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Has the Bonhoeffer Moment Finally Arrived?

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. November 6, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. November 6, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Not too long ago, political events in our country led a sector of the American population to conclude that a cultural apocalypse was looming. The nation these men and women knew and loved was endangered by cultural shifts they neither approved of nor understood. As faithful Christians, they scrambled to discern the times. Naturally they summoned to memory Christian heroes who had courageously kept the faith when facing similar crises. I'm referring, of course, to the summer of 2015.

As it became likely that the U. S. Supreme Court would overturn legal barriers to same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, these Christians were convinced the time had come for bold resistance. If the apocalyptic character of this historical moment tended not to register with moderates and liberals, it's because this was not our apocalypse.

I took note, if only because a handful of Christian leaders, including the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, rallied their followers to action by declaring a "Bonhoeffer moment in America" -- a reference to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the German theologian murdered by the Nazis for his role in the anti-Hitler resistance. As a Bonhoeffer scholar with an interest in the uses to which the theologian's legacy are put, I was fascinated by the phrase "Bonhoeffer moment" -- particularly since it emanated from a segment of American Christianity not known for its affinities with twentieth-century Continental theology.

Fast forward eighteen months. Many Christians disturbed by Donald Trump's election after a campaign steeped in racism, misogyny and xenophobia are searching for guides to faithful action. As in 2015, those familiar with Bonhoeffer's life and legacy are wondering how the German theologian might help us negotiate these perplexing times. No one is more attentive to this question than professional Bonhoeffer scholars.

At a meeting of the International Bonhoeffer Society that convened ten days after the election, many expressed concern mingled with caution. On one hand, those of us who study Bonhoeffer are acutely aware of how poorly the Christian churches responded to Hitler in the immediate aftermath of the Nazi revolution, when effective resistance might have been possible. On the other hand, we are suspicious of glib comparisons between Nazi Germany and whatever political uncertainty Americans happen to be facing (including the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples), particularly when Bonhoeffer's name is invoked to make the parallels appear credible.

This caution notwithstanding, I am one Bonhoeffer scholar who thinks the German theologian has much to say to us during this unsettling time in our political history. The first thing Bonhoeffer compels us to recognize is that Trump is not Hitler. Bonhoeffer knew Hitler and the evil he perpetrated more intimately than most Germans, eventually gaining knowledge of the crimes we associate with the Holocaust. It was this knowledge -- not differences in political ideology -- that led Bonhoeffer to conclude that Hitler was "Antichrist" and to support a series of plots to assassinate him. Claiming that Trump is our Hitler may give voice to the outrage and betrayal many of us feel at the recent election results, but it neither does justice to history nor makes thoughtful analysis possible.

Second, Bonhoeffer reminds us not to be surprised by the enthusiasm with which some Christians are greeting the Trump "revolution." As Mary Solberg's recent translation of documents from the "German Christian" movement in A Church Undone compellingly demonstrates, with a few notable exceptions Protestant Christians' responses to Hitler's "seizure of power" in 1933 ranged from cautious hope to giddy enthusiasm. For many Christians, Hitler's quirks and lack of refinement were overshadowed by his promises to restore law and order, reassert the church's cultural relevance, put the country back on par with its international rivals, and generally make Germany "great again." Christians emerging from the economic and psychological morass of Weimar Germany were so enamored of the Nazi vision that they ignored what appear to us as flaming red flags, perceiving only the bright dawn of German redemption.

Bonhoeffer saw things differently, of course, and we like to think that all faithful Christians were as discerning. The reality, however, is that Bonhoeffer's early antipathy toward Hitler was regarded with irritation by most Christian leaders in Germany, even among those who opposed the church's nazification. Bonhoeffer's contemporaries, in fact, viewed him as an unreasonable partisan who was too uncompromising in church disputes, too quick to criticize the fledgling Nazi state, and too pessimistic about Germany's auspicious future under Hitler. If American Christianity seems dominated at the moment by Trump enthusiasts and those taking a wait-and-see approach, Bonhoeffer's experience suggests that we should not be surprised.

Third, Bonhoeffer helps us see that complacency has now become a "racial privilege." Bonhoeffer recognized with extraordinary clarity what was at stake for the church in the immediate aftermath of Hitler's accession to power: The effort by "German Christians" to align themselves with Nazi racial ideology by establishing a racist Volkskirche ("people's church") that excluded "non-Aryans" had precipitated a confessional situation that threatened the church's very essence. Bonhoeffer's response was the bold declaration that he could not serve a church in which membership or ordination had become a "racial privilege."

This is powerful testimony in the wake of an election whose victor ran on a platform of racial demagoguery. Whatever positions Trump may stake out in the coming months, we cannot forget that he came to power reiterating promises that appealed to the most racist and xenophobic elements of the American electorate, promises that have instilled anxiety and fear in millions of Americans. As this election campaign fades from memory, those of us who do not feel personally threatened will be tempted to become comfortable in our racial (or gender or religious) privilege. Bonhoeffer reminds us that this sort of complacency is incompatible with faithful Christian witness.

As Bonhoeffer wrote in "The Church and the Jewish Question" a few weeks after Hitler summarily dismissed "non-Aryans" from their civil service positions, "the church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society -- even if they do not belong to the Christian community." These words were too radical for the Protestant pastors who first heard them, many of whom left the room in protest. Will we respond more courageously to the prophetic voices among us when President-elect Trump begins to repay the ideological debt owed to those who helped elect him? If he fulfills his promise of creating a registry of American Muslims, will those who claim Bonhoeffer as a guide be among the first to protest--perhaps by being the first in line to register?

Evangelical Christian leaders could proclaim a "Bonhoeffer moment" in 2015 because those whom they were seeking to rally had come to perceive the German theologian as a defender of their own values. Given American evangelicals' traditional ambivalence toward Bonhoeffer, this shift in perception calls for an explanation. The major factor, I think, is the success of Eric Metaxas's 2010 book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Through the book's commercial success (it is rumored to have sold over a million copies), its endorsement by evangelical leaders, its dubious claim that the theologian's legacy had been craftily hijacked by liberals and radicals, and the author's nearly constant presence on social media, television and radio, Metaxas has succeeded in fashioning a portrait of Bonhoeffer that American evangelicals recognize and embrace.

So when Metaxas became a vociferous advocate for a Trump presidency, it is quite likely that a good part of the 80% of the evangelical electorate that helped elect him viewed their choice as not only morally defensible, but prophetic. The Bonhoeffer scholars I know do not respect Metaxas as an interpreter of Bonhoeffer and view his invocation of Bonhoeffer in support of Trump as an egregious misappropriation of the theologian's legacy. But in a cultural environment characterized by suspicion of credentialed elites, members of the Bonhoeffer guild must to do more to establish our credibility than refer to our degrees and publications. We have to make a careful case that thinking with Bonhoeffer during this fraught time in our political history means embracing our responsibility to those under threat, those who, like the Jewish victims of Nazism Bonhoeffer alluded to in Ethics, are the "weakest and most defenseless brothers of Jesus Christ."

In October, after Trump's notoriously misogynist "locker room" rant had become public, Metaxas used an editorial in the Wall Street Journal to double down on his bid to convince repulsed Christians of their obligation to pull the lever for Trump. Invoking his hero, Metaxas reminded readers that "the anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer also did things most Christians of his day were disgusted by," refusing to let his decisions be governed by a desire for "moral pur[ity]." However we evaluate that pre-election advice, the time is past for judging Trump on the despicable things he said during the campaign. The stakes now are much higher. Trump is no longer a candidate whose comments and opinions "many think odious" (as Metaxas conceded in October), but a president-elect whose policies and appointments have the potential to do real existential harm. In my view, at least one of Metaxas's references to Bonhoeffer remains relevant: "God will not hold us guiltless."

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