The Imperfect Bonhoeffer: A Model For Prophecy In The Public Square

The Imperfect Bonhoeffer: A Model For Prophecy In The Public Square October 12, 2023

A Talk Delivered To The National Unity Gathering, National Council Of Churches, Nashville, Tennessee, October 10, 2023, By The Reverend Dr. Rob Schenck

Thank you, one and all, for your presence in this session and for supporting the National Council of Churches and its work to repair the world. The gracious invitation to be with you, extended by the Rev. Dr. Leslie Copeland-Tune, our esteemed Chief Operating Officer, leaves me humbled.

My Penitential Visit To You

A few of you know my story. Fifteen years ago, I would not have been standing here. Instead, I might have been outside protesting this gathering, but I’ve been on a 12-year penitential pilgrimage, and this is one of my most important stops.

I spent 30+ years as an activist on the religious right:

–      I blockaded reproductive healthcare clinics,

–      did jail time for supporting former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore’s defiance of a court order to remove the Ten Commandments from his state’s Supreme Court building, 

– and–in case you hadn’t heard it from the New York Times or a hundred other news outlets,–recruited and deployed wealthy conservatives to lavish certain U.S. Supreme Court justices with gifts of hospitality.

Then, I experienced a crisis.

My Life-changing Epiphany

I had an epiphany while on a leave of absence from Washington to pursue a late-in-life doctor of ministry out west. It came as I researched the life and work of the brave and brilliant World War II-era German church leader, moral philosopher, and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

In reading about Bonhoeffer’s role in the struggle to maintain the integrity of the gospel in the context of his own Evangelishe Kirche, I came across a factoid that cracked the very foundation of my then-moral and religious certitude.

The prized volume my fundamentalist-leaning Bible college preaching instructor had taught me to rely on unquestionably, Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, was composed by a died-in-the-wool Nazi propagandist who gave Adolf Hitler’s racialized dictatorship the ersatz theological justification for the genocide of Jews, Roma, homosexual persons, and ideological opponents

Nobody thought this significant enough to tell me, or any of my fellow ministers-in-formation, that their hermeneutical authority was an abject racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, blood-and-soil nativist. He was an enabler of one of the deadliest and most horrifyingly destructive catastrophes visited on humanity. 

Not important enough to even mention?

The revelation was so unsettling it left me disoriented. 

A Further Dispiriting Encounter

During that time, as I wrote my dissertation on Political Idolatry, I flew back east for televangelist Pat Roberston’s 80th birthday party. There, for the first time, I encountered the individual who would come to represent the ethical collapse of American evangelicalism. He was Pat’s honored guest, whom I had only ever known as the epitome of what it meant NOT to be a follower of Christ. His name? Donald J. Trump.

Shortly after that nauseating exercise, the long-time women’s rights advocate, pro-choice activist, and documentary filmmaker Abigail Disney asked if I would go on camera to help her examine the American White evangelical embrace of popular gun culture. While I was not a firearms aficionado, I knew challenging my culture club’s enthusiasm for the Second Amendment would be worse than violating the Second Commandment.

 It took me a long time to say yes, but I did, and what I learned through that project follows me here. 

My Disney Adventure

As Abby, her crew, and I traveled the country, talking to pastors and national evangelical spokespersons, I heard my religious siblings unequivocally champion the right to shoot and kill anyone they might find threatening and, shortly afterward, to watch them genuflect to a demagogic charlatan who said he could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot someone while maintaining the sycophantic devotion of his “eee-van–gela–kols,” signaled it was time for me to speak my evolving-conscience on everything that had previously defined me as one of those born-again toadies.  

– I would confront “pro-life” bloodlust in my address to Washington’s annual National Memorial for the Pre-born, which I helped found.

– The New York Times published an essay in which I explained the reasons that compelled me to change my mind on abortion and to work to preserve Roe v. Wade.

– And I eventually resigned as chair of one of the oldest continuous associations of independent evangelical ministers, missionaries, and military chaplains, then dismantled the national organization I had spent three decades building and walked away from 50,000 financial supporters –to start all over again at a time when a lot of my colleagues were preparing for comfortable retirements.

And why? Because what I knew of Dietrich Bonhoeffer allowed me no other option.

I’m always thrilled to talk about the extraordinary man I like to call my posthumous mentor and best dead friend, especially in the context of our theme, Faith Under Fire: The Church in the Public Square

The Real Vs Imaginary Hero

I must begin with a caveat, though: Until recently, for me, Bonhoeffer could do no wrong; he was, literally, the perfect exemplar of ethical religious leadership. But after studying his life closely over the last few years and talking to much better-informed colleagues about the real Bonhoeffer, compared to the mythical one, I’m a bit sobered and slightly more realistic in my assessment of the man. He was, after all, a creature of his time and cultural context.

Having said that, and notwithstanding his shortcomings, some of which I share with him—and maybe you do, too–I hope to persuade you that his life, his ideas, and his model of courage can be of enormous help to us– particularly when it comes to speaking prophetically in the public square–and to corrupt powers.

Introducing My Best Dead Friend

Now, I imagine many of you know quite a bit about Bonhoeffer, but in case you don’t, allow me this precis of his life and legacy: Born in 1906, Dietrich was the 6th of 8 children; his mother was a certified schoolteacher, and his father was a noted psychiatrist and professor. Theirs was an upper-class, privileged household, maintained mainly in the tony Grunewald neighborhood of 1920s Berlin. Though not a religious family, Dietrich, at age 14, precociously announced he intended to study theology, much to the pleasure of his mother, Paula, but to the chagrin of his agnostic father, Karl.

Once in University, though, Dietrich pursued his discipline passionately, leading eventually to the venerable Karl Barth declaring Bonhoeffer’s first dissertation, Sanctorum Communio, a “theological miracle.” From there, the young scholar began a meteoric trajectory in the academy. At the same time, he followed a more usual course in the church as a cleric—until 1933. That’s when he took great offense at Hitler’s Aryan Paragraph, banning anyone with Jewish blood from holding federal government jobs, including as pastors in the established church. 

From then on, Bonhoeffer would become a more and more ardent Nazi resister. He was eventually imprisoned, tortured, and, in April 1945, executed at the Flossenburg concentration camp. Bonhoeffer left a trove of writings on theology, ethics, and human relations. After the war, Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s long-time companion and confidant, meticulously curated this collection. Fortress Press published it in the multi-volume German and English editions of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. 

The Imperfect Dietrich 

As I indicated, Dietrich is a bit of a mixed bag for our noble theme. 

His privileged, semi-aristocratic, highly educated, and ethnocentric formation left him with a particular deficit. His world was white, European, and of uniform socio-economic status. He also exhibited a hint of German nationalist impulses–and, maybe, a residual, unconscious anti-Semitism(?).

Still, even as a teenager, Dietrich was curious about other religions, cultures, and people. At 18, he traveled to Rome, Sicily, and North Africa, gushing in letters home about the exciting people and customs he encountered. Later, he engaged in vigorous ecumenical exchanges throughout his career. Of course, the latter was exclusively Christian, but an early 20th-century German Lutheran reaching beyond his provincial boundaries was somewhat radical. Moreover, Dietrich’s interest in the Catholic Church was equivalent to following after the Antichrist. So, by nature, Bonhoeffer was–in his way–rather daring and subversive regarding religious norms.  

Then came 1933, and with it, Nazi Party control, extreme legislative measures restricting speech, the granting of dictatorial powers to Adolf Hitler, and that law banning pastors with Jewish blood. Bonhoeffer strenuously objected to the measure–but narrowly. As he saw it, the offense was the expulsion of converted Jewsclergy with Jewish backgrounds whose baptism made them members of the Christian populace. So, there’s that problem, and it’s a big one, especially in Jewish-Christian relations, and has broader implications

Dietrich’s Real Problem

I recently spoke with Bonhoeffer scholar and translator Vicki Barnett, who has done extensive work on that period as a German church historian and expert on the church’s role in the Holocaust. She’s doing new work on this element in Bonhoeffer, vis-a-vis his disposition toward the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. She thinks he approached this problem as a limited civil rights issue, not a distinctly universal religious or theological one. 

Regardless, Bonhoeffer embarked on a progressively more and more empathetic path on “the Jewish question,” as he frames it in his famous essay by that title. He will, eventually, help with an effort to convey several Jews out of the country safely. And, in part, what he learns from another brother-in-law, Hans von Dananyi, about the scale of persecution, murder, and seeds of Jewish genocide propels him into the “risky venture” of the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Which, of course, seals his fate.

How The Imperfect Prophet Helps Us

Notwithstanding this complexity of his character, I want to point to a few things about Bonhoeffer that can help inform and inspire prophetic witness in the public square:

– First, it goes without saying that the backdrop to Bonhoeffer’s life and work was one of the most unwelcoming, hostile, and violent anti-human periods in global history. Add to that the contemporary European conventions of patriarchy, misogyny, elitism, and extreme nationalism, and you have a toxic environment, even outside of the Third Reich. Meanwhile, in the United States, immigration officials refused entry to Jewish refugees—and, of course, American Blacks, including veterans who fought against the Nazis, were denied their civil rights, human dignity, and even their lives when they were lynched or otherwise brutally murdered. 

It’s in this setting Bonhoeffer accepts a post-doctoral fellowship at Union Theological Seminary in New York. While there, he visits Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem at the invitation of his close colleague, Frank Fisher, one of only two African American fellows at Union. Abyssinian, pastored by the venerable Adam Clayton Powell, is a center of Black life and activism in 1930s America. 

– Not only is this blond-haired, blue-eyed Teuton embraced by the community at Abyssinian, but after a cross-country road trip that takes him through the ferociously segregated south, he declares that the only place in America one can hear the true Christian message preached is in the “Negro churches.” — And his observation of how Black church leaders suffer with their people eventually thrusts him back to Germany to suffer with his compatriots–those Jews, Roma, LGBTQ+ folks, and political dissidents

Bonhoeffer’s Core Concepts

So, here’s a good place to note a crucial concept in Bonhoeffer’s thinking: 

–      Stellvertretungor “vicarious representative action.” In his posthumous magnum opus, Ethics, he writes, “The commandments of God’s righteousness are fulfilled in vicarious representative action, which means in concrete, responsible action of love for all human beings.”

– Bonhoeffer scholar and my good colleague, Stephen Haynes, professor of religious studies at Tennessee’s Rhodes College, explains,” Stellvertretung,'” most simply, is Bonhoeffer’s description of how human beings are to be in the world. As Christ lived and died vicariously, he called his disciples to vicarious action and responsible love on behalf of the Other.” 

I think this element of Bonhohoefferian ethics translates perfectly into our discussion here. 

–      VICARIOUS ACTION is expressed in, say, concrete Christian advocacy and protection for Muslims who wish to build a mosque–or of Sikhs attacked at their Temple; or Jews menaced by neo-Nazis and KKKers carrying Tikki lamps—or people of color, whom White Republican legislators have disenfranchised.

–      RESPONSIBLE LOVE is demonstrated in CONCRETE ACTION

Speaking words–sometimes quite emphatically–is necessary, but they are inadequate. We must match concrete acts of love to the words of our mouths. Only then are our prophetic utterances truly credible and powerful.

Another Prophetic Insight

These aspects of Bonhoeffer’s thinking segue into another of DB’s central ideas, that our prophetic objective is never principally self-preservation, self-aggrandizement, or even self-purification but self-emptying, like Christ. 

“As one who acts responsibly within the historical existence of human beings,” he writes in his Ethics, “Jesus becomes guilty.” (p.275) In this context, Bonhoeffer had already treated the subject of “free responsibility,” when one must “completely let go of any law, knowing that here one must decide as a free venture.” (p.274) And, in Jesus’s model of acceptance of guilt, his “concern is not the proclamation and realization of new ethical ideals, and thus also not his own goodness.” (p.275)

Bonhoeffer’s aim was not to ensure a pure conscience and a good reputation. Instead, he says to be truly effective in our prophetic witness (not simply principled in our sanctimony), we must empty ourselves and risk all—including our good name—for the sake of the other. We must even risk our conscience by being willing to incur guilt—to commit sin—and answer for it.

The greatest enemy of the good is for uncertainty and scrupulosity to paralyze our speech and actions when those who suffer desperately need both from us.  

My Unanticipated Ending 

I had hoped to leave you all with a smile and a chuckle today, but I can’t. There is too much suffering and too much pain to be alleviated. Let us get about our work. Thank you.  

Bonus Content

I had planned to include the following material in my talk to the folks in Nashville, but I ran out of time. I include it here, though, for your edification. Too often, our sense of inadequacy justifies us for not acting when the situation demands it of us. This phenomenon is why Bonhoeffer’s new critique helps us better appreciate him. Sometimes, our lionization of heroes excuses us from responsibility because we assume we are lesser beings than they are—but that’s just not right. Humans are humans—and Bonhoeffer’s model indicates we can be a responsible human—or an irresponsible one. So, if I had had the time, I would have said the following:

Unspoken Words From My Original Script

So, I return to Bonhoeffer’s deficiencies. He seems to have been motivated to speak, at first, by a very narrow, arguably provincial, and you could even say, self-serving reason, and that was the Nazi government’s attempted control of the church, which he saw as autonomous from, and having equal authority to, the civil government. He was initially offended by the fact that the government would order the expulsion of Jewish-Christians. In other words, not Jews generally, or any other persons in general, or any other form of peril–but members of his religious, social, and professional club.

That’s a fair critique, and maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer did all he did for the Other within the constrictions of his privilege–or perhaps he did it after abandoning those strictures; maybe he did it as much out of self-interest as for the benefit of others, but, as I see it, he did it. He reached beyond himself—which is always an epic human odyssey– and he embraced and concretely assisted the Other. 

– In challenging the oppressor of his own, Bonhoeffer challenged the oppressor of all–and weakened that oppressor and interfered with that oppression. By organizing his comrades to similarly resist and disseminating a theological, moral, and ethical rationale for others to do so and later assisting both a formal military and governmental resistance to Hitler, Bonhoeffer made the Nazi’s criminal actions toward humanity a little harder to accomplish. (Not to mention exposing them to another level of accountability in the aftermath of the war.)

All this to say, given Bonhoeffer’s broad appeal, how he brings liberals and conservatives togetherhow secularists and even atheists admire him equally–given his unquestioned commitment to a profoundly spiritual humanism, and given the extreme circumstances surrounding his religious and cultural generosityDietrich Bonhoeffer remains an important role model, even if an imperfect one (but who isn’t?)–and he remains a unique inspiration for reaching out to and embracing the Other in unwelcoming times–even in supremely hostile timesand quite costly ways.

Revisiting A Worthy Teacher

So, I urge you to revisit my dear Dietrich–especially his magnum opus, Ethics. 

I believe you will find in Bonhoeffer’s ideas, his model, and his martyrdom real help in raising your voice. He can help you to match effective action to your words, and boldly risking everything to confront the oppressors, hold them accountable and demand they set the people free. 

Thank you, Dietrich; thank you to each of you. And thanks be to God. Amen.

About Rev. Rob Schenck
Rob Schenck is an ordained evangelical minister and former activist on the religious right. After confronting his community's obsession with guns, Rob broke from its orthodoxy on the Second Amendment, abortion, and same-sex relationships and became a national voice of dissent. After 35 years on Capitol Hill, Rob left his post to write, comment, and lecture. Today, he is a Visiting Scholar of Christianity and Religious Leadership at the Miller Center for Interreligious Learning and Leadership of Hebrew College, Newton, MA. You can read more about the author here.

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