Has the Bonhoeffer Moment Arrived?

bonhoffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer scratching his head

Stephen Haynes is a professor at Rhodes College in Memphis and the author of what appears to be three books on German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (He also wrote a nice book on pro-slavery southerners that I recommend).

In a recent piece at The Huffington Post, Haynes reflects on what Bonhoeffer might teach Christians in the #ageoftrump.  In the process he challenges Christian writer Eric Metaxas‘s efforts at using Bonhoeffer to convince evangelicals to vote for Donald Trump.

Here is a taste of Haynes’s piece:

Bonhoeffer reminds us not to be surprised by the enthusiasm with which some Christians are greeting the Trump “revolution.” As Mary Solberg’s recent translation of documents from the “German Christian” movement in A Church Undone compellingly demonstrates, with a few notable exceptions Protestant Christians’ responses to Hitler’s “seizure of power” in 1933 ranged from cautious hope to giddy enthusiasm. For many Christians, Hitler’s quirks and lack of refinement were overshadowed by his promises to restore law and order, reassert the church’s cultural relevance, put the country back on par with its international rivals, and generally make Germany “great again.” Christians emerging from the economic and psychological morass of Weimar Germany were so enamored of the Nazi vision that they ignored what appear to us as flaming red flags, perceiving only the bright dawn of German redemption.

The reality, however, is that Bonhoeffer’s early antipathy toward Hitler was regarded with irritation by most Christian leaders in Germany, even among those who opposed the church’s nazification. Bonhoeffer’s contemporaries, in fact, viewed him as an unreasonable partisan who was too uncompromising in church disputes, too quick to criticize the fledgling Nazi state, and too pessimistic about Germany’s auspicious future under Hitler. If American Christianity seems dominated at the moment by Trump enthusiasts and those taking a wait-and-see approach, Bonhoeffer’s experience suggests that we should not be surprised.A

And this:

Evangelical Christian leaders could proclaim a “Bonhoeffer moment” in 2015 because those whom they were seeking to rally had come to perceive the German theologian as a defender of their own values. Given American evangelicals’ traditional ambivalence toward Bonhoeffer, this shift in perception calls for an explanation. The major factor, I think, is the success of Eric Metaxas’s 2010 book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Through the book’s commercial success (it is rumored to have sold over a million copies), its endorsement by evangelical leaders, its dubious claim that the theologian’s legacy had been craftily hijacked by liberals and radicals, and the author’s nearly constant presence on social media, television and radio, Metaxas has succeeded in fashioning a portrait of Bonhoeffer that American evangelicals recognize and embrace.

So when Metaxas became a vociferous advocate for a Trump presidency, it is quite likely that a good part of the 80% of the evangelical electorate that helped elect him viewed their choice as not only morally defensible, but prophetic. The Bonhoeffer scholars I know do not respect Metaxas as an interpreter of Bonhoeffer and view his invocation of Bonhoeffer in support of Trump as an egregious misappropriation of the theologian’s legacy. But in a cultural environment characterized by suspicion of credentialed elites, members of the Bonhoeffer guild must to do more to establish our credibility than refer to our degrees and publications. We have to make a careful case that thinking with Bonhoeffer during this fraught time in our political history means embracing our responsibility to those under threat, those who, like the Jewish victims of Nazism Bonhoeffer alluded to in Ethics, are the “weakest and most defenseless brothers of Jesus Christ.”

In October, after Trump’s notoriously misogynist “locker room” rant had become public, Metaxas used an editorial in the Wall Street Journal to double down on his bid to convince repulsed Christians of their obligation to pull the lever for Trump. Invoking his hero, Metaxas reminded readers that “the anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer also did things most Christians of his day were disgusted by,” refusing to let his decisions be governed by a desire for “moral pur[ity].”

However we evaluate that pre-election advice, the time is past for judging Trump on the despicable things he said during the campaign. The stakes now are much higher. Trump is no longer a candidate whose comments and opinions “many think odious” (as Metaxas conceded in October), but a president-elect whose policies and appointments have the potential to do real existential harm. In my view, at least one of Metaxas’s references to Bonhoeffer remains relevant: “God will not hold us guiltless.”

Read the entire piece here.

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