Wednesday, April 09, 2008

THE COST OF POLITICAL WITNESS

Today, my late father's birthday, is also the 63rd anniversary of the execution of pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer by the Nazis. As Uwe Siemon-Netto, a veteran foreign correspondent and academic, comments: '[E]ven some of his fellow Lutherans did not realize at first how consistently Bonhoeffer lived out his creed. Immediately after World War II, pastors in Bielefeld opposed plans to have a street named after him. Bavaria’s Lutheran bishop Hans Meiser, himself a prominent anti-Nazi cleric, protested vigorously against a proposal to install a plaque commemorating Bonhoeffer as a “witness to Jesus Christ among his brethren” at Flossenb├╝rg concentration camp where he was put to death only days before it was liberated by US forces. In Meiser’s opinion, Bonhoeffer’s resistance was “political, not religious”.'

I disagree with a number of aspects of Siemon-Netto's reading of Bonhoeffer, but he highlights very precisely the fault-line in the Christendom attempt to drive a false wedge between the spiritual and the secular; one that imperils the path of costly discipleship which Bonhoeffer mapped out in his forcibly fragmented life as much as in his necessarily fragmentary writings.

4 comments:

Mystical Seeker said...

I think that Siemon-Netto seems to back away from the full implications of the notion that the spiritual and the secular should not be separated. I am thinking in particular of his strong criticism in that article of liberation theology. Still, it was an interesting article and his descrption of Bonhoeffer's gruesome death serves as a reminder of what martyrs often go through in their willingness to oppose institutional evil and social injustice.

Doug said...

Bonhoeffer as you rightly emphasise rejected the split between the "spiritual" and the "political".

Bonhoeffer stands as such a powerful witness because the connection between his life and theology as struggle and journey remains transparent.

We can only give thanks for his life and witness and remain challenged to live as faithfully as he did.

Jane said...

Great you're back!
sorry to be a nit-picker but Bonhoeffer was not a Lutheran - he was a German Protestant - both the BErlin Church and the Silesian Church are united churches I think and not pure Lutheran churches. This means they were churches which had not only the Augsburg confession but also the Heidelberg confession. Anyway it was in a quote and not by you so "pace"
hope you're well
More soon
Am preaching at an Anglican service of collation on Sunday - very odd

Simon Barrow said...

You identify exactly why I disagree with Siemon-Netto, MS. His comments on liberation theology are ersatz, and people like Charles Villa-Vicencio and John de Gruchy have not been cavalier with Bonhoeffer, even if you disagree with them. He might have come from a privileged background (the Weimar experience made him more elitist than democratic in spirit) but Bonhoeffer played a decisive role in initiating later C20th 'theology from the underside'.

I'm not sure what other historical interpreters say about the manner of his death, but it is indeed a grim prospect.

Doug's and Jane's comments open up an interesting and complex question about the extent to which Bonhoeffer was formed by, and also developed ideas in tension with, what is taken to be traditional Lutheran understandings of religion and politics. Douglas John Hall has written some interesting stuff on this in the context of the theologia gloriae being challenged by the theologia crucis

On the denominational point you're obviously quite right, Jane [and not being nitpicking] - but I decided not to footnote a caveat on that quotation! Luther was, it must be said, a rather important figure in Bonhoeffer's framing of life and faith - see also http://www.ctsfw.edu/events/bonhoeffer/essays.php)