Is this “a Bonhoeffer moment” in American political, cultural and spiritual life? A lot of people, across the theological spectrum, seem to think as much, or at least find the question worth pursuing. A cursory Google search reveals varying views and contradictory interpretations linking Bonhoeffer’s courageous dissent against the Nazis with events and ideas fostered by, but not exclusive to, the Trump Kulturkampf.
German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a major force in the Confessing Church that offered resistance to National Socialism; he led in founding an alternative seminary; and worked diligently to protect and rescue Jews. Accused of plotting against Hitler, he was imprisoned in 1943, and executed two years later. In works such as The Cost of Discipleship and Ethics, his powerful ideas have impacted generations inside and beyond the church.
Liberals have long claimed Bonhoeffer, particularly his reflections on “religionless Christianity.” Harvard’s Harvey Cox opens the final chapter of his classic work, The Secular City (1965), by citing Bonhoeffer’s prison-essayed assertion that, “We are proceeding toward a time of no religion at all”; and his question: “How do we speak in a secular fashion of God?” Conservatives long interpreted Bonhoeffer’s denunciation of “cheap grace” as a rebuke of liberalism’s accommodation to culture at the expense of orthodoxy. (Not that conservatives haven’t pedaled a little cheap grace here and there.)
Recent references to “a Bonhoeffer moment” appeared with evangelical resistance to government legalization of same-sex marriage. Conservative commentator Larry Tomczak wrote in 2015: “And with what’s happening in America, we must get ready to take risks in standing for truth, especially as it relates to marriage. We are facing a ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer Moment.’ You recall that he chose civil disobedience and disobeyed Nazi law that stated that protecting Jewish people was against the law. He was hung for his stand. He also said prior to his death, ‘Silence in the face of evil is evil itself. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.’”
In response, Rhodes College professor and Bonhoeffer specialist Stephen Haynes cautioned against pressing the Bonhoeffer model too far, implicitly advocating violence in a society where, unlike Hitler’s Germany, “free speech and open debate” remain intact. Haynes noted that while “advocates of traditional marriage” had freedom to express their opposition to the court ruling, their use of “hyperbolic slogans” should not suggest that the U.S. government was comparable to the one Bonhoeffer worked to destroy.
Last year’s presidential campaign and election results revived the question of a Bonhoeffer moment as dramatized in Eric Metaxas’ book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (2010). The bestseller again brought Bonhoeffer into the evangelical sphere, made even more controversial by Metaxas’ strong endorsement of Donald Trump for president. He called the election “A Bonhoeffer Moment” for Americans, and urged defeat of “Hitlery Clinton.”
In a Huffington Post response, Professor Haynes observed that most Bonhoeffer scholars “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.” He concluded: “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.’”
To speak of a Bonhoeffer moment does not mean that the U.S. is in the midst of a Hitlerian assault on democracy. Nonetheless:
- when mass murders occur in elementary schools, houses of worship, music festivals, night clubs, shopping malls, and parking lots;
- when Neo-Nazis surround a church chanting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us”;
- when courts find that voting law revisions have racist overtones;
- and Christian leaders respond with contradictory visions of gospel, church and state;
then a Bonhoeffer moment may be at hand.
Bonhoeffer’s insights are worth revisiting when we feel “no ground under our feet,” a situation he describes in an essay written early in his imprisonment, now the first chapter of his Letters and Papers from Prison. In it, Bonhoeffer lists certain noble qualities by which religious people respond to evil, qualities that may become ineffectual when confronting wickedness masquerading as “light, charity, historical necessity, or social justice.”
- “Reasonable people” fail because “in their lack of vision they want to do justice to all sides, and so the conflicting forces wear them down with nothing achieved.”
- Representatives of “moral fanaticism” (intensity) fail because they get “entangled in non-essentials” and fall “into the trap set by cleverer people.”
- People of “conscience” fail because evil overwhelms them “in so many respectable and seductive disguises” that conscience becomes “nervous and vacillating.” They lie to themselves “in order to avoid despair.”
- Those who “flee from public altercation into the sanctuary of private virtuousness” become numb or blind “to the injustice” around them.
- At certain times, even these noble traits must be sacrificed, transcended by those who make their entire lives “an answer to the question and call of God.”
But it is Bonhoeffer’s description of “folly” as “a more dangerous enemy to good than evil” that seems eerily pertinent to our own historical moment. He writes: “Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes people, at the least, uncomfortable. Against folly we have no defense. Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved — indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied; in fact he can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make him aggressive. A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel; we shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous.”
Before we send that message to the White House, we’d best email a copy to ourselves. It’s too long, and too true, to tweet. Gott segne.