Politically Correct Bonhoeffer

Of the making of books (and films and recordings) by and about Dietrich Bonhoeffer there is no end, apparently. The Lutheran pastor, theologian and political resister who died at the hands of the Nazis in the closing weeks of the Second World War has seldom been out of the theological limelight since the posthumous publication of his Letters and Papers from Prison in the early 1950’s. His close friend, biographer and literary executor, Eberhard Bethge, is now deceased, but a new generation of theologians and historians has taken up the cause. A new and monumental edition of his collected works was recently completed in Germany, and that edition is being translated into English under the guidance of the English Language Section of the International Bonhoeffer Society. The last few years have seen a new surge in Bonhoefferiana, including a prize-winning novel (Denise Giardina’s Saints and Villains, Ballantine Books, 1999), a new documentary (Hanged on a Twisted Cross, Vision Video, 1996), a feature film based on the last years of his life (Agent of Grace, Fortress Press, 2000), a new and revised edition of Bethge’s monumental biography (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Fortress Press, 2000), and now Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson’s The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrrich Bonhoeffer (Eerdmans, 2003).

I wish I could report that their book was a satisfying culmination of this trend, a study of Bonhoeffer’s spirituality that effectively communicates the core of his Christian faith and practice to the uninitiated while providing fresh insight for more experienced readers. But I can’t. While at the level of detailed analysis the book offers some helpful insights, in its haste to make Bonhoeffer “relevant” to a contemporary American audience, it drastically oversimplifies and politicizes his thought.

The oversimplifications cluster around the issue which is central for the authors: the relevance of Bonhoeffer’s spirituality for the pursuit of social justice. The fact of this relevance is beyond doubt, but explaining its precise nature requires more than reiterating endlessly that Bonhoeffer believed Christ wanted us to help the poor and oppressed. Kelly and Nelson follow the recent trend of interpreters who see the central turning point in his life as his contact with American “Social Gospel” thought during his post-graduate year at Union Seminary in 1931-32. But while Bonhoeffer clearly worked through his initial bafflement at American political-religious activism and learned from it, he hardly capitulated to it. His own perspective was always much more shaped by Lutheran and Barthian reserve about the supposed capacity of human politics to bring the Kingdom of God. When the authors tell us early and often that “Bonhoeffer depicts the church community . . . as the unique locus of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit to create a better world for all God’s children” (p. 80), or that “for him, Christians must assume responsibility for turning history in a more humane, Christ-like direction” (p. 94), one hears the bland pieties of Sunday School liberalism rather than Bonhoeffer’s stern theological dialectic.

The authors are anxious to assimilate Bonhoeffer to the egalitarianism of Liberation Theology, and hence must studiously ignore reams of evidence that his spirituality had a decidedly elitist tone. We are told, for instance, that “Bonhoeffer insisted that Christianity was in its very origin a religion of and for the weak” (p. 219), and that he had “an aversion for an aristocratic Christianity” (p. 42); but the “aristocratic” nature of genuine spirituality is precisely what Bonhoeffer emphasizes repeatedly in his prison letters to Bethge. Strenuous attempts have been made to explain the elitist language in the letters as a “temporary regression” under the stress of imprisonment, which was eventually overcome in the “liberationism” of the final letters, and the authors may assume that those efforts have been successful. They have not. The aristocratic themes of strength and nobility, as well as his suspicion of what he terms “the revolt of inferiority,” are already present in Bonhoeffer’s pre-imprisonment writing, and they continue right to the end of his extant prison letters.

That point holds even for the famous passage from his 1942 essay, “After Ten Years”: “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” (Letters and Papers from Prison, Enlarged Edition, Macmillan, 1972, p. 17; quoted here on p. 91). Often cited as definitive proof of Bonhoeffer’s proto-liberationism, the passage is seldom quoted in its full context, since doing so introduces a jarring note of disdain for the “eternally dissatisfied” and an insistence that authentic spirituality achieves a “higher satisfaction” than is available to those whom Bonhoeffer in the same essay called “the rabble” (LPP, p. 12). The point is not that Bonhoeffer is irrelevant to the struggle for social justice or liberation theology, but only that he should be allowed to make his own contribution, without having his ideas trimmed by selective quotation and loose generalization to fit a procrustean bed.

The same distorting effect can be achieved by translation, and the authors do not miss the opportunity to purge Bonhoeffer’s language of any hint of gender-exclusivity (as they did in their anthology of Bonhoeffer writings, A Testament to Freedom, Revised Edition, HarperCollins, 1995). While I applaud the sentiment, the resultant translations often simply fail to represent accurately in English the way Bonhoeffer used the German language. In addition, the gender-neutral retrofitting has the usual effect of making Bonhoeffer’s forceful prose seem strained and awkward.

Enlisting Bonhoeffer in the gender wars is one way of politicizing his thought in a contemporary context. Another way is to appeal to his ideas or example in order to attack political positions or policies of the present. The authors make free use of Bonhoeffer as a stick to belabor Republicans, especially for the first Gulf War, which they seem to see as the moral equivalent of the Nazi Blitzkrieg (see p. 126), and for social policies that tilt against the welfare state model. (They are more restrained on the invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11; the second Gulf War must have eluded their publication deadline.) My point is not to comment on their politics, but to protest at their use of crude caricatures of their opponents, the adjectival overkill that often substitutes for sober description and analysis (e.g., “The euphoric promises of skilled politicians continue to pander to big business interests and plutocratic supporters filled with dreams of unparalleled wealth,” p. 84). Often the book seemed to lose the thread of spirituality entirely in its political sloganeering.

The book would have benefited from more rigorous editing. Too many problems of diction, syntax and factual accuracy slipped through the net. I cite only a few examples. There are multiple uses of the solecistic phrase “elides with” to mean “connects or coheres with.” Bonhoeffer’s death at the hands of the Nazis is described as “ignominious,” which means shameful or disgraceful, surely not what they intended. Bonhoeffer would hardly use the word “fecklessness” (p. 180) to describe the Nazi war effort in 1942; he saw Hitler as entirely too feck-ful. Nor would he appreciate the call to “insinuate the words of Jesus into existence” (p. 214). On two occasions, Riverside Church in New York City is referred to as “a prominent Riverside, New York, church” (pp. 47, 86).

Lest this list of glitches seem an exercise in pedantry, I would argue that it is of a piece with a generally lax attitude toward precision in both content and language. The authors often seem carried away with their rhetoric, as if any noun or adjecti
ve will do so long as it has the desired emotive impact. The contrast with Bonhoeffer himself could hardly be greater. Consistently with his cultural background in the German professional bourgeoisie, he cultivated a tone of reserve, control and understatement that rendered his occasional breakthroughs of expressive emotionality all the more striking. Far from capturing that facet of Bonhoeffer’s personality and spirituality, The Cost of Moral Leadership consistently conceals it behind a screen of politically correct exhortation.

Readers who want an evocation of Bonhoeffer’s piety would be better served by Marilynne Robinson’s short essay, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer” (originally published in Susan Bergman, ed., Martyrs, Harper and Row, 1996; reprinted in Robinson’s The Death of Adam, Houghton Mifflin, 1998). But for the present we still await a book-length study that does justice to the spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

David Timmer is Professor of Religion at Central College in Pella, Iowa, and a co-editor of Perspectives.