Proper 18 (September 4-10)
Texts: Luke 14:25-33;
WHITE NATIONALISM AND THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP
Hate your father and mother, son and daughter?! Are you kidding me? What is Jesus talking about?! You might remember that three weeks ago (Proper 15C), the Gospel Reading has Jesus saying, ‘I didn’t come to bring peace but division between father and son, mother and daughter.’ Wow, these two passages belong together.
Oh, wait, in Matthew’s Gospel they are together — in Matthew 10:34-39. It is part of a longer passage on the challenges of being followers of Jesus. Shortly before these verses that are paralleled in Luke 12 and 14, Matthew’s Jesus tells them, “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name” (Matt 10:21-22). Matthew also softens the ‘hate your father and mother’ part just a bit. Instead of “hate,” Matthew has Jesus say it this way: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37). Still, it’s quite clear in both Matthew and Luke that Jesus warns would-be followers that being his disciples can be costly.
In fact, this is where Luke’s version helps us. The cost of discipleship. Luke adds a bit that Matthew doesn’t include which forms the second part of today’s Gospel Reading. It’s literally all about counting the cost before choosing to follow Jesus. Jesus uses examples from everyday life: calculating costs of building a tower before building it, or a king anticipating possible losses of troops before battle. He concludes by giving the literal cost: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” In both Matthew and Luke, the point is clear: following Jesus as his disciple can be a costly venture.
In 1937, under the rising shadow of Hitler’s white nationalism, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer published a book titled Nachfolge in German. We would translate nachfolge in English as “discipleship,” but the German word is two German words brought together, literally, “following after” — which, of course, is exactly what discipleship is, following after someone, doing the things they do. If that someone’s life culminates in being executed on a cross, then following after might mean taking up our own crosses — in other words, being willing to be persecuted for taking up the same mission. Bonhoeffer’s book on discipleship focuses on four chapters in Matthew’s Gospel: the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, 6, and 7, and the chapter on how following Jesus can get you persecuted and cause divisions in family — Matthew 10, the chapter in question this morning with the parallels in Luke 12 and 14.
But Bonhoeffer’s book on discipleship begins by coining a phrase that you may have heard before: “cheap grace” vs. “costly grace.” For German Lutherans who were too easily falling in line behind Hitler’s white nationalism, he challenged their lack of discipleship to Jesus as “cheap grace.” He begins the book,
Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace as bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament; grace as the church’s inexhaustible pantry, from which it is doled out by careless hands without hesitation or limit. It is grace without a price, without costs. . . . Cheap grace means justification of sin but not of the sinner. Because grace alone does everything, everything can stay in its old ways. “Our action is in vain.” The world remains world and we remain sinners “even in the best of lives.” Thus, the Christian should live the same way the world does.1
You can hear Bonhoeffer chiding his fellow Lutherans for too easily following the ways of the world, the ways of Hitler’s white nationalism. When he begins to articulate the opposite of “cheap grace,” he says this,
Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of which people go and sell with joy everything they have (Matt. 13:44). . . . It is the call of Jesus Christ which causes a disciple to leave his nets and follow him (Mark 1:16-20). . . . It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live. It is costly, because it condemns sin; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s Son — “you were bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20) — and because nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God. Above all, it is grace because the life of God’s Son was not too costly for God to give in order to make us live. God did, indeed, give him up for us.2
If you look this book up on Amazon, you may see that an older version for many years had an English title The Cost of Discipleship.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I propose to you that, if we read the signs of the times (part of the Lukan passage three weeks ago), we are finding ourselves in another moment in history where we need to choose between cheap grace and costly grace. We need to risk choosing the cost of discipleship of Jesus Christ. There are some in the church raising the prospect that we are in a “Bonhoeffer Moment,” another moment in history when fascism is on the rise. There is no denying the rise of white nationalism in our time over the past five to ten years. The folks who marched in favor of confederate statues in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 were happy to call themselves white nationalists. We are finding that the main groups who launched the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 are also happy to call themselves white nationalists. They are the same folks who are now talking civil war if the former president is indicted for anything. And so we have found that divisiveness in our politics and in our nation is as bad as it’s ever been. It breaks apart even families. Many Thanksgiving celebrations have become tense in recent years. There are real instances of family members no longer or rarely speaking to one another. In many other families, politics have become a forbidden topic of conversation.
And, yes, this kind of divisiveness is now found in churches, too. So what do we do with that? Do we make politics completely out of bounds at church? Should we never talk about things like the rise of white nationalism? Or do passages like this morning’s point to the fact that following Jesus can be costly, can even be divisive, even though Jesus came precisely to bring the whole human family together. In fact, it’s precisely because his mission is to ultimately bring the human family together that he came to confront forces of division like Jew vs. Gentile in his day, or, in our time, white nationalism.
Three weeks ago, when we were challenged by Luke’s version of Jesus coming to bring division between father and son, mother and daughter, I shared the anthropology that has changed my life. It is an anthropology which I believe Jesus came to reveal to humanity and to give his life for. He came to show us why and how we are so divided. To the extent that we have solidarity with family and nation, for example, that solidarity is based on being over against others. We have peace and harmony by being united against Them.
I talked about two basic categories of violence. The first category comes about somewhat naturally (though not necessarily) from the way in which we desire things. Because we catch our desires from each other through subconscious imitation, we end up rivals for the same objects of desire. The rivalry then begins a spiral downward into envy, resentment, anger and conflict, and finally to violence. The Ten Commandments imply this fall into sin if we see the breaking of last commandment about “coveting” as leading to the breaking of those before it. The biblical word for catching our desires from each other is “covet,” desiring according to our neighbors — which then can lead to things like slander (Ninth Commandment), theft (Eighth Commandment), adultery (Seventh Commandment), and murder (Sixth Commandment).3 Because this descent into violence stems from subconscious imitation of the desiring of others, we can call it mimetic violence — the word “mimetic” having the same root as “imitation.”
The second category of violence is the violence we say is OK to try to contain the mimetic violence. It’s things like systems of laws and armed police forces. But this second category of violence then also becomes institutionalized and so becomes part of our cultures and societies. It is a sanctioned and institutionalized violence which in most societies was also justified by religion, and so had the aura of being a sacred violence. Most importantly, it is a violence vital to us because it helps to keep the mimetic violence from tearing our families apart. It helps to propel the mimetic violence outwards against some other enemy. It is the basis for all Us-vs-Them thinking.
We can see this precisely in situations like the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The post-WWI hardships had many families stressed and falling apart in Germany, so they were ripe for someone like Hitler to unite all the white families together again by giving them other enemies. ‘It’s all the fault of the Jews,’ said Hitler. White nationalism arises out of these kinds of circumstances. It is a violent form of Us-vs-Them thinking which unites Us over against Them.
If Jesus came to unite the human family, then he had to confront this kind of dangerous thinking, which in his day was posed in terms of Jew vs. Gentile. He had to expose the ultimate dead-end of sacred, sanctioned violence, which keeps the human family forever divided against itself in endless wars. And since his discipleship is founded on giving us loving desire to imitate — thereby also addressing the roots of mimetic violence with an extraordinary desire of loving everyone, even to the point of loving our enemies — then he himself could not use violence to expose and begin to neutralize sacred violence. Instead, he gave himself over to that violence on the cross, and because God raised him on Easter with the power of life stronger than death, Jesus was able to launch God’s kingdom based on love and forgiveness — a kingdom based on costly grace.
If we are to follow Jesus in confronting those same forces of political violence in our time, then we must take up our own crosses. We must risk persecution from those who insist on the sacred violence of Us-vs-Them thinking. We live in another ‘Bonhoeffer moment’ in history in which the costly grace of the Gospel urges us to stand up against the evils of authoritarianism and political violence. The world needs our power of love to turn the tide. Let’s end as we did three months ago toward the end of Easter, with the inspiring words of Martin Luther King, Jr., from his sermon on the strength of love:
To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. . . . But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’ — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from his sermon “Loving Your Enemies,” published in his book Strength to Love.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, September 4, 2022
1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4 (Fortress Press, 2001), pp. 43-44; originally published in German as Nachfolge in 1937.
2. Ibid., pp. 44-45.
3. There are two traditions of counting and thus numbering the commandments. One tradition (most Protestants and Jews) counts the opening commandments on having no other gods and on making no idols as two separate commandments and all the instances of coveting as one, final commandment. The other tradition (Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans) count having no other gods and making no idols as a single First Commandment and then split the commandment on coveting into two. So, basically, all the commandments between the first and the last are numbered differently in these two traditions. I think the former tradition is more likely the original one and have used that numbering here.