Some Lessons for Today From the Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Let me premise this by saying I am not a scholar or expert on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Nor do I know precisely how he would analyze our current state of affairs. But I have always admired his principled courage. I am in the process of reading the wonderful “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” by Eric Metaxas, and I cannot help but find important lessons from this remarkable man for our world today.

As many of you certainly know, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the brave few to stand up to the Nazi movement from within Germany, and did so early before its evils and horrors were so obvious. Many of the arguments from secular and religious leaders not initially aligned with the Nazis, but who to one degree or another tolerated or endorsed nazism, sound eerily familiar today

Bonhoeffer is rightly known for his key role in identifying and opposing the nazi reign of terror against the Jews and others. But before this, he recognized the dangerous characteristics in culture and politics that would eventually lead to Auschwitz. He recognized the danger of the “fuhrer principle,” that idea prevalent in Germany that a leader would arise who was so strong and effective, with a central idea being that his word was above written law, and all policies and strategies of party and country should serve him. In fact, Bonhoeffer famously gave a radio address days after the election of Hitler (not as a reaction, it had been scheduled in advance) where he described the history of the fuhrer principle, its place in German culture, and its serious danger to society.

The essential characteristic of the fuhrer as a leader is that he is independent, divorced from any external authority, be it a political, legal, or the ultimate authority of God. From his lecture:

“Only when a man sees that office is a penultimate authority in the face of an ultimate, indescribable authority, in the face of the authority of God, has the real situation been reached. And before this Authority the individual knows himself to be completely alone. The individual is responsible before God. And this solitude of man’s position before God, this subjection to ultimate authority, is destroyed when the authority of the Leader or of the office is seen as ultimate authority…. Alone and before God, man becomes what he is, free and committed in responsibility at the same time.”

The fearful danger of the present time is that above the cry for authority, be it of a Leader or of an office, we forge that man stands alone before the ultimate authority…  The eternal law that the individual stands alone before God takes fearful vengeance where it is attacked and distorted.”

This brings us to the first timely lesson gleaned from my reading so far – Leaders must live and govern in recognition of a higher authority. Now our founding fathers structured our republic as under authority. They also structured each coequal branch of government to be subject to or at least dependent on each other in specified ways, as well as to the states and to the people. Without recognition of the authority inherent in our constitution the Leader attempts to be independent in the manner of a dictator or Fuhrer. This can be framed as a necessary or benevolent action, as Hitler himself did after the Reichstag fire. The same tendency is seen in so-called leaders today, circumventing the constitution and curtailing basic rights in the name of public safety or public opinion. Any leader, whether Obama or Trump, who proposes suspending portions of the Bill of Rights (as they both are proposing) for the sake of public safety is operating independently and not as one under authority. Beware any potential leader who does not recognize the authority of God, the authority of the constitution, or the authority of the rule of law. Any society that chooses such a leader are opening themselves to the destruction of each, save God who will not be overthrown.

For the rest of the post…

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June 2016
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