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 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)