Sunday, January 28, 2007


The great majority of the worst crimes committed by human beings arise from their false claims to know things beyond doubt, whether in the name of God or in the name of any ideology (religious or otherwise) that abjures human frailty. Perhaps few perceived this more clearly, during the trials of the Nazi era we remember on Holocaust Memorial Day, and specifically the 'church struggle' against the embrace of totalitarianism, than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Railing against both arrogant positivism and the abandonment of truthfulness, he wrote:

"No good at all can come from acting before the world and one’s self as though we knew the truth, when in reality we do not. This truth is too important for that, and it would be a betrayal of this truth if the church were to hide itself behind resolutions and pious so-called Christian principles, when it is called to look the truth in the face and once and for all confess its guilt and ignorance. Indeed, such resolutions can have nothing complete, nothing clear about them unless the whole Christian truth, as the church knows it or confesses that it does not know it, stands behind them. Qualified silence might perhaps be more appropriate for the church today than talk which is very unqualified. That means protest against any form of the church which does not honour the question of truth above all things." [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords, translated by Edwin Robertson and John Bowden (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), p. 160]

God's truth, in other words, is not the equivalent of our malignant fantasies about 'knowing' or 'ruling'. It is to be discovered, rather, by entering into the most vulnerable aspects of human life, and finding there a vocation of love which defies conquest. This is why, for Bonhoeffer, the greatest possible engagement with reality is to be found through engaging the suffering compassion of Christ - a commitment which led him to the gallows at Flossenburg.

See also: Stanley Hauerwas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Truth and Politics, Center for Theological Enquiry, Princeton, New Jersey, USA. The ambiguity and difficulty of Bonhoeffer's relation with the ingrained anti-Judaism of his theological inheritance is explored wisely and sensitively by Stephen R. Haynes in The Bonhoeffer Legacy: Post-Holocaust Perspectives (Fortress Press, 2006). More titles here.

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