Monday, March 07, 2016

An unsympathetic moral exemplar

I cannot help but look at Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life with admiration. Who knows what choices any of us would have made in his circumstances? Within the limits of his class and culture, this German theologian chose to resist Hitler, collaborating with a coup attempt, in order to follow his evolving apprehension of God present in the human world; he paid with his life.

But what an unappealing character he seems to have been! Charles Marsh's Strange Glory is a thorough biography which hides none of the man's quirks which were many and largely unattractive, as was the German Evangelical Church (Lutheran), a state institution, in which he was formed.
  • Born into the professional bourgeoisie of imperial (pre-World War I) Germany, he announced at 13 he would become a theologian.
  • Throughout his stellar university career and first pastorates, Marsh describes the man as more concerned with his clothes than just about anything else. Off to Barcelona for an assistant pastorate,

    ... Bonhoeffer asked advice on assembling his new wardrobe. He'd heard the weather in Barcelona could be fickle. He was particularly keen to know what style and weight of suiting [his new boss] Olbricht recommended ... And would he need special athletic wear at the club ? ...

    These sartorial concerns seem never to have left Bonhoeffer. In a Nazi prison, just before his execution, he wrote a detailed message disposing of his clothes.
  • Nothing in Marsh's telling suggests that he had given any thought to the implications of the collapsing German democratic order (which his class despised) or to the desperation of most Germans as the Depression ground on. His Church (the Lutheran state church) preached German nationalism and submission to authority -- "blood, soil, and fatherland" -- and not much more. No wonder most of its leadership rapidly succumbed to the Nazis. They had paid no attention during the tumultuous moments when Nazi ascendancy might have been stopped and then rolled over once Hitler won state power.
  • The Confessing Protestant (anti-Nazi) church which Bonhoeffer sought to build balked at being required by the Nazis to exclude baptized Jewish Christians -- but displayed no particular sense of responsibility for other, unconverted, German Jews. It did however preach an absolute pacifism, a conviction for which some members died when they refused military service.
  • Marsh portrays Bonhoeffer as obsessed with a long homoerotic relationship with another pastor, Eberhard Bethge, who worked with him in the Confessing Church. It's unfair to project backward today's understanding of healthy homosexual relationships onto this pair; they certainly had no option but concealment, even in some ways from themselves. When Bethge broke away from Bonhoeffer and married a woman, the theologian rebounded into a quick engagement of his own. He had given Maria von Wedemeyer religious instruction as an eleven year old.

    At thirty-six, he was closer in age to Maria's mother, Ruth von Wedemeyer, than to Maria [by then 17]. ... Maria's mother imposed a one-year moratorium on the relationship, ... as must have been a common remedy to protect girls not yet finished with their schooling. Though Bonhoeffer might be an eminent theologian and esteemed pastor ..., the age difference and the peculiar cast of the courtship made Ruth von Wedemeyer uneasy. As it happened, Maria seems to have been perfectly "relieved and happy" about the delay.

    When the delay expired, Bonhoeffer continued to treat her as an unformed child. She called him "Pastor Bonhoeffer." If Bonhoeffer had survived the Nazi defeat (this could have happened in the chaos of the war's end), one can imagine that the marriage might have been extremely hard on both parties. It is hard to imagine Maria having much of a life with this man.
And yet, and yet, Bonhoeffer almost alone among German Christians of his class, moved beyond horror at Hitler's barbarism to action. Though a faithful pacifist, he became convinced that the evil before him required an active response, even if thereby he participated in its violence and took on his own guilty participation in violence. He turned to Luther's teaching:

One came to Christ as a sinner in the best case. One could at least sin for the sake of righteousness. Bonhoeffer did not try to resolve the paradox by assuming moral innocence but accepted the paradox by incurring the guilt born out of responsible action.

The choices available to Bonhoeffer are certainly something all of us can pray -- and work -- to be spared.

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