If you are like me, you have followed the bloodshed over Sudan’s Darfur region for six years now, only to reach a dead end in terms of hope for halting the killing.
Over recent decades, we have heard people of strong faith and impeccable intentions vow “never again,” only to see systematic murders of masses of people happen again in Cambodia, again in Rwanda, again in Bosnia. Again … again … and again, now in Darfur.
This week, Minnesotans will get a rare chance to examine that frustrating cycle in the spirit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor who sounded the first — and, initially, lone — voice from the German Christian clergy against the Nazi accession to power in the 1930s and the persecution of the Jews.
The Nazi regime executed Bonhoeffer by hanging him on April 9, 1945, just three weeks before Berlin fell. He is commemorated as a martyr by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Church of England and the Church in Wales.
The Twin Cities is hosting the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Lectures in Public Ethics this year, a German-American program organized by Union Theological Seminary in New York and Stiftung Bonhoeffer-Lehrstuhl in Berlin. It is the 13th year of the program, which usually has been staged in Germany or New York.
See and do
We have the benefit of hindsight to clear our vision on the great ethical issues of Bonhoeffer’s time.
Still, his teaching and examples stand as beacons today, too, said Lori Brandt Hale, a religion professor at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. She is the co-author with Stephen Haynes of the book “Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians,” to be released this week by Westminster John Knox Press.
Open your eyes, is one of Bonhoeffer’s lessons.
“He saw so clearly the reality of what was happening at a time when most people were focusing on other things,” Hale said.
Two days after Adolf Hitler came to power on Jan. 30, 1933, Bonhoeffer used a radio address as a platform to warn the German people against making an idol of the new führer.
The government cut the radio address short.
And that leads to the second lesson on Hale’s list: Act on your principles.
Determined to punch the message through to the people, Bonhoeffer “went around distributing copies of his address so people could have the full message,” Hale said.
“To have the insight, the bravery and the wherewithal to make that kind of address that soon was remarkable,” she said. “He was able to recognize the situation for what it was and he was willing to act … . He calls us to pay attention, to see the reality of the world and to act accordingly.”
Bonhoeffer summed the lesson this way in his “Letters & Papers From Prison“:
“We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer. … (O)ur perception of generosity, humanity, justice and mercy should have become clearer, freer, less corruptible. We have to learn that personal suffering is a more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune.”
Clear lessons, complex teacher
While the lessons may be clear, Bonhoeffer was very complex.
An avowed pacifist, he ultimately joined a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. In the process, Bonhoeffer wrestled with enormous guilt.
“He never tried to justify his actions … to say, ‘It’s OK to kill a tyrant,” Hale said. “In recognizing what he deemed to be the most ethical course of action, he was taking on the guilt of that action.”
And while Bonhoeffer risked his life defending Jews, he also has been criticized for the view that their ultimate redemption required conversion to Christianity. To give him the benefit of the doubt, Hale said, it’s important to recognize that Bonhoeffer’s attitude was evolving in that regard.
What’s important to remember is that “it didn’t matter to him that these people were different from him,” Hale said.
“In a lot of ways the people for whom he was acting were ‘the other,’ ” she said. “They were not from the same religious tradition, not the same ethnicity. … From a theological view, that was a very big deal at the time.”
Also important is the context of the German Christian church of the 1930s. Here’s a sample from a biography published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
“Since its inception, the German Evangelical Church (the main Protestant church in Germany) had been shaped by nationalism and obedience to state authority. Influenced by these traditions, and relieved that a strong new leader had emerged from the chaos of the Weimar years, many Protestants welcomed the rise of Nazism.
“A group called the Deutsche Christen (“German Christians”) became the voice of Nazi ideology within the Evangelical Church, even advocating the removal of the Old Testament from the Bible. … most church leaders steadfastly supported the “Judenmission” — the evangelization, conversion and baptism of Jews. But the Deutsche Christen were already claiming that Jews, as a “separate race,” could not become members of an ‘Aryan’ German church even through baptism.”
Three rules for fighting injustice
Bonhoeffer insisted the church was obligated to fight political injustice in three stages: 1) to question state injustice and call the state to responsibility; 2) to help the victims of injustice, whether or not they were church members; 3) and, ultimately, “not only to help the victims who have fallen under the wheel, but to fall into the spokes of the wheel itself” in order to halt the machinery of injustice.
You can imagine the extreme discomfort Bonhoeffer must have caused his go-along-get-along colleagues. And he would not shut up. At one point, leaders of the German Evangelical Church in Berlin angrily demanded that he withdraw from ecumenical activities. Bonhoeffer refused.
In other words, Bonhoeffer was a big-time thorn in the flesh for those around him.
Eventually, though, Bonhoeffer gained a German following. The Gestapo closed his church, arrested his students and banned him from Berlin. He was barred from speaking in public, from printing and from publishing. Still, he traveled from village to village, engaging followers in “seminary on the run.”
Finally, he joined a militant resistance movement and advocated Hitler’s assassination. When the plot was uncovered, Bonhoeffer was condemned to death in Flossenbürg concentration camp. The next day, he was stripped of his clothing, and he prayed naked in the execution yard until he was hanged with a thin wire.
This week’s lectures
In the face of modern-day injustice, how far does Bonhoeffer’s legacy take us? More insights will come from this week’s lectures.
The keynote speaker is retired Canadian Gen. Romeo Dallaire, who was force commander of the U.N. mission to Rwanda in 1993 and 1994, a period when nearly 1 million people were slaughtered. His address, “Genocide in Rwanda: Living Through and Learning From … ,” is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at Temple Israel, 2324 Emerson Ave. S., Minneapolis.
Other scheduled speakers include Suzanne Koepplinger, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center; Mark Hanis, executive director and founder of the Genocide Intervention Network; Victoria Barnett of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Hermann Goltz of Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg Germany.
Schedules and other information for the full series, which runs through Saturday, can be found here.
Sharon Schmickle writes about international affairs, science, Greater Minnesota and other topics for MinnPost.