“Are we still of any use?” Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked that question of German Christians near the end of his 1943 essay, “After Ten Years.” We American Christians might ask it of ourselves 77 years later. The nation’s presidential election is over and, “Barring” unforeseen political machinations (inescapable pun intended), Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will take office Jan. 20.
If we suppose that their election puts an end to our collective and/or individual Bonhoeffer moments, we’ve probably not been listening to the culture, the gospel or our own hearts. Here’s what Bonhoeffer wrote to his church and ours:
We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?
Although those words probably could be applied to every historical era, I find myself overwhelmed by their relevance in the year of our Lord (?) 2020. While our situation is not as horrendously dire as that of Bonhoeffer, we still know whereof he speaks.
Bonhoeffer moments don’t require Nazis for validation. Rather, in the words of Rhodes College professor Stephen Haynes, they call an individual to demonstrate “the courage and foresight to dissent from those around you, not the least of whom were trusted religious authorities, and take a stand for Christ that carried no guarantee of being recognized as such by others.”
Like Bonhoeffer, we too have been “silent witnesses of evil deeds:” Most of us have seen videos of the 8 minute, 46 second slow death of George Floyd surrounded by a band of Minneapolis police who, implicitly or explicitly, participated in his dying. And that’s not all. This week we’ve witnessed headlines like: “Lawyers Can’t Find Parents of 666 Migrant Kids, A Higher Number Than Previously Reported,” a tragic new accounting with its own apocalyptic implications.
Untold numbers of us have been “drenched by many storms,” literally, as multitudes lost homes, lives and loved ones to forest fires, hurricanes, “COVID, COVID, COVID,” and other “natural” disasters, no doubt made more “unnatural” by overarching climate-related realities. Figuratively, we’ve often felt drenched by storms of hatred, abuse, racism and other inhumane actions evident in pepper-sprayed protests, riot-instigated destruction and continuous bullying on and offline.
How many of us have “learnt the arts of equivocation,” defined as “ambiguous language to avoid telling the truth or avoid committing oneself?” Unclear about such arts? When all else fails, consider watching reruns of congressional hearings.
“Who among us has not fretted that the (fill in the blank) were coming to get us, or struggled to distinguish truth from falsehood in the public square?”
“Experience made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open:” Who among us has not fretted that the (fill in the blank) were coming to get us, or struggled to distinguish truth from falsehood in the public square?
There’s this: “Intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical.” I rest my case. In fact, the depths of conflict in communities in general and religious communities in particular may be the most destructive long-term reality of our current dilemma.
As recently as Nov. 6, Pew Research Center released a report on some of those conflicts, noting, “The elected officials who take the oath of office in January will be representing two broad coalitions of voters who are deeply distrustful of one another and who fundamentally disagree over policies, plans and even the very problems that face the country today.”
Those differences are considerable. Pew’s study suggests that 82% of registered voters who support Biden indicated in October that the coronavirus outbreak would be “very important” to their vote. Only 24% of registered Trump voters said similarly. Even consensus on the wearing of masks divides us; yet as of Nov. 10, 240,162 Americans have died due to COVID, with new infections increasing daily throughout the nation.
“Even consensus on the wearing of masks divides us; yet as of Nov. 10, 240,162 Americans have died due to COVID.”
Some three-quarters of registered voters supporting Biden (76%) suggested this summer that racial and ethnic inequality would be very important in informing their vote; 24% of Trump voters agreed. Conversely, while some 74% of Trump supporters said the issue of violent crime was very important to them, less than half of Biden voters (46%) agreed.
Seventy-four percent of Biden voters agreed that “it is a lot more difficult” to be a Black person in the U.S. than to be a white person, a position only 9% of Trump voters shared. Similarly, 59% of Biden voters said white people benefit a “great deal” from social advantages that are not available to Black people, but only 5% of Trump voters agreed.
This summer, Biden voters (68%) indicated that climate change was very important to their vote. Trump voters, on the other hand, listed climate change as the last of 12 representative issues confronting the nation, and 11% named it as a major issue.
In the Pew study, even our agreements are divisive. In the October poll, both sets of supporters said that the election of the other candidate “would lead to lasting harm to the nation.” Each side sees the election of the “other” not simply as regrettable politics, but destructive to the fabric of the entire society.
Those divisions are evident in Christian communities as well. A 2019 study by the Public Religion Research Institute found such political divisions inhabit our Christian contexts. Among Republicans, evangelical Christians (28%), mainline Protestants (21%) and Catholics (16%) compose two-thirds of the party. Those three Christian communions comprise around one-third of Democratic supporters, a party with more “non-white Christians” and those who claim no religious affiliation.
So, given the “intolerable conflicts,” “evil deeds,” “equivocation and pretense,” suspicion, cynicism and untruths that so easily beset us and our society, we ask: “Are we still of any use?”
“The sinful social traits Bonhoeffer identified in 1943 Germany must not become normative in 2021 America.”
If Christ’s gospel means anything, now and for the future, then our response must be a resounding YES. We really have no other choice. The sinful social traits Bonhoeffer identified in 1943 Germany must not become normative in 2021 America. “Earthen vessels” that we are, we still can live as if justice, reconciliation and compassion can be actualized in our chaotic culture.
Bonhoeffer’s 1943 essay ends with this simple/profound prescription:
What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or cleaver tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men (and women). Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?
Inward resistance and remorseless honesty — powerful resources along the way of the cross. Let’s get to it.
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.