A Bonhoeffer Moment

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Listen to “A Bonhoeffer Moment” by Fred Smith

 

Almost everywhere you turn – left and right – you will hear or read people saying, “This is a Bonhoeffer moment.” For some, that means standing gallantly against the menace of a right wing authoritarian. For others it calls for champions throwing themselves selflessly against an oncoming socialist regime. It may be forcing the choice between nationalism and Christ as when he said, “The question is really: Christianity or Germanism? And the sooner the conflict is revealed in the clear light of day the better.” Or, perhaps, it is, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless.”  

That’s the thing about Bonhoeffer. You can use him for either side depending on your perspective about the threat and evil intent of the present enemy.

But what do we mean by a “Bonhoeffer Moment”? In many minds, it is a reminder of Martin Luther’s famous, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Another Bonhoeffer-like moment would be Peter’s response to the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” Finally, it may be Martin Luther King’s challenge to a nation: “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”

All of these held in common the commitment to the cause with no reservations. Everything was on the table with nothing held back. They risked their reputations and lives for what they believed. Whatever the price they were willing to pay it to speak the truth.

All that is admirable, inspiring and even close to a Bonhoeffer moment but not quite. It doesn’t go far enough. What then is a true Bonhoeffer moment?

Let me use the Apostle Paul as an example. We all know that Paul suffered for the gospel and never hesitated to speak for God under the most intimidating circumstances. In fact, he never stepped away from the almost inevitable sacrifice of his own life by the hands of his enemies. Yet, it is only in Romans that we fully understand the full depth of his commitment when he writes, “I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit—  I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel.”

Read that again slowly. Paul is willing to be cut off from Christ for eternity and to be cursed for the sake of his people. We sometimes gloss over that and think, “What a remarkable thing to say,” but we don’t take seriously the full implication of that offer. It is not simply, “Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for a friend,” or his willingness to give up his life in exchange for theirs but he is offering to give up his own eternal hope in the life to come and be considered cursed forever. 

The Fellowship of Guilt

Bonhoeffer confided to a friend that in making his choice to join the German resistance to Hitler he was not only going against his own conscience and convictions but he, like Paul, had made the decision to accept the responsibility and burden of guilt.  He was not looking for an ethical loophole or a way to rationalize his making the best of two impossible options. No, he was fully aware of the consequences of intentionally choosing sin and guilt. Like Paul, he was accepting the full consequence of his choices.

“The structure of responsible action includes both readiness to accept guilt and freedom. If any man tries to escape guilt in responsibility he detaches himself from the ultimate reality of human existence, and what is more he cuts himself off from the redeeming mystery of Christ’s bearing guilt without sin, and he has no share in the divine justification which lies upon this event. Real innocence shows itself precisely in a man’s entering into the fellowship of guilt for the sake of other men.”

A true Bonhoeffer moment then would be not a brave soul willing to stand up at great risk and speak boldly. It would not be losing everything. It would not be a heroic willingness to suffer persecution or even death as a martyr for the cause. It would not be laying down one’s life.

It would be intentionally laying aside all hope for eternity knowing something or someone is so valuable and precious that it would be worth the loss not only of this life but of life eternal.

That would be a Bonhoeffer moment. 

 

Art by Lewis Williams

 

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Showing 12 comments
  • Avatar
    Deborah Spencer
    Reply

    Praise God for Bonhoeffer! His example, Christ, intentionally chose innocence and sinlessness—Love—even and especially when He knew it put Him on a collision course with evil.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      I’ve begun to wonder if Christ actually did make the same decision intentionally. We too often think he had been assured the end game was resurrection and victory so it was just a matter of getting through the crucifixion. What if he made the commitment to “become sin” not knowing what the end result would be?

      • Avatar
        Ryan Skoog
        Reply

        I’ve wondered that too, Fred. Jesus did tell his disciples he would rise again, so it seemed he knew it would happen somehow. But ‘somehow’ like in an Abrahamic sense of ‘God will make it happen.’ He had to submit to the Father as to how, when, and what it looked like. Scripture doesn’t say the Christ raised himself from hell and the grave, but He submitted to let the Father God raise Him up. Jesus surrendered to the will of the Father even as to when, how, and what it looked like to be resurrected.
        This verse you quote of Paul’s willingness to forego eternity for the Israelites is my least favorite in the BIble. “Follow me as I follow Christ” I’m just not to the place of love where I am willing to give my eternity for others. I could give my life in many scenarios, but my eternity?? That would take a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in my heart for sure.

        • Fred Smith
          Fred Smith
          Reply

          I don’t know anyone who is willing to do that although as I said to another on this chain that is exactly the choice some Catholic bishops are imposing on voters who choose to vote for any Democrat. While I don’t believe many Catholics today have that much faith in their Bishops pronouncements it is still quite a position to take. Now, did Jesus have a “Get Out Of Hell Free” pass up his sleeve? I’ll leave that up to the theologians.

  • Avatar
    Keith Sparzak
    Reply

    This criterion for “Bonhoeffer Moments” reframes the term in such a way that it makes its application extremely rare. It is likely that I will only fantasize about having one between now and the other side. My special “moments” are increasingly becoming “Senior Moments” —and are certainly nothing to reflect over or write about.

    Thanx for the exhortation to honor those who have had true Bonhoeffer Moments—-the ultimate honor goes to The Savior, of course. May we at least aspire to the ideal, and if ever we are placed in a situation where we would have to embrace it , be able to exercise the ideal.

    Appreciate You, Fred!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      But isn’t the choice some Catholic bishops are proclaiming by saying any Catholic voting for a Democrat (not just Biden) is going to hell? They are forcing people into a Bonhoeffer moment.

  • Avatar
    Jedd Medefind
    Reply

    As always, your reflections here both challenged and stirred my heart, Fred. Thank you.

    I’ve been thinking a lot recently on how it is not so much the “big” life decisions or watershed moments that most shape us and our lives. Certainly, those loom large in our experience of life and our telling of it. But in many ways, it is the small, oft’-repeated decisions that most shape the person we’re becoming and the impact we’ll leave behind. Is it possible that even Bonhoeffer’s “Bonhoeffer moment” wasn’t any one moment, but the thousands of unseen moments that forged the man he became? Here are some reflections from a little while back on this:

    In 1944, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided to risk his life by participating in an assassination attempt against Hitler, that was not the watershed decision of his life. The decision had been made long before. It was made in his decision in 1939 to return to Nazi-controlled Germany, when he could have remained the safety of the United States. It was made in his decision to secretly teach students seminary students within Germany even when it was against the law. It was made in his decisions to put his name to the public statement of the Confessing Church. Perhaps even more, it was made in 1000 moments of quiet prayer – alone with God, or side by side with his friends, or his fiancé Maria. Yes, Bonhoeffer’s decision to participate in the assassination attempt against Hitler may have cost him his life. But he was forged into the kind of man who both could and would make that decision long before. Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom at the hands of the Nazi’s is certainly part of why we remember him today. But character that had taken root long before – the character that enabled him to go calmly to his death and even to pray for the men who would execute him – it was that character that made him truly worth remembering.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Yes, character is cumulative, isn’t it? I love the way Oswald Chambers puts it. “We do not need the grace of God to stand crises, human nature and pride are sufficient, we can face the strain magnificently; but it does require the supernatural grace of God to live twenty-four hours in every day as a saint, to go through drudgery as a disciple, to live an ordinary, unobserved, ignored existence as a disciple of Jesus. It is inbred in us that we have to do exceptional things for God; but we have not. We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things, to be holy in mean streets, among mean people, and this is not learned in five minutes.”

  • Avatar
    Micahel Harris
    Reply

    I am sorry. I am a faithful listener/reader of your weekly message. This week I don’t have any idea what you are talking about. Can you summarize your conclusion with more specifics and less vagueness? thanks

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Bonhoeffer’s choice was not between life and death but, like Paul’s, between where he would spend eternity based on his choice.

  • Avatar
    Tim Winn
    Reply

    Fred, recently I watched a lecture on Bonhoeffer. It wasn’t about a “Bonhoeffer moment.” If fact, I had never heard of such a thing until I read your piece. One of he main points of the lecture I watched was the fact that both Bonhoeffer and the judge who sentenced him to death were the product of the same classical German education. They had read the same great books. The question was how the two people with the same education could have had such a different perspective on what was right and what was wrong, good versus evil. The lecturer did not have an answer.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Yes, even twins disagree on things. We have predispositions, don’t we? We can read the same facts and come to two entirely different conclusions.

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