In a letter to his close friend Eberhard Bethge, written from Tegel Prison and dated Nov. 18, 1943, Lutheran pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
I am finding (I expect you are, too) that the most difficult thing is getting up in the morning (Jer. 31:26!). I am now praying quite simply for freedom. There is such a thing as a false composure which is quite unchristian. As Christians, we need not be at all ashamed of some impatience, longing, opposition to what is unnatural, and our full share of desire for freedom, earthly happiness and opportunity for effective work. I think we entirely agree about that.
Bonhoeffer and Bethge did agree on that statement, with Bethge editing the volume of Bonhoeffer’s prison writings (Letters and Papers from Prison) including that letter. Some 77 years later, we, too, concur with Bonhoeffer’s forthright words. We, too, are “now praying quite simply for freedom” that seems more elusive with each new day. We may not be in prison (yet), but we may find “getting up every morning” a “difficult thing” since in the land of the free, no longer the home of more than 200,000 deceased coronavirus victims, our nation seems to be coming apart.
America 2020 isn’t Germany in 1943, but neither was Germany 10 years earlier (1933) when Bonhoeffer joined Karl Barth and other dissenting clergy to form the “Confessing Church” in response to the German Christians Movement and its support for National Socialism. The dissenters rejected statements like that of Lutheran pastor Hermann Gruner, who asserted: “The time is fulfilled for the German people of Hitler. It is because of Hitler that Christ, God the helper and redeemer, has become effective among us. … Hitler is the way of the Spirit and the will of God for the German people to enter the Church of Christ.”
Bonhoeffer protested such idolatry to the bitter end, hanged in Berlin in 1945, a few weeks before the Third Reich collapsed. In this space in September, I proposed to publish a series of columns related to “Bonhoeffer Moments,” sorting out events of our own times and their impact on both church and republic, moments that test our consciences and the kind of faith we claim and that claims us.
Frankly, since the publication of “Bonhoeffer Moment No. 1” in September, dangerous threats to freedom have only increased, evidenced in the arrest of 13 militia-related white males charged with plotting to kidnap and perhaps kill Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whose coronavirus mandates they believe violated the Constitution. They are alleged to have staked out Whitmer’s vacation home as a possible site for the kidnapping, experimented with bomb-making, and contrived to attack the Michigan state capitol building.
Writing in the Oct. 11 Huffington Post, journalist Christopher Mathias notes that these individuals mirror the armed aggressiveness of many militia-based provocateurs, promoting conspiracy theories and anticipating a “new American civil war,” with many “eager to fire some of the first shots.” He reminds readers of the self-proclaimed vigilantes who paraded with long rifles at the Michigan capital earlier this year, and he describes a 2017 rally of hard-right paramilitaries in Gettysburg, Pa., promoting agendas evident in the mantra: “Rope, Tree, Journalist. Assembly required” — a litany of lynching that harkens to another horrendous era in American life.
“Unchallenged hate speech by ‘public leaders,’ when normalized, can morph ‘five to six’ years later into ‘the normalization of violence and mass violence.’”
Mathias calls attention to Yale professor Jason Stanley’s book, How Fascism Happens, and the assertion that unchallenged hate speech by “public leaders,” when normalized, can morph “five to six” years later into “the normalization of violence and mass violence.” Stanley highlights the close relationship “between the rhetoric and the unofficial militia,” and concludes. “That’s what we’re looking at right now.”
Should Christians and churches heed these warnings? By all means, especially given the violent murders already visited on Mother Emanuel AME Church, Charleston (2015), and the Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburg (2018), as well as bombing the Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center near Minneapolis (2017), each perpetrated by persons with paramilitary intent.
Our Bonhoeffer Moment means anticipating and standing against such vicious militia movements; praying and working for freedom in our own communities; not allowing hateful rhetoric and practice to become “normative” in the nation and the church. It may mean resisting voter intimidation from self-appointed vigilante poll watchers in our own precincts during this election season, even speaking truth to powerful political leaders whose rhetoric may contribute to violent reaction.
Bonhoeffer’s words did not end with simple prayers for freedom, as important as that is. He warned us against maintaining a “false composure which is quite unchristian,” adding that, “As Christians, we need not be at all ashamed of some impatience, longing, opposition to what is unnatural, and our full share of desire for freedom.”
Reading those words, I never admired Bonhoeffer more. Not only do they call us beyond the guilt of confusing spirituality with constant “composure,” but they also encourage a gospel uneasiness born of injustices that require our opposition, our dissent and a restless courage to confront the chaos of our times.
“My own ‘impatience’ these days is that so many threats to American freedoms loom simultaneously before us.”
In ways that are distinct yet parallel to Bonhoeffer’s generation, I believe that’s where we are right now in our own country. My own “impatience” these days is that so many threats to American freedoms loom simultaneously before us, each requiring great energy and response, that we cannot be sure what tyrannies may materialize before we know it.
Given all that, I run from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Jesus of Nazareth, and two audaciously daunting phrases he gave to the first disciples he sent out to the “highways and byways” of Galilee:
- “Be wise as serpents, innocent as doves.”
- “And when you are arrested, do not worry about what to say.”
There’s a lot of danger in those words. Freedom, too, thank God.
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.