Pastor Hickey notes Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, a new book by Eric Metaxas. Perhaps inadvertently, Pastor Hickey alerts us to some things Eric Metaxas gets wrong about Bonhoeffer... some things conveniently tailored to Fox News viewers' preferred narrative about America 2010:
Bonhoeffer believed he was called by God to help those who wanted to assassinate Hitler.
"Bonhoeffer was not a pacifist," Metaxas says. "And that will be news to a lot of people who think of Bonhoeffer as their hero, as some kind of pacifist" [Lauren Green, "New Bio of Executed WWII Pastor/Spy Reveals U.S. Influence," Fox News, 2010.04.09].
We all know pacifist is a synonym for sissy on Fox News. So for the Right to claim this mainline Protestant as their own icon, they have to repackage him. Metaxas obliges—he apparently knows his audience—but he gets Bonhoeffer wrong.
Pastor Steve, help me out here:
As a Sermon on the Mount junkie, I’ve always been quite dialed in on how Bonhoeffer held to the high pacifist ideal in his writings (turn the other cheek, love enemies), but compromised (and justifiably so in my view) that ideal by participating in a secret assassination plot on Hitler [Pastor Steve Hickey, "I sat in Bonhoeffer’s chair, but walking in his shoes is far more difficult," Gate Post, 2009.07.29].
Bonhoeffer was a big pacifist. He denounced Hitler from the moment the Nazis took power. But his main weapons were words, ideas, and theology. Bonhoeffer didn't rush straight to Berghof with a Luger in his hand. Even as he spoke out against Hitler's evil, Bonhoeffer struggled to reach the point where he could justify committing the evil of violence. And even when he finally agreed to participate in violence, he still called it evil.
Coming to a hard decision like that takes some hard thinking. Metaxas appears to dismiss hard thinking in his Fox interview, suggesting that a visit to America somehow transformed Bonhoeffer's faith into something more than "just theology in his head." That a man purporting sufficient expertise to write a biography of Bonhoeffer would append the adjective just to theology suggests the author missed the point. Bonhoeffer's resistance was very much grounded in theological and moral reasoning, not to mention a keen understanding of political and global context.
Metaxas and Fox News also offer a rather narrow summary of the message in Bonhoeffer's life and martyrdom:
But the legacy that Bonhoeffer leaves future generations is of the untold dangers of idolizing politicians as messianic figures. Not just in the 1930s and '40s, but today as well.
"It's a deep temptation within us," says Metaxas. "We need to guard against it and we need to know that it can lead to our ruin. Germany was led over the cliff, and there were many good people who were totally deluded" [Green, 2010]
Bonhoeffer's legacy is somewhat broader than that. His legacy is much more about "an active response to Christ's Sermon on the Mount." Christians (and the rest of us) must challenge earthly evil in any form, political or personal. Bonhoeffer says that rather than secluding ourselves in safe chapels and gated communities, we must engage with the world, speak up for and work toward (dare I say it?) social justice.
I won't deny that Bonhoeffer's thinking would agree with Fox/Metaxas's statement about idolizing politicians. I would just hope that readers will recognize the need to apply that specific caution equally to President Barack Obama and politician-turned-celebrity Sarah Palin... and that they would then turn to the rest of Bonhoeffer's theology and history for lessons that go well beyond the spin either Fox or I would apply.
Update 2010.04.11: Do read Dr. Blanchard's response on this topic. Thoughtful reading all around the blogosphere this weekend.