A Bonhoeffer Moment
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