Barney: Welcome back, everyone, to the final segment of our conversation with the venerable theologian, pastor, and martyr: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For context, I recommend that our readers go back and peruse the first three interviews.
And thank you, Mr. Bonhoeffer, for making this postmortem appearance to share your wisdom with us about living in a post-truth era under a totalitarian leader.
Bonhoeffer: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Barney: I’d like to begin this last segment with a 5-minute video by a professor of philosophy at Yale University who spent a decade studying fascism. Let’s watch this and then extrapolate what we can regarding our own contemporary circumstances.
So, Mr. B, what stood out to you in that short presentation?
Bonhoeffer: Well, I agree with his distilled down list of earmarks of fascist leaders. Men like Hitler and Mussolini conjure up a narrative of a mythic past, sow division between citizens, and attack the truth wherein conspiracy theories abound. I saw these in my country and I think the professor makes a pretty good case for identifying these tendencies in your president and his rhetoric. We didn’t see the signs in our day until it was too late, so I think you should keep a close eye on him and a keen ear to what he says.
Barney: My take is that while Mr. Trump may not exhibit every fascist tendency to a great degree, in some ways he does display each of those particular characteristics.
Let’s recap the ground we’ve covered in our three previous conversations. You said that during the 1930s and 40s your countrymen reacted in four different ways to Adolf Hitler’s fascism. Some were perpetrators, others were collaborators, or bystanders, or resisters to the regime. We’ve spoken briefly about the first three, now let’s consider what resistors look like in a fascist context.
Bonhoeffer: Let me get something out of the way first, since your readers are likely aware that I associated with those who conspired to overthrow and later to attempt to assassinate the Führer. I’m certainly not advocating any such extreme measure in your case. Millions were being slaughtered in the camps and in the war, and many of us felt there might not exist a more peaceful way to bring an end to the holocaust. There were two failed attempts at his life, in neither case was I personally involved.
But, by way of resistance, which did eventually land me in prison and get me hung, I did speak publicly condemning Hitler’s atrocities, acted as a courier for an intelligence organization, and worked in the effort to get Jews out of Germany and into Switzerland. During my imprisonment, with the help of prison guards, I wrote and smuggled out a number of subversive letters to the Christian community challenging them to wake up and resist in one way or another.
We founded what we called “The Confessing Church” as a biblical alternative to the German compromising Church and published a document called the “Barmen Declaration,” which pushed against the idolatry of Hitlerism in the German Church and called for the centrality of Christ and his gospel. In it we declared, “We repudiate the false teaching that there are areas of our life in which we belong not to Jesus Christ but to other lords…”
In April 1933 I preached to a group of pastors on “The Church and the Jewish Question” urging them to boldly challenge the government, come to the aid of victims, and “jam the spokes of the wheel” of the state to keep it from succeeding.
Barney: How did they respond to that?
Bonhoeffer: Many of them left in a huff!
Barney: That’s tragic!
Bonhoeffer: They were just looking out for their own interests and had a failure of nerve. I wrote at the time, “Will the Church ever learn that majority decision in matters of conscience kills the spirit?”
Barney: That sounds a lot like what we’re experiencing today with our president. Just because the majority of the Church, 81% of white evangelicals in our case, think a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s right and should automatically become the standard for our consciences.
You also wrote that the Church was “guilty of the deaths of the weakest and most defenseless brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.” Were you calling the Church out to become resistors?
Bonhoeffer: Absolutely! If they had listened to us and to the Spirit I’m convinced that the holocaust could have been checked if not averted altogether.
I heard that after my death, when a shipload of Jews came to your country, your state department turned them away. I also read that now you reject truckloads of persecuted and hungry refugees, many of which are women and children. Is that true?
Barney: Regrettably, yes. It’s a national disgrace. And it is encouraged from the top.
Bonhoeffer: When the Nazis gained power in Germany with Christian support I wrote:
“If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”
Barney: That hits home! I wonder how it would have turned out had there been a passenger in the car that drove into the crowd at Charlottesville, someone with a conscience that could’ve grabbed the wheel away from the driver before he killed Heather Heyer.
Bonhoeffer: I’ve heard that your Western Church is largely complicit in the culture careening out of control through classism, racism, consumerism, and nationalism. Is that true?
Barney: Wait! I thought I was asking the questions! OK, yes, it is quite true. All those “isms” could accurately describe a large percentage of the Church in America. The American Dream is now pretty much what Christian people aspire to achieve for themselves. Instead of dreaming the dreams of God, they dream about success and prosperity.
Bonhoeffer: So, resistance involves more than speaking truth to power. Resistors have to live a radical lifestyle, like I wrote about in The Cost of Discipleship based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Barney: I couldn’t agree more!
You mentioned “speaking truth to power.” It’s my conviction that those with access to power must speak truth to it, but those who don’t have such access can speak truth about power in order to help those who aren’t yet “woke.” I also feel that we who have a vote must vote for the common good, as opposed for just our own personal socio-economic benefit. It seems also resisting involves being active in our communities, finding ways to serve rather than subjugate the marginalized, confronting white nationalistic voices, and speaking for the voiceless.
I also think that prayer can be resistance, like the prayer I pray almost daily for the president: “Lord, save him. If he won’t be saved, silence him. If he won’t be silenced, send him!”
Bonhoeffer: That sounds a lot like the thousands of prayers we prayed during Hitler’s horrific reign.
I would also point out that the spirit of the resistor is as important as the resistance itself. Our struggle must never be vitriolic or hate-filled. Anger, yes. Hate, no. We must resist with civility and Christian decorum. As Paul said, “Let your speech be always with grace… Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth…”
Barney: That’s easy for you to say. You didn’t have something called the “Internet” or social media! These modalities have all but sapped every vestige of civility and decorum in our culture.
Bonhoeffer: I don’t know what those things are, but it sounds like an excuse for sin to me. Nothing and no one can make you do anything against the will of God. We “can do all things through Christ who strengthens us,” including display self-control in our relationships and communication.
Barney: OK, you got me! And with that we’ll have to bring our conversation to a close. I can’t thank you enough, Mr. B, for coming back from the grave and imparting to us your wise counsel. While our circumstances aren’t as grave as yours––at least not yet––I fear that the Church has by-and-large lost its way in the malaise. We have way too many perpetrators, collaborators, and bystanders in American Christendom and not nearly sufficient numbers of resisters to our increasingly-fascist administration.
Bonhoeffer: You’re welcome. If you’ll allow me, in conclusion, I’ll share three passages that come to mind:
- Ephesians 5:14 “Wake up, O sleeper…!”
- Ecclesiastes 3:7 “There’s a time to be silent and a time to speak…” and
- Acts 18:9 “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent.”
Barney: And with that we bid you God’s blessing along with the wisdom to steward it for his glory!