Listening to Dietrich Bonhoeffer

When Barack Obama and Donald Trump met at the White House shortly after the election, President Obama was, as always, a statesman and gentleman. To Mr. Trump he said, “We now are going to want to do everything we can to help you succeed, because if you succeed, then the country succeeds.”

We all understand the generous spirit in which President Obama expressed that sentiment, but I want to pause and consider the notion of success. We are anticipating an administration rife with conflicts of interest and a total lack of respect for facts and the truth. During the campaign, Donald Trump encouraged his followers to believe and propagate lies and to wreak mayhem in the name of those lies. He is no gentleman, no statesman.

I’m not the first person to hypothesize that Trump’s definition of success has everything to do with his own ego and pocketbook and very little to do with the future of our country. If he succeeds by his own terms, the country will not succeed: the country will sag; the moral core of the nation will rot.

Let’s turn away from him and toward the saving words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran cleric and Nazi dissident imprisoned in Germany in 1943 and executed by the Nazis in 1945. In his posthumously published  Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer writes eloquently about success:

As long as goodness is successful, we can afford the luxury of regarding [success] as having no 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 by theoretical dogmatic armchair criticism, which means 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.

In our national history, we have seen goodness succeed time and again–goodness coupled with fairness. Look at the 1st Amendment. Look at the 13th and the 19th. Look at all the people you know whose lives and prospects were forever brightened by civil rights legislation. Look at that freakin’ beautiful rainbow flag and think about how proudly it waved on the day same-sex marriage was legalized. Of course, setbacks and outrages and hatred accompanied and followed in the wake of each of these milestones. Still, we know that our leaders in those instances were doing what they could to make things better for those of us alive today.

Now here we are in December of 2016, and I want to believe that goodness will prevail in the next presidential administration. If that happens, it will only be because Trump has changed in profound ways that seem unlikely, given what we know of him and the people he has chosen as his advisers. I don’t believe he has earned the benefit of a doubt; he has only earned our closest, most searing scrutiny.

And yes, I’m an outraged critic. But in the coming months and years, I’m going to try to remember, and act on, Bonhoeffer’s point about taking responsibility. It is very easy to point fingers and write blog posts. It takes a lot more energy and brainpower to mobilize and work toward a better outcome than the one we’re facing now.

Bonhoeffer’s further thoughts, on heroism, have given me still more to ponder. Extremists and armchair critics alike would do well to wrestle with the following:

[T]o talk of going down fighting like heroes in the face of certain defeat is not really heroic at all, but merely a refusal to face the future. The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live. It is only from this question, with its responsibility toward history, that fruitful solutions can come, even if for the time being they are very humiliating. In short, it is much easier to see a thing through from the point of abstract principle than from that of concrete responsibility. The rising generation will always instinctively discern which of these we make a basis for our actions, for it is their own future that is at stake.

How will the coming generation live? That is the question Bonhoeffer asks us to keep foremost in our minds. And how will that generation judge us? How will I be judged? These are matters to address in solitude, over dinner tables, in classrooms and public forums. Let’s think it through, talk it out, put it in print, on the walls, in the airwaves, on the screen and stage.

We owe future generations the effort it takes to discern the difference between ethical success rooted in goodness and fairness, and a corrupt version of success rooted in calumny and evil. We don’t need martyrs; we need people who can look an image of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the eye and say, “I hear you,” and mean it. We need to believe that we are capable of living in this world and making it better, not worse. And then we need to do it.

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One thought on “Listening to Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  1. This is a piece that moves beyond outrage and fear into our responsibility for what happens next. I am a big reader of history and I believe it teaches us, if we are willing to engage it and learn from it. For me, the ignorance of history in this country–our own and that of the world–is perhaps the most dangerous dimension of our national ignorance, though there are many others. In this case, Bonhoeffer knew of what he spoke from his own encounter with history in the making: essentially a slow slide into evil in which good people did too little. I can’t think who said it but it is critical to remember that all that is required for evil to triumph in the world if for the good to do too little to stop it.

    I also think we need to be careful not to vilify our fellow voters, however much we may object to who their votes put in office. We need to abjure the divisions our politicians have driven between us for the sake of special interests and votes, and even in the name of misplaced efforts at social engineering–however well meaning–on both sides. We need to work together, to have the courage to cross divides and speak to one another. This is how gays and lesbians got the right to marry–not by a Supreme Court decision alone, but through years and years of coming out, being human, appealing to the intrinsic goodness of most people, making arguments. They succeeded in convincing so many that, except for a backlash fueled in part by internet trolls and bots, and by people who are more unhappy and desperate than most, they changed the world. They re-created a category that, if we stay vigilant, will become something else than it was for centuries–a category now describing different ways of being, different cultural styles, and other definitions of commitment, rather than whatever a culture cannot abide. As gays and lesbians did over the last thirty plus years, we must continue to empower ourselves as citizens, as Hilary Holladay says. We must not think, in the middle class, that because we have a little money in the bank all will be well for us. History, especially that of Bonhoeffer and his fellow moral lodestars, tells us a very different story. Bonhoeffer always reminds me of Martin Niemoller, who perhaps being less outspoken survived the Nazi regime but spent many years in Sachsenhausen. After the war he said many times and in many places what he had done wrong to allow evil and even ignorance to triumph:

    First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Socialist.

    Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

    I for one want to start a small “conversation group” in my community of people on the “right” and the “left” to discuss not our differences but our points of agreement, even perhaps to educate ourselves on one another’s understandings of the world. I am starting one at a time. It’s better than sitting around on my ass and feeling depressed and afraid whenever I turn on the radio or watch the evening news. Maybe this is something I feel is a concrete responsibility, a commitment I can make to the world of my daughters and their children, and to other children. Some of the people I have met who voted for Trump (in my community that is the great majority of them) aren’t stupid, or ignorant. Maybe misinformed. But maybe I am too. I need to be sure not to sit astride a high horse and assume I know everything. That’s a beginning. Check Niemoller and Bonhoeffer and see if that isn’t part of what they are saying. And believe me, when I talk to my liberal friends, they are indeed on a lot of high horses, enough to take Cinderella to the ball.

    Oh, I can add that I spent my career studying the origins and effects of mass violence and genocide. I can tell you it all starts very slowly, with just slight divisions among people and then the attribution of negative qualities to them. Then the next step is fear–fear of what they might do to you. Then violence is just a few steps away, and then all hell breaks loose. Reference Niemoller and Bonhoeffer again.

    Roberta Culbertson

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