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…Dietrich Bonhoeffer, like his brothers and sisters, grew up to be a citizen of Berlin, despite the Swabian, Thuringian, and Silesian influences. His eventful life cannot be considered apart from this background. All the other places that were important to him in the course of his life–Breslau, Tubingen, New York, London, or Finkenwalde–certainly influenced him. The decisive influence, however, was Berlin and its complex diversity… 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 23.

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What’s on MPR News – 12/6/18

Mark Steil, who retires today after 40 years at Minnesota Public Radio News.Thursday December 6, 2018
(Subject to change as events dictate. This page is updated throughout the day.)

9 a.m. – MPR News with Kerri Miller
Should Minnesota taxpayers support a one to one program where every student is assigned a one to one laptop or tablet? That’s what’s being debated at the U of M.

Guests: Ellad Tadmor, aerospace professor hosting the mock trial; Luke Diamond, senior in journalism school at the U of M, participating.

9:20 a.m. – Many of you have heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer the pastor. But have you heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer the We’re talking to John Hendrix about his new graphic novel, “The Faithful Spy” and the story of a pastor who defied the Nazis.

The following was written by Jack Heppner, an obvious anti-Trumper. It is amazing to me how often I have read of those who compare President Trump to Adolf Hitler. It is an incredible leap when you consider that Hitler was a monster, responsible for tens of millions of deaths in World War II. Many times, when this comparison is made, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gets dragged into the discussion because his response to Hitler can help serve as our response to Trump. I know many people cannot stand Trump, and he is far from perfect, but to compare him to Hitler is absurd. I would love to get Eric Metaxas’ take on this post.

Bonhoeffer on Politics

While travelling in the United States recently I was at the same time working my way through Eric Metaxas’ epic biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, (2010). I couldn’t help but notice how similar political and religious dynamics in Germany in the 1930s were to those presently unfolding in America. In this essay I will reflect on the political similarities I see. In the next essay I will consider similarities on the religious front.

On the political front, I will argue that many of the authoritarian moves Hitler made in the 1930s are mirrored, at least to some degree, by Donald Trump today. I don’t think Trump will be able to elevate authoritarianism to the level Hitler did. American democracy has more than two centuries of experience and has built-in checks and balances powerful enough to thwart the authoritarian impulses of any president. On the other hand, democracy was first thrust upon Germany in the wake of WWI and so had not developed institutional protections against the abuses of authoritarianism.

I must say at the outset, that I was greatly disheartened to learn, after reading Metaxas’ biography of Bonhoeffer, that he is presently an avid supporter of Donald Trump. This is hard for me to fathom, given his exposure of authoritarianism under Hitler in the Bonhoeffer book only eight years ago. Nevertheless, I will proceed to note the reflections of Adolf Hitler that I see today in Donald Trump. I will do this largely by quoting directly from the Bonhoeffer book, making a few observations and then allowing the reader to connect the dots.

“Germany wanted to restore its former glory…So the people democratically elected the man who had vowed to destroy the democratic government they hated. Hitler’s election to office destroyed the office” (114).

Trump’s enduring slogan has been to “Make America Great Again!” However, since being elected he has regularly demonized and tried to manipulate institutions designed to rein in an authoritarian president, including; the Congress, the judiciary, the free press and the FBI. By doing so he has brought the office of the presidency into great peril.

“Klaus and Diedrich agreed that Hitler and the Nazis could not last long, but the damage they were doing to the nation was grave” (158)…

Based on Trump’s erratic behavior from day one of his presidency, many predicted he would last perhaps a few months, at the most a year. But both Hitler and Trump were able to out-maneuver their opponents and hang on to power in spite of the damage they were doing to their nations.

“There was still hope that this madman might not be so mad after all or that his wildness might yet be domesticated” (249).

At first many were predicting that following Trump’s dizzying rhetoric of hate, fear and division on the campaign trail he would calm down once in office. However, that hope was never realized.

“We will have to move through a very deep valley, I believe much deeper than we can sense now, before we will be able to ascend the other side again” (374).

Given the intense partisanship Trump has reveled in and exacerbated from the outset it is hard to see a quick exit to the morass the country finds itself in. Some are hopeful that midterm successes of the democrats will quicken the process, but in any case there is a long road ahead, in my opinion.

“One sometimes hears that Hitler was a Christian. He certainly was not, but neither was he openly anti-Christian. He was utterly pragmatic. In public he often made comments that made him sound pro-church or pro-Christian, but there can be no question that he said these things cynically, for political gain” (165).

Prior to entering politics there were no indications that Trump was a Christian. However, once he intuited that he needed the evangelical base to win and keep power, Trump began making statements about how important God was to him. He allowed a Christian chaplain into the White House, appointed numerous openly evangelical people to high office, and frequently invited large groups of evangelical pastors to the White House to cultivate a “Christian” relationship.

“Hitler worshipped power, while truth was a phantasm to be ignored; and his sworn enemy was not falsehood but weakness. For Hitler, ruthlessness was a great virtue, and mercy a great sin” (168).

It is no secret that Trump regularly says things that are simply not true. Fact checkers have documented thousands of untruths he has told while in office, many of them on Twitter. I just don’t get it. In Canada just one lie can be enough to bring down someone in high office. And even more troubling is the fact that many of those lies are made in a ruthless way to put down or “punish” those who disagree with him.

“Required of all army personnel: ‘I swear by God this sacred oath, that I will render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler, the Fuehrer of the German Reich…’” (232).

Trump values personal loyalty above truth and competence. It is clear to me that the many firings within the White House revolve around the question of loyalty to Trump.

“But as he (Hitler) was every atom a petty man, he was accustomed to diverting exceedingly precious resources of time, personnel, and gasoline for the purposes of his own revenge” (529).

Pettiness and revenge are never far from the surface for Donald Trump. Hoping to pitch an image of strength, he instead projects the impression of a deeply wounded child who has never learned that love and trust will always trump pettiness and revenge.

For the most part I have refrained from writing about politics on my blog.

For the rest of the post…

I have been a fan of Dietrich Bonhoeffer since I was a student at Bethel College in St. Paul, MN back in 1970s. Over the years, the person and works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer have been embraced by evangelicals, liberals, Jews and Catholics. He is also the champion of both the right and the left. He has been described as a “flamingly gay“.

No matter the issue, people from both sides of the issue look to Bonhoeffer for wisdom and guidance. The issue may be same-sex marriage, gun control, abortion, immigration, politics and politicians.

If Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived today, let’s say in America, what side would he take? Back in 2016, would he vote for Hillary or Trump? Voters for both candidates would build a case that Bonhoeffer would certainly see their point of view.

My thesis for my Doctor of Ministry degree focused on the impact of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on twenty-first century preachers, but I am far from being an expert on Bonhoeffer. But I did do enough research then and since then to say that Dietrich Bonhoeffer cannot be boxed in.

He was only 39 years old when he was hung. Imagine if he lived another thirty or forty years and was able to develop his ideas and theology further.

What side would he take? My take is this: Dietrich Bonhoeffer would teach us to pray, read the Bible and meditate on God’s Word. He would also not to place our trust in people (like Presidents) but in God alone. He would tell us to love others who are vastly different than us. I think he would say that even though, we live is an age of outrage, Christians, are to be at their very best and represent Jesus.

Bryan

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), photographed in 1939.
Ullstein Bild / Getty
How the murdered theologian came to be a symbol in American politics.

The Battle for Bonhoeffer
Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump
by Stephen R. Haynes
Eerdmans, 208 pp., $19.99

You can tell a lot about people by their heroes. After all, people model themselves after their heroes—and sometimes model their heroes after themselves.

That’s the basic premise of Stephen R. Haynes’s The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian executed in 1945 at the age of 39 for joining a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, lives on today as a hero for American Protestants across political and confessional boundaries. Different readers and biographers of Bonhoeffer have made different things of him—so strikingly different that in 1964 theologian Harvey Cox famously called Bonhoeffer “a veritable Rorschach test.”

Bonhoeffer wasn’t always a hero for American evangelicals. For two decades after his death, his legacy was the near-exclusive domain of liberal theologians attracted to the concept of “religionless Christianity” that Bonhoeffer developed while on death row. For those so-called “death-of-God” theologians, he was a prophet of a happy future in which Christianity would outgrow many of its traditional beliefs and practices. Needless to say, fundamentalist and evangelical Christians were unamused.

But as death-of-God theology started to, er, die out, the growing evangelical movement began to claim Bonhoeffer as one of its own. New interpretations of Bonhoeffer and his ideas emerged in the 1980s and ’90s. Haynes sorts these into four types: Bonhoeffer as a “Critical Patriot” showing liberal Protestants how best to critique their own government; Bonhoeffer as a “Righteous Gentile” whose advocacy for Jews models Jewish-Christian relations to this day; Bonhoeffer as a “Moral Hero” whose ecumenical battle for conscience transcended particular religious traditions; and the “Evangelical Bonhoeffer” whose Bible-believing Christianity can be weaponized in today’s cultural battles.

Each new Bonhoeffer has required more abstraction than the last—and because each has relied heavily on the broad outline of his life (and, more importantly, the story of his death) for symbolism of heroism and holiness, the actual details of his life and his writings have taken a back seat. It wasn’t Bonhoeffer’s theological ideas but the model of his self-sacrifice that demanded emulation, asking of every American, as Haynes puts it, “What are you doing to arrest this ongoing assault on innocent life?” As for which “ongoing assault,” well, that’s up to the reader. In recent decades, Bonhoeffer’s example has inspired right- and left-leaning Americans alike, all insisting that if Bonhoeffer lived today he would be on their side. Haynes documents Bonhoeffer’s postmortem crusades against abortion, the Iraq War, President Bush, President Obama, and finally, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

In this back-and-forth deployment of Bonhoeffer’s legacy, Eric Metaxas’s bestselling 2009 biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy has a special place. Metaxas’s book and his subsequent attempts to employ Bonhoeffer to critique the Obama administration are significant not so much for changing anyone’s view of its subject but for amplifying the “Evangelical Bonhoeffer” in its public role. Dismissing prior Bonhoeffer scholarship as “a terrific misunderstanding,” Metaxas made a Bonhoeffer from scratch, one who (as evangelical reviewer Andy Rowell put it) “looks a lot like an American evangelical—an extraordinarily courageous American evangelical.”

Thanks in large part to Metaxas, the phrase “Bonhoeffer moment” became a powerful call to arms, especially for politically conservative Protestants. And as Bonhoeffer’s symbolic importance grew, the need for facts, either about him or about present realities, diminished. In the battle over religious liberty, for example, Haynes notes that evangelical leaders used the phrase “Bonhoeffer moment” almost without context. “Elaboration was unnecessary,” he explains, “because these leaders shared with their audiences an intuitive understanding of the expression.” The fact that the real Bonhoeffer might have disagreed strenuously with any number of the uses to which his name was being put doesn’t matter in the least.

At this point in the book, it looks like Haynes is about to ask why: Why do we still tie our political disputes today to the (usually far more dramatic) struggles of the last century? Why do the real details of those times matter so little to those who invoke them today? Why do our causes need to piggyback on the credibility of older ones?

But Haynes doesn’t ask. Instead, his narrative and argument collapse into the very misuses of Bonhoeffer that he criticized in the first half of the book. His analysis of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision about same-sex marriage struggles to retain scholarly neutrality, and the closer the story gets to the 2016 election, the more it relies on personal views and anecdotes.

By the end, Haynes’s scholarly project is altogether abandoned.

For the rest of the post…

Sadly, but predictably, finger-pointing abounds as Americans seek answers and assign blame in the wake of the slaughter of 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 27. But the rise of anti-Semitism in our culture is undeniable. According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic attacks increased by almost 60 percent from 2016 to 2017. The ADL also announced that the Pittsburgh massacre was the deadliest assault on a Jewish community in our nation’s history.

While no single factor ever explains the sociological, psychological and spiritual factors which contribute to such evil, the American church should also do some soul searching. Have we (myself included) promulgated a shallow theology, at times confusing and distorting Christianity’s relationship with Judaism?

When I was a boy, a small Baptist church nearby went through a noisy controversy when the Vacation Bible School leader hatched a plan to have an area rabbi visit with the VBS children. “What?!” screamed the deacons, “Exposing our precious children to heresy?” The plan was quickly abandoned, because, after all, they were a Christian church. Why would the branches want to learn anything about the root (Romans 11:16ff)?

The church’s neglect of sound teaching is like failing to pay our bills. We are still required to pay, but now with interest and penalties compounding. One of the tragedies of history is that demagogues and other unstable people rarely grasp the church’s strong, clear teachings. But they almost always gravitate to the doctrines we neglect or muddle.

Adolph Hitler was not the last tyrant to blame the Jews for Jesus’ death. How well have we in the evangelical wing of Protestantism clarified that all of humanity crucified our Lord? A power-crazed Gentile government in league with Judaism’s corrupt church – the execution of Jesus was truly an equal opportunity event.

“Bonhoeffer told his students, ‘Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.’”

I’m embarrassed by the need to point this out, but Jesus was probably not blue-eyed, blonde and fair-skinned; he was a Middle Eastern Jew. And he didn’t come to wipe away Judaism and start over again with some new religion; he came to complete God’s ancient promises through Israel to the world. (Many Bible verses come to mind, but for starters, read Matthew 5:17-18 and the first two chapters of Luke.)

The Apostle Paul did not abandon his Judaism when he turned to Christ. Instead, he fell in love with Jesus Christ precisely because he experienced this Jewish peasant rabbi as the fulfillment of God’s plan for the ages. Don’t forget: the name “Christ” means “Anointed One,” and Paul’s favorite description of himself was a person “in the Anointed One.”

In an interesting coincidence of timing, just days before the Tree of Life murders, I took part in an area pastors’ peer group discussion of recent trends in Pauline theology. David May of Central Baptist Theological Seminary led us in some thoughtful reflection on “Paul, the Judean.” Noted scholars, including N.T. Wright (Paul: A Biography) and Mark Nanos (The Mystery of Romans), have written persuasively of the continuity as well as discontinuity in the Judeo-Christian message.

In these dark days when anti-Semitism is on the increase, some of us have been revisiting the life and writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In the build-up to World War II and the Holocaust, Bonhoeffer was one of the first and the few to call the church to stand with the Jews.

I take some comfort, however, in the fact that not even Bonhoeffer always got it right. His twin sister, Sabine, was married to a Jew, Gerhard Leibholz. When Leibholz’s father died, the family asked Bonhoeffer to officiate the funeral. After agonizing over the invitation, he declined, a decision he almost immediately regretted (Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 209). Bonhoeffer was ashamed and wrote honestly about his failure, a reminder that we are all captives of our culture, struggling to get free.

For the rest of the post…

“The will of God, to which the law gives expression, is that men should defeat their enemies by loving them.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

From his earliest childhood Dietrich Bonhoeffer was accustomed to being privileged, not the underdog. Admittedly, this was true only up to a point in terms of his position among his siblings. This position had some significance for his development, and probably for his choice of career as well. As the three “little ones,” he and his sisters had all the advantages and disadvantages of youngest children. It was natural that the sturdy and gifted boy should sometimes try to rival or even surpass his big brothers and, indeed, in the field of music, he did surpass them. This secret rivalry helped to make theology attractive, since it offered something special of his own. The distance between the two groups of children was increased by the war, which confronted the older children with its terrible realities early, while the younger children remained at home. 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 20.

As a small boy he (Dietrich) once a attacked a weaker classmate, whose mother expressed the grace suspicion that perhaps the Bonhoeffer children had been raised to be anti-Semitic. Dietrich’s mother replied that that her son could not have heard of such a thing in her house. As someone capable of such violence, he was later particularly and carefully concerned about treating those in weaker positions considerately, and instilling self-confidence in them.    

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 19.

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