Bonhoeffer and opposition to the state in justice theory
This morning in my seminar on social justice and public policy, we are finally going to tackle liberation theology. It’s taken me a good four readings of Gustavo Gutierrez’s Liberation Theology book to get to a point where I think I can say something intelligent. I’m not crazy about how I organized the last three weeks of the class, but it turns out that I needed the extra week of Thanksgiving to figure out what I wanted to say.
We land this week with Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Bonhoeffer is one of my favorite justice thinkers, actually, because he is so confounding. He was a conservative Lutheran, and he appears to have had little time for liberal modernists like Reinhold Neibuhr. This fact tends to make conservatives in the US chortle with glee that he “must have been a conservative.” But he was a conservative Lutheran, people, and a European one. Check out the social welfare regimes in Lutheran-dominated European countries if you want to know what that means.
When I say that Bonhoeffer was a conservative, I mean that his theology was informed by Biblical revelation, of course–his problem with the liberal modernists like Neibuhr concerned their willingness to rely on intuition relatively more than Bonhoeffer could stand, rather than more strict Biblical interpretation. Just because he was a conservative theologian does not mean that he would have lined along with people like Pat Robertson.
That theological conservatism led him to interesting places, including the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, which impressed him greatly. The Baptists, too, were evangelical and relied on revelation and the Bible, but there he saw the strands of political liberation even within a congregation centered on conservative doctrine. Setting themselves against the face of white domination, the leaders of the Abyssinian Baptist Church denied the notion that liberation needs necessary be “liberal” in a freedom-loving, individualistic way. Instead, it appealed to the higher social order of God’s community.
Bonhoeffer carried this understanding back to Germany where he preached against in the Nazis. I’ve been reading three key sermons: The Jewish Question; A Church of the World or a Church of the World; and The Aryan Paragraph in the Church. The Bonhoeffer revealed here shows a man who becomes progressively more convinced that the church’s work is external and possesses a duty to work against the corrupted state.
Bonhoeffer’s critics argue that for all practical purposes, he did little to help Jewish victims. He can not be used as German martyr, they argue, because there is little evidence that he worked to free them or get them out of the country. Yet he joined in a plot to assassinate Hitler and was executed for it, largely out of spite, I argue, at the end of the war. One can always criticize everybody for not doing more; I have trouble believing that a relatively famous theologian like Bonhoeffer, who had spoken out against the regime, would have been a particularly effective underground worker. I suspect he was watched and reported on closely which would have served to expose those he associated with, not hide them.
The question that sits before young students of public affairs with Guttierez, Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King (and Gandhi, of course) concerns when social movements can, and perhaps should, be justified in taking up violent opposition to the state.
(I’m going to throw this up as I have to run to class! Sorry for typos. Will proofread a bit later.)