Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bonhoeffer Part 1: No. It's. Not.

I wanted to structure my reviews of Eric Metaxas' Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy around several ways in which this book upended what I had previously been taught about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But first, I thought I really needed to write this introductory post.

As long as I've followed the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and thought of him as one of my heroes, I've noticed that there is a tendency, by many people, including me, to read Bonhoeffer's story into our own situation. Liberals opposed to the Vietnam War and Evangelical Christians upset over denominational positions on gay pastors have all veered towards the : "This is what Bonhoeffer was going through" narrative. If you want a particularly distorted example of this type of thinking, read this. But as I said, I have not been immune myself. Here's an example: on more than one occasion I've been asked my opinion of putting an American flag in the front of a church. I'm against that, and sometimes openly, and sometimes to myself, like the antiwar protestor and the PCUSA Confessing Church activist, I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his struggles leading up to the Barmen Declaration.

Folks, It's Not the Same. No. It's. Not.

Here is what would be the same thing. Let's say our next President, because he may not be "O," let's call him or her "X," convinces Congress to essentially disband and grant him emergency dictatorial powers, and his "government" in rapid succession, does the following:

1 ) Forces the merger of all American Protestant denominations into a single denomination called the American Evangelical Church, to be headed by a bishop chosen either by the President or by his lackeys.

2 ) Issues a proclamation that any protestant pastor in the new American Church who can be shown to be "-------" where "-------" could be Republican, Democrat, of a certain percentage of Jewish, Armenian, or Scots Irish blood, is hereby excommunicated.

3 ) The new Bishop lays out plans to remove certain books from the Bible and to retranslate others more to the liking of the President, making it illegal to publish any other versions of the Bible. He proposes for pastors to make oaths in the church directly to the President; to remove all crosses from churches and replace them with the flags of the President's political party, to decide who can teach in seminaries, and who can hold meetings in any church in the country, and so on and so forth.

This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer was facing, and this was only in the first year or so, before things got really bad. I really think that we in America have drunk the Kool-Aid of Arendt's idea of the "Banality of Evil." Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think Bonhoeffer believed in the banality of evil. I think that Bonhoeffer saw early on that Germany was suddenly being ruled by people who were Nucking Futs and that things were going to get very bad very fast. Lest we forget, within a decade these same people were holding dancing contests on the corpses of people they had just murdered and making hand bags out of human skin.

I think that it is incumbent upon us to remember when we think that we can't see the screen door close on George Bush or Barack Obama fast enough, that even on their very worst, most terrible day, living under the American political party not of our choice is not even in the same universe of mental derangement that was recognized by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And that lays out the foundation for the three myths of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that I want to explore:

Myth # 1) Because Dietrich Bonhoeffer's exposure to religion in the U.S. was largely through Union Seminary and its modernist, liberal Protestant worldview, Bonhoeffer was also a typical modernist, liberal, protestant.

Myth # 2) Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a committed theological pacifist who struggled mightily against the temptation to join the plot against Hitler, and at a relatively late date had some kind of spiritual moment in which he fell gasping into the reality of the situation.

Myth # 3 ) Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a saintly person who would never lie, cheat, or steal, nor countenance anyone who would.

Before concluding, let me take away right now one of the most often repeated and horribly wrong narratives about Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed because he spoke out against the policies of Adolf Hitler." "Wrong" on several counts. Initially, Bonhoeffer and the group responsible for the Barmen Declaration were focused on one and one thing alone: the so-called "Aryan Paragraph" (see my analogy above) in which the new German Church moved to defrock pastors who had "Jewish Blood." It was about this narrow issue, not about the invasion of the Ruhr or the persecution of Jewish lawyers and dentists. Bonhoeffer's unceasing criticism of the "German Church" caused him all kinds of inconveniences, but the Nazis never thought they could get away with throwing him in jail. When Bonhoeffer was arrested, it was largely because of his connections with the Abwehr (military intelligence). The Gestapo hated the Abwehr (the feeling was mutual) and the Gestapo sniffed out some money laundering that Bonhoeffer had done to help Jews escape to Switzerland. However, he was not held nor charged on any capital offense. Bonhoeffer's imprisonment as a capital criminal and his execution was because the failed bomb plot (Valkyrie) against Hitler exposed Bonhoeffer's deep connections with that and other plots to kill Hitler and/or stage a coup. In summary, Bonhoeffer wasn't executed because he stood in the city square and yelled "Hitler is a pig", he was executed because Hitler figured out that Bonhoeffer was part of the Abwehr assassination conspiracies.

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