Dietrich Bonhoeffer on nonviolence

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All of these quotes come from Mark Thiessen Nation and Stanley Hauerwas’s piece “‘A pacifist and enemy of the state’: Bonhoeffer’s journey to nonviolence.” It offers a nuanced interpretation of Bonhoeffer’s nonviolence.

The Sermon on the Mount as the proclamation of the incarnate love of God calls people to love one another, and thus to reject everything that hinders fulfilling this task – in short, it calls them to self-denial. In renouncing one’s own happiness, one’s own rights, one’s own righteousness, one’s own dignity, in renouncing violence and success, in renouncing one’s own life, a person is prepared to love the neighbour. Source

…we too are being thrown back all the way to the beginnings of our understanding. What reconciliation and redemption mean, rebirth and Holy Spirit, love for one’s enemies, cross and resurrection, what it means to live in Christ and follow Christ; all that is so difficult and remote that we hardly dare speak of it anymore. In these words and actions handed down to us, we sense something totally new and revolutionary, but we cannot yet grasp it and express it. This is our own fault. Our church has been fighting during these years only for its self-preservation, as if that were an end in itself. It has become incapable of bringing the word of reconciliation and redemption to humankind and to the world … [The Church needs] conversion and purification. It is not for us to predict the day – but the day will come – when people will once more be called to speak the word of God in such a way that the world is changed and renewed. It will be in a new language, perhaps quite nonreligious language, but liberating and redeeming like Jesus’ language, so that people will be alarmed and yet overcome by its power – the language of a new righteousness and truth, a language proclaiming that God makes peace with humankind and that God’s kingdom is drawing near. SOURCE

Engaging with the latest stuff on race and the founders coming from Liberty University’s Falkirk Center

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Not all Christian colleges are the same. Some of you may recall a post in which I compared Messiah University to Liberty University. If you have a child considering a faith-based college I encourage you to read that post.

Liberty University recently established something called the Falkirk Center. In previous posts I called it a “think tank,” but after watching this organization develop over the last several months I now think it is more of a propaganda machine for Christian Trumpism.

In the last few days, the Falkirk Center Facebook page has been posting on race in America.

Here is a post from last night:

Woke Christianity is a manipulation of the Gospel. It intentionally twists the Bible to accommodate and achieve leftist political aims and purposes. This has been evidenced in past cries of “Jesus was an illegal immigrant!” Or “Jesus was a socialist!” Now, it is shifting to an idea that Jesus would have praised and been part of the Black Lives Matter organization. The Gospel is the free offer of salvation based on the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ at the cross at Calvary. The Gospel tells us we are all sinners and we will all likewise perish unless we repent and believe in Christ. As Christians, we must preserve the Gospel and proclaim the truth until his coming. We must also speak out against heresy both inside and outside the church which includes Woke Christianity, Social Justice, Critical Theory and Intersectionality.

Thoughts:

  • There is no such thing as “woke Christianity.” The Christian scriptures do not endorse a particular political program–Left, Center, or Right. The Christian scriptures do not endorse capitalism or socialism. Fair-minded Christians around the world have used the scriptures to argue for both of these economic systems.
  • Would Jesus have been a member of Black Lives Matter? I have no idea. But Jesus would have certainly endorsed the idea that black lives matter. Do you see what the politically-charged Falkirk Center is doing here? They focus all of their attention on the official Black Lives Matter movement as a way to avoid talking about why black lives matter. If they can convince everyone that Black Lives Matter is a direct and immediate threat to our democracy they can get Trump re-elected and advance their political agenda. Don’t let Jerry Falwell and Charlie Kirk manipulate the teachings of Jesus for political gain. Don’t let them take the New Testament and filter its teachings through a Christian Right lens. It’s all politics.
  • The Falkirk Center says, “As Christians, we must preserve the Gospel and proclaim the truth until his coming.” Amen. So how does a belief in the proclamation of truth relate to the Falkirk’s support for the pathological liar in the Oval Office? How can an organization with a platform such as Liberty Univeristy fail to speak out about this? How long will evangelicals send their tuition money to a place whose leadership remains silent on this most basic moral issue? The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of love, justice, and compassion. The citizens of this kingdom–the scriptures call them a royal priesthood– are in the business of announcing the arrival of this Kingdom to those in power.
  • Don’t be fooled by all these references to “Woke Christianity,” “Social Justice,” “Critical Theory,” and “Intersectionality.” They are big words used to scare ordinary Christians. Followers of Jesus Christ, as citizens of his Kingdom, will always fight for justice in the world. They will oppose both individual acts of injustice and systemic acts of injustice. They will fight for the poor and oppressed. American history teaches us that there white people have always oppressed Black people and stomped on their human dignity. This oppression is now embedded in our social institutions and it must be considered when Christians think about how to engage the world.  We can uphold these things without necessarily embracing every dimension of “critical theory” or “intersectionality.” Frankly, I think these words are just distractions. They prevent Christians from getting-on with the business of building the Kingdom. But let’s remember that they are meant to be distractions.

Here is another Falkirk Center post from yesterday:

The founding fathers worked tirelessly to create the most just and free nation in human history. We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude for their ingenuity. Rather than be grateful for America and appreciate her system of government, however, the left has chosen to spite the founding fathers and all that they created, showing no appreciation for the price that has been paid for them to live in America and use their very freedoms to destroy the country that protects them. Leftist thinking is detrimental to a free and just society and is rotten at its core. We must do everything in our power to preserve the true story of the founding fathers, the noble history of America, and teach future generations of the sacrifices necessary to preserve, protect, and defend freedom and liberty in America.

  • The nation that the founders created in 1776 was not just. It was built upon universal Enlightenment principles such as “liberty,” but these principles were not applied to all people. In this sense, it is very difficult to say that the founders wanted to establish some kind of “Christian nation.”
  • The nation’s founders left a legacy of freedom and liberty that was eventually applied to most citizens. But by the time American leaders got their act together and started applying these ideals to African Americans and others, certain systemic injustices were already baked in the national cake, the product of decades of failure.
  • All of this has led to much debate among historians. No good historian would reject the idea that the founders were products of their time. The debate is over how rapidly the ideals of the white male American Revolution found their way into the mainstream of national life. Some say that the American Revolution was “radical” because it set the stage or prepared the way for women’s rights, the emancipation of slaves, civil rights, etc. Others argue that the Revolution was not radical because it failed to apply these ideas immediately. The founders made deliberate choices to keep injustice in place when they could have chosen the opposite course.  These debates are good for American democracy.  Let’s keep having them. Neither of them should be “canceled.”
  • This is our country. Let’s tell the story honestly.

And then there is this from a day or two ago:

Unfortunately, the faith that used to unite our country and carry it through its darkest hours, is now viewed as superstition and a detriment to society. Secular leftists are working, daily, to to infringe on religious liberty by prohibiting religious exercises or expressions and forcing groups to hire people whose beliefs do not align with that group’s religious convictions. As Christians- now more than ever- we must be attentive to and engaged with political and cultural events. Failure to do so is an abandonment of our duty to be good citizens of our country and it leaves the liberties this country was created to protect at risk of being taken away by those whose end goal is tyranny.

  • The first sentence presumes that the founders were trying to found a nation united by Christian faith. This is a problematic assumption that I have spent the better part of my career as an American historian trying to address. Start here.
  • Many white evangelicals are very upset that governors are shutting down churches due to the prevalence of COVID-19. These evangelicals believe that these local officials are curbing their right to worship. Is the prevention of Christian worship in a time of pandemic a violation of the First Amendment? That is an issue for the courts. But many of the founders thought that republics survived when people were willing to occasionally sacrifice their “rights” for the greater good of their neighbors. This is one of those moments when Christians can lead by example. Instead, many evangelicals, like the Falkirk Center, have chosen to mount a rights-based attack on masks, social distancing, and science that most of the founding fathers would fail to recognize. I don’t think the first-century church would recognize it either. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship: “In the right confrontation with the world, the Church will become ever more like to the form of its suffering Lord.”
  • I am sympathetic to some of the religious liberty concerns mentioned in this post. I hope the Supreme Court will continue to defend religious institutions to hire according to their deeply-held theological convictions.  This, it seems, is a mark of a healthy pluralism.

Monday night court evangelical roundup

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What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since our last update?

Greg Laurie is still suggesting that the United States was “born out of a revival.” I addressed the many problems with this view here. In fact, religious attendance and membership was at an all-time low during the Revolution.

Johnnie Moore, who calls himself a “modern day Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” loves Trump’s idea for a “National Garden of American Heroes.”

I wrote about this proposed garden here.

Moore also believes that “primary sources” exist in a vacuum. Most first-year history majors can debunk this approach to reading:

Ralph Reed, as always, is sticking to the playbook:

David Barton and his son Tim are on the Jim Bakker Show talking about monuments. For years, Barton ignored the parts of American history that did not fit with his Christian nationalism. Now he is talking about how we need to see the “good, the bad, and the ugly” of American history. At one point, David Barton compares himself and his son to the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha. He praises Tim for training young people to go to their campuses and convince their professors to reject “cultural Marxism” and “cancel culture.” I have now said this several times–the small number of people who are tearing down non-Confederate monuments are providing fodder for this kind of stuff.

Any history teacher who watches this video, and hears the Bartons attack the “dumb” and “stupid” ideas being taught in schools, should be offended. I wonder how many times either David or Tim Barton have set foot in a public school history classroom.

This video is a clear example of the Barton’s Christian nationalist mission. And they are well-funded.

The Bartons came back for a second day on the Jim Bakker Show and basically told viewers that if they don’t vote for Trump the United States will become socialist. The fear-mongering continues. In this interview, they double-down on the idea that anyone who does not vote for Trump is not “thinking biblically.” According to Tim Barton, only about 10% of self-professed Christians are actually “thinking biblically.” The rest “love Jesus” but are ignorant.

Eric Metaxas is still playing to the extremes in order to scare his listeners. Most people in the United States are not engaged in the tearing down of monuments. Most local governments are not trying to remove non-Confederate monuments or erase history.  He plays to these extremes because he wants Trump re-elected and he needs to keep his show on the air. This is what cultural warriors do.

Metaxas keeps pushing his seriously-flawed book If You Can Keep It. He says that the American history kids are getting in schools today is making them ignorant. As I said above in relation to David and Tim Barton, this is a sad attack on hard-working history teachers who are teaching students how to read primary sources, weigh evidence, detect bias, think contextually, appreciate complexity, and grasp how things change over time. When was the last time Metaxas talked with a K-12 history teacher or visited a history classroom?

The fear-mongering continues with Metaxas’s guest John Zmirak. Their discussion of the history of the French Revolution takes so many liberties with the facts that I am not sure where to begin with my critique. Perhaps a European historian can listen to this and comment. Zmirak then refers to political scientist Mark David Hall’s book defending a Christian founding. I haven’t read this book, but you can see a discussion of it here.

The Metaxas-Zmirak conversation moves to a full-blown rejection of systemic racism and a defense of Robert E. Lee monuments. The kind of hate that is now propagated on the Eric Metaxas Show–a show on “Christian” radio–looks nothing like the teachings of Jesus Christ. I don’t understand how Metaxas could have read so much Bonhoeffer and still engage in this garbage. I’ll stick with Charles Marsh on Bonhoeffer: here and here. I would also encourage you to read Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship and compare his words with what you hear on the Eric Metaxas Show.

In one of the more ironic lines of this episode, court evangelical Metaxas criticizes the Democratic Party for refusing to “stand against the madness.”

That’s all for today. Until next time.

Wednesday Night Court Evangelical Roundup

Court Evangelicals at Table

Since my last update, a few things have changed in court evangelical land. Neil Gorsuch, one of two Donald Trump Supreme Court nominees, has defended LGBTQ rights and has proven he may not be the best court evangelical ally when it comes to questions of religious liberty. I imagine some evangelicals who are looking for a reason to reject Trump at the ballot box in November may have just found one.

Police reform and debates over systemic racism continue to dominate the headlines. On the COVID-19 front, more and more churches are opening this weekend and Donald Trump is preparing for a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

What do the court evangelicals have to say?

In an interview with Charisma magazine, James Dobson writes:

In an outrageous ruling that should shake America’s collective conscience to its core, the U.S. Supreme Court has redefined the meaning of “sex” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to include “gender identity” and “sexual orientation.” Not only was this decision an affront against God, but it was also a historical attack against the founding framework that governs our nation.

Dobson says nothing about Trump or how Gorsuch burned white evangelicals on this decision.

I don’t know if Louie Giglio supports Trump, but he is now apologizing for his use of the phrase “White Blessing”:

The apology seems honest and sincere.

Jenetzen Franklin praises Trump as a great listener and defender of law and order.  But Trump’s police reform speech failed to address the systemic problem of racism in America. It attacked Obama and Biden and it defended Confederate monuments. Is this big action?

Johnnie Moore, the guy who describes himself as a “modern day Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” is doing the same thing as Jenetzen:

Greg Laurie interviewed South Carolina Senator Tim Scott on police reform. Scott talks about the “character” of police officers and shows a solid understanding of the Bible, but the issues of racism in America go much deeper than this. I encourage you to listen to Gettysburg College professor’s Scott Hancock upcoming interview at The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

The Laurie-Scott conversation is a step in the right direction, but it focuses on striking a balance between law and order (Scott quotes Romans 13) and individual acts of racism.  The real conversation should be over to have an ordered society and address systemic racism. Today, for example, Scott said that the United States is not a racist country.

Robert Jeffress is “thrilled” to have Mike Pence speak at his church for “Freedom Sunday.” Expect fireworks. Literal fireworks! Once again, it will be God and country on display.

Here is another view of Pence.

Last Sunday, Jeffress addressed the Floyd murder and its aftermath with his congregation at First Baptist-Dallas. He summarized his response to our current moment in three statements:

1. God hates racism. Jeffress FINALLY admits that First Baptist Church was on “the wrong side of history” on matters relating to race. This is a huge step! It would have been nice to have this history included in the church’s 150th anniversary celebration, but I don’t think I have ever heard Jeffress say this publicly.  Let’s see where this goes. First Baptist-Dallas has some reckoning with the past to do.

2. God hates lawlessness. Jeffress says that there is “nothing wrong” with peaceful protests, but he condemns the looting and riots. He does not say anything about the root cause of the riots. One more question: Does God hate Christians who disobey unjust laws? I think Martin Luther King Jr. had something to say about that. So did most of the patriotic pastors during the Revolution. You know, the guys who created America as a “Christian nation.”

3. Racism and lawlessness is not the problem, the problem is sin. Agreed. The sin of racism pervades every institution in America. In order to address the problem of racism we need to go beyond mere calls for personal salvation. American history teaches us that some of the great evangelical revivals led to abolitionism and other forms of social justice. At the same time, some of the great evangelical revivals led to a deeper entrenchment of racism in society. Jeffress’s church, which celebrates its history of soul-winning, is one example. Also, let’s remember that when Frederick Douglass’s master got saved during an evangelical revival, he became more, not less, ruthless in his treatment of his slaves. We will see what happens this time around, but individual spiritual regeneration does not always solve the deeply embedded problems of race in America.

Now I want to hear how this generally good, but also insufficient, message applies to Jeffress’s support of Donald Trump.

James Robison is right. But so is Jurgen Moltmann when he said that Christians must “awaken the dead and piece together what has been broken“:

Tony Perkins is talking with David Brat, the dean of the Liberty University School of Business, about law and order and the breakdown of K-12 and higher education. Perkins thinks the real problem in America is a “lack of courage.” I did a post about courage a few weeks ago.

Brat wants Christians to be “prophets, priests, and kings.” Yes. Here is something I wrote last month about such royal language:

What does it mean, as Scot McKnightN.T. Wright, and Matthew Bates, among others, have argued, that Jesus is King? What role do Christians play as a royal priesthood, proclaiming the truth of God to the darkness and, as Wright puts it, “reflecting God’s wisdom and justice into the world.”And there’s the rub. Reed’s Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God as understood by many conservative evangelicals, looks the other way when a ruler from another kingdom (so to speak) practices immorality. They do not seem to take their citizenship in this Kingdom as seriously as they take their American citizenship or, at the very least, they seem unwilling to say more about the tensions between the two. (There is, of course, a deep history behind the conflation of these two kingdoms).

Gary Bauer just retweeted this:

Perhaps he should have made a caveat for Christians in prayer. But let’s face it, the court evangelicals don’t do nuance very well.

Ralph Reed is fully aware of the fact that Gorsuch and Roberts have betrayed him and his followers. Yet don’t expect him to throw out the Christian Right playbook anytime soon. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is ready to retire and Reed will no doubt try to make the 2020 election about the Supreme Court:

Rob McCoy, the pastor of Calvary Chapel of Thousands Oaks in Newbury Park, California, invited Charlie Kirk, the Trump wonderboy, to preach at his church last Sunday. McCoy introduced him by quoting Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever it admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” Kirk then got up and gave a fear-mongering political speech that ripped evangelical pastors who have participated in anti-racist protests. At one point, Kirk told the Christians gathered on this Sunday morning that if the Left “takes him down” he “will be on his feet” not “on his knees.” This was an applause line. If you want to see hate preached from an evangelical pulpit, watch this:

And let’s not forget Charles Marsh’s twitter thread exposing Eric Metaxas’s use of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to attack Black Lives Matter.

Until next time.

Charles Marsh unleashes a devastating assault on court evangelical Eric Metaxas’s misuse of Bonhoeffer as it relates to Black Lives Matter

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Court evangelical Eric Metaxas wrote a popular biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that was  panned by Bonhoeffer scholars. University of Virginia theology professor Charles Marsh wrote a biography of Bonhoeffer that was praised by Bonhoeffer scholars.

When Metaxas invoked Bonhoeffer to justify his rejection of the Black Lives Matter movement, Marsh responded.

You may recall that Marsh is the scholar who gathered the Bonhoeffer quotes we published as “Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Stupidity.”

Here is Metaxas’s tweet:

Metaxas BLM

The Washington Times article Metaxas tweeted is here.

Here is Marsh’s twitter thread:

For the continuing debate over Bonhoeffer’s legacy, I recommend Stephen Haynes’s The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump. Haynes also has an essay in the recently released The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Evangelical Christians on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Stupidity

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Thanks to Bonhoeffer biographer and theologian Charles Marsh for bring these words to my attention.  You can apply them this morning as you see fit.

“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force.”

“Against stupidity we are defenseless; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed, and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one.”

“It seems obvious that stupidity is less a psychological than a sociological problem. It is a particular form of the impact of historical circumstances on human beings, a psychological concomitant of certain external conditions.”

“The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he speaks on behalf of an empowered group. In conversation with him, one feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans and catchwords that have taken possession of him.”

“The stupid man is under a spell…[And] having become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil.”

“The Bible’s words that the ‘fear of the Lord God is the beginning of wisdom’ teaches us that a person’s inward liberation from foolishness and decision to live responsibly and intelligently before God is the only real cure to stupidity.”

Bonhoeffer, “After Ten Years”, Letters and Papers from Prison

Eric Metaxas Vs. Every Bonhoeffer Scholar in the World

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In the last week or so we have called your attention to stories about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  First, there was Stephen Haynes’s “An Open Letter to Christians Who Love Bonhoeffer but (Still) Support Trump.” And then there was this post: “International Bonhoeffer Society Calls for Ending of the Trump Presidency.”

Eric Metaxas, a court evangelical and Christian radio host who recently made a very flawed “Christian case for Trump” at the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, has written a biography of Bonhoeffer that has been much celebrated in the conservative evangelical community.  It has also been panned by scholars who have devoted their lives to the study of Bonhoeffer, including the members of the International Bonhoeffer Society.  But that hasn’t stopped Metaxas from claiming that he, and he alone, has written the only truly accurate portrayal of the German pastor who opposed Hitler.

Here is what he tweeted in response to a Sojourners article discussing the aforementioned statement from the International Bonhoeffer Society:

The culturally marxist academics who hijacked Bonhoeffer’s legacy for fifty years — until the 2009 publication of my biography — and who unconscionably pushed a profound misreading of his thinking & theology, are at it again. Feel free to guffaw.

This sounds like the kind of tweet Trump might write.  “The Marxists have hijacked Bonhoeffer and I only I can fix it!”

Warren Throckmorton has this covered at his blog.  Read it here.

International Bonhoeffer Society Calls for Ending of the Trump Presidency

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The International Bonhoeffer Society is an organization of scholars who study the life and writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who the Nazi’s hanged after learning of his role in a plot to assassination Adolph Hitler.

On January 15, 2020, the Society issued the following “Statement of Concern” regarding the presidency of Donald Trump:

As grateful recipients, and now custodians, of the theological, ethical, and political legacy of the German pastor-theologian and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we believe all persons of faith and conscience should prayerfully consider whether our democracy can endure a second term under the presidency of Donald Trump. We believe it cannot. In 2017, we issued a statement expressing our grave concerns about the rise in hateful rhetoric and violence, the rise in deep divisions and distrust in our country, and the weakening of respectful public discourse ushered in by the election of Donald Trump. We articulated the need for Christians to engage in honest and courageous theological reflection in the face of the threat posed by his leadership. Over the last three years, the need for such discernment has grown more urgent.

A hallmark of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s legacy is his insistence that we see the great events of world history from “the view from below” (1942). That is, he urges us to see from the perspective of those who suffer. The policies of the Trump administration both threaten and disempower the most vulnerable members of our society, including people of color, members of the LGBTQ communities, Muslims and other religious minorities, immigrants, refugees, the poor, the marginally employed, and the unemployed. Moreover, Donald Trump has now taken ill-advised military action that raises the specter of war. One of the greatest lessons learned from the history of the Christian churches during Germany’s Third Reich is that it is crucial to respond to threats to human life, integrity, and community when they first appear, and to continue to challenge them.

As Bonhoeffer scholars, religious leaders, and confessing Christians, we have a special responsibility to name crises and discern responsible actions of resistance and healing. We confess our own complicity in the social order that has produced Donald Trump’s presidency, for many of the social and economic injustices we confront predate it. As we take responsibility for these injustices, we resist the policy goals of this administration that have contributed to everdeepening divisions and growing vulnerability among the marginalized sectors of our population, including the dehumanizing treatment of migrants, systematic attempts to strip rights from LGBTQ persons, the increased rapacious destruction of the environment, the marginalization and assault on communities of color especially through voter suppression, and the economic policies that have contributed to the largest disparity of wealth in the nation’s history. We believe that an honest reckoning with these realities must lead to dismantling the dehumanizing ideologies and systemic inequities in which they are rooted.

We believe that one crucial step in this reckoning is ending Donald Trump’s presidency. We do not make this statement lightly. Bonhoeffer’s writings have been influential for Christians from a wide range of churches and political views, but we feel called to address the grave moral concerns we have outlined here that call every one of us to account. During this new year, debates and discussion will continue to be held concerning the best way for America to move forward. We believe that the United States has the human resources to provide capable and willing leaders, and that together a more just and respectful future can be forged. Acknowledging that all human community and leadership is a mixture of blessing and brokenness, health and dysfunction, we stand with all those who believe this country deserves and needs a constitutional and peaceful change in leadership. And we commit ourselves to listen to the call and obey the commands of Jesus as we enter the year 2020.

We make this statement, in part, because we know that Dietrich Bonhoeffer – a theologian and martyr – is often cited in times of political contention. We offer the following theological lessons from Bonhoeffer’s work as a glimpse into the ways he understood his faith and his responsibilities as a citizen in his own times, and to encourage discernment about how these words might resonate for us today:

  • He spoke of God’s freedom and human freedom as “freedom for others” not “freedom from others.” (1932)
  • He preached that the gospel is “the good news of the dawning of the new world, the new order … God’s order,” and therefore it is good news for the poor. (1932)
  • He warned that leaders become “misleaders” when they are interested only in their own power and neglect their responsibilities to serve those whom they govern. (1933)
  • He warned that when a government persecutes its minorities, it has ceased to govern legitimately. (1933)
  • He reminded Christians that the church has an “unconditional obligation toward the victims of any societal order, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.” (1933)
  • He wrote, “For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. … The hour is late. The world is choking with weapons. … The trumpets of war may blow tomorrow. For what are we waiting?” (1934)
  • He believed that Jesus’s commands in the Gospels – like love your neighbor as you love yourself, welcome the stranger, and love your enemies – are to be obeyed in the social and political realm. He wrote: “From the human point of view there are countless possibilities of understanding and interpreting the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus knows only one possibility: simply go and obey.” (1936)
  • He wrote, “Behold God become human … God loves human beings. …Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are. … What we find repulsive … namely, real human beings … this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.” (1941)
  • He wrote from prison, “… one only learns to have faith by living in the full thisworldliness of life. …then one takes seriously no longer one’s own sufferings but rather the suffering of God in the world. Then one stays awake with Christ in Gethsemane. And I think this is faith; this is [metanoia/repentance]. And this is how one becomes a human being, a Christian. … How should one become arrogant over successes or shaken by one’s failures when one shares in God’s suffering in the life of this world?” (1944)
  • He wrote from prison, “How do we go about being ‘religionless-worldly’ Christians, how can we be [ecclesia/church], those who are called out, without understanding ourselves religiously as privileged, but instead seeing ourselves as belonging wholly to the world?” (1944)

Signed by the Board of Directors, International Bonhoeffer Society – English Language Section,

Jennifer M. McBride, President
Lori Brandt Hale, Vice President
John Matthews, Secretary
H. Gaylon Barker, Treasurer
Christian Collins Winn
Stephen Haynes
Matt Jones
David Krause
Michael Mawson
Dianne Rayson
Robert Vosloo
Reggie Williams
Philip Ziegler
Keith Clements, Emeritus
Barry Harvey, Emeritus
J. Patrick Kelley, Emeritus
Michael Lukens, Emeritus 

NOTE: I added the links to these names.

Sojourners covered this story here.

It is worth noting that one of America’s most popular Bonhoeffer biographers, Eric Metaxas, is a Trump supporter.  His biography has been widely criticized by Bonhoeffer scholars.  The most recent critique of Metaxas came from Rhodes College professor Stephen Haynes.

Has the Bonhoeffer Moment Arrived?

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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.

Preaching Bonhoeffer and the Uses of the Past

Eric Metaxas

Last night at Messiah College I heard Christian writer Eric Metaxas give a very entertaining, humorous, and inspiring lecture on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  The lecture was based on his wildly successful book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  Since I received several e-mails and Facebook messages from readers about Messiah’s decision to host Metaxas, I thought I would write a post on his talk.  I also think it would be very instructive to think about his lecture in the wake of Annette Gordon-Reed’s American Democracy Lecture from the evening before. The juxtaposition of these two lectures made for a very engaging conversation today in my Historical Methods course.

Eric Metaxas is an evangelical writer and preacher.  He employs the past–in this case the heroic story of Bonhoeffer’s resistance to Adolph Hitler–to inspire the faithful to live better, more Christian, lives.

I do not have a problem with this, as long as Metaxas does not try to claim the title “historian.” (And I don’t think he has ever claimed to be a historian, although I do get concerned when I see him doing events with culture warriors and Christian nationalists like David Barton).  The past can be useful in our lives as a source of inspiration.  I don’t know how anyone cannot be inspired by Bonhoeffer’s story.  Frankly, Metaxas inspired me tonight to live a better Christian life.  It was a great sermon.  I am glad that he came to Messiah College.

But after listening to Metaxas, and learning more about the book’s reception from people who know a thing or two about Bonhoeffer, I have a hard time separating my identity as a historian from my identity as a Christian.  As some of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home reminded me via e-mail this week, Metaxas’s book has been roundly criticized by Bonhoeffer scholars for its attempt to paint the 20th-century German theologian as an evangelical Christian.

One of the harshest critics of the book has been Clifford Green, the executive director of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s works.  Back in 2010 he wrote a review of the book entitled “Hijacking Bonhoeffer.”  Another Bonhoeffer scholar, Victoria J. Barnett, called it a “badly flawed book” for many of the same reasons as Green.

The hits kept coming. Richard Weikart, an evangelical scholar at Cal-State Stanislaus, said that Metaxas “does not have sufficient grounding in history, theology, and philosophy to interpret Bonhoeffer.”  Nancy Lukens, translator of Bonhoeffer’s works, called it an “Agenda-Driven Biography.”  Alan Wolfe, writing at The New Republic, seemed to like the book, but he is hardly a Bonhoeffer scholar.  Jason Hood summarizes many of these reviews at Christianity Today.  Finally, I heard Charles Marsh of the University of Virginia criticize the book at a lecture last year at Samford University.  Marsh, I might add, has a biography of Bonhoeffer appearing soon with Knopf.

I am not a Bonhoeffer scholar so I tread lightly, but when I see major Bonhoeffer scholars–both liberal Protestants, evangelicals, and others– being so critical of this book, it raises red flags.  So, assuming the book is flawed, I am trying to figure out why I was inspired tonight by Metaxas’s lecture.  Or to put it differently, can one still be inspired by a presentation about the life of a historical figure even when the presentation may be based on a skewed interpretation of that person’s life? Does my inspiration rest on a shaky foundation?

I think Bonhoeffer’s story–his courage and conviction–is always inspirational.  Bonhoeffer doesn’t have to be an evangelical Christian to be inspirational.  If he was a liberal Protestant I would still be inspired by him.  If Metaxas wanted to use Bonhoeffer to call the faithful to follow God in difficult times, I think he could have done that without trying to make him into something he was not.  He is a great writer and communicator.  He could have easily made it work.

Annette Gordon-Reed

Metaxas’s use of the past was strikingly different from the way Annette Gordon-Reed interpreted the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings affair the evening before. Gordon-Reed did not use the past to preach. (Later I learned that some folks in the audience were disappointed that she did not). While it certainly would have been easy to use the Jefferson-Hemings case to speak prophetically against the evils of slavery and the sexual behavior of Jefferson, Gordon-Reed made it clear that this was not the job of the historian.  (She reiterated this more strongly in a breakfast with students on Wednesday morning). On this point, I would highly recommend an article by my colleague Jim LaGrand entitled “The Problems of Preaching Through History.”

While Gordon-Reed’s talk certainly raised a host of moral questions, and could not help but trigger the moral imagination of the people in the audience, she did not use the Jefferson-Hemings affair as a sermon illustration to inspire us (in the case of Sally Hemings) to be strong in the midst of difficult times.  She did not use her lecture to openly rail against the practices of white slaveholders like Jefferson.  It would have been easy for her to do this, but she did not. Whatever moral lessons one learned about the past were only gleaned through a thorough understanding of the topic rooted in careful and nuanced historical research.  I can’t help but think that her moral critique was richer and deeper as a result.

This week at Messiah College we witnessed, on consecutive nights before very large crowds, two ways of using the past.  Metaxas should not be criticized for using the past to preach–that’s what he does. In fact, I have done this on occasion as well. The past is always useful. Whatever criticism we cast on Metaxas should focus on his apparently skewed portrayal of Bonhoeffer.  If you are going to use the past to preach, at least make sure you get it right.  I would not be doing my job as a historian if I did not point this out.

As we discussed Metaxas’s lecture (and his corresponding chapel talk on William Wilberforce) in Historical Methods today, we found ourselves ambivalent about what to make of it.  On the one hand, we were glad to see so many people talking about a figure from the past and thinking about how the past might have implications for their lives in the present.  On the other hand, we wondered if the people in Hostetter Chapel last night, or the people who have bought or read Metaxas’s book, left the lecture with an accurate portray of the man.

I think the lecture opened the door to a conversation–in the dorms, at the seminar table, in the hallways, and on this blog–about the uses of the past. (Students were calling up reviews of the book on their laptops and referencing them during our discussion today.  It was great!).  Without the lecture, people on campus would not be talking about history today.

Gordon-Reed enters the past as a historian with the goal of understanding it. She is not primarily interested in preaching or political activism.  She may not have been as funny or inspirational as Metaxas (although most people who heard her talk thought it was excellent), but she has a very different vocation–the vocation of historian.

As historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen have argued, the past is all around us.  We are constantly feeling its “presence” in our lives.

Burkholder on Metaxas

Eric Metaxas, the author of the wildly successful (especially among evangelicals) Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, spoke this week at Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana. 

Jared Burkholder, a historian at Grace and friend of this blog, was the master of ceremonies at the event.  His analysis at his excellent blog, The Hermeneutic Circle, is worth reading.  Here is a taste:

Grace College is hosting Eric Metaxas this week, who has had best-selling biographies of William Wilberforce (2007) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (2010), and I had the privilege of introducing Metaxas and moderating discussion after he addressed our faculty. This was, of course, a great opportunity for the campus, but I must admit that I had reservations. I was aware that Metaxas is not a trained historian (nor does he claim to be) and that his biography of Bonhoeffer has received mixed reviews. The general consensus among Bonhoeffer specialists was that, however skillful the writing, Metaxas had “evangelicalized” Bonhoeffer, glossed over rather complex theological currents, and fashioned him into a figure that would give credibility to the activism of American evangelicals. (See, for example, an “evangelical critique” of the book by Richard Weikart (California State University, Stanislaus).) I am far from any kind of expert on Bonhoeffer, but all historians are familiar with this classic pitfall of biographical writing, that is, the temptation to (re)create a historical figure in one’s own image. While I will need to let the specialists (and future biographers) decide the overall merit of Metaxas’ treatment of Bonhoeffer, his talk today seemed to give creedence to his critics, at least in my mind. 

Before going further, I should say that his biographies are great reads and there was much that was commendable about Metaxas’ presentation and his interaction with the faculty. He admonished us to engage in the public sphere with skill and temperance, and to avoid the kind of demonizing for which politics has become known. He spoke of love, prayer, and learning from those across the aisle. He also humbly acknowledged his surprise that his books had been so well received and that he has received such notoriety from his talk at the National Prayer Breakfast back in February.

Yet, it seemed to me, he is still a culture warrior who has been enamored by these heroic figures and can’t help but make use of them to rally his fellow evangelicals to fight against the left…

Read the rest here.

I share many of Burkholder’s concerns about Metaxas.  Like Jared, I am not a Bonhoeffer scholar, but I do get concerned when I see Metaxas speaking at events sponsored by Wallbuilders and other Christian nationalist organizations.

Last year, while attending the Lilly Fellows Conference at Samford University in Alabama, I heard Charles Marsh, a Christian who teaches at the University of Virginia, offer a very different take on Bonhoeffer.  He is writing a biography of Bonhoeffer that will be appearing soon with Knopf.

Metaxas will be speaking at Messiah College on November 7th.  Interestingly enough, he will be speaking a day after Harvard historian Annette Gordon-Reed comes to campus to talk about Jefferson and Sally Hemings.  Should be an interesting week on campus, not to mention the fact that Nov. 6 is election day.

Alan Wolfe on Metaxas’s Biography of Bonhoeffer

Everywhere I turn someone is reading Eric Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  My brother-in-law got a copy of the book for Christmas. A colleague recently praised it on his Facebook page.  An elderly friend and Presbyterian elder raves about it.  It seems like I can’t get through a week without someone asking me if I have read it.  As I write this, the book sits at #273 on Amazon.com  A few weekends ago I saw Metaxas talk about the book on C-Span and was quite impressed.  I guess I will need to get a copy of this book and read it for myself.

Alan Wolfe is also impressed.  He likes the book, but he wants to make sure that readers take away the right lessons from it.  Here is a taste:

Throughout his book, but especially toward the end, Metaxas turns this erudite and at times abstruse theologian into a living and tragic human being. I would be less than honest if I did not admit that bringing this man—and his intransigence on all the important questions of our time—so vividly to life raises awkward questions for the liberalism in which I put my own faith. How, precisely, would a Rawlsian have acted in those dark times? Must we not move beyond this-worldly conceptions of politics as a struggle for power to other-worldly concerns with repentance and days of judgment, if we are to grasp how the Nazis were able to combine their own rational plans to kill millions with satanically inspired ideas about a Thousand Year Reich, and also how some people were able to resist those plans? Is it possible to face death with courage without knowing that a better life awaits? Can one be loyal to one’s collaborators in the resistance without being loyal to some higher power? Can faith help overcome torture? Lurking behind all such questions is the major one: if the problem of evil is not one that humans can solve, have we no choice but to rely on God for help? Does Bonhoeffer’s greatness prove his rightness? 

Yet when I put this book down, I realized that its author, no doubt inadvertently, had helped me to answer these questions. Bonhoeffer may have been convinced that God was telling him what to do, but I am not convinced. Ironically, Metaxas’s passion, the intensity of his engagement with his subject, wound up persuading me of the importance of the very autonomy that Bonhoeffer believed that we do not possess. Even if God told Bonhoeffer what to do, it was Bonhoeffer who chose God in the first place. It was not a humble servant of the Lord who involved himself in the resistance, but a singular human being who, for whatever reason, was able to know what to do when faced with the problem of evil.

 
It is important to note in this context that there is no simple relationship between faith and courage. The German Christians who collaborated with Hitler may have abused religion, but they considered themselves religious. At the same time, many—if not most—of the resisters to Hitler were not Christian believers and did not take orders from God. They included Prussian generals, and left-wingers (including even a few communists), and the student movement known as the White Rose. Their bravery had nothing to do with religion. One should come away from the Bonhoeffer story impressed by religion, but not in awe of it. The human picture is more complicated.

In this fine biography, Metaxas stays close to the story and refrains from any efforts at theory. All the more reason to read it: when it comes to the strengths and the limits of post-Kantian liberalism, we already have theory aplenty. But be careful what you read it for. You can understand this book, if you wish, as making the case for belief in an all-powerful God, though a biography is not a work of philosophy. But unless you read it also as a testimony to the capacity for choice that mortal beings may be called upon to exercise when evil looms among them, its larger and most stirring lesson will be lost.

Who is the Real Bonhoeffer?

Everywhere I go people are singing the praise of Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  We blogged a bit about it here.

I have not read the book, but it appears that Metaxas uses the book to try to turn Bonhoeffer into an evangelical Christian. Clifford Green, the executive director of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works, is having none of it.  In a critical review in The Christian Century, Green writes how Metaxas has manipulated evidence to tell the story of a Bonhoeffer that he (Green) does not recognize.  The title of the review is “Hijcking Bonhoeffer.”  Here is a taste:

I will not linger over the numerous factual errors, including problems with the German words sprinkled throughout the text (even the notorious names Buchenwald and Dachau are misspelled). I will not fret about the problems infecting the copious endnotes, especially the missing, incomplete and garbled sources. I will not dwell on the fact that a critical assessment of sources is absent. (Metaxas repeats the pious and probably self-serving statement of the Flossenbürg camp doctor about Bonhoeffer’s death and the canard about Bonhoeffer’s radio speech on the Führer being cut off as if he were a marked man from the beginning of Hitler’s rule, when in fact he just went over the time limit.) One of the signs that the book was rushed through the press to appear on the 65th anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s death is found in the news that Bonhoeffer crossed the Atlantic in the “thirty-three-ton ship” Columbus.

Informed readers will attend to what else is missing. Contrary to claims in the publicity, there is no new research in this biography. Bonhoeffer scholars are thanked but only mentioned in their role as editors; their research and writings are never discussed. (Disclosure: I have edited several volumes in the Bonhoeffer Works.) Because research has found new documents and new interpretation has been written since Bethge’s book, one can indeed make a case for a new biography. (Ferdinand Schlingensiepen has just undertaken this serious task in Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance.) And given the tendency of evangelicals and liberals to focus on different parts of Bonhoeffer’s theology and witness, the challenge is to transcend theological polarization and present an integrated and compelling picture.

But that is not Metaxas’s approach: polarization is a structural motif of the whole narrative, because his mission is to reclaim the true Bonhoeffer from “liberals” who have “hijacked” the theologian. Consider the treatment of Bon­hoeffer’s year at Union Theological Seminary in 1930-1931. It is true that Bonhoeffer was very critical of theology at Union as well as the preaching he heard in white churches like Riverside Church. What Metaxas highlights, however, is Bon­hoeffer’s experience at Abyssinian Baptist Church, where, he implies, Bonhoeffer had a conversion experience and became a serious Christian. In volume 10 of the Bonhoeffer Works I present new evidence of Abyssinian’s deep personal impact on Bonhoeffer. But that is to complement, not disparage, the decisive impact of Bonhoeffer’s friends at Union Seminary.

One commentator writes that Green has a “case of extreme envy.”  Perhaps.  But it does appear that this book has some flaws.

George W. Bush and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Gustav Niebuhr is reporting that George W. Bush is reading Eric Metaxas’s new biography of German theologian and anti-Nazi Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  (I saw Laura Bush mention this over the weekend during an interview on Book TV).

Niebuhr is not surprised that Bush is reading or that he is reading about Bonhoeffer.  He does wonder, however, what Bush is “getting from his reading.”  Niebuhr asks: “Does Bonhoeffer challenge, confirm or add to the former president’s understanding of Christianity?”  He continues:

Which Bonhoeffer is George W. Bush encountering? As noted, with his dedicated focus on Christ, Bonhoeffer has long appealed to people who lean toward the theologically conservative, especially American evangelicals. His commitment to social ministry inspires many ranks of more liberal admirers. And Bonhoeffer’s clear status of an a man of action, who put all at risk to defy Hitler–well, who doesn’t find that moving?

I guess I want to know what Bush does next. Will he move on to Bonhoeffer’s own works, including his prison writings? Will he be so intrigued as to make a trip to the library to check out Eberhard Bethge’s comprehensive biography of Bonhoeffer, re-published a decade ago by Fortress Press? Talk about going to the source! Bethge was a student of Bonhoeffer and later married the theologian’s niece.

Bethge’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography clocks in at somewhere under 1,100 pages. As an ex-president, Bush must have some time on his hands.