Thursday, June 22, 2006

Religion: The Dissent of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Over the 2005-2006 Christmas Holidays I read the Lutheran Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer's posthumorous collection Letters and Papers From Prison. The prologue to this collection is entitled After Ten Years: A Reckoning Made at the Year 1943. What Bonhoeffer carefully recorded in this essay were his observations of the errant laboratory known as German National Socialism. Bonhoeffer was sell positioned to make the observations he did as he had a front-row seat and ultimately died for it. Background on the Professor Doktor Bonhoeffer will provide the gravity of these writings.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born February 4, 1906 in Breslau, now Wrocław, Poland. His father was a university professor and prominent authority on psychiatry and neurology, is mother's family brought the young Bonhoeffer German aristocracy. Bonhoeffer completed his undergraduate work at Tübingen and received his doctorate in theology from the University of Berlin and was ordained.

Contrary to the direction of the German State Church, Bonhoeffer strongly opposed the growing National Socialism of the period and helped established the Confessing Church. During this time, he also worked closely with numerous opponents of Hitler, calling for wider church resistance to Hitler's treatment of the Jews. In 1939 Bonhoeffer joined a hidden group of high-ranking military officers based in the Abwehr, or Military Intelligence Office, intent on overthrowing the Nazi regime by killing Hitler.

Bonhoeffer was arrested and charged with conspiracy in April 1943 after money used to help Jews escape to Switzerland was traced to him. He was imprisoned in Berlin for a year and a half, when, after the unsuccessful July 20 Plot in 1944, Bonhoeffer's connections to the conspirators were discovered. He was moved to a series of prisons and concentration camps ending at Flossenbürg. Here, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged by special order of Hienrich Himmler at dawn on 9 April 1945. Forced by SS staff, Bonhoeffer stripped naked before walking to the gallows. Three weeks later, the Allied forces liberated the city.

The following is just a smattering of Bonhoeffer's essay. Sixty years on, the message conveyed in these writings strikes curiously close to home, ringing true with a contemporary draconian flair that is at best chilling and worst prognostic. I thought I might share some short sections of this writing for consideration.

No Ground Under Our Feet

One may ask whether there have ever before in human history been people with so little ground under their feet – people to whom every available alternative seemed equally intolerable, repugnant, and futile, who looked beyond all these existing alternatives for the source of their strength so entirely in the past or in the future, and who yet, without being dreamers, were able to await the success of their cause so quietly and confidently. Or perhaps one should rather as whether the responsible thinking people of any generation that stood at a turning-point in history did not feel much as we do, simply because something new was emerging that could not be seen in the existing alternatives.

Who Stands Fast?

The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with our ethical concepts. For evil to appear disguised as light, charity, historical necessity, or social justice is quite bewildering to anyone brought up on our traditional ethical concepts […].

Of Success

Although it is certainly not true that success justifies an evil deed and shady means, it is impossible to regard success as something that is ethically quite neutral. The fact is that historical success create as basis for the continuance of life, and it is still a moot point whether it is ethically more responsible to take the field like Don Quixote against a new age, or to admit one’s defeat, accept the new age, and agree to serve it. In the last resort success makes history; and the ruler of history repeatedly brings good out of evil over the heads of the history-makers. Simply to ignore the ethical significance of success is a short circuit created by dogmatists who think unhistorically and irresponsibly; and it is good for us to sometimes to be compelled to grapple seriously with the ethical problem of success. As long as goodness is successful, we can afford the luxury of regarding it as having on ethical significance; it is when success is achieved by evil means that the problem arises. In the face of such a situation we find that it cannot be adequately dealt with, either buy theoretical dogmatic arm-chair criticism, which mean a refusal to face the facts, or by opportunism, which means giving up the struggle and surrendering to success. We will not and must not be either outraged critics or opportunists, but must take our share of responsibility for the moulding, of history in every situation and at every moment, whether we are the victors or the vanquished.

Of Folly

Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil. One can protest against evil; it can be unmasked and, if need be, prevented by force. Evil always carries the seed of its own destruction, as it makes people, at least, uncomfortable. Against folly we have no defense. Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved — indeed the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied; in fact, he can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make him aggressive. A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel; we shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous.

If we are to deal adequately with folly, we must try to understand its nature. This much is certain, that it is a moral rather than an intellectual defect. There are people who are mentally agile but foolish, and people who are mentally slow but very far from foolish — a discovery that we make to our surprise as a result of particular situations. We Thus get the impression that folly is likely to be, not a congenital defect, but one that is acquired in certain circumstances where people make fools of themselves or allow others to make fools of them. We notice further that this defect is less common in the unsociable and solitary than in individuals or groups that are inclined or condemned to sociability. It seems then, that folly is sociological rather than a psychological problem, and that is a special form of the operation of historical circumstances on people, a psychological by-product of definite external factors. If we look more closely, we see that any violent display of power, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind; indeed it seems actually to be a psychological and sociological law: the power of some needs the folly of others. It is not that certain human capacities, intellectual capacities for instance, become stunted or destroyed, but rather that the upsurge of power makes such an overwhelming impression that men are deprived of their independent judgment, and — more or less unconsciously — give up trying to assess the new state of affairs for themselves. The fact that the fool is often stubborn must not lead us into thinking he is independent. One feels in fact, when talking to him, that one is dealing, not with the man himself, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like, which have taken hold of him. He is under a spell, he is blinded, his very nature is being misused and exploited. Having thus become a passive instrument, the fool will be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable seeing that it is evil. There lies the danger of a diabolical exploitation that can do irreparable damage to human beings.

But at this point it is clear, too, that folly can be overcome, not by instruction, but only by an act of liberation, and so we have come to terms with the fact that in the great majority of cases inward liberation must be preceded by outward liberation, and that until that has taken place, we may as well abandon all attempts to convince the fool. In this state of affairs we have to realize why it is no use our trying to find out what ‘the people’ really think, and why the question is so superfluous for the man who thinks and acts responsibly — but always given these particular circumstances.

Shortly after finishing Letters and Papers From Prison, a friend with whom I often commiserate on matters of religion, politics, and the like sent me a short citation regarding the World War II German Gestapo from Wikipedia:

The law had been changed in such a way that the Gestapo's actions were not subject to judicial review. Nazi jurist Dr. Werner Best stated, "As long as the [Gestapo] ... carries out the will of the leadership, it is acting legally." The Gestapo was specifically exempted from responsibility to administrative courts, where citizens normally could sue the state to conform to laws. The power of the Gestapo most open to misuse was "Schutzhaft" or "protective custody" - a euphemism for the power to imprison people without judicial proceedings, typically in concentration camps.

Bonhoeffer spends a good deal of time warning of the danger of fools. This is history executing the sign of the cross.

© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2006