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Can Dietrich Bonhoeffer be misused? Stephen R. Haynes tackles that question in fine book, “The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon: Portraits of a Protestant Saint.” Below is a good review of the book by Graham G. Yearley…
“The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon” is not really about theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or his writings, but about his fame and the cost exacted by fame’s evil cousin, celebrity. Author Stephen R. Haynes argues that Bonhoeffer has achieved the status of a Protestant saint.
Bonhoeffer is revered more for his actions and moral example than his thought. Indeed, many who have never read “The Cost of Discipleship” or “Letters and Papers From Prison” and know Bonhoeffer only as an anti-Nazi murdered by Hitler’s henchmen see him as a Christian martyr. But Bonhoeffer himself acknowledged that his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler could not be justified as a Christian act.
Haynes examines how the theologian’s writings have been used and misused. Among the misuses, Bonhoeffer was quoted by death-of-God theologians of the 1960s and by the violent, radical fringe of the anti-abortion forces in the 1990s. Haynes writes that Paul Hill, who was executed in 2003 for the 1993 murder of a doctor and his escort at a Florida abortion clinic, saw himself as following in Bonhoeffer’s footsteps, combating an evil supported by an evil government. After his arrest, Hill questioned why Bonhoeffer was considered a hero and he was not. Haynes, who teaches theology at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., believes that drawing comparisons between the Holocaust and the actions of abortion providers is illegitimate and leads to the misuse of Bonhoeffer’s decision to resist Nazism.
The misuses continue; when television evangelist the Rev. Pat Robertson called for the assassination of Venezuela’s president in August, he used Bonhoeffer’s actions as justification. Haynes’ astute and corrective observations are the most valuable portion of “The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon.”
But when Haynes develops his notion that Bonhoeffer should be recognized as a saint, the book gets increasingly wacky. Haynes shows how Bonhoeffer fits the pattern of sainthood in his suffering and commitment to Christ and his church. It is hard to argue against his idea that the Catholic Church canonizing Bonhoeffer would be a dramatic ecumenical gesture. But, by the same token, why can’t the Lutheran Church devise a method of recognizing contemporary men and women as saints?
Haynes also seems to misunderstand “vox populi” in the Catholic Church, claiming the wishes of the people of God are ignored by the church’s hierarchy. The true process by which saints are created is quite different. Saints are not imposed from above — or every pope would be canonized by his successor — but from the passion and energy of ordinary lay people, priests or religious willing to support an individual’s cause.
To show that Bonhoeffer has the “cult” commonly associated with saints, Haynes catalogues the number of books, films, plays and Web sites about Bonhoeffer’s life; the numbers are truly impressive without being persuasive. Haynes says that in the tradition of Catholic saints, Bonhoeffer’s homes, his prison cell and place of execution have become pilgrimage sites.
While the question of whether Bonhoeffer will ever be canonized cannot be answered, it is certainly unquestionable that Bonhoeffer’s story and writing still provoke a fascination equal to few. It is equally certain that Bonhoeffer would be horrified by any discussion of his fame or his “cult”. When asked in 1931 whether he would like to become a saint, Bonhoeffer replied modestly, “I should like to learn to have faith.”
The last couple of days, I have written about we in the twenty-first century can misuse Dietrich Bonhoeffer to fit our own situations. I am not saying this is common, but it certainly can happen. Today, I came across a blog site that used the phrase, “Bonhoeffer Clause”. It is the first time I have seen it. It was used in the context of the movie, “United 93“.
If I understand the “Bonhoeffer Clause”, it is that we can fall back on Bonhoeffer’s example when we are in an extreme situation that may require the use of force or violence.
The issue I have been struggling with this week is whether or not this is a proper application of Bonhoeffer.
Well, there has been a certain amount of buzz around the release of United 93, the first movie to depict the events of 9/11. My wife and I went to see it on Friday. We came out reasonably impressed, almost despite ourselves. We both liked that no stars were cast, but rather unknown actors/actresses (the most we managed was ‘Wait a minute, he/she looks familiar. Can’t quite place them…’). Indeed, many of leading figures in the various air controls, FAA and NORAD headquarters were the actual people who were on duty that day. The style lets the action just flow and you do really get a strong feel for the chaos and ‘fog of war’ which beset both the civilian and military agencies struggling to work out a response to the 9/11 attacks. The frantic efforts of all parties to figure out just what was happening, how many planes were under the control of hijackers and what rules of engagement were possible in so novel a situation explains many things about the apparent paralysis in the hour and a half that it took for the attacks to unfold. That and having only four aircraft (only two of which were actually armed!!) to defend the entire Eastern seaboard. I think we sometimes forget how unexpected and how suddenly things happened that day.
The movie, of course, focuses on United flight 93, the only hijacked plane which failed to reach its target (now believed to have been the Capitol) because, according to reconstructed accounts, of the brave actions of the passengers and surviving crew. That knowledge made this movie very difficult to sit through, since the action seems to creep at a snail’s pace (actually, it is closer to real time than any Hollywood thriller would get). What was interesting about that pacing is the effect it had on both my wife and I. By about half way through the movie, we were both ready to jump up and yell ‘Stab somebody already!!! Get this thing started!” Ironically, as my wife pointed out later, we were very much feeling the same emotions that the hijackers themselves were feeling because we, the audience, and the hijackers were the only people who really knew what was going to happen. So, all these scenes of people eating their breakfasts, chatting with each other or just quietly reading which are so normal were simply jarringly eerie because we know where all this will end. So, we found ourselves understanding the younger hijackers who were getting really twitchy as they awaited the signal for them to seize the plane.
The other really striking element of this movie was the comparative lack of jingoistic rhetoric. When the decision was made to storm the cockpit, there was no ‘America is the greatest’ rhetoric, just a recognition that, in all likelihoold, everyone on that plane was already dead (since they already knew about the WTC and the Pentagon attacks, this wasn’t a surprising conclusion), but all they could do was to make sure that no one else need die. To be sure, the passengers in the movie had a faint hope and planned for it (they had a small plane pilot and a retired air traffic controller), but they are shown to realize that any chance to save their own lives was slim at best. They weren’t fighting to save so much their own lives as the lives of others. They were ordinary people caught in an impossible situation and responding bravely and sacrificially.
This analysis, of course, should be surprising to those of you who have been reading my posts on pacifism. Yes, I do see some need to climb down a bit in conceding that, in this extreme situation, a resort to violence was likely the best option available. In a sense, we have to invoke the “Bonhoeffer Clause“, when faced by an evil beyond our ability to persuade or restrain short of violence, violence is an justifiable tactic. I note, in passing, that, if we read Bonhoeffer’s diaries from prison, he continued to regard his involvement in the plot against Hitler as a sin, albeit a necessary one. In a sinful and brutal world, that is sometimes the situation we find ourselves in.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been embraced by both conservative and liberal Christians. Both Protestants and Catholics read his works and follow his example. Even non-believers have found value in Bonhoeffer. I asked yesterday if Bonhoeffer can be abused to fit our own purposes. Some say that Bonhoeffer is a great example to be pro-life since he rescued Jews and saved lives.
Others will take it a step further and say that since Bonhoeffer was involved in a plot to overthrow Hitler, then Christians today can use force to shut down abortion clinics. That is certainly a stretch in thinking.
Like in everything we read, there needs to be proper interpretation so that we get can close to the original intent of the author.
If Bonhoeffer lived into the 1980’s and beyond, what would he say a Christian’s response to the killing of the unborn?
Can a twenty-first century pastor preach a pro-life message and safely quote Bonhoeffer on the subject?
As you can see at the top of this page that the intention of this blog is to make Dietrich Bonhoeffer relevant to twenty-first century preaching. I do believe that his works and life can serve the modern preacher.
But I have learned the last couple of years that I run the risk of making Bonhoeffer into someone he never intended to be. Certainly, by some, he has been transformed into a cult hero. Others will take big leaps in this century by milking out an “application” from Bonhoeffer’s writings and/or example.
As an evangelical, I would love to use Bonhoeffer as an example to speak out against abortion. Bonhoeffer stood against evil in his society and he even transported Jews out of Germany. In other words, he saved lives.
Isn’t speaking against the evil of abortion and the saving of unborn babies from death about the same thing? Some are not sure. Others would say no.
What do you think?
We look more into this.
By BOB ABERNETHY
This weekend will be the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian put to death by the Nazis, whose writings and life made him a modern martyr. In the U.S. and Europe there will be observances in his honor, among them a documentary on Bonhoeffer to run on most PBS stations February 6. We have some images from that program.
Bonhoeffer was raised in a distinguished but not particularly religious family said to have been surprised by his decision to study theology. He was brilliant, getting his doctorate at age 21. Then he spent a year at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He studied ethics under Reinhold Niebuhr and also discovered the fervor and social consciousness of Harlem’s Abysssian Baptist Church, where he taught Sunday school.
Christianity, Bonhoeffer came to believe, meant not just professing faith but really putting into practice Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. When Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in the early 1930s, his convictions were tested dramatically. Adolph Hitler and the Nazis were just coming to power. What should Bonhoeffer do about them? He spoke out, urging his fellow Lutherans to reject as idolatry the Nazi claim that the Fuehrer and the state deserved allegiance above that owed to God.
Bonhoeffer also condemned Nazi persecution of the Jews, urging the Christian Church to stand with the Jews and all victims. He also helped some Jews escape.
By the late 1930s, Bonhoeffer realized that, for him, even though he respected pacifism and nonviolence in principle, Hitler’s war-making and injustice required resistance. A Christian must act, he insisted, so he joined a conspiracy to oppose Hitler. It seemed a lesser evil than doing nothing.
Bonhoeffer became part of a resistance cell inside German military intelligence. On trips abroad, he tried to get Allied support for the German resistance, but he was not successful. In 1943, Bonhoeffer’s fellow resisters tried to kill Hitler but failed. The Gestapo identified Bonhoeffer as part of the plot, arrested him, and sent him to prison.
Earlier, in a widely influential book, THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP, Bonhoeffer had condemned what he called cheap grace — accepting God’s love without cost. At the same time, he extolled costly grace — grace that requires radical obedience, even the willingness to die for one’s beliefs, which Bonhoeffer did.
Less than a month before the war in Europe ended, the Nazis moved him from prison to a concentration camp and hanged him on April 9, 1945. He was 39 years old.
Some Christian pacifists say Bonhoeffer was wrong to resist evil with violence, but for millions of other Christians, Bonhoffer became an inspiring symbol of what it can mean, in times of crisis and every day, to practice what you preach.
Jesus said in John 12:25…“Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew that if the church in Germany was going to stand up to Hitler, then there had to be a surrender to the will of Jesus.
Bonhoeffer detected a complication in the modern-day rejection of Christian discipleship: the failure to take Jesus at his word, still less to obey Jesus’ commands in all their forthrightness and simplicity.
The question Bonhoeffer hoped to resolve through a renewed sense of discipleship was how to bring self-seeking and self-centeredness under the authority of Jesus Christ and his standards of Christian conduct in the Sermon on the Mount.
His search for an answer brought him to affirm the single-minded obedience to Christ that he believed to be the essence of Christian faith. (The Cost of) Discipleship is as much a communication of his own shift from being a “self-serving Theologian” to the reality of following Christ as it is a challenge to the German church in its struggle against Nazism (The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 133).
How about today? Are we more self-serving than serving Jesus?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was often shocked how the clergy around him in Germany compromised their faith. It was a “cheap grace”. Costly grace was in sharp contrast…
For Bonhoeffer, the spirituality of “costly grace” is to be found only along the obedient ways of following Jesus Christ. This spirituality, he insists, offers no set program, no set of principles, no elitist ideals, and certainly no new set of laws to preserve purity of doctrine. Christian discipleship means simply Jesus Christ alone (The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 132).
When life is lived just for Jesus, then it is a costly grace.
When the phrase “cheap grace” is brought up or mentioned, it is almost always associated with Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
This phrase…represented his dismay at the easy going displacement of genuine Christian faith in the crisis years of Hitler’s rise to absolute power (Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson: The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spiritual of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 131-132).
What would Dietrich Bonhoeffer think of twenty-first Christians in America?
Would he lament the lack of “genuine Christian faith” among us?
Or is there a “costly grace” that causes us to wholly commit our lives to obeying and glorifying Jesus Christ?
Hi. Thank you for taking the time to check this blog site out. My purpose for this blog is simple…
It is to share with my fellow pastors and preachers the impact that Dietrich Bonhoeffer can have on our preaching and our lives. There are six reasons why Bonhoeffer can make a difference in twenty-first century preaching:
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer placed a high premium on the meditation of the Scriptures (posted on 02/25/08).
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer stressed the importance of Christian fellowship (posted on 03/03/08).
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer emphasized a non-compromising faith (costly grace) (posted on 03/10/08).
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood against evil in society (posted on 03/17/08).
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer exemplifies serving Jesus in the severest of trials (posted on 03/24/08).
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer experienced the grace of living well and dying well (posted on 04/01/08).
The creation of this blog and the feedback I receive from those who visit it will help me in the completion of my Doctor of Ministry degree through Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. My D.Min. track is called “The Preacher & the Message“. It is under the leadership of Dr. Haddon Robinson (picture on the right).
It is important that I continue to receive feedback. You can click the “Evaluation Form” at the top of the page or leave a comment on any post. You may also e-mail me, if your desire, at email@example.com.