Our Bonhoeffer Moment

Alfred Hrdlicka, <em>Dietrich Bonhoeffer. </em>Bronze, 1987.
Alfred Hrdlicka, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bronze, 1987.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer would be 111 today. He probably won’t get a Google doodle. He only lived to be thirty-nine; he died in a Gestapo prison in 1945, just weeks before the collapse of the Nazi regime and eight days after Easter.

As a 27-year-old intellectual prodigy—he took his doctorate in theology at 21 from what is now Humboldt University in Berlin—Bonhoeffer wasted no time coming to conclusions about the ascendance of the Nazi party. Within days of Hitler's accession to power, he was on the radio speaking out against the new regime. Within a few months, his focus—as an ordained Christian pastor—was a full and unflinching critique of Hitler’s repression of the Jewish people.

Ordained after spending a year in New York, Bonhoeffer was no meek and mild cleric. The son of a respected German family, he traveled easily back and forth to England and the U.S. as Germany sank deeper into the grip of Nazism. Returning to Germany he was drawn by family connections to join the Abwehr, the intelligence agency that harbored conspirators determined to dislodge Hitler from power. Denied the right to teach and publish, he was finally arrested in 1943, and had been in prison more than a year when the plot to assassinate Hitler failed—and the long list of co-conspirators, including his name, was revealed.

Bonhoeffer stands as a saint for our own age. He did not seek first (or at all) to make himself a spiritual celebrity, but rather to live by the claims of his faith in a morally fraught age. When church leaders around him welcomed the chance to restore lost prestige by allying themselves with an ascendant political power, he was resolute in seeing, and speaking clearly, the dictates of a religiously informed conscience.

What Bonhoeffer held firmly to was the idea at the core of the scriptures he read—the equal dignity of all humans, the equal propensity of all of us to fall into error, and the equal need of all to acknowledge their moral frailty.

This moment in our politics has been described as a “McCarthy moment” for Republicans. But for Christians, this is our Bonhoeffer moment. It is a moment of profound choice as to where our allegiance rightly belongs.

Bonhoeffer lived in a church that had lost considerable moral authority, not least because of the disaster of the first World War. We, too, are members of churches that have lost considerable moral authority—because of our own failings around the behavior of clergy (a fault not reserved to Roman Catholic priests); because of our too-ready willingness to issue judgment rather than mercy; because of our internal contentions over just who has the authority to speak the “Christian view” on any given issue (a problem in which the media, let it be said, has been somewhat complicit); because of the misalignment of our own institutional structures with the radical equality we claim to stand for.

It is that lost authority that makes this our Bonhoeffer moment. For too many in the church, “Make America Great Again” has the appeal of a restored Christian ascendance in our political and popular culture—the days of television Christmas specials, no school sports on Sundays, and the comfort of religious superiority once conveyed through what Robert Bellah called America’s civil religion.

What has already become apparent in this moment is that at least some leaders of Christian communities have chosen to cast their lot with the new administration in the hope of renewed influence and proximity to power. They see, in a man plainly in profound need of some kind of moral window-dressing, an opportunity for a bargain—absolution, or at least a blind eye, for influence.

But that would not be Bonhoeffer’s choice. It would not be the choice of a man who had a firm grasp on what he believed with deep certainty to be eternal truth, and on the strength of it was unmoved by the shifting ground of “truth” fashioned by the powers of the day. And it would not be the choice of a man who understood that the claims of his faith compelled him to stand with, and not against, the persecuted and vulnerable.

To Mr. Trump’s skillful manipulations of reality, Bonhoeffer made a prescient reply:

“In this question of truthfulness, what matters first and last is that a man’s whole being should be exposed, his whole evil laid bare in the sight of God. But sinful men do not like this sort of truthfulness, and they resist it with all their might. That is why they persecute it and crucify it.”

Hard words to hear in an age uncertain about the idea of God, and unwilling to take seriously the universal possibility of evil in every human heart. Harder still in a day of fractured communities to gather around these ideas a movement of moral resistance.

But they state without nuance the terms of the choice those of us left in the church may well now face. So happy birthday, Dietrich. We have not forgotten your example.

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