Evangelical icon and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer is arguably the greatest moral giant to emerge from the German resistance to Hitler. He was a brilliant theologian, an evangelical Christian and flamingly gay. He’d be denounced today by people like Sarah Palin and Franklin Graham as unequivocally hell-bound.
If Bonhoeffer is in hell because he fell in love with a man–at least in “hell” as it is imagined by American evangelicals — he’s there with the Jews who were gassed in spite of his best efforts to save them. Before they died, they forgot to accept Jesus as their personal savior. Evangelical theology is very black and white. You’re saved or lost, in or out. Jews who don’t accept Jesus go to hell. So do unrepentant gay men and women.
It is passing strange that a queer martyr is beloved by evangelicals. Not only do Bonhoeffer’s life and death rebuke the intolerance of the American religious right and their Tea Party fellow travelers, but Bonhoeffer was himself one of the enemy. Then again. evangelicals are experts at adopting heroes, since their community produces so few with both moral standing and intellectual firepower.
They have adopted G. K. Chesterton, a hard-drinking Roman Catholic; C. S. Lewis, an alcoholic high church Anglican who didn’t believe anyone went to hell unless they decided to stay there after they died (!); and my late father, Francis Schaeffer, who, until he was identified with the religious right because he was against legalizing abortion, was better known for running what amounted to a hippie commune in the Swiss alps and his work pointing people to the importance of art, profane “pornographic” art included.
Being martyred by Hitler, on his specific personal orders no less, is a pretty good calling card when it comes to credentialing courageous activism. Combine that with being a hero to evangelical Christians because Bonhoeffer modeled his resistance to Hitler on what he took to be the close reading of the Gospels, and you have an icon.
In his monumental new book, one of the greatest writers on the relationship of religion to the civil rights movement, Charles Marsh, unequivocally confirms that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was gay. Marsh–Commonwealth Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia–may or may not have intended the title of his epic, glorious and definitive biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory, to echo “Strange Fruit,” the song performed by Billie Holiday, but the connection is serendipitous.
The song exposed American racism and the lynching of African Americans. Intended or not, the connection is appropriate because Marsh’s entertaining, moving and page-turning biography thoroughly humanizes the hero, proving once again that real saints are often more human and thoroughly complex than the rest of us, not less so. Put it this way: Marsh turns a one-dimensional Byzantine-style icon of an evangelical saint into a Renaissance portrait imbued with a powerful life force.
About twenty-five years ago, during my stint as a Hollywood movie director, I wrote a screenplay (which never went anywhere) on Bonhoeffer. One reason it did not go anywhere was that all my source material was an iconography that had been whitewashed of the foibles and reality of the man, leaving only his theological works and “biographies,” which were really hagiographies. In other words, books on Bonhoeffer were to his story what Martin Luther King biographies are to that other great icon of resistance to evil when they omit his womanizing. Of course the sin of editing a saint to keep her or him saintly is that it strips the miracle of grace of all meaning and reduces a life to a magical event.
Marsh has given us the real Bonhoeffer. Marsh came to this task prepared. He has done as much as any other American writer to examine the connection between religion and the civil rights movement. In God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights. Marsh showed how the civil rights in Mississippi involved activists of every stripe claiming that God was on their side. Violence against blacks increased when activists clashed over their images of God and the Bible. In the book a Klansman uses biblical language to attack blacks, while a black woman describes how the Gospel led her to rally African Americans to fight peacefully for their dignity.
In Strange Glory Marsh turns to another civil rights story, this time the story of resistance to Hitler by a brave scholar and pastor from an elite family who was well placed to sit out the war and could have done so by staying in America. Instead Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to do his bit to resist the man he literally regarded as the antichrist. He chose death that truth might live.
Marsh has written about one of the great heroes of the twentieth century, a hero to everyone who paid the ultimate price for that heroism. German Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, and founding member of the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer also shared with Holliday, and those other civil rights activists fighting for human rights in America, a deep concern over and visceral reaction to American racism. He based his views on the Bible. His stand against racism manifested itself in letters he wrote decrying the way blacks were treated in the America of the 1930s and later in Germany the persecution of the Jews.
Bonhoeffer was also an early and staunch opponent to the Nazi dictatorship. He spoke against Adolf Hitler’s euthanasia program and genocide of the Jews. He was also involved with the plot to assassinate Hitler. In April 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned at Tegel and then in a Nazi concentration camp. On April 9, 1945, he was executed.
These days the word Christian, at least in the USA, is conflated with right-wing Tea Party activist, Republican-voting, gun-toting libertarianism on the one hand and restrictive anti-gay and anti-woman moralism on the other. In this context Marsh’s book will land like a bomb.
Just as conservatives make their last stand against gay marriage, not to mention the demographic changes turning America brown, Marsh has forced the evangelical community to come to terms with the fact that one of their great icons fell in love with another man, and he even “acted gay”! As Marsh shows, the martyr also was a dresser, a collector of perfectly matching tennis outfits, and a lover of art and display. He was also a man of his times and not about to “come out.” But he was gay. Did he choose to be? Evangelicals would have us believe it must have been so. God never makes people gay, it is a chosen lifestyle that can be prayed away they believe.
Given that during Bonhoeffer’s life it was white Southern Christians who were persecuting blacks and that today it is these people’s grandchildren who are holding out against civil rights for gay men and women, there is a brilliant irony in Marsh’s story. And the evangelical establishment is already reacting. The reviewer for Christianity Today had to admit that this book is the greatest biography of the saint of all, but also complained that Marsh focused too specifically of the gay factor. As the ultra conservative magazine notes:
More substantively, Marsh makes a convincing case that Bonhoeffer harbored feelings for Bethge that extended beyond friendship… he was possessive and smothering in his attention. He created a joint bank account and sent Christmas cards signed, “Dietrich and Eberhard.”
This turns into a major, recurring theme in Strange Glory. It fascinated me at first, but I grew tired of Marsh directing the camera angle of every scene so as to rather heavy-handedly keep it in view.
The battle lines have changed, but the victimized “others”–Jews and gay men in Bonhoeffer’s time and gay men and women in our time–are still with us. Evangelicals like the CT reviewer don’t want to admit that one of their few intellectual heroes was one of “them.”
They may lament Marsh making sexuality a “major theme” but they should remember that while Jews had to wear the yellow star gay men had to wear the pink triangle in Hitler’s camps. The silent church that went along with Hitler betrayed Jews and gays too.
Today Jews are safe, at least in America, and American evangelicals are some of the state of Israel’s best friends to an uncritical fault. Still, if one of their great heroes lived now and had “come out,” he’d be persona non grata on every evangelical platform in America, branded as the “other.”
- Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book —WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace
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