Rev. Toni Fish
As I was organizing for at least the umpteenth time, I found an article I wrote in 2018, reflecting on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. My article was sparked by the lead article in the February 2018 issue of Sojourners, entitled “Is This a Bonhoeffer Moment?” What I wrote below in 2018 is still in my heart today in 2021…
Rev. Toni Fish
In the Sojourners article and a series of support articles, the various authors outlined the life and writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and drew analogies to our current time, highlighting questions that Bonhoeffer himself asked and questions that have been asked about him. The authors of the lead article, Lori Brandt Hale and Reggie L. Williams, sparked in me the question that I’ve asked of myself at odd moments in my life: what would I have done if I had lived in that ‘time and place’? The ‘time and place’ has not always been Germany in 1933; however, each ‘time and place’ was one of crisis, of moral confusion, of struggle between fear and courage. What decision would I have made? What would I be willing to stand against and stand for?
Like Bonhoeffer, I call myself a Christian and have studied the teachings of Jesus. I have studied the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., on nonviolence. I am a minister ordained by a movement that proclaims the divinity in all people and the commandment to love my neighbor as myself, and my enemies as well. And, as did Bonhoeffer, I live in a time of moral confusion, where communities and demographic groups in this country and abroad are divided, both literally and ideologically, by different, often diametrically, opposed world views and claims of ‘the truth’ that produce uncertainty, fear and conflict. The sources from which I have historically received my ‘facts and truths’ have been compromised by organizational stagnation, falsehoods, innuendo and manipulation. Unlike Bonhoeffer, I live in a time where we are constantly inundated with information and where the prevailing meme seems to be “everything is relative.”
I am reminded of something I read in Rumor of War by Phillip Caputo, back in the 70’s. He wrote that the soldier in Viet Nam reached the point where he believed that even the ground he walked on was unsafe, that he could not trust the next step. The ground was no longer his friend. I must admit that there are times when I feel as though I cannot trust my next step because the “ground” – the news, the authorities, the institutions – does not feel safe. Did Bonhoeffer know that feeling as well?
As I read through the articles in Sojourner, I found myself wanting to know more about the man and his conflict – the tension between “man of peace” and “man of conspiracy.” After some digging, I found an article by Victoria Barnett, one of the general editors of the 17-volume “Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works” (English Edition) and director of Programs on Ethics, Religion and the Holocaust at the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Her Washington Post article published in Act of Faith on April 9, 2015 speaks to the man more than the myth.
According to Barnett, “The bones of the familiar Bonhoeffer narrative are correct: he was the promising young theologian, the cosmopolitan student with a deep sense for outrage wherever he encountered injustice, the early critic of the Nazi regime, the pastor who was actively opposed to the Nazification of German Protestantism, the man who carried messages for the German resistance to his contacts abroad.“ And yet, after 1933, he wrote sparingly and, while calling for activism, he rarely took an activist role. The popular story tells us that Bonhoeffer was part of the plot to kill Hitler; and while more recent research indicates that this may not be true, it was, in fact, the belief that he was a conspirator that got him hung months before the war ended.
In his writings, Bonhoeffer reflected on what had happened to his country, and struggle to do good when there seemed to be no good options. As Barnett writes, “In Bonhoeffer’s own life there is an ongoing and striking tension between silence and speaking, between compromise and protest, between the moments when he acted and those in which he did not.” As he watched his church fail to stand against Nazism, he wrote that it had fought “only for its own self-preservation.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one person, one person who stood as best he could against what he perceived to be evil. He shared his reflections on the consequences of evil on the human spirit. He didn’t always make the most appropriate decisions. In hindsight, he agonized over the correctness of some of the ones he made. According to some historians and religious leaders, he did not break through the historical theology of his Christian faith to see the broader impact of the Holocaust even though he was outspoken early against these actions.
Indeed, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man of deep and profound faith, the faith of someone who had been through the darkness with his eyes open. In the lead article by Hale and Williams in the February Sojourner, we find this statement: “In a beautiful twist on the classical theological dictum that God became human so that humans might become divine, Bonhoeffer argues that God became human so that humans could become truly human, and humane.”
And what does all of this have to do with word on faith and Rev. Toni Fish and our present condition?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the man and the myth, is a powerful model for us at this time – a human being with strengths and weaknesses – a human being connected to the Divine within and beyond. He calls me – he calls us – to stand even when it’s uncomfortable; to speak out wherever we hear or see injustice, discrimination – at work, at school, at church – even when if it feels dangerous; to reach out to those in need, those being victimized, even if it is inconvenient.
What does his life have to do with me and you? His life calls us to see the divinity in each individual and to love our enemies as Christ would love them — to recognize and stand against those who would distort the message of love that Jesus shared and those who would destroy the good, the true, and the beautiful that is our God manifest in this world.
I am one person. Each of us is one person. And yet we are not just one person. We are each a unique manifestation of God Stuff connected within the body of the All. Within each of us is the Power and the Presence that is God. Each of us has the potential to do that which Jesus did and greater. Those are His words, not mine. May we all be divinely human in every situation. Blessings and Peace.