German federal election, 2017

Dedication

You whom I could not save Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another. I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words. I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal. You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one, Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty; Blind force with accomplished shape.

Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge Going into white fog. Here is a broken city; And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave When I am talking with you.

What is poetry which does not save Nations or people? A connivance with official lies, A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment, Readings for sophomore girls. That I wanted good poetry without knowing it, That I discovered, late, its salutary aim, In this and only this I find salvation.

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds. I put this book here for you, who once lived So that you should visit us no more.

Czesław Miłosz, Warsaw, 1945.

What curses doth the law denounce

Discussed in this essay:
  • Philippians 3:4b–14
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

‘Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.’

Sisters and brothers,1 who among you has deliberately killed someone? When did you last set fire to a car? How many of you steal bottles of wine from the supermarket?

Why not, exactly?

I’m sure you can think of many reasons that you’ve never done such a thing and never would. And the strongest ones come easily: that’s against the law. Only a criminal would do such a thing. I’m not an arsonist or a thief. It is easy to consider things in these categories: criminal, law-abiding citizen; illegal equals wrong, convicted equals evil. It is harder to consider them critically.

I

We think of ourselves as law-abiding citizens, people who live according to the democratically legitimated rules of society and who derive from that a demand of others that they do the same. I abide by the traffic laws, and all the drivers around me had better do the same. I don’t steal from the supermarket, always buy a ticket before I get in the U-Bahn, I don’t piss in people’s doorways. And that’s what I expect from the people around me. And if I manage to fill out my tax return every year and get it in complete and on time, Uli Hoeneß2 ought to be able to do the same. And if I don’t appreciate someone’s behaviour, I complain respectfully and matter-of-factly according to the established procedure, instead of just punching him in the face. This mutual self-restraint sows peace, makes society possible. Not for nothing to they speak at graduation from Harvard Law School of the law as being the ‘wise restraints that make men free.’

The law makes possible many of the things that are fundamental to our peaceful and prosperous lifestyle. It is the origin of ownership and property. It legitimizes our enforcement of these rights against others. It balances the imbalance of power: ‘I have been called to give justice a status in the country’, wrote Hammurabi in the first code of laws in human history, ‘that the strong should not overcome the weak’. Our rules and the legal system they create are the precondition – but also the product – of our society and culture.

II

So it was, too, for the Pharisee Paul. Living in the diaspora, a strictly observant Jew surrounded by goyim who were at best unmoved by God’s instructions, his observance of the law of the Torah was a central element of his identity. Identity as it differentiated him from others, and identity as it anchors and gives the self a sense of security.

And for him, God’s instruction through the laws of the Torah were comparable with our statutes. In the orthodox society in which he lived, they were generally recognized as binding. They determined the functioning of society in almost every facet of daily life. They decided the procedure for resolving disputes. And he could have lost everything if he had broken them.

The laws passed by our parliament have a different source of legitimacy, to be sure. And they no longer seamlessly transition into provisions on correct religious practice. But they organize and bind us because we recognize them as legitimate under the rules of the legal system, and that gives them the same position in our society as the Tora had in Paul’s.

III

But Paul doesn’t seem to think much of this tool for social ordering. He was ‘blameless’ under the law, and it brought him nothing, he writes. ‘Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss.’

Brothers and sisters, these are not the words of a law-breaker, nor of someone who no longer loves the law because the grapes have become sour. This is not the complaint of an Uli Hoeneß who has come to regard German tax law as a loss. No, these are the words of a law-abiding citizen whose enthusiastic compliance has not led him to redemption, who eats and eats at the buffet of obedience and good behaviour and yet remains hungry.

And so I ask again: we all feel anger – why hasn’t anyone here murdered someone? Wine bottles fit so nicely under the Geneva gown – why don’t I swipe them from the supermarket?

Those questions are easy rhetoric. You’ve already recognized what I’m getting at: it is not because they’re illegal that I do not do these things, but because they are wrong. And that becomes clearer upon closer examination of the real degree to which we abide by the law. Even the pillar of society tends to speed a little now and then, crosses the street when the light is red, or maybe even lets his ID card lapse without renewing it. If the law doesn’t engage our sense of right and wrong, it’s not so important after all.

Might it be, brothers and sisters, that right and wrong are not determined by the law, but by something else?

IV

Paul distances himself from laws with whose legitimacy he no longer identifies and from which he as a Christian no longer profits. The Torah is no longer a part of his identity, has become foreign to him. But we as Christians are also Germans and Europeans. The law is ours, has developed from our Christian culture. We cannot so easily turn away from the law and toward Christ.

But our laws sometimes also conflict with the message of the Gospel. On our first day legal persons, a member of the people of Europe from the tribe of the civic-minded, we are capitalists born of capitalists; as to the law, obedient citizens; as to zeal, though, Frontex-tolerators, free-trade supporters, social-welfare cutters, and deporters to Afghanistan. Our laws secure and enable prosperity, yes, but only at the expense of the global South. And through the gaps of our indifference fall even our most fundamental human rights when it comes to things like those affected by German economic activity abroad.

Yet the Gospel continues to make its radical demands, continues to confront this worldly injustice. The Gospel is the reason that we eat and eat at the buffet of prosperity, of the variety of consumer goods, of the safe streets and the affordable fuel and of the exploitatively low-priced groceries yet always remain hungry.

V

My intention is not to start a revolution with the Letter to the Philippians as its manifesto. But I want to sweep aside the easy and false freedom we take for ourselves to take the urgency and the solvability out of the injustices of the present time by pointing to their legality. Paul breaks from his old life by no longer looking at the Gospel through the lens of the Torah, but at the Torah through the lens of the Gospel.

So must we as Christians under the modern rule of law look critically at our constitution and statutes through the lens of the Gospel. We must dissolve the lazy association between law and morality and meet our fellow humans as equals who, no matter how foreign or far away, carry the same spark of the divine in them as we do. Only on that basis can we sensibly organize a society through laws.

Beloved, not that I don’t rely on the law when it makes things easy for me. I do not consider that I have found a solution for every political problem in our world in the Gospel. But this one thing I know: we must forget the bourgeois illusions that lie behind us and strain toward a society ahead that reflects the justice of the Gospel. The love of Christ constrains us to do so. And no Christian has the right to obey, if we take seriously the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. ‘For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.’ Amen.


  1. To the Master of Theology students of the University of Marburg, Summer 2017. Translated from the German by the author. [back]

  2. Sometime national football player, immediate past president of FC Bayern München and, for a German audience in 2017, the most recognizable and notorious large-scale tax evader. Replace as appropriate. [back]

“This land is not the sweet home that it looks”

In Praise of Limestone

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones, Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath, A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle, Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain The butterfly and the lizard; examine this region Of short distances and definite places: What could be more like Mother or a fitter background For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting That for all his faults he is loved; whose works are but Extensions of his power to charm? From weathered outcrop To hill-top temple, from appearing waters to Conspicuous fountains, from a wild to a formal vineyard, Are ingenious but short steps that a child’s wish To receive more attention than his brothers, whether By pleasing or teasing, can easily take.

Watch, then, the band of rivals as they climb up and down Their steep stone gennels in twos and threes, at times Arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step; or engaged On the shady side of a square at midday in Voluble discourse, knowing each other too well to think There are any important secrets, unable To conceive a god whose temper-tantrums are moral And not to be pacified by a clever line Or a good lay: for accustomed to a stone that responds, They have never had to veil their faces in awe Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed; Adjusted to the local needs of valleys Where everything can be touched or reached by walking, Their eyes have never looked into infinite space Through the lattice-work of a nomad’s comb; born lucky, Their legs have never encountered the fungi And insects of the jungle, the monstrous forms and lives With which we have nothing, we like to hope, in common. So, when one of them goes to the bad, the way his mind works Remains incomprehensible: to become a pimp Or deal in fake jewellery or ruin a fine tenor voice For effects that bring down the house, could happen to all But the best and the worst of us… That is why, I suppose, The best and worst never stayed here long but sought Immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external, The light less public and the meaning of life Something more than a mad camp. ‘Come!’ cried the granite wastes, ‘How evasive is your humour, how accidental Your kindest kiss, how permanent is death.’ (Saints-to-be Slipped away sighing.) ‘Come!’ purred the clays and gravels, ‘On our plains there is room for armies to drill; rivers Wait to be tamed and slaves to construct you a tomb In the grand manner: soft as the earth is mankind and both Need to be altered.’ (Intendant Caesars rose and Left, slamming the door.) But the really reckless were fetched By an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper: ‘I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing; That is how I shall set you free. There is no love; There are only the various envies, all of them sad.’

They were right, my dear, all those voices were right And still are; this land is not the sweet home that it looks, Nor its peace the historical calm of a site Where something was settled once and for all: A backward And dilapidated province, connected To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain Seedy appeal, is that all it is now? Not quite: It has a worldy duty which in spite of itself It does not neglect, but calls into question All the Great Powers assume; it disturbs our rights. The poet, Admired for his earnest habit of calling The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle, is made uneasy By these marble statues which so obviously doubt His antimythological myth; and these gamins, Pursuing the scientist down the tiled colonnade With such lively offers, rebuke his concern for Nature’s Remotest aspects: I, too, am reproached, for what And how much you know. Not to lose time, not to get caught, Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these Are our common prayer, whose greatest comfort is music Which can be made anywhere, is invisible, And does not smell. In so far as we have to look forward To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead, These modifications of matter into Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains, Made solely for pleasure, make a further point: The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from, Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

W.H. Auden

“The killers were probably young men”

“In Solingen brannte ein Haus, Frauen und Kinder verbrannten. Betroffenheitsadressen wurden abgegeben. Ratlosigkeit herrschte vor. Wahrscheinlich waren die Mörder Jugendliche. Sie haben ihren Hass gegen das Ganze, gegen uns gerichtet – und Muslime getroffen. Wer vergiftete sie? Wir. Die Jugendlichen fielen nicht von einem stinkenden Stern, sondern wuchsen unter unseren kalten Händen auf. Wir, traditionell auf dem rechten Auge blind, verniedlichten doch die Nazischweinereien. Wir hatten drei Jahrzehnte anderes zu tun, als unserer Jugend Rede und Antwort zu stehen. Wir lehrten sie den Gebrauch der Ellenbogen, wir ersetzten Rückgrat und Anstand durch die harte Mark – und wundern uns. Wir werden uns verrückt wundern. Johannes Rau hat schon recht, wenn er sagt: ‘Wir können Gesetze schaffen und anwenden, wie wir wollen. Findet keine Veränderung in den Köpfen und in den Herzen statt, sind wir verloren!’ ‘Die Stadt liegt wüst, und die Häuser sind ohne Menschen’, sagt Jesaja.”

A house was burned down in Solingen, and with it women and children burned alive. There were expressions of sympathy; dumbfoundedness the order of the day. The killers were probably young men. They turned their hate against us, against everything, and it hit Muslims. Who poisoned these young men? We did. They didn’t fall from some stinking star; they were raised by our cold hand. In our traditional blindness toward the right, we called their Nazi thugishness cute. For thirty years, we busied ourselves with things other than forthright conversation with our children. We taught them to use their elbows, replaced backbone and decency with hardness, and now we’re astonished. We can astonish ourselves to death. Johannes Rau was right when he said that we can ‘pass all the laws we want, but if hearts and minds don’t change, we’re finished.’ Isaiah wrote: ‘the city is waste and without inhabitants, and houses without man.’

from the sermons of Peter Baier (1934-1996).

Do we not all feel the tug of some distant, eccentric perturber?

“On the day before the press announcement on Planet Nine, Laughlin told me that he was feeling nervous. “I’m worried whether it’s out there,” he said. “This morning, I was having trouble focussing on the task at hand. My thoughts were being drawn to this massive, frigid object in the outer solar system that might or might not be there.” He added, “I believe there’s a 68.3 per cent chance that it’s there. That’s the perfect frustratingly plausible yet not-assured chance. It’s perfectly tuned for maximum mystery and a heightened sense of possibility.” Do we not all feel the tug of some distant, eccentric perturber? Give it a name: God, mathematics, a parent, a child; the search for truth, or peace, or beauty. “We haven’t seen it,” Brown said of Planet Nine. “But we have felt it.””

A poetic meditation on some regions of Germany

1

Rural and milquetoast, unprepossesin’ — that’s Hessen.

2

By the end of his youth, every last Swede has been to Berlin.

3

Fleischfabriken, Bäckereiketten und Landarztpraxen: Niedersachsen.

4

We inherit our parents’ money and faults in the Pfalz.

5

Ditched the Church for the altar of one team’s footballin’: Westfalen.

6

Strip off your nouveau-riche protestant guilt! This is Sylt!

7

Ohne allzuviel dauerhaften Gehirnschaden geht Baden.

8

I shall say something nice: there is no malaria in Bavaria.

A new translation of the Little Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther

Part III: The Our Father.

When the story broke about an advert featuring the Lord’s Prayer being rejected by the two chains that control 80% of the UK’s cinema screens because it (a) might cause offence, and (b) anyway, they customarily do not show ads with political and religious content, a couple of thoughts came to mind. First, that, as Richard Dawkins (!) said, anyone offended by something as innocuous as a prayer deserves to be; second, that this prayer goes to the same issues of bodily and spiritual health and worthiness that other, obviously more permissible UK adverts routinely do; and third, that I’ve been meaning to translate Luther’s Little Catechism into English for a while now, even though, to paraphrase the misattribution to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, I speak German to God, French to Geneva bartenders, Swedish to my WoW guild, and English to my horse. This seemed like as good a time to start as any.

Part Three. The Our Father.

The address.

Our father in heaven.

What is this?

God beckons us to believe that he is our true father and we his true children, so that we approach him confidently and sanguinely as loving children do their loving father.

The first plea.

Hallowed be your name.

What is this?

God’s name is, it’s true, holy in and of itself. But in this prayer we plead for it to become holy within us, too.

How does that happen?

Wherever the word of God is taught sincerely and purely and we live according to it in holy lives ourselves like the children of God. Help us do that, loving father in heaven! But he who lives and teaches other than as the word of God teaches desecrates the name of God among us.

The second plea.

Your kingdom come.

What is this?

God’s kingdom will come by itself even without our prayer, but we plead in this prayer for it to come to us as well.

How does that happen?

When the heavenly father gives us his holy spirit, that we believe his holy word through his grace and live according to it during time here and in eternity over there.

The third plea.

As your will is done in heaven, so let it be done on earth.

What is this?

God’s good, gracious will is done even without our prayer, but we plead in this prayer that it is also done unto us.

How does that happen?

When God breaks all bad counsel and ill will and hinders those who deny the holiness of the name of God and seek to prevent his kingdom’s coming: the devil, the world, and the desires of the flesh. God strengthens and keeps us fast in his word and faith until our end. That is his good, gracious will.

The fourth plea.

Give us our daily bread today.

What is this?

God gives bread to every fallen human with or without our prayer, but we plead in this prayer that he lets us recognize this and that we receive our daily bread with gratitude.

So what is daily bread?

Everything that life and the body requires, like food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, yard, field, livestock, money, goods, pious spouses, pious children, pious servants, pious and loyal governors, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honor, good friends, supportive neighbors, etc.

The fifth plea.

And forgive our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

What is this?

We plead in this prayer that the father in heaven prefer not to look at our sins and not reject our pleas because we are sinners, for we are not worthy of that for which we pray, and have not earned it; rather, he gives us what we pray for out of mercy, even though we sin every day and have earned nothing but punishment. Thus do we want our forgiveness to be heartfelt and do good unto those who sin against us.

The sixth plea.

And do not lead us into temptation.

What is this?

God tempts no one, but we plead in this prayer, that god protect and preserve us so that the devil, the world, and the desires of our flesh do not betray us and lead us into disbelief and desperation and other great disgraces and burdens, and if these challenge us, that we eventually win and maintain our victory.

The seventh plea.

Rather, save us from evil.

What is this?

We plead in this prayer that our father in heaven redeems us from evil and every affliction of the body and soul and of honor and goodness and that finally, when our moment has come, grants us a blessed end and lifts us in mercy from this valley of tears and brings us to him in heaven.

The resolution.

For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours in eternity. Amen.

What does “Amen” mean?

That I should be certain in the knowledge that these pleas are received with fondness and heard by the heavenly father. For he himself instructed us to pray in this way, and promised that he would hear our prayers. Amen, amen. That means: yes, that’s how it should happen.

An oral history of the Nintendo “Game Counselors”

“They rented every limo in western Washington. They thought they’d get around it by having the party on a Sunday night, which always kind of sucked. Most people made arrangements and didn’t have to work the next day. They had limos to and from for everybody. It was nice to be treated like that, at that age, and having all this great fun, but also be treated in a way that I’ve rarely seen since then, as far as corporate stuff. While there was still that political stuff within the ranks, the upper management – to me at least – was very fair.”