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How Would Bonhoeffer Vote?

LESS THAN A MONTH before the 2016 presidential election, evangelical journalist and biographer Eric Metaxas made the case in The Wall Street Journal that, though they might find his morals odious and his behavior unconscionable, American evangelicals had no choice but to vote for Donald Trump. Metaxas admitted that Trump’s lecherous Access Hollywood hot-mic audio comments, which the Washington Post had made public five days before, might be a deal-breaker for some religious voters. But Trump’s opponent, he argued, had “a whole deplorable basketful” of deal-breakers, and, purity be damned, Christians were obligated to stop her from reaching the Oval Office.

To make his point, Metaxas needed a weighty moral example, a name that had currency among churchgoers. Attentive observers of American Christianity could almost have predicted his choice. “The anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer also did things most Christians of his day were disgusted by,” Metaxas wrote, implying that pulling the lever for Trump was analogous to conspiring against Hitler’s regime, while voting for Hillary Clinton was roughly equivalent to joining the brownshirts. As everyone knows, evangelicals bought what Metaxas was selling.

This was far from the first time the Berlin theologian and pastor’s name was used to gain leverage in American politics. The Bonhoeffer of Metaxas’s 2010 best seller, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, had all the theological orthodoxy and manly grit an evangelical could want. Conversely, though Charles Marsh’s 2014 biography, Strange Glory, was exquisitely crafted and meticulously researched, his Bonhoeffer looked suspiciously like an American liberal Protestant with some inclination toward activism and progressive politics. He even spent the years he was incarcerated in the Nazi military prison at Tegel (1943–1945) suffering from unrequited love toward his best (male) friend, Eberhard Bethge, rather than pining for his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer.

More recently, both conservative and progressive journalists, pastors, and academics have entered the fray, claiming that either the Obergefell v. Hodges decision to legalize gay marriage (the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ronnie Floyd) or the election of Donald Trump (Sojourners magazine) constitutes a “Bonhoeffer moment,” one in which Christians must resist cultural or governmental authority in order to obey God. The debate about who has the right to claim Germany’s most famous resistance figure has become so fierce that last year Rhodes College professor Stephen Haynes penned The Battle for Bonhoeffer to address the United States’s recent reception of his theology.

With so many American Christians wielding his name in this cultural proxy war, one might assume Bonhoeffer’s political commitments were common knowledge among college-educated believers. One would be wrong. Books on Operation Valkyrie and Bonhoeffer’s association with the July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler are a dime a dozen. English-language studies that touch on Bonhoeffer’s work on behalf of the Jews or his interest in the American Black church appear frequently enough. But if one sets out to peg Bonhoeffer as an ally of either American Democrats or Republicans, only a deep dive into current scholarship will offer any clarity.

That, of course, is because Bonhoeffer lived in a very different time and culture. He grew up among the Berlin Bildungsbürgertum — the city’s cultural elite — in the western suburb of Grunewald. Many academics lived in this upscale neighborhood. Dietrich’s childhood ambition to pursue a doctorate would not have seemed entirely abnormal in that environment. By his teenage years, his father, Karl Bonhoeffer, had become one of Germany’s most famous psychiatrists; the eminent church historians Ernst Troeltsch and Adolf von Harnack were regulars at neighborhood gatherings. However, these were hardly liberal, American-style academic circles. Most found themselves in agreement with their government’s bellicosity when war broke out in 1914. In fact, many were passionate advocates of imperialism; Harnack even acted as a speechwriter for Kaiser Wilhelm II.

A different political mood prevailed in the Bonhoeffer family. Dietrich’s older brother, Karl-Friedrich, joined the Social Democrats after a conversion to socialism during the war. The other siblings drifted toward the German People’s Party and similar parties. Theirs was a bourgeois politics sympathetic with the more open and liberal atmosphere of the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, a stance that may help explain why so many in the Bonhoeffer family would later play active roles in the resistance.

Dietrich, however, stood mostly aloof from wranglings over political ideology. His friend Eberhard Bethge has written that in the 1932 elections Dietrich supported the moderate, lay Catholic Center Party because he thought their international ties — that is, partly ties to the Vatican — could provide “stability and independence” in a rather unstable time. This was an extraordinary step for a German Protestant minister, yet in one sense it fits Bonhoeffer perfectly. His foremost political concerns were never about economics, war and peace, or even the treatment of minorities, though obviously these things were not unimportant to him. Above all else, Bonhoeffer cared about the preservation of the gospel message and the freedom of the Christian church from political and cultural entanglements that might obscure its message. The intricacies of politics, he firmly believed, were not the business of the Protestant pastor or theologian.

“There is no doubt that the church of the Reformation is not encouraged to get involved directly in specific political actions of the state,” Bonhoeffer wrote in his 1933 essay “The Church and the Jewish Question.” “The church has neither to praise nor to censure the laws of the state. Instead, it has to affirm the state as God’s order of preservation in this godless world.” There were rare exceptions to this rule of nonintervention, of course, and the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany was clearly one of them. That was not, however, simply because the Nazi government was engaging in morally repugnant deeds and implementing unjust laws, but because those deeds and laws had driven the church into a status confessionis, a situation where the very truth of the gospel was at stake.

Republicans more anxious about safeguarding religious freedom than President Trump’s peccadillos may read these lines and believe they have found a kindred spirit. When they encounter Bonhoeffer’s conclusion in his Ethics that abortion is “nothing but murder” and discover his intense impatience with American liberal theology, they might feel themselves justified in christening the Obergefell decision a status confessionis — roughly what today might be called a “Bonhoeffer moment.” Perhaps those who are potential targets of an anti-discrimination lawsuit feel especially justified in doing so.

Yet when Bonhoeffer came to Union Theological Seminary in New York for the 1930–’31 academic year and, again, for the summer of 1939, he had some harsh words for those obsessed with religious liberty. “The American praise of freedom is more a tribute to the world, the state, and society than it is a statement concerning the church,” he wrote. “But where the gratitude for institutional freedom must be paid for through the sacrifice of the freedom of [gospel] proclamation, there the church is in chains, even if it believes itself to be free.”

Bonhoeffer, it would seem, may have found the conservative panic over Obergefell more faithless than politically feckless. He may have thought their “Bonhoeffer moment” more about self-preservation and power politics than gospel proclamation.

American progressives might feel even more justified in appropriating Bonhoeffer’s legacy. After all, the first thing most people learn about the Lutheran theologian is that he resisted a tyrannical government that systematically oppressed minorities. And, as many on the American left argue, the Trump administration has at least tried to do just that. These progressive believers might buttress their case by lauding Bonhoeffer’s courageous philosemitic efforts or citing the Sundays in 1931 he spent with the Black community at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. And when they read the blistering criticisms of “otherworldly” faith in his essay “Thy Kingdom Come!” or discover his hope for the future development of a “religionless Christianity” in his final letters, enthused Democrats might be ready to enlist Bonhoeffer’s help in the 2020 election. Those “Bonhoeffer moments,” after all, will come in handy on the campaign trail.

Yet letters and documents from his year in the United States reveal a Bonhoeffer at odds with the progressive American version as well. The historical Bonhoeffer was sometimes appalled by the oppression of African Americans, but he spent much more of his time filling letters and essays with criticisms and even contempt for American liberal Protestantism and progressive politics.

“God is not the immanent progressive ethical principle of history; God is the Lord who judges the human being and his work, he is the absolute sovereign (God’s kingdom is not a democracy!),” Bonhoeffer fumed in a memo about American Christianity. “The ideal of international, democratic, collectivist life together on the basis of the value of individuals (notice the inner contradiction!) is not identical with the kingdom of God.”

For Bonhoeffer, American liberals had misunderstood an essential part of Christianity: no matter how hard we try, human beings cannot inaugurate the kingdom of God. The best believers can do before that bright day in which Christ returns is preserve human rights, political stability, and a modicum of justice and proclaim the gospel message whether or not they find it politically expedient.

So how would Dietrich Bonhoeffer vote in 2020? Which side would he back in the United States’s vituperative, divided political landscape, and which would he think has the right to claim their political program as a righteous reaction to a “Bonhoeffer moment”?

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Chaplain Norris Burkes (copy) (copy)
Chaplain Norris Burkes. Photo by Wade Spees.

This weekend, on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, I’m reading “The Liberator” by Alex Kershaw.

It’s a great book in many places, but I’m having a problem with the places where Kershaw negates the contribution of faith in the foxholes.

I’ll admit that I appreciate Kershaw’s efforts to expose the bonehead things said by organized religions, but, as a combat veteran myself, I believe it’s a disservice to our veterans to deny the place their faith played in the battlefield.

I can only suggest that Kershaw will find a place in his future writings for at least three epic contributions from people of faith.

Starting from my obvious slant, chaplains.

Father Francis Sampson, or Father Sam as he was affectionately known, was the real inspiration for the film “Saving Private Ryan.” It was he, and not the character played by Tom Hanks who found Fritz Niland, the real-life “Private Ryan,” who had lost his three brothers on D-Day.

Along with the 501st paratroopers, Sampson landed at Saint-Come-du-Mont on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He gathered wounded in a nearby farmhouse but quickly found his farmhouse aid station overtaken by Germans.

The frightened padre was placed against a wall to be shot, but a Catholic German soldier saved him by convincing his comrades not to kill a priest. The soldiers returned the priest to an Allied medic station where he ministered to German and American wounded paratroopers.

Father Sam was recaptured during the Battle of the Bulge and imprisoned near Berlin. There the chaplain was granted permission to stay in the enlisted men’s prison to conduct mass for the remainder of the war.

He would often discount his heroism by saying “no pair of knees shook more than my own, nor any heart ever beat faster in times of danger.” Yet a grateful nation bestowed on the humble man the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest American military award, for his selfless help to the soldiers.

After the war, the never-quit-chaplain volunteered for Korea. He retired after that war, but his nation recalled him for the Vietnam War as head of the military chaplains in 1967.

Faith also guided Seventh-day Adventist Desmond Doss. Portrayed in the movie “Hacksaw Ridge,” Doss was an American pacifist combat medic who refused to carry or use a weapon of any kind.

Although not a D-Day hero, he was twice awarded the Bronze Star Medal for action in Guam and the Philippines. Doss distinguished himself in the Battle of Okinawa by saving 75 soldiers and became the only conscientious objector in WWII to receive the Medal of Honor.

Finally, no spiritual writing about WWII should omit the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And of course, there’s a movie about him too, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Pacifist and Nazi Resistor.” (2003)

His early-20th-century writings chastised the church for avoiding its role in the secular world. Few serious seminarians graduated after WWII without reading Bonhoeffer’s influential book, “The Cost of Discipleship.”

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Scripture remains as vital and useful today as ever

Posted: Friday, June 20, 2014 

I’ve finally gotten around to the new Dietrich Bonhoeffer biography by Eric Metaxas. And while reading this amazing book, I’ve reflected often on the importance of ideas and how essential is truth. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a hero to many for his bold, uncompromising stand against Hitler and the Nazi regime in 1930s and early 40s Germany. He is a champion for others because of his commitment to and passion for quality Christian community. Foundational to Bonhoeffer’s character and values was his insight into the Bible and dedication to the Word of God. At a time when most leaders were acquiescing to evil that would destroy their nation, Bonhoeffer stood boldly against the tide. He raised his voice on behalf of weak and vulnerable who the regime plotted to destroy. He called evil by its name and resisted it for all he was worth.

Not all ideas are of equal value. Some are so noble and beneficent, we are almost sure they come from the heart of God. Others are so destructive, treacherous and merciless we wonder if they were born in the pit of hell. The great majority of ideas are stuck somewhere between the extremes and only great wisdom will be able to forecast their outcomes or discover their direction. Bonhoeffer knew painfully, that he dare not trust contemporary social morality to guide his mind. He needed a higher touchstone to measure thought and theory and he believed he had it in the scriptures. His unpopular stand against the ideals of Nazism was founded, informed and energized by the truth he found within the pages of the Bible. Bonhoeffer wrote the following to a brother-in-law who saw little value in scripture.

“First of all I will confess quite simply – I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions, and that we need only to ask repeatedly and a little humbly, in order to receive this answer. One cannot simply read the Bible, like other books. One must be prepared really to enquire of it. Only thus will it reveal itself. Only if we expect from it the ultimate answer, shall we receive it. That is because in the bible God speaks to us…

“And I would like to tell you now quite personally: since I have learnt to read the Bible in this way – and this has not been for so very long – it becomes every day more wonderful to me. I read it in the morning and the evening, often during the day as well, and every day I consider a text which I have chosen for the whole week, and try to sink deeply into it, so as really to hear what it is saying. I know that without this I could not live properly any longer.”

– Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Metaxas, Eric, 2010, p 136-37.

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