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.

BPK 10.016.073

The Difficult Lessons of Richard Wright’s Native Son

Lately I’ve been thinking about Richard Wright’s famous protest novel, Native Son (1940). The book is a page-turner like no other, and there is much to learn from it during this long season of exhibitionistic murders.

Wright’s Chicago-born African American protagonist, Bigger Thomas, is the native son in question. From the very first pages, he is a criminal in the making: young, brooding, physically powerful, horrifyingly poor, inclined to rob rather than earn, and marginalized in all ways due to his race. Though he is ignorant and unenlightened, a furtive intelligence peeks out from behind his inarticulate rage and despair. He is capable of having ideas, very bad ones.

He can’t catch a break, and it’s obvious he never will.  When he’s offered a job as chauffeur for the wealthy white Dalton family, there appears to be a glimmer of respectability in the offing, but you know Bigger will mess things up somehow.

For those who haven’t read the book, I’ll tread lightly over the particulars. Suffice it to say that Bigger accidentally commits a terrible deed. He compounds it in his macabre attempt at a coverup, and then deliberately commits further heinous crimes. Once the manhunt is on, the press inflames the whole city with racist falsehoods. Bigger is finally caught in a cinematic showdown with the cops, his black body flung against the Chicago snow.

For all of the book’s riveting dramatic action, it is the understated final conversation between Bigger and his lawyer, a Jewish Communist named Boris Max, that I keep thinking about. They are coming at this meeting from very different points of view. Max is tense and sad; Bigger is eerily equanimous. Max has come to comfort Bigger and say goodbye; Bigger has figured things out on his own and needs to talk, perhaps even comfort Max.

It turns out he listened very carefully to Max’s lengthy and high-minded courtroom presentation, a spirited defense that had everything to do with abstract sociology and little to do with the individual defendant. He has concluded that Max was correct: he is the inevitable and unfortunate product of a racist city and racist society and therefore, by Bigger’s own reckoning, not to blame for anything whatsoever.

Going still further, he has decided his actions–the killings–were good. They were the right thing to do. He’s figured out a way to justify himself and become his own hero.

“What I killed for must’ve been good!” Bigger’s voice was full of frenzied anguish. “It must have been good! When a man kills, it’s for something. … I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ’em.”

Isn’t this wild? Isn’t this familiar?

The killer in Orlando and the killer in Dallas are our very own Bigger Thomases: angry, hopeless, desperate young men who found a sick justification for their actions. They are entirely to blame for what they did: like Bigger’s, their actions are indefensible. Yet we need to look at our society–our nation bulging with firearms and boiling with racial, ethnic, and religious tensions–when we contemplate how these modern-day Biggers came into being. With Native Son as a point of reference, they can be seen in the context of conditions that make them not just possible but terrifyingly likely.

Native Son is not a didactic screed but rather a classic example of literary realism with naturalist flourishes. It invites us to look, see, and think. We don’t need to read far into it to notice that Bigger is hardly the only native son gone berserk. In memorably lurid detail, the novel illustrates exactly how racism dehumanizes oppressors and victims alike. The virulently racist white policemen, the rabid white prosecutor, and the race-baiting press all behave in unconscionable ways. Their actions cause us to feel, at times, a modicum of sympathy for Bigger and prevent us from dismissing him as a mere sociopath.

Think, now, of the murderous white overseers of enslaved Americans, the KKK members who lynched black men and women for decades after the Civil War, and last year’s white murderer of black churchgoers in Charleston–native sons, one and all. They are on the opposite side from Bigger, but no less demented in their perverted self-justification of their deeds. This is racism in America: everybody suffers, everybody loses.

Native Son is not light summer reading, but this has not been a light summer. We need to read and reread this book. Its truths are entirely relevant to our time.

Native Son cover

The Day After

We keep having these days, and then we have the day after.

On the day after, there is shock and pain and horror; there is fear; there is the latest bit of maddening news that does nothing to solve anything.

And today, where I live, there’s a breeze rippling the catnip and lamb’s ear, the one blooming, the other about to bloom.

How much grief can a single body hold? How much love and joy? If you look into the eyes of any old woman or old man on the sidewalk in your town, you’ll see the history of pain in America, in the world. You’ll see agonizing deaths and illness and Jim Crow and rape and lies and infidelities and car accidents and smashed dreams. Amid the ashes, the wars, the broken bones, you will see kaleidoscopic bits of yourself.

You’ll also see starlight and cornfields and a newborn’s first smile. First jobs and teary reunions and bonfires on the beach. Long embraces on back stairways. New York City glimpsed from an airplane. Graduation day. River water on cold toes. You’ll see yourself, again.

Once, years ago, not long after my mother died, my friend Jay was consoling me on the elevator at work as we went to teach our classes. He told me what a nun said to him during his own time of loss: “Look for Jesus in the breeze, not in the gale.'” The elevator door opened, and I put that remark away to ponder for a lifetime.

We all have our own ways of dealing with private grief, politicized outrage, bottomless fear and sorrow. We think our thoughts, we do what we can.

In my corner of the world, on the day after, my eyes are tired. I have read enough. I glance again at the ripening flowers, the sky, the bumblebee. What would they say, what are they saying? I look and listen. The breeze travels on, from here to the moon and on to the ocean.



I’ve always loved the German word Spätsommer, which means ‘late summer.’ It really is a time of its own, deserving a single word of its own.

Look at the dry grass, listen to the crickets. A praying mantis clings to the heavy head of a zinnia, green body vivid against a hot-pink blossom. The trees mostly still hold their leaves, though the other morning I saw a shower of gold float across the lawn.

There is sadness this Spätsommer as news of another horrific shooting clouds this corner of the world. We have had so many of these: the furious, impotent killer; the premeditated, evil act. The inevitable candlelight vigils, memorial services trying to celebrate the beautiful lives of good, kind souls, the old-fashioned church funerals with organ music and sobbing relatives.

The politicians shake their heads twice. The first time means they are sorry, the second time means they will do nothing at all. Watch them turn their backs and return to their house of mirrors.

The NRA shifts its fat thighs and squeals in delight when gun sales rise yet again. 

Spätsommer. Lingering light, the scent of tomatoes on my hands, dried grass on my flip-flops. A touch of poison ivy. Pain and mourning in the heart, in the wind. The sound of crows in the distance.


Somewhere in America: Before and After Charleston

Somewhere in America, as I write this, you sit hunched over a laptop in your family’s basement planning a rampage. You are male and young—eighteen, nineteen, maybe twenty. You are not black or gay or transgender. You are not poor. You are not dumb. No one would call you disadvantaged.

But you are angry and hurting and lonely. The school counselor had an array of labels for you. But what do labels mean? You are you: sharp elbows and protruding Adam’s apple, a self-inflicted scar on your ankle, not quite a tattoo. You are fond of beer, allergic to peanuts. The skin on your wrists is pale and delicate. Your success on certain video games is legendary—or would be, if anyone knew. You were the one who drove the family dog to the vet’s when she had to be put down. You were told, in middle school, that you have a nice singing voice. Your racing thoughts wake you up at night, but there is no one you can tell. No one you would dare to tell.

It has been a very long time since you set foot inside a church. It has been a long time, or seems that way, since a girl returned your call. You have said to hell with girls. You have stood up the shrink your mother made you go see. You never did take your meds.

You feel, if you could put words to it, you have been left behind. No Child Left Behind? Yet here you are, drinking warm beer and googling gun shops and gun shows. Here you are, browsing weapons and ammunition you can get online without ever showing your face. You are so far behind that if you turned around and faced the opposite direction, you would be near the head of the line—the line of unholy despair.

You decide, therefore, to make the leap from silence in the basement to violence in the world. With this new resolve, you turn on your computer’s camera and stare at your bloodshot eyes, your unlined face. You play around, grinning and grimacing. You remember a picture from art history class—“The Scream,” they called it—and mimic it so well that you have to laugh.

That laugh was a mistake. It sounded too much like crying. You slap your laptop shut and pace around. It is one or two in the morning or worse yet, the middle of the afternoon. You are the only one home.

If not for the anger, you could almost stand the days. If not for the hurting, you could almost stand the nights. But it is the loneliness you can no longer imagine getting away from, not in this lifetime anyway. It lives inside the spaces between your heartbeats. The loneliness is too much.

You have read about Eric and Dylan, about Seung-Hui, about Jared, and now this guy Adam. You don’t admire them. You don’t even think about them. You think about your parents and your brothers and your old girlfriend. But not that much, not as much as the shrink convinced himself you did. Mainly you think about how much you hurt, and all of a sudden, you’re doing “The Scream” for a laptop camera, and it’s really too bad the world didn’t end on December 21.

If you go through with your plan—that jumbled mess of thoughts that you call a plan—you will be written up, reviled, perhaps pitied. Your name will be on every newscaster’s lips. There will be a Wikipedia page on you. Someone, somewhere, might actually pray for your soul. You wish them luck with that.

Thinking of how it will all be, you shrug into your jacket, emerge from the basement. Outside, cold air blows against your face. You walk hard and fast. At the store, you slap down money for cigarettes. They cost so damn much these days—cancer sticks, your dad used to call them.

The clerk’s fingers graze yours as she hands over your change. That makes you stop and look at her. You wish the faint smile on her face didn’t matter so much. Then you turn on your heel and leave without a word of thanks. You want this girl to think you’re in a hurry, and maybe you are.

You are somewhere in America as I write this, and I pray for your soul.

This essay was originally published in The Hook, a Charlottesville, Va., news weekly, in December 2012. I wrote it in response to the nightmare at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. That nightmare has recurred at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. 

The Trouble in Baltimore, the Literature of Ann Petry

If you want to understand the mayhem in Baltimore that occurred after Freddie Gray’s entirely preventable death, get a copy of Miss Muriel and Other Stories (1971) by Ann Petry and read “In Darkness and Confusion,” a novella based on the Harlem race riot of 1943.

First published in 1947, the wartime story is told from the perspective of William Jones, a Harlem resident very worried about his son, Sam, a soldier stationed in Georgia. Sam’s letters home have stopped and Jones, unable to stand the silence, laboriously writes a note that barely scrapes the surface of his love and concern: “Is you all right? Your Pa.”

The inquiry goes unanswered. Jones eventually learns that his son, refusing to sit in the “nigger end” of a bus, traded gunshots with a white MP and ended up court-martialed and sentenced to twenty years of hard labor.

A day after learning this terrible news, which he withholds from his wife, Jones witnesses an altercation between a white policeman and a black soldier. The officer shoots the soldier; an ambulance takes the man to a Harlem hospital; a mob fills the streets and officers on horseback quickly arrive.

Jones sees his private agony writ large in the public spectacle. He has spent his life following the white man’s rules even though those rules degrade him and his family at every turn. His powerlessness has made it nearly impossible for him to express himself, and his brief exchanges with his wife and his wayward niece, Annie May, reveal nothing of the deep love and compassion he actually feels for them. Despite these bleak circumstances, Jones had hoped and believed his son could have a better life than his own.

As the mob’s angry energy propels him forward, he feels like part of something larger than himself for the first time. The problem is, that something is  volatile, malevolent, and on the verge of exploding.

When he comes face to face with his wife, Pink, she says, “What you doing out here in this mob? A Sunday evening and you drinking beer.” The dramatic circumstances provoke Jones to speak directly, if haltingly, to his wife:

For a moment he couldn’t answer her. All he could think of was Sam. He almost said, “I saw Sam shot this afternoon,” and he swallowed hard.

“This afternoon I saw a white cop kill a black soldier,” he said. “In the bar where I was drinking beer. I saw it. That’s why I’m here. The glass of beer I was drinking went on my clothes. The cop shot him in the back. That’s why I’m here.”

He paused for a moment, took a deep breath. This was how it ought to be, he decided. She had to know sometime and this was the right place to tell her. In this semidarkness, in this confusion of noises, with the low, harsh rhythm of the footsteps sounding against the noise of the horses’ hoofs.

A short, obese woman in fragile health, Pink erupts in anguish when she learns her son’s fate. After emitting a wail that “echoed and reechoed the length of the street,” she leads the crowd in vandalizing stores and looting merchandise. Jones joins in. His pride in his wife’s defiant aggression gives way to a sick feeling of defeat. The riot seems like a nightmare, but he knows “this was no dream but a reality from which he couldn’t escape.”

As if in a trance, Pink continues on her rampage. As Jones looks on, she takes hold of the iron gate separating the mob from a liquor store:

The gate began to bend and sway under her assault. Then it was down. She stood there for a moment, staring at her hands–big drops of blood oozed slowly over the palms. Then she turned to the crowd that had stopped to watch.

“Come on, you niggers,” she said. Her eyes were little and evil and triumphant. “Come on and drink up the white man’s liquor.”

The riot empowers Pink in the worst possible way: it gives her license to debase herself and her community.

The parallels between the events in Petry’s novella and the trouble in Baltimore are obvious. But because it is fiction rather than a fast-changing news story, we can deal with “In Darkness and Confusion” calmly and reasonably. The horrifying denouement, which I won’t spoil here, invites empathy and compassion rather than finger-pointing or a helpless wringing of hands.

Literature–if it really is literature–always challenges us to go beyond florid sentiment and grow as thinkers, as human beings. In this particular instance, Petry’s novella of the 1940s offers us an excellent way into that meaningful conversation about race that our national leaders keep saying we ought to have.

Ann Petry (1908-1997)
Ann Petry (1908-1997)