Looking for Grace in a Graceless World

Because this year marks the 500th anniversary of the event that began the Reformation, there have been a lot of articles about Luther, especially as Reformation Day drew near. The best one that I came across was entitled Suche nach der Gnade in einer gnadenlosen Welt by Matthias Drobinski, which appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on October 31. What follows is my translation, posted with the kind permission of the Süddeutsche.

Looking for Grace in a Graceless World
by Matthias Drobinski (Sueddeutsche Zeitung, October 31, 2017; trans. Kyle Rader)

The theologian and poet Christian Lehnert tells how he once preached about the love and nearness of a gracious God in an East German village, and afterward, an old Polish woman intercepted him and asked, “You prayed for God’s nearness? Do you know what you’re asking for?” She then explained how, in 1939, she hid in a ditch in a field and prayed for her life as the German tanks came. Then she felt God’s nearness and lay hidden in the earth’s arms. The tanks rolled on by. But a few days later, everyone who lived in the next farmhouse over was found dead, shot, with their tongues nailed to the kitchen table. The one was saved, the others were murdered.

Is that God’s nearness and grace?
On this Reformation Day, many edifying things will be preached about Martin Luther and his nailing of the theses 500 years ago in Wittenberg, about his protest against the the arrogant claim that a human being could secure salvation and paradise with money, his recognition that God’s grace saves human beings and not their own accomplishments, about freedom, conscience, and individuality. That’s all well and good. But nevertheless, so many pastor’s and even bishop’s orations will sound hollow today: “You’re fine just the way you are. God is there and loves you. He’s holding you and the world in the palm of his hand. And if you’re having a hard time, God is still there.”

That’s it? Where is he when Assad’s barrel bombs rip children apart in Syria and so-called holy warriors decapitate people? Where is he when people die in anguish from hunger or sickness? Is he in the torture chambers of the world, or with the drowning refugees in the Mediterranean? Does he whisper to them, as they draw their last desperate breath: “Hey, you’re okay just the way you are?” Does he stand by the elderly as they draw near to their end, lonely and forgotten, in the neon light of a hospital ward? Or is all this talk of help nothing more than a cheap lie?

The writer Guenter Franzen reported in the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Sonntagszeitung about the death of his wife, whose body, wracked by pain, was being consumed by cancer. “Now my eyes have seen thee,” he quoted from the biblical Job. God took away everything that was dearest to Job, one after another, in order to put him to the test in a bet with the devil. In the moment of the abyss and forsakenness, God becomes visible, but he doesn’t fix anything. The abyss and the forsakenness remain. Franzen writes that he struggled with the people leading the Protestant church, the soft sellers of consolation in all life circumstances. No, time doesn’t heal all wounds. It was no pious pastor who brought him him back to life, but a therapist who, after his wife’s death, sat with him for a long time in silence and then said “Damn this shit.”

Damn this shit. That is actually much closer to Martin Luther than most edifying sermons on Reformation Day. Luther’s search for God was desperate and despairing his whole life long. He wrestles with this God who gives no answers, who draws back and gives ground to the devil, who unpredictably hides himself when a revelation in power and glory would have really been timely. He saw himself cast out and forsaken by God. “Each one must himself contend with those enemies, with the devil and death, and lie in ring with them. I will not be with you, nor you with me,” he wrote. And his answer, that faith alone makes the terrifying God into a gracious God, and this brief human lifespan can indeed have a meaning and a goal, this is an act of trust with no external guarantee. Less than a thread’s width separates this trust, not based on any this-worldly rationality, from a “no” to God when faced with this inconceivable demand of faith.

Five hundred years separate Martin Luther and the people of the year 2017. In Germany they are free and equal in a way that would terrify the Reformer. They can alter genes, fly into space, and access the whole world on the smartphone in their pocket. The thread that stretches from this distant man of the late middle ages to today is the search for grace in a graceless world, for a reality beyond perception and eye-witness testimony, for the final foundation of threatened, fragile, broken existence. It is the search that has to drive Christians to the limits of their faith, faced with a silent and hidden God, who mocks all self-help literature. That explains the fear of many theologians, Protestant and Catholic alike, of talking about this existential search for God on the edge of the abyss. It endangers all certainties, forbids easy answers, and drives back everyone who would wish for security in faith.

Martin Luther’s extraordinary answer was this: the Christian God is not a God of triumphs in this world, of heaven on earth, no spiritual leader for a more enjoyable life. For him, the God of grace was the crucified, suffering God, cruelly executed and humiliated, robbed of all human dignity. It is a God on the side of the anguished, the drowning, the cancer patient, and the bombed, who has no humanly understandable answer, except perhaps, “damn this shit!” There are good reasons why the Protestant church considers Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion, to be the most important holy day. And it is characteristic of the worst advances of contemporary theology that it backs away from this story of the cross because it is too cruel, and might scare children and sensitive adults. Whoever filters out the terrifying and disturbing from reflection on God makes it hollow and banal.

When will you show your grace, gracious God? In all moments of humaneness and of desperate love, in all unexpected good. But also in all hope against hope, in the trust on sinking ground, that even in a world full of devils, God is a mighty fortress, as Martin Luther’s hymn says. And this continues even today. There are those unbelievable moments when one senses God and hears the music of heaven. There are also those when all humanity seems to have been murdered. And no Enlightenment in this world has been able to explain them away. Nor can anyone produce them or preach around them. No pastor or bishop, not on Christmas or on Reformation Day. The last words that Martin Luther wrote down on February 16, 1546 shortly before his death say: “We are beggars, that’s true.” And that too is as true today as it was 500 years ago.

Danke an meine liebe Frau Verena Meyer für ein paar Übersetzungsauskünfte.