Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Mission Muffins

I recently read about this ministry on a post at the Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics ( IFWE article ). Mission Muffins is designed to “empower homeless and employment-challenged individuals to start new lives full of hope, meaning and achievement,” ( Mission Muffins ).This is a ministry located in Washington DC that sells muffins to nearby office buildings.  Their employees learn baking, retail, marketing and business skills.  They are able to stay Central Union Mission’s homeless shelter and save their wages while they look for permanent housing.  At the same time, they are treated with respect, a recognition that each individual has inherent, unique skills and talents that are worthwhile.  They are taught basic business skills, such as accounting and marketing, as well as soft business skills, such as punctuality and respect for authority.  

The backgrounds of individuals involved in the ministry includes different levels of personal struggles; some have served time in jail, some have been drug dealers, some have been homeless, some have suffered from trauma or depression.  They have learned that they can, regardless of their struggles, have success and value as individuals through their interactions at Mission Muffins. 

I think one of the biggest takeaways I had of this ministry was the recognition that change can occur, when we are willing to work together and treat people as individuals.  The ministry is not about “fixing” people, it is about helping individuals who have come to a point where they recognize they are broken, meeting them in mutual brokenness, and working to show that regardless of anyone’s past there can be value in the future.  Mission Muffins does this through learning the value of labor based on a person’s skills, transitioning from a focus on dependence (“Will work for food”) to responsibility (“Will Work for my Future”).  

The efforts of many community members to make the “Bridges Out of Poverty” program a success locally are centered around some of these same goals.  I encourage you to look at the IFWE article, as well as the Mission Muffins website, and be encouraged to see how people can work together as a community to become stronger as a whole.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Danger of Personality Leadership

I recently finished reading Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who was ultimately executed within weeks of Germany's surrender I World War II for his role in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and attempt to bring about a negotiated settlement with Britain.  Dietrich functioned as an advisor during the plot, and also passed information along to Britain through his international contacts in an attempt to inform the world of the atrocities occurring in Germany.  At one point, he assisted in helping several Jewish individuals to escape from Germany as well.  

This was the second time I have read this 500+ page biography, and there are many components of it that are personally challenging for me.  Due to its size and complexity, it is difficult to do a short evaluation of all its themes.  Both times through the book, though, I have been struck by Hitler's ability to force his will on the country so quickly; it has caused me to think about the events that occurred in Germany leading up to and through World War II.   

Hitler became the elected chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, though his Nazi party was still a distinct minority in political representation.  Two days later, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio speech in which he discussed the problems of leadership by a Fuhrer, explaining that this type of leader will become an idol.  Prior to reading this book, I did not realize that Der Fuhrer meant "the leader", nor, more importantly, did I know that there was a popular concept called the Fuhrer Principle.  This principal had to do with a flawed concept of leadership.  The flaw had to do with its source of authority.  The Fuhrer principle found its authority in the leader himself, a self-derived, cult of personality that was autocratic, submitted to nothing, and acknowledged no weakness within itself.  Interestingly, Bonhoeffer contrasted this with a true leader, a leader that recognized that there is an ultimate authority for power outside of himself, a leader that serves others and leads others to maturity.  The entire speech, though not specifically aimed at Hitler, was prophetic in warning of the dangers that were soon to follow.

In response to the burning down of a government building, known as the Reichstag fire, in 1933, The Reichstag Fire Edict was signed, officially suspending those sections of the German constitution that guaranteed individual liberties and civil rights.  The legislative body (the Reichstag) subsequently passed the Enabling Act on March 23, 1933, and Act that formally took away their powers, abolished their existence, and transferred their power to the Chancellor (Hitler).
Soon after this, on April 7, 1933, what was known as the Aryan Paragraph took effect, under the politically correct title of "Restoration of the Civil Service."  Among other things, this act required that government employees be of "Aryan" stock, and that anyone of Jewish descent would lose their job.  Churches, who operated under a national church-state structure, were required to exclude people of Jewish descent from ministry as well.  Bonhoeffer was among the few who stood up to confront this path as a pastor and theologian.  For those familiar with Dr. Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail, they would find many parallels to Dr. King's distinction between the foundation of just and un-just laws, and the role of people of conscience to oppose laws that are un-just.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was involved in communications with FDR's administration during these months, warning them of the ominous changes occurring in Germany.  Based on mandates of the Reichstag Fire Edict, Bonhoeffer was guilty already through this action of treason, yet he bravely moved forward with this and more over the ensuing years.

The Aryan Paragraph approved on April 7 1933, along with a government-organized boycott of Jewish businesses, were followed by increasing persecutions of Jews (along with the mentally and physically disabled, and others as well).  People of Jewish descent began losing their jobs with private employers under government coercion.  Government action on April 22, 1933 let to Jews being prohibited from serving as patent lawyers, or working as doctors in institutions with state-run insurance.  Jews began losing positions as universities in May, Jewish dentists lost the ability to work in institutions with state-run insurance, and spouses of non-Aryans began to be targeted by these policies within months.  September 29, 1933 saw Jews banned from all cultural and entertainment activities.  October saw all newspapers placed under Nazi control, and all Jews required to lose their positions in this field as well.  

Another pernicious change occurred at the same time.  In May 1933, Gleichschaltung began to be promoted; this concept was a requirement that everything in German society had to be in line with the Nazi worldview - no dissenting opinions.  This included books (anything that promoted other ideas was eventually eliminated/burned) and ideas (anyone with ideas that did not match the "appropriate"  worldview were dismissed from positions in government, hospitals, universities, and a multitude of other places as time went on.  People were spied on to ensure that their attitudes matched the party's ideology).  Germany was well on its way to the death camps of the next few years.
This book has continued to challenge me to question how similar issues could play out in our country.  How susceptible are we to following a leader that refuses to bow to any authority other than their own personality? How willing are we to exclude people based solely on their race, religion, lifestyle, or beliefs?  How willing are we to exclude the teaching of ideas in schools because they don't match the worldview that is considered politically correct?  All of these are things that are present in our culture, and probably have been present in almost all communities around the world and throughout time to some extent.  How do we keep them, though, in check?  Those are all questions that trouble me, and determining what my response should be when I see them arise is difficult as well.

Metaxas' book on Bonhoeffer had a couple of pointed ideas to keep in mind in this evaluation.  The first has to do with the theologian, Martin Niemoller, who initially took steps to pacify or work with Hitler.  Why did he do this?  Metaxas didn't go into great detail on Niemoller's decision, yet there were some things that stood out in the narrative.  For one thing, Hitler was highly popular with the public at large, and played to their passions and personal desires.  I think there was also some level of trying to work within the power system that was present at the time.  Years later, though, after ultimately finding himself in a concentration camp, Martin Niemoller penned the following words:

                "First they came for the Socialist, and I did not speak out--
                because I was not a Socialist.
                Then they came for the Trade Unionist, but I did not speak out--
                because I was not a Trade Unionist.
                Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
                because I was not a Jew.
                And then they came for me--
                and there was no one left to speak for me."

 The second idea that Metaxas touched on was the thought process that Dietrich Bonhoeffer went through as he tried to evaluate how to respond to the cult/leadership of Hitler.  One quote that is emblematic of his thoughts in this matter is as follows:  "If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction."  The point that Bonhoeffer was making is that being part of something that is fundamentally wrong, where there is no avenue to bring about change on moral grounds, is fruitless.  The point made by Niemoller is that a decision to wait and go along with the flow when immoral actions are taken against others is that those same immoral actions may be taken against you as well.

How do you determine what is fundamentally wrong?  I would encourage you to read the book and develop your own understanding of that.  There is much time and attention given to the dangers of a leader acting under the strength of their own personality and the dangers inherent in demonizing or belittling a group.  At the same time, I encourage you to read Dr. King's Letter from Birmingham Jail.  The discussion in Dr. King's work is an excellent development of how to determine the difference between just and unjust laws.

I hope you can find the opportunity to ponder the thoughts raised by these individuals, and determine how best to implement them in your life, and within our community.