How Could I Fall for This?

Editorial by Art Dewey

From The Fourth R
Volume 29, Issue 6
November – December 2016
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Does the name Ludwig Mueller evoke any historical echoes in you? Unless you are a student of a particular phase in twentieth-century history or have a German uncle so named, you probably haven’t a clue. For the last twenty years I have been using Mueller’s paraphrase of the Sermon on the Mount as an exercise in close reading and analysis. I present to my students Mueller’s prefatory remarks and the actual paraphrase. I note that it is a translation but do not mention from what language. Nor do I identify the author. I also indicate that I have changed some words so that the historical context would not be immediately obvious. The task before the class is to determine if the paraphrase gives a valid interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. There is a bonus for correctly identifying the author, at least within a ballpark possibility.

The results of the exercise have been remarkably consistent over the years. The vast majority of students, before guessing wildly who the author may be, tend to rush through the analysis. Despite my directions, few actually compare the paraphrase word for word, phrase by phrase with the Sermon on the Mount. It is not laziness that usually produces this quick paced reading. No, it is greatly due to how they have been trained so far to be successful in their education. They move through the sentences and paragraphs as they did for their college entrance examinations: look for the general idea and move on to the next task. Even when some (a minority of all the readers) actually compare the paraphrase with the Matthean text, they still focus their attention on finding the “general idea.” They have scanned and identified; what more needs to be done? Indeed, they conclude that the paraphrase is a valid interpretation precisely because both the paraphrase and the Sermon on the Mount carry the “same, general idea.”

The only demurring comes from students who pick up the obvious political tone of the paraphrase. This is quite clear when Mueller turns “Congratulations to those who work for peace” (Matt 6:9) into “Benevolence to those who maintain peace with members of the nation.” Or when “Our ancestors were told” (Matt 5:33) becomes “A national law, the holy tradition.” And even this addition to Matt 5:39: “National community is a high and sacred trust for which you must sacrifice.”

But their resistance comes from the assumption that the Sermon on the Mount is not political. It is religious. Thus, in their understanding, turning the Sermon into a political direction would be a disservice; at least it would limit its scope. But that is usually where the more perceptive stop. They fail to connect what seem to be rather telling phrases such as: “You carry it in your blood and your fathers have taught you” (instead of “As you know, our ancestors were told”); “You shall not commit assassination … (he) destroys the national community”; “You must hold the honor of God, of your nation and your own honor so high.” Nor do they ask what often is the most important question: what is missing from the paraphrase? You only gain a true sense of any text when you can see what is not there. It is rather telling in this instance that any inkling of a Jewish connection has been jettisoned from the entire paraphrase.

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Now I should note that some do see that the shrewd peasant wisdom of “turning the other cheek” has been muted to stoic advice (Be civil … be calm and composed … take pains to attain a noble and calm attitude toward an offender”). And many note that a patriarchal tone pervades the entire piece (e.g., “Benevolence to him who bears his suffering manfully”). But few put all these things together.

In fact, the majority agrees (using Mueller’s own words) that this paraphrase “presents Christ’s challenges as they really are.” They even note that there is an apocalyptic tenor in the concluding words of the preface: “the chief executive is trying to save the world from the edge of the precipice.” It is at this point (especially when no one has sniffed out what this text is doing—usually only one out of thirty catches it) that I disclose the German behind “chief executive” as Der Fuhrer and that national community really was National Socialism. Once this sinks in, then everything quickly changes. They begin to distance themselves from this “great venture of faith in a politics … characterized by the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount.”

I then go briefly into the sad and soon-to-be forgotten history of the author. Enamored with Hitler and Nazism since the early 1920s and a leading member of the “German Christians,” Mueller was elected as Reich bishop, although he proved to be an inept leader and a disappointment to the Fuhrer himself. His efforts to purify the Christian tradition of its Jewish roots resulted in the emergence of the “Confessing Church” that stood courageously against the idolatry of Nazism. Loyal to the end, Mueller committed suicide soon after the defeat of Germany.

Once everything is made known, it becomes quite easy to put this entire exercise away on the shelf of past history. That is why I refrain from divulging all at once. I prefer that each student stumble and learn from those telling missteps. I never grade what they write but I make copious comments on each page. Some even admit they are embarrassed for missing so much (“How could I fall for this?”). But they are hardly alone in colluding with a piece of propaganda. Nor are they the only ones who read what they want into words crafted to lead them into a world of concentrated chaos.

Recent events in our country have shown how easy it is for so many to fall for such a political sleight of hand. It takes courage to stop accepting the feckless folly that foists itself on us and to remember why human beings continue to think deeply and have compassion. It means not settling for some prefabricated reality show that keeps on playing the “same general idea.” It means taking the time to connect the dots and to detect wisdom where no one cares to notice.

Photo of Arthur Dewey

Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (forthcoming 2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.