Essays from President Colson

Wartburg Castle

During this week, the week we set aside to commemorate Dr. King, I sometimes feel the blues.  I’ve reached that age when memories of the past can sometimes be so vivid that they bring along the emotions of the past with a vivacity one wouldn’t think possible. Remembering 1968 brings back the horrific emotions of that year:  the sense of helplessness, of hopelessness, of despair.  It was a terrible, terrible year. 

This week, my memories—again, all too vivaciously—took me back further, to my childhood with Jim Crow.  It feels almost like yesterday when, on a family excursion to the discount department store in my neighborhood, I drank from the wrong water fountain, the one labeled “colored.”   Verging on panic, my mother was mortified, worrying that the store’s security guard might have seen me. Mom, God love her, feared a scene, for we might have been rudely ushered out the door for flouting the law.

When folks say that progress has been slow, I think about those days.  My brother’s best friend had to carry a copy of his birth certificate with him (in the days before the Xerox machine became ubiquitous!); he was a lifeguard, and, in the summer, his tan became so dark that he had to sit in the balcony at the cinema if he couldn’t prove that he was white.  Think about that.

I don’t deny that progress has been slower than it should have been, but things have changed a lot since I was a kid.  I saw an encouraging sign of change in this week’s conversation about diversity.  Several of our students asked us some pointed questions about diversity; and, as I sat at my table and listened to the folks at my table and the folks from other tables, I was pleased by the frankness of the talk. 

And yet, it was also obvious to me that we weren’t putting everything on the table.  Some of us—maybe all of us—were a bit guarded.  Conversation often drifted into theoretical language about white privilege and structural disparity.  It seemed too indirect—but, again, compared to where I’ve been in my lifetime, it was refreshing.

I’m still thinking about one particular comment.  When our table, like all the tables, was asked to define cultural competence, I was struck by what Alviann said.  I’m not sure that she said anything I’ve not heard before, but I must have been primed to hear it differently than I’d heard it before.  Alviann spoke about the capacity to enter situations with people different from ourselves and be equipped to respond “appropriately.”  That term stuck in my head and has been rattling around there ever since.

That’s the nub of the issue for me, and I wonder whether it is for others, too.  I often—too often—lack confidence that I can relate to people “appropriately.”  I fear that I’ll say or do something that announces my cultural incompetence.  I can think of simple examples. I know that there’s a world of difference between referring to folks as “people of color,” and referring to them as “colored people.” The first is a simple, benign classification; the second is an inexcusable racial slur, which I saw thousands of times on placards labelling water fountains, doorways, and restrooms.  Grammatically speaking, the terms are interchangeable; culturally speaking, the terms are profoundly different.

That cultural fact is obvious to most of us, but here’s a simple example that’s not so obvious.  We have gotten in the habit of referring to folks of my background as “Hispanics.”  It seems harmless enough, doesn’t it?  Lots of government questionnaires and databases use the term and even ask us to identify ourselves as Hispanics or not.  But, for many of us, maybe even most of us, who have to answer yes to that question, the question is annoying at best, and on most days insulting. 

More than thirty countries fill Central and South America as well as the Caribbean.  Throwing the Iberian Peninsula into the mix adds another two.  Treating Mexican-Americans, Peruvian-Americans, and Brazilian-Americans as interchangeable is degrading. 

During the presidential election of 2016, two candidates in the Republican field were Cuban-Americans.  The media referred to them as “Hispanics,” and continually speculated about how much traction they’d get in the “Hispanic” community.  Such commentary was astoundingly superficial and frankly offensive.  My dear departed aunt was probably spinning in her grave.  That Venezuelan woman wanted no part of being identified with Cubans, and she couldn’t fathom why most of us couldn’t see the differences between Venezuelans and Cubans, which were manifestly obvious to her.

Here’s another simple example.  A pet peeve of those from below the Rio Grande is that we in the USA refer to ourselves as Americans, not North Americans.  They marvel that we don’t understand—and now I’m returning to deeply ingrained lessons from elementary school—that this hemisphere, the American hemisphere, is named for Amerigo Vespucci, and that everyone in the hemisphere is an American.

So, when thinking of cultural competence, how many folks understand these cultural issues?  How many of my neighbors understand that my aunt would bite nails when she was grouped with Cubans, or that my Chilean friends cringe when we called ourselves Americans, as if we owned the entire hemisphere? 

Knowing these cultural facts makes me unsteady and insecure when I sit down to visit with colleagues or students who evidence diversity.  To return to that wonderful word used by Alviann, what is “appropriate” for me to say?  Should I ask her about her life in Barbados, which as a curious, interested person I’d be tempted to ask, or does asking the question merely signal that I’m ignorant of her home country because I’m an arrogant American—or, rather, North American?

What is in bounds to ask my African-American students?  What truly bespeaks the interest and respect I feel for them, and what, on the contrary, would be a woeful, insulting misstep? 

When we were very young, Christy taught in a pre-school administered by Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County’s Division of Social Services. All of her students were African-American, and their youth ensured that they were completely comfortable with diversity, not fretting about their cultural competence at all.  One of the wonderfully natural, childlike things they did was to touch and rub Christy’s hair because it seemed so different, so interesting.  They indulged their curiosity, never fearing that it would insult or offend.

Yet, as an adult, not only would I never touch another person’s hair; I wouldn’t even ask questions about the styling of a person’s hair, no matter how curious I am—again, for fear that it would be inappropriate.  Would asking such a question signal interest or would it insult?  I don’t know, and my ignorance gets in my way; it prevents my building relationships with diverse people. 

To move to a topic of more significance than hair, should I ask African-American students how they feel about “Black Lives Matter,” or, is asking that question a signal of my insensitivity, a clear demonstration that I’m cluelessly incompetent?

As our conversation the other day drifted into formal speak, academic speak, I worried that we were avoiding the direct comment or question because all of us feared what I fear.  I seek to be culturally competent, but I fear that steps I might take to develop my competency will so severely alienate others that I’ll forever foreclose the possibility of truly understanding, of truly becoming appropriate. 

For me at least, cultural competence is a difficult standard to reach; I yearn to reach it, and yet I fear I never will.

While I was a member of the faculty at Pepperdine, one of my colleagues, Ira Jolivet, repeated the phrase “widows, orphans, and strangers” so often that I myself repeat it, too—sometimes even blurting it out spontaneously as my response to an event or, more likely in recent days, a story on the news.

An African-American, Ira was a preacher in the independent Churches of Christ, a mostly Southern, somewhat hardscrabble, predominantly white communion born of the Restoration Movement and rooted now in a rural region stretching from Texas to the northeast through Oklahoma and Arkansas, into Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio.  Pepperdine, one might say, is its westernmost outpost, planted by the faithful after the Dust Bowl drove them out of Oklahoma and all the way to California.

From Ira, I learned my first real lessons about diversity—how it can be paid lip service by the well-meaning; how it can be resisted by the less well-meaning who dress up their resistance in guises that seem plausible; how it demands urgent attention from Christians. 

According to Ira, the lesson we learn from the Bible is completely clear, and it is summed up in that phrase: “Widows, orphans, and strangers.” Ira was asked to draft Pepperdine’s first real statement on diversity and he grounded his statement in a passage from Deuteronomy:

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deut. 10:17-19)

The lesson of the Old Testament and the New, Ira insisted, is that God’s people welcome, shelter, and care for widows, orphans, and strangers.  This is what the righteous, the just, do.

When I learned that the President was cancelling DACA, I spontaneously blurted out the phrase that Ira had taught me.  Our duty to welcome these young strangers brought to the United States as children is so clear that the arguments about where the authority to make that decision lies—whether with the President or with Congress—seems somehow to miss the point.  It’s as if we are witnessing one of those arguments between teenagers about whose turn it is to clean the kitchen. 

I’m especially touched by the plight of these young people because of my own story.  When my mother died in June, I rummaged through files, partly to begin settling her estate, but partly, too, to reminisce, to dwell for a time in the gratitude I owe to her. 

One of my treasured documents is the passenger manifest of the KLM flight on which I traveled to America for the first time.  On September 9, 1955, I boarded a KLM flight bound for Miami, but it landed first in Curacao, then in Aruba, then in Kingston, and finally in Miami.  At each stop, passengers disembarked:  in Curacao, among others, we dropped Maurice Frojer, whose nationality is listed as Dutch; in Aruba, among those we dropped was Marion Tulloch, her nationality British.  In the list of those bound for the final stop was my name, and next to it my nationality: “Alien.”

Soon after I arrived, I was given my number; I am Alien #10-183-667.  Not exactly an orphan, I was offered for adoption at birth.  My mother, my beloved adoptive mother, the only mother I’ve ever known, embraced me and welcomed me into her life, bringing me to the United States and seeing to it that I received all of the benefits she could secure, including naturalization.

Anything could have happened to me at birth; I could have grown up anywhere or nowhere.  A helpless baby, I could do nothing to chart my future course.  I could lay claim to nothing.  I had earned nothing.  And yet, my mother gave me the free gift of her love, her home, and her country.  It’s the closest thing to Grace this side of the Cross.

In Ira’s passage from Deuteronomy, God makes that point explicitly:  no one can control the future, and therefore anyone can experience the displacement that the Israelites did; anyone can become a stranger. 

So when I see Dreamers treated as “illegal aliens,” I recall so vividly that I was an alien—a legal one, to be sure, but an alien.  That I’m no longer an alien was either a contingent accident or a providential gift; but, either way, I no more deserve legal status than a Dreamer.  What separates me from her is a series of events over which neither of us had any control.

Can we find it within ourselves to share the gifts we’ve been given without any merit of our own; can we share grace with the orphans and strangers among us?  I’ve been heartened in recent days by the outpouring of support for the Dreamers.  We agree on so little now, but we do agree on this—at least, 75% of us do—that the Dreamers belong here, enjoying the same welcome we all enjoy, no longer aliens or strangers, but neighbors.

Dreamers are fellow Americans who grew up pledging allegiance to the flag, singing the national anthem, and nurturing their dedication to the proposition that all men and women are created equal.  This is what the vast majority of us believe; how long will it take for Congress to give voice to our belief?

The slogan that our friends from Eisenach are using for the 500 Jahre Reformation week really hits home:  “Vom Der Wartburg in Die Welt.”  Obviously, one can take this slogan in multiple ways.  Most obviously, the translation of the Bible done by Luther came from the Wartburg Castle into all the world.  But, in our own special way, we at Wartburg College manifest that slogan, too.  As I’ve noted in earlier posts, from Wartburg Castle has come the sense of service personified by St. Elizabeth, the theological insights advanced by Luther, and the musical tradition embraced by us and other Lutheran schools.  The Wartburg came to Waverly in a big way. 

Worship in Eisenach
Worship in Eisenach

Even more powerful was the huge ecumenical service in the Marketplace next to St. George’s Church on Sunday morning.  Surrounded by all of the stuff that normally accompanies a big outdoor festival—food vendors, beer trucks, souvenir sales—a huge international congregation gathered to worship together with the Lutheran Bishop and the Roman Catholic Bishop.

Again, the service was somewhat long, but for the very good reason that Eisenach was including participation from all of the sister cities who had sent delegations.  Our own Larry Trachte once again represented us in a series of pastors from Belarus, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, and the United States offering prayers for Christian unity and charity.  Two choral ensembles also participated: our own Wartburg College Choir (standing in front of the Köstritzer truck) and the choir from Belarus that had performed with our Choir on Thursday night inside the Georgenkirche.

The theme of the service was “From Conflict to Communion,” which is the title of a document jointly produced by the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

The service used passages from the document, passages that did not sugarcoat the history shared by Protestants and Catholics:

Lutherans and Catholics have often concentrated on what separated us, instead of seeing what united us.  They have accepted that the Gospel was interwoven with the political and economic interests of those in power.  Their failure led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people.  Families were torn apart, people were taken prisoner and persecuted, wars were fought and religion and faith misused.  Humankind suffered, and as a consequence the integrity of the Gospel was damaged, which continues to this day.  We deeply regret the evil which Catholics and Lutherans have inflicted upon each other.

I have been thinking lately about Luther’s interpretation of the Eighth Commandment and how important it is for us to adopt his perspective in these times of disagreement and distrust, times when it seems so easy to vilify one another, so I was really gripped by this passage that one of the Lectors read:

In the 16th century Catholics and Lutherans frequently not only misunderstood but also exaggerated and caricatured their opponents in order to make them look ridiculous.  They repeatedly violated the eighth commandment, which prohibits bearing false witness against one’s neighbor.

Toward the end of the service, the congregation committed itself to five “imperatives,” among which were:

Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced.

Catholics and Lutherans should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

Christy and I could not help but be mightily moved by the service.  To sit in this marketplace, in what had been a very Protestant city, and again, in a spot that had been behind the Iron Curtain for forty-five years, and to be celebrating the Reformation with Catholics and Protestants—again, it was too much to process, but it really felt good.  The service ended with a joint blessing by the two Bishops, a sight I’ll not soon forget.

I experienced unexpected delight in the 500th Jhare Reformation celebration in Eisenach.  Christy and I had visited the city in 2010 during my first full summer at Wartburg, in 2010, when the city officials were seeking money to prepare for this Jubilee, so it’s nice to see what they’ve been able to do.  

Guests of the Lord Mayor, Matthias Doht, we happened to attend a reception in the Rathaus at which some officials from Berlin, who apparently held the purse strings, were meeting officials from Eisenach as well as from cities nearby.  Each mayor or lord-mayor was putting in a plug for his or her town, extolling its obvious worthiness for monetary support.  It was fun hearing Matthias mutter under his breath as each of his counterparts made a plea.  I recall that he punctuated the comments by the lord-mayor from Erfurt with a pithy remark: “Yeah, Erfurt, where Luther was still a Catholic. 

The weeklong celebration really did catch me by surprise.  I didn’t actually understand that we’d be walking into it, but it was nice that we did.  Eisenach folded their sister cities into the event, hosting delegations from all but one sister city.  In addition to our Choir, which effectively represented the city of Waverly, Mogilev in Belarus and Sarospatak in Hungary sent choirs, and I had occasion to hear the choir from Mogilev a couple of times—once at the Georgenkirche when they sang both before and with our Choir and again at the big outdoor worship service in the Marketplace on Sunday morning when they again sang a couple of songs and our Choir sang a couple of songs.

The folks in Eisenach took great pleasure in pairing the choir from Mogilev with our Choir, for they perceived (and perhaps intended) in that pairing a diplomatic or political statement.  Several times folks said to me what a great thing it was for an American choir to sing with a “White Russian” Choir.  Interestingly, the ambassador from Belarus and the senior American diplomat in Germany, Kent Logsdon, who serves as Deputy Chief of Mission and interim Chargé d’Affaires, both attended the concert and gave short speeches in favor of peace and international understanding.

I felt as though there was more than a little overkill in all this:  from my perspective, we were enjoying two choirs sharing the gift of music; but, from the perspective of my friends in Eisenach, I now can see why they placed so much emphasis on this event.  Practically, of course, it got two senior diplomas to visit Eisenach; but, symbolically, it was our dear Thuringian friends’ appeal for friendship rather than hostility.  Thuringians, who for so many years had been politically separated from their fellow Germans to the west as well as from Americans, French, and the remainder of Western Europe, never take for granted the relationships they have with sister cities in France, western Germany, Denmark, and the United States.  They feel, down to the tips of their toes, that humanity should be united, not separated.  No wonder they read so much into these concerts.

And one other point comes home.  We often say, in an offhanded way, that young people such as our Choristers are “ambassadors”; but, in Eisenach, they really, really are ambassadors with all the weight that that metaphor can bear. Eisinachers and, in this instance, Belarussians come to know Americans through our Choir; and, I for one, am really glad for that.  I can’t imagine better representatives of our people and our culture than these. 

Wartburg Castle Great Hall

I’m struck on this trip by the intersections between our own Wartburg and THE Wartburg in Thuringia.  I’ve mentioned that I see more clearly this time the connections between St. Elizabeth and our own founder Wilhelm Löhe, and, of course, I always note the connection to the Castle through Martin Luther, the revolutionary professor who stayed at the Castle for ten months in 1521-22 and there translated the New Testament into German.  

But even more vivid for me this time was the connection through music, which is so important in our culture at the College.  I had not fully appreciated that singing in the Festal, the Great Hall, is not only a privilege for our Choir, but also a privilege for any musical ensemble that gets to perform there.  Moreover, the Castle has been the site of musical performances for at least eight centuries, and serves as the setting for Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Legend has it that in this very room performers entertained the court of Hermann I with the Minstrel’s Contest that forms the subject of that opera.

As I walked through the Castle on the morning of the Choir’s performance, I lingered in this room, dwelling really on the fact that I now felt the strength of this third bond between the College and the Castle.  Just as music, particularly performed music, was important to the Ludovingians, including Ludwig IV, St. Elizabeth’s own husband, so too is music important to us. 

Visiting the Diakonie in Neuendettelsau is always inspiring because the entire town appears to be given over to service for the less fortunate, in keeping with the Parable of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25.  The point Jesus is making, of course, is not that we earn our heavenly reward by serving others; it is, rather, that we are called to service of our neighbors.  In other words, God does not need our service, but our neighbors do; and the Sisters of the Diakonie understand that.  When we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or welcome the stranger, we live out our vocations.

Our founder, Pastor Löhe, focused on solving real problems of real people, and he imparted to both Wartburg and to the Diakonie the urge, the imperative, to serve.  What is most vivid to me is the way that they serve the differently abled within the nurturing arms of a worshipful community.  Our group visited the workshop and saw employees of varying abilities building wooden gifts and assembling hinge assemblies for Volkswagen glove boxes.

I was told by several knowledgeable people on the trip that America laws don’t allow us to house the differently abled in similar concentrations and employ them in factory work in the same way, which seems a shame, for when I’m walking through Neuendettelsau, I cannot help but think of the vivid way that the Sisters are living out the lessons of the Parable.

A symbol of the Diakonie is the Cross of Life, the cross that contains images depicting the Seven (Corporal) Acts of Mercy. I’ve always called it the Neuendettelsau Cross because I’ve only seen it there—and on the Wartburg campus on the crosses we’ve bought from the Diakonie.  I dearly love to see that huge rendering on the side of the Dialog Hotel in Neuendettelsau.  In fact, I woke early on our last morning in Neuendettelsau so that I could walk over and take a new photograph of it with my phone.

What moved me differently on this trip was connecting the lessons of Neuendettelsau with the artwork in the Castle.  I really looked at the frescoes of St. Elizabeth in the hallway that leads to the chapel in the Castle, especially at the seven small ones depicting her acting out the Seven Acts, and I saw her as the forerunner to the Deaconesses.  Löhe might not have been inspired by St. Elizabeth, but her fans saw her as his progenitor.

Cross of Life

During our visit to Eisenach during the city’s Luther Week celebration, I was pleasantly surprised by the emphasis on worship.  From my many visits to Eisenach during the past few years, I saw how excitedly the city’s officials, as well as our friend Günter Schuchardt up at the Castle, were preparing for this Jubilee year, but I felt as though they were looking at the Jubilee as would be normal for any city’s officials or any director of a major historical site—as a major opportunity to attract tourism.

Knowing, too, that many people in Germany are secular in outlook, our friends in the former East Germany perhaps more so than other Germans, I didn’t expect to see as much worship as I did.   Our friends in Eisenach often speak to me about Luther’s role in advocating individual freedom and respect for conscience, but I don’t often hear them emphasize his pastoral side. 

To mark the 496th anniversary of the day that Martin Luther came to the Castle, however, the Protestant Church celebrated communion in the courtyard of the Castle, and it warmed my heart to see how eager were our friends to ensure that Luther’s Reformational work was honored in all its dimensions.  The Lord Mayor Katja Wolf, for whom Christy and I feel real warmth, partly because she’s routinely hosted our students in her home, is not a believer; but she stood alongside us to show her respect for her neighbors, to participate in an event important to some in her community. 

The service was a bit long, and the weather was blustery, but, after hearing readings from a variety of clergy, including Larry Trachte, and a sermon from a Lutheran bishop, we shared communion with a truly international congregation there to mark the day.  To think that less than thirty years ago, our Choir was not allowed to sing religious songs at the Castle and now to see such a great gathering of Protestant clergy and lay people engaged in worship, sharing communion—well, it’s almost too much to process.

Spending time in Nuremberg with my companions was sobering, to say the least.  I had walked through the Nazi Documentation Center before, but going through it after we’d visited the Gestapo exhibit in Berlin was almost too much.

I was really surprised this time around by how quickly the Nazis took control of the government in the Weimar Republic.  I knew this intellectually, but for some reason it came home to me this time.  In 1930, the NSDAP won 18.3% of the votes, becoming the second-largest party in the Reichstag.  By 1932, they’d won 37.4%, and ultimately secured the opportunity to form a government, which they never relinquished.

The Nazi Documentation Center contains an exhibit funded by DeutscheBahn, the national railroad.  The exhibit makes the point that the railroad made possible the horrors of the Holocaust.  It numbers the victims transported by rail to their final destinations, and it offers the names of a large portion of them.

The exhibit’s point reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.  Her book, which was the series of articles published in the New Yorker while she covered the Eichmann trial, argues the controversial thesis that evil is “banal.”  The Israeli prosecutors argued that Eichmann, the key logistician of the Holocaust, was a monster who embodied an unthinkable evil.  After listening to the testimony, Arendt concluded that he was utterly ordinary, at least in moral character.  True, he was skilled at planning and organization; otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to get all those people transported by rail as efficiently as he did.

But, morally speaking, Arendt argued, he was an ordinary guy following orders.  The DB exhibit seems to make the same point, suggesting that train engineers and other railroad workers were complicit in the horrors.  These exhibits are troubling, raising questions about how widely we should allocate responsibility and guilt for the horrors we see.

Returning to Nuremburg, how do we explain the fact that its population embraced the NSDAP? Why would the same city that, in 1525, embraced Luther and the Protestant movement also, four hundred years later, embrace the NSDAP?  What does that say about ordinary people like us?

OK, here’s a tough one.  In my previous post, I spoke approvingly of my German friends who invoke Luther in support of democracy.

Yesterday, however, our group visited the “Topography of Terror,” an outdoor and indoor museum on the site where the Gestapo and the SS were headquartered in Berlin.  Not sanitized in the least, the permanent pictorial exhibit documents the rise of Hitler’s NASDP and its democratic successes in the Weimar Republic, including its securing parliamentary control in 1932.  The pictures capture images from the 1920s through the 1940s, and they are haunting.  They tell the story of a man and a party who succeed in politics, winning the plurality and thereby gaining the privilege to organize a government.  And, God help us, what a government it was.

Especially sobering was visiting the museum’s temporary exhibition honoring the 500th year of the Reformation:  Luther’s words are everywhere. . . .  Describing by text and by picture the ways in which the Nazi government successfully appropriated the whole church, and especially the Protestant church, to support its governing agenda, the exhibit really challenges one who just the day before was cheerful about the political application of Luther. 

Until seeing this exhibit, I had not put together two and two, and I’m embarrassed to say that.  I’ve long known that Kristallnacht occurred on November 9, 1938, but what I hadn’t realized until visiting the exhibit is that November 9 is Martin Luther’s birthday, and that is no coincidence. 

Taking advantage of the many anti-Semitic things that Luther said in his writings, even his exhortations to violence, the Nazis invoked Luther’s own words to sanction Kristallnacht and so much more.  In his On the Jews and Their Lies, Luther advocates burning Jews’ schools and synagogues, appropriating their wealth, and transferring the Jews themselves to community centers to do manual labor.

Fully collaborating with the Nazis, the German Christian movement used Luther’s distinction between the two kingdoms to defend the Nazi government and to mobilize Christians in that effort.  The dissenters, the “Confessional Christians,” were courageous (among them Dietrich Bonhoeffer) but relatively few.  The stories and the pictures make clear that the bulk of the Church’s structure collaborated with—often with enthusiasm—the horrors of the Nazi regime.

I remember a response a theologian once gave to a member of an audience he was addressing.  Why, the question went, are Europeans so secular?  Why are they not churchgoers?  He spoke a bit about the Church’s role in the Third Reich and then answered the question with a question in return: why would people feel attracted to an institution so compromised?

Luther and the Universal Declaration

After spending a couple of days with friends, both old and new, at the Gustav-Stresemann-Institut, I’m once again struck by how wide a swath Martin Luther cut through Western culture.  My friends, among them Erik Bettermann, whom we awarded with an honorary doctorate a few years ago, are not, like so many Germans, highly secular.  They are all sympathetic to Christianity, even in some cases being Christians themselves.  Erik loves to tell the story of his mother, a devout Catholic, carrying him to a nearby Lutheran church to be baptized because Allied bombs were falling on Cologne and she didn’t know if Erik would survive the war.

But what’s interesting is the secular interpretation of Luther.  For my German friends, religious as well as not, the political influence of Luther, or, more accurately, of Protestantism is the thing.  The emphasis on the individual, on independence from authority, is what means that they can live in a democratic state alongside other democratic states.

I rarely have a conversation with a German about Luther that doesn’t quickly turn to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  I remember how strongly this struck me when I visited Bonn for the first time years ago with Travis Bockenstedt and Shelby Granath.  In many of the hotel rooms in Bonn lies a small paper copy of the Universal Declaration, just as one might find a Bible or a Book of Mormon in an American hotel room.

Of course, Bonn is a “U.N. City,” housing a large presence of United Nations workers in the buildings formerly occupied by the German government, which decamped for Berlin after reunification, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Nevertheless, the Germans draw a straight line between Luther’s insistence that individuals have the authority to interpret Scripture and the United Nations’ “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” as the “foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” (

Another puzzle for me is that, although Germans speak of it often, I rarely hear of the Universal Declaration in the United States.  To be honest, if I hadn’t come across it in a course on international relations when I was in college, I doubt that I’d know a thing about it.  And yet, our country played a key role in securing its adoption by the U. N. General Assembly on December 10, 1948; the drafters had in mind FDR’s Four Freedoms as they were putting the thing together—“freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want”; and our own Eleanor Roosevelt, as the U.S. representative to the U.N., championed it.

The Universal Declaration expresses the “shared values” between the United States and Germany that my German friends invoke so often.  They are grateful to Luther, and they are grateful to the United States for their opportunities to live those values.

Since I came across Montaigne as an undergraduate, I’ve been taken with his Essais and the attitude they exhibit. Typifying a central characteristic of the Renaissance, Montaigne relied not on experts but on his own judgment to attempt an understanding of the human condition.  He tested topics; he tried out ideas; and he experimented with thought.  

In graduate school, I was trained differently; as a professional philosopher, I was expected to exercise caution, to prize objectivity, to say only what the evidence supported, and to avoid expressing personal–that is, unwarranted–opinions.

I’ve shied away from writing my own essays, for to do so runs against my grain.  It’s like walking a tightrope without a net below.  The form doesn’t really admit the posture of objectivity; nor does it allow one to hide behind an authority.  One simply puts thoughts out there for everyone to see.

But I never ceased to admire Montaigne and his intellectual adventure.  I’ve often thought that the essay is the appropriate genre for us all, for it best matches human capacities.  With Montaigne, all mortals can reasonably ask, “What do I know?”  Or, with Socrates, we might even declare, “I do not know anything,” with the emphasis on know.

Blogging reminds me of Montaigne. Frightening and yet somehow suited to human finitude, blogging calls on one to be personal, even subjective. 

As I’m about to commence a journey through Lutherland with a group from Wartburg, I’m planning to test the essay format in this blog.  Part travelogue, part meditation, I’ll offer my thoughts as simply what they are: thoughts.  Out there for everyone to see.