Shut Up, Dietrich Bonhoeffer!

I'm rereading Life Together by theologian, pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in anticipation of a men's retreat I'm facilitating later this month. (If you're interested in attending, I think there's still some space. Go here for more information.) I find myself wondering if I would like Bonhoeffer as much as I do if he were living and writing today, as opposed to his prophetic ministry in opposition to the rise of the Nazis in WWII-era Germany. There are contemporary writers and speakers who use similarly stark language to say arresting and provocative things, and when I read them (and when I hear them speak, as happened just a few days ago, quite frankly), more often than not I want to tell them to shut up. In my defense, I think that a person's words are judged and best understood by the times in which they were spoken or written, and by the means by which the were propagated and disseminated. In that respect, Bonhoeffer's open-secret subversive theology and spirituality in the face of historic evil gets more attention from me than, for example, a weeping prophet on a jumbo-tron. So, while I groan inwardly and smirk outwardly when I hear some flavor-of-the-month preacher telling a roomful of sycophants that we all just need to get over ourselves and start serving God better, I sit up and take notice when Bonhoeffer says something similarly straightforward and confrontational. Like this, from his chapter on "Ministry," under "The Ministry of Helpfulness":
Nobody is too good for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly. We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks, as the priest passed by the man who had fallen among thieves, perhaps--reading the Bible. . . . It is a strange fact that Christians and even ministers frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them. . . . But it is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God. . . . Only where hands are not too good for deeds of love and mercy in everyday helpfulness can the mouth joyfully and convincingly proclaim the message of God's love and mercy.
On my best days the spirit of this passage from Life Together, if not the text of it outright, crosses my mind in the moment I start to resent the occasional interruption or unexalted task. But most days are not my best days, I'm afraid, and if Dietrich Bonhoeffer were alive today, up on a stage with spotlights and PowerPoint and whatnot, throwing this kind of challenge in my face, I suspect I would groan inwardly and smirk outwardly, probably stifling the urge to shout "Shut up, Dietrich Bonhoeffer!" I'll try to remind myself of that next time I'm trapped in an arena with a jumbo-tron preacher in my face. God help me.


Paul Grant said…
Hi Dave. This is right on. Bonhoeffer was not really appreciated while alive - even by those who genuinely shared his beliefs. I was recently studying the history of the postwar German Protestant churches, and found myself reading the minutes of the first conference, in July 1945. It was an atmosphere of defeat, and the attendees spent quite some time establishing the whereabouts of lost colleagues. When people heard that Bonhoeffer was dead, the air went out of the room. It was only then that they were ready to listen to him - when they had lost all hope and needed to proceed from a position of brokenness. And that's a place nobody wants to go to.
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