Wednesday, September 24, 2014

John Steinbruck and the Challenge of Peace

We are on this planet to exemplify that light, that bread, that living water, those metaphors that Jesus used, to live out the truth in a non-violent way, simply to do justice, live justly, try, in the space over which you’re responsible . . . to create an oasis . . . to which the stranger can come and find refuge. – Rev. John F. Steinbruck
Long before he became an ordained Lutheran minister and a champion of the church as a place of refuge, John Steinbruck was taught a pivotal lesson on the sacredness of life. As a young teen in the early 1940’s, he purchased a Red Ryder spring-action BB gun with money earned from cutting lawns and setting up pins at the local bowling alley in his Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood. Only a few years past the Great Depression, with Americans fighting and dying in far-off lands, young John was proud of his new purchase and impatient to use it. He saw a beautiful red-breasted robin land on a bush behind his house. John aimed and fired, killing it with instant precision. As the bird fell to the ground, its eyes misty and body warm to the touch, John felt the disproportionate power a weapon provides.

But there was another witness. Ann, an elderly Catholic woman, slow moving and handicapped in speech, who lived behind the Steinbruck home, had watched from her back window as young Steinbruck ended the life of one of God’s creations for no apparent reason. Ann told John’s mother what she had seen, expressing her shock and hurt for what the young boy had done to such a vulnerable and innocent living thing. Mrs. Steinbruck, equally upset when she learned of her son’s conduct, immediately shelved John’s BB gun until he learned and understood the cruelty of his act.

America was then in the midst of World War II. Gold Stars of young men killed or missing in action hung in the windows of many of the city’s row homes as a testament that death in war was painfully necessary for the greater good. But it took a simple, elderly Christian woman of weak body and limited speech to teach Steinbruck that life is sacred, a gift from God; it possesses dignity and demands reverence. To take an innocent life for simple pleasure, even a small, ordinary bird in a bush, is morally and ethically wrong, a violation of God's will. It is a lesson he never forgot.

Steinbruck came of age during the Second World War, when suffering and sacrifice for a greater cause were part of the American fabric. He had seen what the devastation of war did to soldiers and their families. He watched his father struggle physically and psychologically from severe wounds inflicted during the First World War. Then, as a teenager during the 1940’s, Steinbruck witnessed the devastating news delivered to many local families as they were told that their sons, husbands, and brothers had paid the ultimate sacrifice. Too young to serve and fight himself during the war, Steinbruck enlisted in the Navy in December 1948 at the age of eighteen. He went off to boot camp a month later and commenced two years of peacetime service. He would eventually attend college and seminary and commit to a life of urban ministry.

Inspired in part by the life and work of Albert Schweitzer, Steinbruck devoted his life to putting his faith in action with a theology modeled on what he called the “sacred obligation” of “welcoming the stranger.” He came to recognize that, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The task of a human being is to represent the Divine, to be a reminder of the presence of God.” He embraced the Quaker teaching, “There is that of God in everyone.” As described in a previous essay (“A Saint in the City: The Life, Faith, and Theology of John Steinbruck”), and in Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart (Bookstand Publishing 2011), Steinbruck’s talents and passion for justice eventually led him to Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, DC, an historic red-stone church centrally located in the city’s red light district, with prostitutes and pimps patrolling the street corners just eight blocks from the White House.

In 1970, when Steinbruck became the Senior Pastor at Luther Place, the area surrounding 14th and N Streets was full of crime, drugs, and racial strife. It was here that Steinbruck developed and put into practice a non-violent theology of welcoming the stranger, of treating life as God intended us to.  But Steinbruck believed in the power of faith grounded in justice to transform the lives of individuals and the nation. “As we are hospitable to each other,” he said to me a few years ago, “we will thrive as a country.” His passion for justice is based in part on Matthew 25:35 (“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”). These are not just nice sounding words, according to Steinbruck, but God’s commandment that we treat all of humanity, including the “least of these,” with love and compassion, an imperative reinforced not by Karl Marx, but by Acts 4:32-35 (“…and it was distributed to anyone as he had need”).

I first met Steinbruck in 1986, when I heard him preach and knew immediately that Luther Place was a church to which I could belong. Steinbruck preached with power and charisma and, with the help of a socially conscious and politically active congregation, gave witness to biblical hospitality, opening the church doors each night to hundreds of homeless women. Long before I arrived, Luther Place and an interfaith coalition of supporters in the community had created what came to be known as the N Street Village, an impressive collection of homeless shelters, health clinics and counseling centers that served to re-unite families and transition them from homelessness and drug addiction to recovery, work, and self-sustaining independence.

*     *     *     *

Steinbruck will turn 84 in October. His health in serious decline, he suffers from Parkinson’s and was recently diagnosed with cancer. He has slowed considerably from the days he shook up the halls of power in the nation’s capital. I have been privileged to occasionally speak and correspond with Steinbruck since leaving Washington in the mid-1990s, and after he and wife Erna retired to Lewes, Delaware. During these talks, and through his emails and correspondence, I have sensed Steinbruck’s growing frustration with the Church as an institution and America’s inability to reflect seriously on issues of justice, inequality, and peace. “We live in a bubble in America,” he often reminds me, “oblivious to other people’s suffering. We consume like hell, an insatiable greed. Yet are you aware there is a war on?”

Steinbruck contends that the majority of self-proclaimed Christians in the United States misuse and distort the Gospel and the nature and spirit of their stated religion. “We mix religion and patriotism very shrewdly,” he says. “Our society uses the stamp of Jesus to sanctify a system based on inequalities and military might.” But the purpose of Christianity and religion is not to make us feel good, he insists. It is instead to spur us into action to make the world better, more just; to impose God’s vision of shalom and justice on Earth.

Recently, Steinbruck sent me a draft of his reflections on peace, or more specifically, the challenge of peace in the 21st century. “Read our theology. Read our Gospel. We are a peace church,” he insisted during a phone call last week. “And yet we have never met a war that the church could not embrace. We have never reconciled that the United States is the most militarized society in the world, and then we tell our kids, ‘Thou shall not kill.’ Excuse me? Is God just giving his opinion?”

“But what do we even mean by peace?” he asks. “Do we mean the absence of conflict? Or do we mean something larger, deeper, more profound, all encompassing? Is it even possible? Would we humans ever allow it?” Steinbruck contends that, perhaps it is time for the human race to try something as radical and revolutionary as peace, that “perhaps it is time that followers of the Prince of Peace call for a spiritual, theological, biblical, ethical caucus.”

During the years I attended Luther Place, Steinbruck regularly reminded his Lutheran flock of the Jewish roots of Christianity, and his sermons often contained traces of wisdom from influential Jewish theologians. In his writings on peace, Steinbruck contends, “The Church and its faithful need to recall the original biblical vision of shalom, and never forget that God has sanctified every human life. Every blessed one! So why then do we easily opt for violence, instead of the creative, reconciling, inexhaustible love we know from the biblical witness, and that we experience regularly in Communion with the Prince of Shalom?”

To Steinbruck, shalom means so much more than simply peace. “In my biblical understanding, shalom is the vision toward which we strive.” It is properly paired with another Hebrew term, tikkun olam, which means “to repair the world,” for it is only by “working together to maintain balance among all of the competing needs of the world’s humanity” that we can ever wish to attain shalom, tikkun olam, and this holistic vision of peace and justice.

Steinbruck writes of one quiet Sunday afternoon in 1949, when as a lowly seaman he was restricted to the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia. He took a long walk along the dock and observed the entire fleet of battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and a nest of submarines, all resting quietly side-by-side. Although America was officially at peace, the dark clouds of the Cold War hovered ever so near and the tranquility of that Sunday afternoon would be disrupted time and again over the next 65 years. Steinbruck re-enacted that solitary stroll thirty years later, in 1979, when he was a Chaplain in the U.S. Naval Reserves. He was amazed at how little had changed. A near-identical assortment of ships and carriers, submarines and cruisers were all there, except now the entire menu of warships was nuclear – nuclear submarines and nuclear equipped aircraft carriers. “It occurred to me then,” he said, “that over the thirty year stretch we had spent more billions than I can count, and I felt not one degree safer.”

Steinbruck wonders today whether it is time to finally ask, “Is this working? Are the trillions of dollars we spend on so-called ‘Defense’ bringing about a more just world?” One can hear the exasperation in Steinbruck’s voice when he begins to go down this path. “I understand history and the complexity of different situations we find ourselves in, but what I am contending is that the church should be constantly grasping and struggling with these issues.” It is a point of contention that resonates with me, for I have often suggested that if the Church and the institutions of faith are not providing a moral voice and aspirational vision for the rest of society, then who will?

Steinbruck’s theology is defined in very simple terms: “The face of God is in every human being. . . . Every human life possesses dignity and demands reverence.” These concepts, says Steinbruck, are “at base in all of our Christian faiths and in Judaism, which is the base of the Christian faith. But what bothers me is that we don’t even struggle to figure it out – we don’t agonize over it. Maybe it’s about time we sweated this issue out.”

Having lived through a state of permanent war in places like Afghanistan, with repeated drone strikes in Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen, and with the United States once again becoming embroiled in another war in the Middle East, Steinbruck ponders if “perhaps it is time to be more demanding of ourselves; what is the reality of the church?”

“Know this,” he says, “the peace we seek cannot tolerate the bombs we drop, or the firing of missiles from above upon innocent villages.” It all goes back to the heart of shalom and the church as refuge. “It is all connected,” he says. “I was hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, homeless, and you welcomed me, fed me, clothed me, healed me, [and] embraced me with limitless love.” Instead of spending trillions on the armaments of death and destruction, why have we not seriously contended with “the malnutrition of our children, the homeless families in need of housing . . . a war oriented economy exhausting vital resources for human survival, in this, God’s world.”

What is our mission, or what should it be? Steinbruck has a suggestion. “It is to walk in peace,” he says, and to recognize the virtue of life and the face of God in all of humanity. “It is time for a moral caucus. To talk to one another. To pray together. And to act in loving witness for the saving of this precious, gifted world.” In the time he has remaining on this Earth, we would do well to listen to John Steinbruck.
What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8



  1. Thank you, Mark, for posting this. I am immediately sending it to my class on The Ethics of Public Leadership tonight. No one has embodied ethics and leadership, inextricably related, more than John. One of the readings for tonight's class is from James MacGregor Burns who wrote about "transformational leadership." These leaders see the bigger picture and pursue higher goals--like justice, liberty, equality. In the process, their followers are changed along the way, coming into a sense of their values (and "higher selves"). Transformational leaders always develop the next generation of leaders, who find, rather than lose, power in following them. That has been our experience of John....

    John taught my classes on Church and Society a few years back when I was on sabbatical. What lucky students they were! But he's still teaching. This crop of seminarians will get a dose of Steinbruck too.

    Thank you, John.

    Katie Day

  2. Mark, thank you for this excellent reflection about John, his witness, and ministry. I was privileged to serve with John at Luther Place from 1973 through 1977. The lessons I learned from him about pastoral ministry, hospitality, and peace served me well over my forty years in parish ministry. It was not always easy to translate those concepts in the congregations of rural Maryland and central Pennsylvania, yet it was and is possible to maintain the witness. I remember with fondness the struggles in working to create the Lutheran Volunteer Corp and the model Betty and I tried to create with Bonhoeffer House in the N Street Village. John was very supportive of our efforts in Bonhoeffer House. Erna was also a great support. Although we have not seen each other very much over the past thirty years, I have continued to follow John’s ministry. I wish John and Erna all the best in the days and months ahead as well all pray for and with them.

    Ken Longfield

  3. Thank you for this post. I was one of those fortunate students taught by John in what I sometimes term "The season of transformation". John was a lightening rod of inspiration, frustration, and self-examination during that semester. He provoked an angst that continues to this day causing me to always question how equipped am I to do what God calls me to, and more importantly, to engage others with the truth of their calling, whether they stand in the pulpit or sit in the pews. Thanks be to the one who lights the darkness. God's blessing be with each.

    Thank you John, my mentor and friend.

  4. Katie, Ken, and Rochelle,

    Thank you for your kind thoughts and reflections on this essay and on the life and service of John Steinbruck. It is people like you that are a testament to how lives and the world can be transformed and made better by those who apply the ethics of Christian love and justice that Steinbruck exemplifies.


  5. Mark- this is a wonderful tribute to John’s amazing life of seeking justice and peace for all. His 27 years of work (along with Erna) at Luther Place and N Street Village was transforming in my life and moved me to continue writing about social justice and to continue to serve the homeless women of DC at N Street Village. Their legacy lives on in our lives and in the lives of so many women who have had life changing experiences at N Street Village. I am happy that on October 26th we will release a book called ‘Breaking Bread’ at Luther Place which documents the stories of Luther Place and N Street Village over these last 40 years with personal reflections by John, the many founders and supporters, and the women whose lives have been transformed at N Street. Peace, Gary