucifixion.

MATT: In that chapter you’re mentioning, I have Eckhart “meet” three figures in the Jesus Seminar—Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan and Bruce Chilton. I’m so struck that Eckhart, in his era, was writing about what is often referred to as a breakthrough in contemporary theology—the assertion that the historical Jesus came from the wisdom tradition of Judaism. Eckhart knew this and wrote about it in his time.

No, Eckhart didn’t reach his conclusions in the same way that Borg and Crossan and the others reached it through their textual and historical analysis. They have resources available to them that Eckhart didn’t have. Crossan and Borg followed different forms of analysis, but ultimately we discover that what we’re hearing from people like Borg and Crossan today actually rests on the similar conclusions drawn many centuries ago by Eckhart, based on his reflections on scriptures as a mystic.

DAVID: So what lies ahead for you as you finish this second book in this “meeting of minds” style? You’ve always got so many projects underway.

MATT: Well, you can give readers links to my website and Facebook page and we try to put my updates there. I definitely will keep traveling and teaching and writing more books. I’m blessed with decent health and I plan to keep going. I’m doing an exciting event in October in Mexico where I’ll be in a program talking about reinventing education, which is one of my major passions. Leonardo Boff, the liberation theologian, will be on that program, too. I met Boff the year I was silenced by the Vatican myself. I went to Brazil to meet and talk with him, then, but I haven’t seen him in person since that time. I’m told this conference likely will draw about 30,000 people and I’m looking forward to the good work we can do together.

Care to read more about Matthew Fox?

MEET THE PEACEMAKERS—Visit our Interfaith Peacemakers department to read more than 100 inspiring profiles of the kinds of men and women Matt Fox includes in his recent books.

VISIT MATT ONLINE—Matt recommends that new readers start with his main website, www.MatthewFox.org, where you can learn more about Creation Spirituality, learn about his various public appearances and keep in touch with news about upcoming publications. You also can keep in touch via Facebook by looking for Rev.Dr.MatthewFox

GET THE BOOKS—Click on any of our recommended links above. If you’re interested in his 365-day inspirational reader, you might enjoy reading our 2011 interview with Matt about the preparation of that book.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

 

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Categories: Author InterviewsChristianGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

Back to School buzz: News about ‘Bullying Is No Laughing Matter’

Bullying Is No Laughing Matter headlinesTHANKS—to all of our colleagues in news media nationwide who are sharing headlines about Bullying Is No Laughing Matter with their readers. Before we look at some of those news stories, let’s answer a few questions:

THE LATEST NEWS …

What’s the buzz? Here are some of the stories this week …

NEW JERSEY’S ANN BRASCO—She’s the “Parental Guidance” columnist for the 12 newspapers that team up at the NJ.com website. In Ann’s column about the new comic book, she writes about the strong link between childhood and comics: “As a child, I loved to read comic strips. Lively casts of characters and unlikely heroes made me laugh and they made me think. It was exciting to join them on their adventures, to learn the lesson in their mistakes, and I certainly slept a little better at night believing that there was a team of heroes out there a bit braver than I was, who would come to my rescue should I need help. A new team of heroes has now been assembled to address a national epidemic.” You can read her entire column here. (Want to do a good deed right now? Go to Ann’s column, where you can Facebook “like” it or send her another kind of encouraging note. In this era of vanishing newspapers, journalists need your encouragement!)

WHY WRITERS LIKE ANN BRASCO MATTER—Media is so deeply interconnected today that we’ve already seen Ann’s coverage of the Bullying Is No Laughing Matter campaign show up as a recommended link on other websites concerned with parenting and back-to-school issues. That’s one reason Ann’s thoughtful work matters—because others can quickly share it across the Internet. (Have you got a blog, newsletter, Pinterest page or website where you could share a link to Ann’s column? Every time we share this news, it helps.)

King Features Comics Kingdom logoKING OF COMICS—King Features, the huge comics network, is a big supporter of this new comic book. First, King Features published a news story about Bullying Is No Laughing Matter. Then, King recommended the book in a special column that was posted in King’s giant online website for comics: COMICS KINGDOM. In that column, King editors said the anti-bullying comic book is a sign of how much good-hearted comic artists want to help people in need. The column groups the news of the new comic book with news about comic artists joining in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. (Want to see a couple of cool new Ice Bucket videos? Check out this column in the OurValues website. Come on! One of them features Kermit the Frog!)

Mary Worth salutes Bullying Is No Laughing MatterMARY WORTH’S ADVICE—Since the 1930s, Mary Worth has been sharing her sage advice on newspaper comic pages. In recent years, she has tackled every social ill from drug abuse to teen pregnancy. At ReadTheSpirit, we thank Mary Worth for contributing a comic strip to this new book—and now for quickly telling her online fans about the project.

CLEVER COVERAGE FROM NICK GLUNT—In Ohio, the Medina-Gazette’s Nick Glunt cleverly looked through our new comic book to find comic artists who live in his part of the country. “Localizing news stories” has become a mainstay of contemporary journalism. Nick Glunt found that Tom Batiuk, a major contributor to the book, lives in Ohio. Nick began his story: “When nationally syndicated newspaper comic strip writer Tom Batiuk was in grade school, he once saw a girl bullied by his peers and did nothing.” You can read Nick’s entire story here. (Want to localize a story for your readers? Email us and we can tell you if there are local connections with Bullying Is No Laughing Matter.)

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Children and FamiliesGreat With Groups

Now it’s your turn to show ‘Bullying Is No Laughing Matter’

Family Patterns Matter group in Newman Georgia

NEWNAN, GA. The Family Patterns Matter group is enthusiastic about the “Bullying Is No Laughing Matter” campaign. This south-Atlanta group welcomes teens and young adult alumni with the mission: “Youth Empowering Youth.” This year, the members’ special focus is bullying issues in schools, churches and throughout the community. They are creating a public service announcement that will be shown on local TV. They are especially interested in the definition of bullying that is presented in our new book. The goal of this diverse group echoes the advice in the new comic book: Young people have power that can help put an end to bullying.

THE BUZZ is spreading as millions of American kids head back to school. This year, friends and family concerned about bullying have a colorful new resource: The historic “team up” of 36 American comics in Bullying Is No Laughing Matter, available at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Cover of the Bullying Is No Laughing Matter comic bookWe all want to thank the teens and adults in the Georgia group who posed with the book and with a no-bullying sign, then snapped a photo—and emailed it to us. They are showing the world what young people can do. Want to follow their example? Scroll down …

LET US HELP YOU
IN YOUR COMMUNITY

VISIT OUR FREE COMICS SECTION—Each week in our new comics section, we’re giving you a free discussion guide to one of the 36 comics in our new book. Small groups nationwide want to talk about responses to bullying. Share these creative resources. This week’s free guide features Blondie.

SEND US YOUR PHOTO AND STORY—Anti-bullying groups range from small circles of friends in schools and churches to big non-profits. We all share one goal: Spreading awareness of this message. One way you can do that is snap a photo of your group—just as the Georgia group did this week—and email it to BullyingIsNoLaughingMatter@gmail.com That’s a powerful way to show the world that you’re part of this nationwide effort.

GET THE BOOK—The book is packed with resources to help your group. The 36 comics are eye-catching discussion starters and there’s real substance here for group organizers, including the new national definition of bullying. That section was of particular interest to the Georgia group. Bullying Is No Laughing Matter is available at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

IT’S EASY TO SHARE YOUR PHOTO

CLICK ON THIS IMAGE to enlarge it. Right click on the large image and you can save it to your computer for easy printing.

CLICK ON THIS IMAGE to enlarge it. Right click on the large image and you can save it to your computer for easy printing.

PRINT THE SIGN—With this column, we are posting a sample No-Bullies sign that you can print and hold in your photo. Want to see many more examples of this campaign? The book’s creator, Kurt Kolka, produced a video of men and women in lots of locations, including Comic Cons, showing their support through photos.

SHARE THE BADGE—Another easy way to show the world that you’re part of this nationwide campaign is to download our free, colorful Web badge and place it on your Facebook page, in your newsletter or on your website. If you do that, please email us and let us know. We want to help you spread the word about your efforts in  your part of the country.

USE THE HASHTAG—Our friends are using #notfunny to find each other in social media.

VISIT US ON FACEBOOK—Hundreds of friends already have checked in at our Facebook page for the Bullying Is No Laughing Matter campaign. Please, stop by and show your support. Through that page, we’re happy to share support for your group, as well. Let us know what you’re doing. PLUS, there’s a really cool graphic on our Facebook page showing all the comics in the book at a glance. Seriously—check it out!

WHY COMICS?

th Bullying Is No Laughing Matter and Kurt KolkaWherever we travel with copies of this book, people stop us and ask to flip through these colorful pages. Americans love their comics! Read our interview with Kurt Kolka to learn more about that century-long love affair with cartoon characters.

Kurt Kolka asked the book’s contributors to explain this deep relationship. One of the best answers came from Neal Rubin at The Detroit News, the writer for the popular Gil Thorp comic strip. Neal said …

For a lot of people, the comics page was the entryway to reading newspapers. For me, in first grade, it was the sports section, but I absolutely read the comics as well. I’ve always had a soft spot for what I think of as starter comics—the ones that might seem silly to adults, but serve as the bait to help hook kids on reading. In my youth, that meant “Nancy.” Today, it might be “Overboard.” Aside from “Nancy,” the strips I recall reading back then were “B.C.,” which was in its heyday, “Brenda Starr” and “Rick O’Shay” about a sheriff in the Old West.

Kids still love comics—adults, too! Join us in this exciting nationwide movement. We hope to hear from you!

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

 

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Categories: Children and FamiliesGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

The Kurt Kolka interview on ‘Bullying Is No Laughing Matter’

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Bullying Is No Laughing Matter
Cover of Bullying Is No Laughing Matter comic book

Click the cover to learn more about buying the book.

Millions of American children are heading back to school—and many of them are dreading that first day, wondering: Will I be bullied?

Do you know one of these kids?

Be honest: Were you once one of these kids? In the weeks we have been preparing for the historic launch of this anti-bullying “Team Up” with 36 popular comics—our staff has been surprised by the responses of adults who got an early glimpse of the book. Wherever our staff traveled, carrying pre-launch copies of this book—into schools, churches, coffee shops and, in one case, even into a car dealership where the staff was eager to see the book—this experience is repeated …

Adult men and women eagerly look at the cover and flip the colorful pages. They smile. Then, many of them shake their heads knowingly and tell a personal story. About a friend who was bullied. A son or daughter. A brother or sister. Often, they tell a story of bullying they suffered themselves. Sometimes, people admit to having been bullies—and tell us the experiences that turned their lives around. That’s the power of this book.

BUT WAIT! You may be rolling your eyes and saying, “Isn’t all this anti-bullying stuff just a fad?” You may be saying, “Isn’t bullying just a way of life in America?”

THIS NEW BOOK says: Yes, bullying sure is a way of life in America! It’s been going on for generations but there are simple lessons we all can learn to make it stop. Even better: This process of learning about bullying—and forming supportive friendships to end the practice—can be downright fun! Just look at the two truly super videos Kurt Kolka produced to accompany this historic new comic book. One video explains the new nationwide definition of “bullying;” the second video shows scores of enthusiastic supporters of this movement nationwide.

WHY DO WE SAY ‘HISTORIC’? Kurt Kolka is a nationally known comics expert and he collaborates with his wife, educator Diane Schunk Kolka, in this project with our publishing team. In our long careers, we’ve never heard of such a diverse “Team Up” of comic artists in producing a single book with a single message like this. This effort is, indeed, “historic” and we’re honored to report that one of the very first copies of this book is being placed in the collection of the prestigious Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University. The publication of this book is big news!

GET INVOLVED YOURSELF!

There’s so much you can do today …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH KURT KOLKA ON
‘BULLYING IS NO LAUGHING MATTER’

DAVID: Comic books are super popular! They’re in movie theaters and on TV. “Comic Cons,” big comic conventions, are held in major cities. This new anti-bullying comic book is buzzing around the comic world. Tell us about the support you’re already receiving as we officially launch this book.

Kurt Kolka

Kurt Kolka

KURT: We started organizing this project more than a year ago. When I began taking this message of “Bullying Is No Laughing Matter” to Comic Cons with me, the response was very surprising! A lot of people began coming up to me, telling me they’d heard about this project and they wanted to know more. Over and over again, I heard stories of people who had experienced bullying themselves—appreciating the fact that someone was organizing a project like this.

I began asking people if they wanted to take a photo, often with an anti-bullying sign, to show their support and lots of people did that. We even had celebrities stop by and pose with a sign to show their support. Then, as we began inviting comic artists to participate in the book, we found many of them were eager to share their work to help this project.

DAVID: People may think of comics as stories packed with violence. Back in the 1950s, many parents thought comics were bad for children. Of course, today comics are celebrated everywhere you turn. You can’t buy a children’s meal in many fast-food restaurants and not find a comic character in the wrappings.

In this book, you and your dozens of comic friends are showing Americans that comic creators are not only popular—they’re also compassionate folks.

KURT: I’ve been drawing and writing The Cardinal for many years and I’ve gotten to know lots of other cartoonists and comic artists and writers. As a group, I’m proud to say that we combine compassion with our creativity. Especially the newspaper comic strip artists and writers: They’re very caring individuals. In working with the contributors to this book, I discovered that many of them were bullied themselves when they were young, or someone close to them was bullied. Some of those short stories are in this new book.

Tom Batiuk wrote one of the opening pieces for the book. He does the Funky Winkerbean and Crankshaft comic strips. Tom has been honored over the years for issues he’s dealt with in his comic strips, things like how cancer affects people’s lives. When I was talking with Lynn Johnston about her For Better or For Worse contribution to this book, she told me that some of the earlier comic strips she had done on the effects of bullying had been welcomed in schools. She agreed this is an important issue. She’s already seen her own comics used in school groups—and now she’s also part of this larger team in this new book.

A BOOK (AND A MOVEMENT)
WHERE EVERYONE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE

DAVID: When people open this book and start talking about bullying, one of the surprises may be: This is a book that’s good for bullies as well as for people who’ve been bullied. At several points in your book, there’s a clear message that bullying also is a problem for the bullies themselves. Everyone suffers when this problem continues. I don’t want to spoil your Cardinal adventure in this book by revealing too much, but the guy we think is a horrible enemy in your story—well, we learn that he was both bullied and he became a bully himself.

KURT: That’s a very important point. We all need to understand this problem. Of course, we want to encourage kids who are facing this dilemma. Every week, we see tragic news headlines about kids who don’t survive bullying. It’s very serious. But it’s a complex problem and we want everyone to get involved in discussing the solutions.

th Bullying Is No Laughing Matter website

Click this icon to see a sample of Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey that’s part of the ‘Bullying Is No Laughing Matter’ project.

One of my heroes, as a comic artist myself, is Mort Walker. I remember how excited I was the day I got a personal note from Mort and I learned that he would be part of this. It was on a Sunday morning just before my family and I went to church and I felt so great all that day.

Then, it was so interesting as I learned more from Mort about his life. I learned that at one point in his earlier life, he was a bully. He would push people around and he got praise from some of the adults around him—Mort mentioned a coach who praised him as a model of a tough guy. Then, he learned that was not the way to live his life. He decided he had to change. We’ve all got important stories to share so that we can help the young people facing these dilemmas right now. I’m so pleased that great comic artists like Mort Walker wanted to be part of this.

THE CARDINAL:
MEET A COURAGEOUS YOUNG SUPER HERO

DAVID: In addition to the 35 short stories and cartoon panels from other comic artists—you created the most extensive adventure in the book, making it 36 comics in all. This big new book is published as a “Flip Book,” which means it has two covers. Readers can start from the “gallery” side of the book  (the red cover shown with this interview); or they can flip the book over and start reading a more in-depth Cardinal adventure, which is almost as long as a “graphic novel” that you’ve created about the problem of bullying. So tell us about your super hero.

KURT: Like Superman is Clark Kent, the Cardinal is Rich Benton. He is a young man who comes from a family of scholars who are well-known archaeologists. So that means Rich had lots of unique opportunities early in life to travel around the world with his parents. Instead of going to Disney World, his family would fly off to a remote archaeological dig.

He’s a young man from a church-going family and he lives in a college town, where he decides to help out the poor and needy through volunteering at a local mission. He begins to discover that, beyond the immediate needs of many poor people in his community, there are some corrupt powerful people who have a personal interest in keeping people poor. He decides that he has to stand up to the larger injustices he sees. Eventually, he teams up with a police detective, an older man who is a bit jaded after too many years of dealing with crime and injustice.

So, the Cardinal is really a college student who wants to help his community. His heart is in the right place, but he’s young and sometimes he doesn’t always find the best way to solve problems the first time he tries to help. He doesn’t want to use his fists in battling the bad guys. In fact, he opposes using weapons in general. He does carry a boomerang, but he uses that to disarm any criminals he encounters if they do have weapons.

DAVID: He sounds to me like a lot of the best comic book super heroes I remember reading over the years. His heart is in the right place, but sometimes he makes mistakes. He’s vulnerable, yet he’s courageous enough to keep pursuing justice.

KURT: When I created the Cardinal years ago, I deliberately gave him only one super power: the ability to fly. I did that purposely so that the Cardinal had to use his brains. Flying gives him some real advantages as a hero, but he’s not Superman strong and he’s not invulnerable like Superman.

DAVID: He reminds me a little bit of Batman, who is an athletically trained human. He’s not an alien from another world, like Superman who came to earth as a baby.

KURT: I wanted the Cardinal to be human like the rest of us and to struggle with the problems we all face. He’s really got some super advantages, because of all of his physical training. And, he can fly and he uses his boomerang very adeptly. He’s a super hero. But I wanted readers to see themselves in the struggles he is facing.

EXCITING STORIES FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY

DAVID: A year or so ago, we published another popular book about ways to end bullying, researched and written by a team from the Michigan State University School of Journalism: The New BullyingThat book has been highly praised for its research and clear writing on how forms of bullying have changed in recent years. It’s a great book for parents and teachers and other adults who care about kids to learn about how tough it is to escape bullying today, especially with 24/7 social media surrounding kids these days.

But a lot of readers said: This is great for adults. But how do we get the discussion going with kids themselves? That was one of the main motives in our working with you on this project. This comic book is packed with comic strips that act as “discussion starters.” People read the short comics and we’ve seen it over and over again even before we’ve officially launched the book: People want to start talking!

What’s your hope as we launch the book?

KURT: My wife is a teacher and she worked with me on this project. We’ve encountered so many people who have been bullied and who are eager talk, if there is a positive way to get the conversation going. This book is that invitation.

The biggest problem in dealing with bullying is getting people to sit down and start talking honestly. There is a whole lot of shame that surrounds the problem of bullying. People are afraid to talk about it. In this book, you’ll find dozens of comics with encouraging messages that many people face bullying, we all need to face this dilemma together. If you’ve been bullied, you’re not alone. If you’re a bully, you’re not alone. And we all need to talk honestly about ways to help each other.

Want to help reduce bullying? The first step is communication. Whatever your age is—this book gets the conversation started.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsChildren and FamiliesGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

Kurt Kolka’s ‘Bullying Is No Laughing Matter’ videos

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Bullying Is No Laughing Matter

Comic artist Kurt Kolka—the organizer of a historic “team up” of 36 American comics to help kids overcome bullying—also has produced these two short videos you can share with friends. You can bookmark this page and show friends that way. Or, please, use the convenient blue-”f” Facebook icons or the envelope-shaped email icons to share these videos.

WHAT IS BULLYING

Kurt convinced some of his movie-making friends to present the official definition of “Bullying” (based on federal guidelines widely used in schools and other institutions nationwide) in a creative way. Enjoy! This short video is … well, SUPER!

WHO CARES? ‘WE CARE!’

The message behind “Bullying Is No Laughing Matter” is spreading nationwide. To end bullying, we need to rely on friends who will support each other and create healthier and happier communities. Kurt and his friends produced this video showing enthusiastic support from dozens of ordinary people (and you’ll also spot some TV and movie stars in this video). Many of the supportive images you’ll see in this video come from Comic Cons as well as everyday locations around typical American towns. You can be part of this by snapping a selfie of yourself with a No-Bullying sign. Please, visit our “Bullying Is No Laughing Matter” Facebook page and share your support. Or, go get a copy of our free “Bullying Is No Laughing Matter” web badge. That “badge” is a colorful, free icon for this movement that is easy to share and post.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

 

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Categories: Author InterviewsChildren and FamiliesGreat With Groups

The Bud Heckman interview on building interfaith relationships

InterActive Faith cover of book by Bud Heckman and SkyLight Paths

Click the cover to visit the book’s page at SkyLight Paths Publishing.

BUD HECKMAN is an interfaith Frank Lloyd Wright. This pastor, scholar and author is a global architect designing the structures we all will need—if we are to transform religious conflict into interfaith cooperation that can benefit communities worldwide.

Most of our readers are meeting him for the first time, today, because the majority of Heckman’s work takes place behind the scenes. He works through foundations, universities, government agencies and nonprofits. For years, he has been tirelessly crisscrossing the U.S., and often circling the globe, encouraging the formation of new programs and professional best practices.

If you care about the future of interfaith cooperation in the world, ReadTheSpirit magazine strongly urges: Order a copy of his book, InterActive Faith: The Essential Interreligious Community-Building Handbook, published by our friends at SkyLight Paths.

AUGUST 10-13 2014: Bud Heckman will be presenting one of the workshops at the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) annual conference in Detroit. ReadTheSpirit founding Editor David Crumm also will be participating in NAIN 2014 as will a half dozen of our authors and columnists.

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH BUD HECKMAN
EXPERT ON INTERFAITH RELATIONS

DAVID: First, let’s tell readers about your own religious and professional base: You’re a Protestant minister from the Midwest, right?

BUD: I’m an ordained United Methodist clergyperson from Ohio and I work currently in Washington D.C. for the El Hibri Foundation. I’m the Director of Outreach and the Mosaic Initiative.

DAVID: The Mosaic Initiative is new and I think it’s fascinating. Among other things, that program provides grants to graduate students pursuing peace studies or conflict resolution and, as we publish this interview in early August, you’re still accepting applications through September 5, 2014.

Bud Heckman

Bud Heckman

BUD: The El Hibri foundation encourages respect for diversity specifically through interfaith cooperation. We are still developing the Mosaic Initiative, which is focused on interfaith cooperation, organizing events, webinars and meetings of “thought leaders” who can help in this effort. We’re also encouraging men and women in the philanthropic world to offer more funding in this area.

DAVID: We have published more than 350 author interviews since 2007, and that list includes a lot of men and women trying to inspire interfaith cooperation. Just in these seven years, we’ve seen this message take hold in new ways: A lot of professional groups now require people to take “cultural competence” training: professionals in law enforcement, medicine, education and many other fields. Our publishing house works with a team at Michigan State University School of Journalism that is producing short books about “cultural competence,” so we share your goal.

What impresses me about your work is that you’re really an architect, trying to design permanent structures that will encourage cooperation. You’re looking at the structures—large and small—that must be in place to ensure this effort is more than just a fleeting inspiration.

BUD: That’s the heart of this work for me. When I got into this enterprise in 2001, I found there wasn’t so much as a phone book for this movement. We didn’t have the kinds of guidebooks that were needed for training and for developing new programs. Of course, this has changed over the last decade. These priorities and practices are becoming more formalized now at universities, in many kinds of groups and organizations, and also in government agencies.

But there’s still so much more to do.

DAVID: One big area you support is university-level research into the psychology and sociology of human responses to diversity.

BUD: We need more research into the ways that we can help people to move past the barriers they have built up so that they can appreciate a religiously pluralistic world. There’s so much we need to know: We need research on how people’s attitudes change. We also need research on the kinds of words and phrases we might use in approaching people to talk about religious pluralism.

Right now, the leading organizations in interfaith work have found that storytelling is an effective way to encourage cooperation across religious lines. So, we’ve got a lot of groups working on storytelling and specifically on creating programs to facilitate storytelling across religious lines. This does create change. But we need to know so much more about how this process works—and what other experiences also help to overcome conflict.

BUILDING NEW STRUCTURES TO ENCOURAGE COOPERATION

DAVID: Many of the authors we interview work on the theology of cooperation and peacemaking—and on storytelling, just as you have described. What’s distinctive about your role, I think, is that you’re also looking at the nuts and bolts that connect this new architecture to ensure it will stand the test of time.

BUD: Yes, we need to put new structures in place. One example is that we now have 13 different federal agencies with officers who focus on the role of faith in the work that we do from the federal level. President Clinton originally envisioned having faith officers; President Bush expanded on that; and President Obama expanded this idea further. From the time this idea first was raised in the Clinton era, we’ve gone from zero faith officers—to more than a dozen now in place who lift up the value of religions working together on projects. Other countries also are stepping up and creating new kinds of programs: One example is Jordan stepping forward to create World Interfaith Harmony Week.

DAVID: Universities and academic researchers have gotten on board, too.

BUD: As recently as 2006, the American Academy of Religion just had a couple of references to “interfaith” among the hundreds of workshops at their annual conference. Now, they have formalized “interreligious and interfaith studies” as a theme within the academy and they offer so many different activities, workshops and conversations around interfaith issues that one could actually spend several days just focusing on these sessions. It’s important to see this established within the academy.

And we’re seeing some major funders focus on interfaith cooperation. One example: For a while, the Ford Foundation seemed to be stepping back from funding in this area. But now we’re seeing the Ford Foundation supporting interfaith cooperation again.

BUILDING A PERMANENT INTERFAITH MOVEMENT

Interfaith Peacemakers Yo Yo Ma Bono and Leonard Cohen

‘INTERFAITH PEACEMAKERS’ is an ongoing ReadTheSpirit project, produced by international peacemaker and author Daniel Buttry. Click on this image to visit the Interfaith Peacemakers website.

DAVID: As a journalist covering religious and cultural diversity for more than 30 years, I’ve participated in thousands of interviews, meetings and events. I’ve heard all kinds of messages about faith and diversity. What’s distinctive in your approach is the bigger picture you paint for audiences. Yes, you’re interested in inspiring individual men and women, but you’ve got a much larger goal.

BUD: There are too many examples of rising religious conflict around the world. When I talk to people, I can provide many examples domestically and internationally. There are new headlines every day. But, I’m interested in showing people, instead, how religion can become more of an asset in our world. We cannot ignore religious differences. And, we have to involve religion in the answers that will help us resolve these conflicts we face.

DAVID: That’s a tall order: Recognizing the explosive nature of religious conflict—and at the same time recognizing the value of religion in resolving conflict.

THE  FOUNDATION STONES …

BUD: We need to “actualize” the interfaith movement. When I talk this way about the development of a movement toward better interfaith relations, people wonder if this is possible. I point out that, at one time, the environmental movement that has reshaped our world wasn’t a movement at all. There was a time when civil rights wasn’t a movement. There was a time when no one at the university level was studying the environment or civil rights. There was a time when nonprofits weren’t supporting these movements. But now? We all know the success of the civil rights and environmental movements.

We need to see a similar movement in interfaith relations. The academy needs to conduct more research and help us develop a rigorous discipline for developing these relationships. Nonprofits need to understand how to advance this movement and how to set measurable outcomes and to expect results that people can understand. These are the building blocks that can establish a successful interfaith movement. Governments are now taking a keen interest in learning how religions can work together for peace. Now, we need to consciously be designing and building the capacity so that the interfaith movement can become well established.

DAVID: We are strongly recommending your book, today. I’ve got shelves in my library packed with books on religious diversity, but I can say: Your book is unique in the practical advice it packs between these covers. In fact, your book is the only one on my shelf that tries to describe more than a dozen different types of interfaith groups that people have organized across the country. If our readers want to start a group or develop an existing group, your book concisely explains the different models that are emerging.

BUD: When I started this work more than 10 years ago, I couldn’t even find a phone book or directory that described the structure of this movement. So, I hired an army of interns and began collecting information. We collected more than a thousand different organizations and, now, other groups like the Pluralism Project list a lot of the organizations we found and they are now adding hundreds of others to the list.

DAVID: The problem we all face today is providing people with concise, accurate and trustworthy information. You and SkyLight Paths Publishing have accomplished something important in producing this book. Yes, the Internet is full of millions of pages of information about religion, but a lot of that material amounts to junk—or worse, in many cases.

DEVELOPING EYES FOR … ACCURATE INFORMATION

BUD: That’s true. We have tons of information at our fingertips. The problem is the quality of the information varies widely. We have to develop eyes, ears and minds that can discern good from bad information. There are people out there using all of this connected technology in very negative ways. We must help people to find the best sources of accurate information.

What we have learned over the years is that it’s more important to develop accurate, positive, helpful information about religious communities, rather than trying to run around the Internet and fight fire with fire. Yes, sometimes we do need to counter negative information line by line—when there’s an offensive post by a public official, for example. But the larger question we need to ask is: How can we help Americans find and share positive information? How can we develop new relationships that encourage appreciation of diversity and reconciliation between people?

DAVID: How can readers follow your work? Much of what you do is invisible to the public. Can you suggest a way that our readers can keep track of your work?

BUD: You’re right. Much of the work I do is behind the scenes, but I try to put interesting things I’m finding on Twitter. I do write occasionally for Huffington Post and other websites, but I don’t write for any of them all that regularly. The easiest way for people to keep in touch is to follow me on Twitter.

Care to read more?

Get Bud’s book! You can buy it on Amazon or through other online retailers, but we suggest that readers visit the SkyLight Paths website to buy the book. That gives you a chance to browse other titles by this important publishing house.

Also, ReadTheSpirit Books publishes a wide array of books about religious and cultural diversity.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

The Charles Marsh interview on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and ‘Strange Glory’

Charles Marsh biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Strange Glory by Knopf front cover

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

From Left to Right and all around the world, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is everybody’s hero. This courageous young pastor stood up to the Nazis in the 1930s, eventually took part in a plot to kill Hitler and finally was hanged in a prison camp before the war ended. Nelson Mandela talked about the inspiration he drew from Bonhoeffer’s example. But Bonhoeffer supporters cross the entire political spectrum. In American right-wing politics, Glenn Beck considers Bonhoeffer such a hero that his online store sells wall-size posters of the bespectacled pastor’s face over Bonhoeffer’s famous lines:

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

Glenn Beck tells his listeners: “This is a guy you should teach your children about!” And then Beck engages in what commentators from Left and Right like to do when they speak, write or preach about Bonhoeffer: hold him up as a mirror for each side’s approach to courageous defiance of authorities.

Within several years of Bonhoeffer’s death on April 9, 1945, at the age of 39, his books began appearing in English. However, according to Google tracking of trends in American publishing, Bonhoeffer did not become hugely popular in American culture until the mid 1960s. His most widely read book, The Cost of Discipleship, which was first published in 1937 in German, struck a chord 30 years later among young Americans working for change in the turbulent 1960s. In the book, Bonhoeffer tells readers: “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.”

When Glenn Beck talks about his hero, Beck scoffs at activists who claim that Bonhoeffer was “a social justice guy.” Beck says: Not so! Beck recommends a different biography of his hero: the 2010 book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, written by the journalist Eric Mataxas and published the conservative Christian publishing house Thomas Nelson. That book does the best job of emphasizing Bonhoeffer’s evangelical purity, Beck argues.

Today, ReadTheSpirit online magazine recommends Charles Marsh’s new biography, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer published by Knopf. Marsh compellingly tells the story of Bonhoeffer’s deep Christian faith, but he also more clearly describes Bonhoeffer’s life-changing experiences while studying for a year in the U.S. Most crucial to his transformation was his regular attendance at worship in a famous black church in Harlem—and a road trip Bonhoeffer took through the American South around the time of the infamous “Scottsboro Boys” trial.

Once Bonhoeffer returned to Germany after his year in the U.S., Mataxas’s book makes it seem obvious that any Christian leader with a spine would oppose Hitler from the beginning. From the first page of his biography, Mataxas describes Hitler and his “legion of demons” as ushering in an “evilly contorted and frightening” era in Europe. Marsh’s book, in contrast, explains how very difficult it was for religious leaders to understand the extreme danger during Hitler’s rise to power in the early 1930s. In fact, Bonhoeffer comes across as a much more remarkable prophet in Marsh’s book for clearly seeing the danger in the Nazis’ first tentative steps that would lead to the Final Solution.

ReadTheSpirit Editor interviewed Charles Marsh. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH CHARLES MARSH ON
‘STRANGE GLORY’ AND DIETRICH BONHOEFFER

DAVID: Most Americans recognize Bonhoeffer’s name, but most of us don’t know a lot about him. Recently, when I’ve visited various groups, I’ve asked people what they know about him. Usually people say: He defied Hitler and the Nazis killed him. Some of them know that he could have moved away from Germany, but made a conscious decision to stay. In general, people don’t know much more than that. I think lots of our readers will find your book absolutely fascinating.

Charles Marsh University of Virginia author of Dietrich Bonhoeffer biography Strange Grace

Charles Marsh

CHARLES: Well, those details you just mentioned are true. That’s what makes Bonhoeffer’s life so compelling, but it’s also true that the facts of his life create misunderstandings. He was a theologian on a restless journey.

DAVID: In reading about his childhood, I was reminded of other famous religious figures who began life with great privilege—St. Francis, the Buddha and others—but later gave that up to follow their vocations. Your book describes Bonhoeffer’s childhood as living in the lap of luxury and opportunity. His family lived in Berlin’s well-to-do Grunewald district, since the late 1800s an area known for its big homes and elite families.

CHARLES: He was a golden child, raised in privilege and yet, as an adult, very early in the 1930s he was able to see with great clarity and prescience that the appointment of Hitler as chancellor of Germany constituted the emergence of what Bonhoeffer would call the great masquerade of evil.

He was restless in his studies, his travels and his conversations. At one point, his long journey led him to reach out to Gandhi in correspondence to see what Gandhi advised about creating intentional communities for peacemaking.

He was a pacifist, but later he also was part of a conspiracy to kill Hitler as he served as a pastor and theologian to the resistance. He was clear, at that point, that killing the madman was a responsible course of action, his principled pacifism notwithstanding.

Just as you’re describing it, I am fascinated to find so many people interested in Bonhoeffer: evangelicals, liberals, conservatives, believers, nonbelievers, humanists, activists, Jews, Christians and Muslims. They all find inspiration in aspects of Bonhoeffer’s life and work. In this book, what I’ve tried to do is invite readers along on this journey of Bonhoeffer’s life, trying to show how vivid and complex a person he was.

DAVID: Some of the other books on the market portray him as a pure saint from start to finish, almost glowing on every page.

CHARLES: In my book, I wanted to move beyond that kind of hagiography to respectfully probe his character, which had so many complex dimensions.

BONHOEFFER IN NEW YORK AND THE SOUTH

DAVID: My advice to readers is to enjoy the opening chapters about Bonhoeffer’s youth—then, I think most of our readers will really start turning pages in the middle section of this biography. I read your section on Bonhoeffer’s year in America twice. He shows up in New York City to study at Union seminary in 1930 under the great Reinhold Niebuhr, who had just arrived from Detroit two years earlier. Niebuhr was teaching “practical theology,” based on his experiences in the urban crucible that was the city of Detroit. Niebuhr’s church had been in what is today called Detroit’s New Center area.

They collided in New York—Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer. As a hot young German scholar, Bonhoeffer thought Niebuhr was a theological lightweight, compared with the world of German academia.

CHARLES: That’s true. He arrived as a straight arrow academic with no sense at all that America had lessons he might want to learn. Initially, he was quite taken aback by the way theology and ethics were taught at Union Theological Seminary. He once asked Reinhold Niebuhr after one of his lectures, “Is this a seminary or a training center for social activists?”

DAVID: But your book shows that Niebuhr and Union and New York City had a profound impact on Bonhoeffer’s life. Among other things, Bonhoeffer began attending the church led by the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr., who boasted the largest Protestant congregation in the U.S. with 10,000 members: the famous Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

He became angry over the infamous Scottsboro case in which a group of young black men were framed on charges of raping white women on a train. Bonhoeffer called it a “terrible miscarriage of justice.” He got back to Germany and summarized what he had seen of white Americans’ treatment of black citizens as so fundamentally unjust that it was “darker than a thousand midnights.” As Bonhoeffer described this evil system, he mentioned American policies on “blood laws, mob rule, sterilizations and land seizures.”

CHARLES: His travels abroad gave him a different sense of his own country’s problems. I also point out that Bonhoeffer met with officials from the American Civil Liberties Union while he was in New York. Remember that the ACLU formed partly over concerns with deportations and abuses heaped on resident aliens in this country. Bonhoeffer wrote to his older brother to say, “We will need an ACLU in Germany.”

When I was reading Bonhoeffer’s papers in the archives, I was amazed at how thick his files were from his year in America and how attentive he was to groups like the ACLU that focused on human rights and social dislocation. Bonhoeffer read news reports on lynching, on homelessness. He looked into the whole constellation of human rights organizations while he was there at Union.

DAVID: He didn’t spend much time in the South, but he did make an epic road trip into Mexico and, as you point out, he did pass through the South on his return to New York. So, in addition to reading news reports about conditions there in New York City, he did see conditions in the South for himself.

CHARLES: Bonhoeffer always had a distrust of authority and his experience in the United States showed him some of the dangers that could arise when authority over minority groups was abused.

BONHOEFFER: THE CLARITY OF HIS VISION

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1939 from Deutsches Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1939.

DAVID: This is the point in your book when I couldn’t stop reading. Bonhoeffer goes back to Germany in 1931 and he begins studying under the famous theologian Karl Barth. He’s right back in the center of the world’s most elite theological circle of scholars—people far more concerned about academia than about the real lives of ordinary people.

Then, in early 1933, Hitler is rising in power and places the “Aryan paragraph” into Germany’s civil service laws. Very soon, this limited ban on Jewish employees is extended to schools. By June 1933, it’s extended to ban intermarriage. But, this is two years before the 1935 Nuremberg Laws appear and, suddenly, everybody is seeing these frightening posters about racial purity. Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, wouldn’t happen until late 1938.

Here’s what I found fascinating: Immediately in early 1933, Bonhoeffer saw the danger and knew how to respond. You document in your book that his great hero, Karl Barth, was willing to simply ignore the Nazis as a bunch of brutes and idiots. But not Bonhoeffer. You argue that his year in America and his passionate faith let him see what was going to happen years before others in Germany could guess at the danger that lay ahead. In the summer of 1933, Bonhoeffer was helping to draft a manifesto, the Bethel Confession, that warned of the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews.

CHARLES: It is true that there were dramatic differences between the two men. Bonhoeffer was part of the original drafting of the Bethel Confession. (It went through several versions and Bonhoeffer had left for England by the time the final version was published.)

DAVID: Your book points out that Barth refused to openly defy Hitler until 1934, a year later, and when Barth did issue his declaration it was all about the rights of the churches to be free of Nazi control. Barth was mainly concerned about confronting Hitler’s God-like status and Hitler’s authority over Germany’s churches. Bonhoeffer’s early work in 1933 made statements about the Christian defense of Jewish communities that the world wouldn’t see again until Vatican II passed Nostra Aetate in 1965. Talk about a visionary prophet!

CHARLES: That’s right and that’s such an interesting part of this story. Everyone who knows about this era wants to celebrate Barth’s declaration in 1934, but in many ways Bonhoeffer’s earlier work on the Bethel Confession was the more important document.

DAVID: I keep asking myself how he was able to see the larger issue—the Christian need to oppose the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews—so much earlier than Barth or other leaders.

CHARLES: Remember that Bonhoeffer had grown up in this upper-middle-class neighborhood in Berlin that was also populated with Jewish families. His family socialized with prominent Jewish families, so this awareness was part of his upbringing.

Later, after several versions of the Bethel Confession had been revised already and Bonhoeffer was no longer in Germany, the final draft was worked on by two theologians who would become pillars of the Nazi church. They deleted references to the significance of the “Aryan paragraph.”

But you are right in mentioning Nostra Aetate. Bonhoeffer in 1933 was wanting the statement to clearly say that Jesus, who Christians follow, was a Jew. And he wanted to point out all that should follow from that.

DAVID: As I read that section, I thought: The world wouldn’t see this kind of affirmation for another 30 years and, in between, Hitler would carry out the Final Solution. So tragic that other Christian leaders didn’t listen to Bonhoeffer in 1933.

BONHOEFFER: FROM FAITH TO ACTION

Martyrs honored at Westminster Abbey Dr Martin Luther King Oscar Romero Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Martyrs honored at Westminster Abbey in London include (from left) Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

CHARLES: Ultimately, just as you have been describing this, I hope that readers will find this book a compelling narrative of an amazing life. I hope that I can bring readers into this beautiful and yet heartbreaking world—Bonhoeffer’s world. And, I hope that readers will come away with a different way of understanding the life of faith among those we consider our saints today.

I hope that Bonhoeffer emerges not just as a hero from another century, but as a Christian for our time, as well. The power of his life crosses so many boundaries, bridges so many divides and illuminates so many conflicts and passions—that I believe his life story becomes an extraordinary gift to us today.

DAVID: I want to close our interview by point out that this kind of connection between faith and action is an ongoing part of your professional life at the University of Viriginia. You are part of the Lived Theology project. You’re also part of the really remarkable archive called the Civil Rights Digital Archive, which contains lots of stories about largely unknown figures in the American civil rights era, including links to original documents.

CHARLES: The Project on Lived Theology began as a way to put bricks and mortar on Bonhoeffer’s own response to what he found in America in 1930 and 1931. These were his concerns. When he arrived at Union seminary, Bonhoeffer was shocked to see his professors leading student out of the classroom to take part in lived theology in the throes of the Great Depression. He was amazed to hear students asking: What are faith’s social obligations? And, how can we use our skills as pastors and theologians to make a difference and to relieve human suffering?

Later, Bonhoeffer said that these experiences helped him to turn from the “phraseological to the real.” What was poignant about Bonhoeffer’s return to Berlin is that he tried to find space at the university for this kind of transformative approach to theology and he was not able to do that for many reasons. That’s the vision of our Project on Lived Theology. It’s to create spaces within a major research university where scholars and theologians can work alongside each other and can turn the phraseological into the real.

ALSO NEW TODAY—Award-winning journalist William Tammeus writes a personal column about why he dedicated the time to report a book about Holocaust rescuers in Poland. Tammeus and his Jewish co-author are traveling to spread awareness of their book, as well.

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(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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