To reassure John Kass that many of his fellow Americans will happily discuss religion and politics, I gladly accept the invitation to his July 4th barbecue party (“Let’s talk about religion over the 4th, even if we’d rather not,” June 24). If it’s all right with him, I’d like to bring along a friend of mine, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’ve spent some time reading Bonhoeffer’s books, and I think Kass would like him — at least, at first.

Well, I can’t really bring him. You see, he was both a theologian and a preacher in World War II Germany, and the Nazis, under the direct orders of Adolf Hitler, hanged him at the Flossenburg concentration camp on April 9, 1945 — with allied guns booming nearby. Fortunately, he leaves us a high stack of writing, notably his book “Ethics.” Mr. Kass, you’ll be relieved to know that he confesses Jesus Christ as his personal lord and savior — indeed, as the savior of the world — and that he speaks directly to religion and politics.

To him, they’re the same thing. “The church,” he says, “is the church only to the extent that it serves others.” You see, Bonhoeffer watched the German Lutheran Church — his church — stand by while Hitler consolidated power. He saw that church agree to recuse itself from any social involvement or commentary in exchange for Hitler’s promise that the church would be able to conduct its services undisturbed. Even as the Nazis confiscated Jewish property, set up Jewish ghettos and implemented the Final Solution, the church stood by, secure within its own walls, adhering to its beliefs. This, Bonhoeffer says, is the sin of the church. Christianity is irrelevant to the world if it rests on belief alone.

You say, Mr. Kass, that “[t]he basic tenet of Christianity is the belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God and that, without that belief, salvation is impossible.” Bonhoeffer looks at the question a different way. What does Jesus say is the essence of the law and the commandments (our political imperative, if you will)? “Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.” When asked to clarify who the neighbor is, Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan.

You’re familiar with that story, Mr. Kass, so I won’t go through it all again, except to say that the story calls into question the value of belief in isolation. The Levite and the priest both share the sufferer’s beliefs, but they keep to their side of the road and pass by. The Samaritan, from a group so poorly regarded that we call this story the good Samaritan (perhaps to distinguish him from all the bad ones and their improper beliefs), crosses the road and renders aid.

Here’s where you yourself might want to change the subject, Mr. Kass. You advocate a belief system in which Muslims, while “standing condemned,” are not “bad people who deserve to be mistreated.” Bonhoeffer would press you on this point. Is that all that faith is? Believing for salvation? He would point to Jesus, who says, “Inasmuch as you do it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do it for me.” “It” means tending to the sick, visiting the imprisoned, feeding the hungry — reaching out in love to people who are different from you. And who are Jesus’ brothers and sisters? See “good Samaritan, story of.”

Thanks for your hospitality, Mr. Kass. The ribs were great. They show that your heart’s in the right place.


Peder M. Engebretson, of Minneapolis, is a teacher.