Johann Christoph Arnold interview: Finding happiness in aging

HIS WISDOM about family life and peacemaking has circled the globe; more than a million copies of his books have sold in dozens of languages. Now, the aging teacher and peace activist Johann Christoph Arnold turns to lessons about the spiritual treasures of—aging itself. In an inspiring and fun-to-read new book, Rich in Years: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Long Life, the spiritual head of the Bruderhof community shares what he has learned from his own life—and the lives of many other people—about finding happiness in old age.

“Old age”—it’s a phrase avoided like the plague in most books about growing older, which are aimed mainly at avoiding or denying the aging process. But, Arnold always has been a radical teacher and, in Rich in Years, he explores the provocative idea that happiness can grow even as our bodies lose our youthful physical abilities. Talk about counter-cultural teaching!

Arnold was raised in a radical, courageous tradition. His grandparents—Eberhard Arnold and Emmy von Hollander Arnold—were deeply inspired by the Salvation Army movement in Germany in the early 20th Century. Later, they gathered with friends and launched a new kind of communal Christian community, based on Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Their Bruderhof (place of brothers) was founded in 1920 along with a famous magazine now called Plough. The Arnolds eventually learned of another communal Christian community with roots in the 1500s, the Hutterites, and Eberhard visited their communities in North America as he shaped the new Bruderhof.

The Bruderhof’s pacifism and defense of religious minorities in Germany, including the Jews, led to Nazi persecution. Eberhard Arnold died in 1935 after a procedure in a Nazi-run hospital and the entire movement fled outside of Germany, eventually resettling years later in the U.S. The official Bruderhof website describes the group’s history and its life, today, in more detail.

Arnold, now 73, has been an almost Zelig-like character—present at many milestones of peacemaking since the mid-20th century. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; he traveled occasionally with Pete Seeger; he has met and talked with world leaders in many settings, including at the Vatican.

Here are highlights of ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm’s interview with Johann Christoph Arnold …


DAVID: Let’s start with a little bit about the Bruderhof today. I don’t see a membership total online. And what is your title with the group?

JOHANN: I am the senior pastor. The community I’m in is about 350 people. We have around 35 communities all over the world. We are about a total of 3,000 people.

DAVID: I also see various short “bios” of you online, but most aren’t up to date. What are the numbers now? Your age? Your number of grandchildren?

JOHANN: I’m 73. We have 43 grandchildren and one great grandchild.

DAVID: And, here’s one more question that’s so common that your website addresses it in a video: What’s the difference between your communities and the Amish?

JOHANN: There are a lot of similarities, but we really believe in going out to all people and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus—just like Jesus asked his disciples to go out into all the world. The Amish are more withdrawn.

DAVID: You’ve got YouTube videos featuring Bruderhof men and women talking, on screen, about the movement. That’s a big difference between you and the Amish.

JOHANN: We believe in using technology, providing it really serves God and his kingdom.

DAVID: You’re one of the most prolific authors in America. So, do you use an e-reader these days?

JOHANN: No, I do not read e-books. I like to have a real book in my hands. A real book is a thrill to hold! We have a huge library of books. We believe in libraries of real books and not in e-book libraries.

DAVID: I know that you are very proud of your history. Your newest book, which we are recommending today to readers, quotes your grandfather in a couple of sections. But I wonder: Today, in 21st-century America, what kind of connection do you feel to the founders of your movement so long ago and far away?

JOHANN: I would say there are many, many similarities. In my grandparents’ time they did speak out against Hitler and for the Jews and that took a tremendous amount of courage. The German people were gripped by fear—and there was a real threat of being sent to concentration camps. So, when people spoke out, as my grandfather did, this took real courage.

My family did have to flee Germany. We eventually had to go to Paraguay and then because of a dictatorship there, we came to America because we believed here in America we could practice our beliefs. And, to a large part, this was possible.

Sadly, American society today also is gripped by quite a bit of fear, since 9/11 in particular. Fear binds people. Fear shuts up people. We need courage today to lift up the true American spirit. … I see too many people who try to stand up for something today finding that they are marginalized. So, yes, what we are experiencing today in America has similarities to what my grandparents experienced.

DAVID: The Bruderhof is known as a “peace church” and you have been personally involved in peace and civil rights movements. You marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the South. You’ve been involved in anti-war movements. Do you see yourself as an isolated voice coming from the Bruderhof? Or do you see yourself as part of a larger community of activists?

JOHANN: We are very much part of a much, much bigger picture. God is great. God constantly creates something new, something moving. We want to be involved wherever we can work with people, together, for a more positive society.

Pete Seeger was a friend of mine and one of the last things he did was to review my newest book, Rich in Years. I was with Pete Seeger at many rallies over the years, against the death penalty and on other peace issues. He was an incredible man! If anyone should have won the Nobel Peace Prize, it should have been Pete Seeger. He was a man of peace and I thank God that I knew him and worked with him.

(After his recent death, ReadTheSpirit published a tribute to Pete Seeger’s life.)

‘Another day to love and to serve’

DAVID: Your way of talking about the peace movement—serving people wherever there is a need—touches on the central theme of your newest book, Rich in Years. That book is about what I would describe as “the gifts of aging.” The subtitle says it’s about: “Finding peace and purpose in a long life.” And the most important lesson you teach in this book is: As we age, our happiness depends on the service we provide to others.

Toward the end of this new book, you write about your relationship with your grandmother, later in her life. There’s even a lovely photo of her in the book, leaning down so a little girl can kiss her cheek. With the photo are Emmy’s words: “Each morning when I wake up I am happy because I have been given another day to love and to serve.” She was quite a model for you, wasn’t she?

JOHANN: My grandmother’s life was incredible. Here was a woman who was only married for 27 years and then lived as a widow for 46 years and she had a great dignity. People just loved and appreciated and flocked to her. She had an incredible long life and her memory was pretty much good until the very end. She died when she was 96.

I am thankful that we spent so many years with my grandmother. My grandfather died in a Nazi hospital. He had a leg fracture and then there was a surgery, and he never recovered from that. He died. It was never quite proven what happened, but I do know that the Nazis definitely had an eye on my grandfather. But my grandmother was able to flee and lived a very long life.

DAVID: Such a person, who survived Nazi threats and was essentially driven as a refugee around the world as a result, might have wound up quite bitter about life, quite fearful. But that was not the case with your grandmother.

JOHANN: She had very happy years right up to the end of her life.

DAVID: And, in your book, you point out why you think her life was so happy.

JOHANN: She was so happy because my grandmother believed in service; she believed in doing good deeds for anyone she encountered: a child, a grown up, a guest. She constantly was thinking of other people. In that way, she was an incredible inspiration to me and to many others. She left a legacy for younger people, today, that if you want your life to count for something, you will serve as a role model to others. Throughout her life, she was a role model to thousands.

DAVID: I have been reporting on religion and spirituality for nearly 40 years and in my library of books about the spiritual side of life, I can find very few that focus on the “gifts of aging.” Most books on aging are about how to avoid it or to deny it. The main example from this other point of view is Joan Chittister’s book, The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully.

Why did you decide to write such an unusual book—about the gifts of aging?

JOHANN: My wife and I, whether we like it or not, are also becoming senior citizens so we thought it was time to explore this and to contact other senior citizens to see how they made out. I was richly rewarded in realizing that—these old timers who have been married for 40, 50 or 60 years—they were able to do this because they had a firm belief in God and believed in what I call the old values.

I did find another book about aging that I found very helpful: Billy Graham’s Nearing Home: Life, Faith and Finishing Well. I found that book incredible. It inspired me. I read it before I started writing this book and it was inspiring to me as I put my own book together.

DAVID: Your book radically challenges our assumptions as Americans about what aging should be like. There’s a popular TV advertisement, these days, in which the actor Tommy Lee Jones is selling a financial-planning service and asks viewers: “Can you keep your lifestyle in retirement?”

For most Americans, that involves a whole lot of consumption. We measure our success largely by how much we own and can afford to keep buying. Instead, your book argues that real success—real happiness in life—depends on how much service we provide to others.

JOHANN: Yes, David. And I include stories about people who have found this to be true. There’s a story in the book about Vincent and Jean DeLuca, an elderly couple I met when Vince was in his 60s. They ran a family business until they both were in their 80s. So here are two people, who left their business in their 80s—but they didn’t sit home. In the book, I write: “Now that they are no longer in business, they spend their days volunteering locally, mentoring younger volunteers and inspiring them to work hard in whatever vocation they might choose. As Vince and Jean get older and physically weaker, it seems they get spiritually stronger.” This is an incredible story.

DAVID: That’s really a central theme: even as they get physically weaker, they get spiritually stronger. You tell about lots of other people, in this book, but let’s bring this back to your own life. You’ve lived a life of service yourself.

JOHANN: When my wife and I married, we decided that our marriage would be one of service to other people, via counseling, teaching, working together with others and enjoying being with other people. We have now been married for 48 years and in many ways, life is getting lovelier each day. Life is not boring! Every day you find new outlets where you can share with someone a little bit of joy. Jesus said that if you simply give a stranger a cup of water, you will be rewarded in heaven and that is our hope. However long God has for us, we can make a slight difference in somebody’s life with each day we have.

‘Forgiveness … frees us.’

DAVID: This is such a refreshing message in a world where people often talk about the rampant fear and anxiety in our lives. This leads me to the central theme of your other recent book, Why Forgive? Before people are able to free themselves up to embrace this life of service you describe, a lot of us have to get past these heavy weights we carry around of hurt and anger, right?

JOHANN: Yes. Fear and anxiety are so widespread today. But you know, Alan Paton, the famous South African writer said that if an injury has been done to you, no matter how heinous, there is only one way to recover and that is to forgive. That is the kind of message that I and others have been trying to get out to Americans, and trying to get into our schools. And, when I have been out speaking about this, I have seen a real hunger for forgiveness and for nonviolent forms of conflict resolution.

DAVID: A common misconception about forgiveness is that it’s the same thing as conflict resolution. But it’s not. In your writing—and in other classic writing on forgiveness—this process is really about us, as hurting individuals first. We forgive by giving up our lingering thirst for vengeance. We give up our hurt, to the extent that we can. And we do this, whether the offending party participates in reconciliation—or not.

When we publish this interview, we’re also going to publish a column by the writer Benjamin Pratt about forgiveness, which he describes as “Clearing Boulders.”

Forgiveness begins inside each of us. Am I saying that correctly?

JOHANN: If we don’t forgive, we die of a cancer of bitterness and the cancer of bitterness kills as thoroughly as any other threat to life. Bitterness can destroy the lives of the most beautiful people simply because they cannot forgive. When I am in front of groups at schools, I say, “When we forgive: Everybody is a winner. When we don’t forgive: Everybody is a loser.” This is simply the message of Jesus. In Matthew, chapter 18, Jesus says we should forgive 70 times 7 times.

DAVID: You’re talking about love replacing bitterness.

JOHANN: Wherever the love of Jesus overwhelms one person, the angels in heaven will rejoice and that is something to be thankful for.

If someone really does a grievous thing against me, then I have a choice of either being very hurt, very offended, wanting justice at all costs—or forgiveness. But first I have to realize that it is wrong for me to carry all of this bitterness around with me. We must realize: If I forgive my enemy, then I am not doing my enemy any favors. The one I do a favor to is myself.

If I don’t forgive, I am a bound person. I am consumed by the person who has hurt me. I am consumed night and day by him. If I forgive, I let go of all that. I do myself a favor by forgiving. That’s difficult to understand for many people.

DAVID: In Why Forgive? you pose the challenge this way: “Forgiveness is power. It frees us from every constraint of the past, and helps us overcome every obstacle. It can heal both the forgiver and the forgiven. In fact, it could change the world if we allowed it to. Each of us holds the keys to forgiveness in our hands. It remains to us whether or not we choose to use them.”

‘Wherever people start working together’

DAVID: Are you an optimist about America and Americans these days? Or are you worried about our future?

JOHANN: That’s a beautiful question. I have always been an optimist all my life, even when things looked very very bad. Wherever there are people there is reason for optimism because God is at work in every human heart and can change it in an instant. Wherever people start working together, there is reason for optimism. One of the most optimistic guys I met was actually Pete Seeger. He was always was optimist and always saw hope and always was excited about something new. In the same way, I want to be excited about new things each day.

DAVID: You often speak to children and youth. What are you trying to teach them?

JOHANN: I have been in schools where there were thousands of students sitting in gymnasiums in bleachers and filling the floor and what thrills me in this sea of faces is seeing each child’s face. What we need to understand is that each one of these children is a unique story. We need to show interest in the stories of other people, of each person. When I talk to these groups, I say: “I am here because your story is important.” Then I point out to them role models they could look to: Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa. I tell the children: “You will become the world’s next leaders. It is important that you grow up to become the next role models.”

This all begins with thinking of other people, first. There is a reason and a purpose to life in this world—and the time we live in this world is so short, David, so short. Even if we live a long life—it is so short. We had better be active each day, doing something of service to others.

DAVID: I think we’ve come full circle, talking about your life and your work and your two most recent books. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

JOHANN: Tell your readers that they are in our prayers. For us, prayer is the strongest weapon that God gave us in our arsenal to use and it is the most underused weapon. With prayer we can change the world.


Sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker is devoting a series of columns—in The OurValues Project, this week—to the value of helping others. In his first column, he reports on a five-year University of Michigan study that shows significant benefits in the lives of people who choose to help others.


Johann Christoph Arnold edited the volume in the Orbis Modern Spiritual Masters Series that collects his grandfather’s most important writing. The book, Eberhard Arnold: Selected Writings, is available from Amazon.

You also can learn more about Rich in Years at The Plough website.

Johann Christoph Arnold’s colleagues report the following about the historic Plough magazine: “Plough Publishing House, founded in 1920, is an independent publisher of books on faith, society and the spiritual life. We’re based in Walden, New York, with branches in the United Kingdom and Australia. After 12 years online-only, Plough is re-launching in 2014 with a fresh team, enthusiastic backing, and a mission to contribute to the renewal of both church and culture. In addition to serving up views and insights online, we’ll launch the Plough Quarterly, a new magazine with in-depth essays, stories, poetry, and reviews. To be notified of developments, sign up for Plough’s weekly updates.” (See the lower-right corner of this Plough homepage.)

The Plough editors add: “Appearing in print and digital editions, Plough Quarterly aims—in conjunction with Plough’s books and online publishing—to build a network of readers and writers with a common vision. As an ecumenical magazine, it will regularly feature Catholic, evangelical, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Anabaptist, Quaker, and Jewish contributors, as well as occasional Muslim, Buddhist, humanist, and other voices who in fresh ways bring out aspects of Jesus’ message.”

(This interview was originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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