It’s seductive: the Catholic pulpiteer who issues a quote or two from an eminent Protestant theologian sounds ecumenical and literate. Make that Protestant theologian someone who was martyred for his faith while resisting Nazis and there will be instant sympathy for the heroics of right reason against brutal madness.
There’s nothing inappropriate about acknowledging that cruel powers wage their bloodbaths indiscriminately and that moral courage may be found in many quarters. Nor is it inappropriate to consider that wise words may be found even in unexpected places. However, it is inappropriate to glorify a morally courageous heretic solely because he was martyred or had a few wise words.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who articulated the problems of “cheap grace,” is a perennial temptation for the homilist. Discipleship has a cost, he writes: “[C]ostly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’”[i] More significantly, Pastor Bonhoeffer took these thoughts to heart and ultimately died by them. He was a founding member of the “Confessional Church,” formed in resistance to statist efforts to interfere with church autonomy, and was executed by hanging (with piano wire) just before the close of World War II because of involvement in an assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler.
The virtue of moral courage, however, isn’t absolute. As a model for emulation, (which is, after all, why a homilist uses his few precious teaching moments to introduce the work and words of saints to his congregation) courage must be coupled with truth. And truth was precisely where Bonhoeffer had some serious, intellectual blindness. Ellis Washington, a former editor of the Michigan Law Review, writes.
In his magnum opus, “Ethics,” Bonhoeffer wrote these immortal lines:“In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things, the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and is at best the object of pity. The world will allow itself to be subdued only by success. It is not ideas or opinions which decide, but deeds. Success alone justifies wrongs done. … With a frankness and off-handedness which no other earthly power could permit itself, history appeals in its own cause to the dictum that the end justifies the means. … The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard.”
Bonhoeffer once told a student that every sermon must contain “a shot of heresy,” meaning that to state the truth invariably necessitates one to use a measure of hyperbole or express ideas in a manner that will sound heretical. Bonhoeffer clearly intended that those opposed to Hitler must alter their strategy to effectively battle this new, grotesque zeitgeist in Germany.
Deception was key. Bonhoeffer’s motivation to embrace this deception originated not from a cavalier attitude about the truth, but from a profound reverence for the truth that was so intense, it compelled him beyond the self-serving legalism of truth-telling.
Bonhoeffer wrote the essay “What Does It Mean to Tell the Truth?” while in Tegel prison where he expounded on the subject of truth. “From the moment of our lives in which we become capable of speech,” it begins, “we are taught that our words must be true. What does this mean? What does ‘telling the truth’ mean? Who requires this of us?”
Bonhoeffer understood God’s standard of truth meant more than merely “not lying.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard it said … but I say unto you.” Jesus took the Old Testament laws to a deeper level of meaning and obedience, from the “letter of the Law” to the “Spirit of the Law.” Following the letter of the law was the dead “religion” Bonhoeffer’s intellectual mentor Karl Barth had criticized. This truth, rooted in religiosity, was man’s efforts to deceive God by pretending to be obedient. God’s standard of truth was much deeper than mere religious legalism.[ii]
There are profound difficulties with Bonhoeffer’s efforts to reconcile pragmatic decisions to deny a vicious adversary facts to which he had no right (e.g., by denying the presence of a hidden Jew) and truth-telling. The difficulties are not that those who opposed the murderous actions of Nazi exterminators may have deceived them but that those deceptions are justified as “higher truths.” The murky waters of human self-interest can create too many “higher truths” out of deception to make this “right thinking”…even if it is, in fact, right action.
Bonhoeffer has other intellectual problems as well. In his book, No Rusty Swords, Bonhoeffer wrote: “The New Testament bears witness in doctrine and history; it is nothing in itself, but bears witness of something else. Its words and statements are not in themselves true and eternal and holy. The whole New Testament in all its parts is meant to be expounded as witness, not as a book of wisdom, a teaching book, a book of eternal truth. It is not a book which contains norms, doctrines, or eternal truths.” [p. 318]
Bonhoeffer claimed that Jesus did not assume the flesh of a man but “takes to himself the whole human race bodily, that race in its hatred of God and in the pride of its flesh has rejected the incorporeal, invisible Word of God. Now this humanity, in all its weakness, is, by the mercy of God, taken up in the Body of Jesus in true bodily form.” [Cost of Discipleship, p. 213]
The historical Jesus was distinct from the Jesus of Faith. Bonhoeffer wrote, for example, that “Both historically and dogmatically the virgin birth can be questioned. The biblical witness is ambiguous.” [Christ in the Center, p. 105]
He also wrote, “There is no longer any need for God as a working hypothesis, whether in morals, politics, science, philosophy, or religion. God is teaching us that we must learn to live as men who can get along very well without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. ‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’ (Mark 15:34). God is weak and powerless in the world and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us.”
Again, none of this is said to minimize Bonhoeffer’s heroics or personal righteousness. It is, however, meant to question the wisdom of holding him up as an intellectual model – a writer to be studied by orthodox Christians. The thoughts of Saints Edith Stein and Maximilian Kolbe, two other martyrs of Nazi violence, to take two examples, are more fertile and leave behind no confusing residue. Why are their words not chosen for more consideration?
The burden of the cross that Christ assumed is that of corrupted human nature, with all its consequences in sin and suffering to which fallen humanity is subject. The meaning of the way of the cross is to carry this burden out of the world. The restoration of freed humanity to the heart of the heavenly Father, taking on the status of a child, is the free gift of grace, of merciful love. But this may not occur at the expense of divine holiness and justice. The entire sum of human failures from the first Fall up to the Day of Judgment must be blotted out by a corresponding measure of expiation. The way of the cross is this expiation. (St. Edith Stein, “Love of the Cross”)
Spero columnist Stephanie Block also edits the New Mexico-based Los Pequenos Newspaper.
[i] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Macmillan, 1966.
[ii] Ellis Washington, “Bonhoeffer and truth's gray area: Ellis Washington profiles deception-defending pastor who battled Nazism,” The Report from Washington, 4-20-12, www.wnd.com/2012/04/bonhoeffer-and-truths-gray-area
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