In the last few decades, German pastor, theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer has gone from largely unknown outside of certain Christian religious circles to a widely known hero among all kinds of people who don't agree with each other about much.
Indeed, Bonhoeffer today is being drafted into opposing armies -- mostly political and social in nature. Each interest group is finding something in this man's remarkable life to like and, thus, to claim they know how he would react today to (the list is long) the war on terror, abortion, the war in Iraq and nearly ever aspect of the culture wars.
Stephen R. Haynes, a professor of religious studies at Rhodes College, unpacks this troubling story in his fascinating new book, The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump.
His descriptions of how Bonhoeffer -- murdered by the Nazis at the end of the World War II on charges of plotting to murder Hitler -- is being used and misused is worth the price of the book. But the clinching bonus is his 13-page postscript. There Haynes describes his roots in Christian evangelicalism, his movement away from it and his persuasive arguments for why 81 percent of white Christian evangelicals in the U.S. lost their moral compass when they voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
In effect, Haynes turns state's evidence against evangelicals in a scorching -- and accurate -- denunciation. Written in the form of a letter to evangelicals, the postscript makes several points that they should, by now, recognize as true, including that "there is nothing remotely 'Christian' about Donald Trump."
As I say, the postscript is worth reading even if you read nothing else in the book, but the main part of the book provides the important context for that postscript.
For instance, Haynes concludes that "the battle for Bonhoeffer is far from over. . .For one thing, it has become clear to me that looking to Bonhoeffer for guidance and inspiration has been a fairly consistent feature of our public discourse since 9/11. It is hardly surprising that so many Americans are drawn to Bonhoeffer in the twenty-first century, for he exemplifies a remarkable continuity between thought and behavior, a rare combination of academic depth and pastoral concern, a striking transition from pacifism to violent resistance and a martyr's faithful acceptance of death."
Haynes is a careful scholar, so when he provides a devastating critique of a recent popular biography of Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas, it's well worth your attention, especially if you've already read the Metaxas book and have concluded that Bonhoeffer acted and thought a lot like Metaxas himself. Haynes says the Metaxas book suffers from the author's "inexperience" and that "there is much evidence that his biography of Bonhoeffer is driven by a conscious and multifaceted agenda."
In other words, Metaxas is one of many people who have latched onto Bonhoeffer and his inspirational life so as to make the martyr an ally in this or that cause. Which, Haynes concludes, makes "the distorted picture of Bonhoeffer rendered in Eric Metaxas's biography. . .irresponsible and dangerous."
No doubt there still are many people of faith who have never heard of Bonhoeffer and his fatal effort to stop Hitler and Hitler's efforts to destroy European Jewry. But Haynes has written a cautionary tale that should give all of us pause before we use Bonhoeffer -- or, for that matter, any historical figure -- to prove our political point today.
Anyone whose words can be used to justify a specific war and, at the same time, to condemn that specific war must be quoted and appealed to with great caution. That's who Bonhoeffer has become. It clouds his true place in history and misuses his legend. Haynes is right to warn us about that.
(Just as an aside, here is a column I wrote about Bonhoeffer a few years ago for The National Catholic Reporter.)
* * *
A PRAYERFUL PROJECT IN SOUTH SUDAN
South Sudan has been embroiled in a civil war since 2013. Religious leaders there now are asking congregants to engage in prayer for peace and to avoid doing things political leaders ask of them if those things run counter to their religious beliefs, this RNS report says. And speaking of South Sudan, if you missed my friend Melinda Henneberger's terrific report from there recently in The Kansas City Star, you may read it here.