Wednesday, 20 January 2021  

Bonhoeffer: The Truthful Witness

Stanley Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University Divinity School.

Professor Hauerwas has sought to recover the significance of the virtues for understanding the nature of the Christian life. This search has led him to emphasize the importance of the church, as well as narrative for understanding Christian existence. His work cuts across disciplinary lines as he is in conversation with systematic theology, philosophical theology and ethics, political theory, as well as the philosophy of social science and medical ethics.

Dr. Hauerwas delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectureship at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, in 2001. He was named “America’s Best Theologian” by Time in 2001. His book, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, was selected as one of the 100 most important books on religion of the 20th century. He holds a joint appointment in Duke Law School. He has two books forthcoming for preachers, one of which is contains series of meditation on the seven last words of Jesus.

However, it was his recent book Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence that caught our attention as we prepared this issue of Homiletics with Bonhoeffer in mind.

We met on a beautiful autumn morning in his second-floor office in Old Divinity, and we began our discussion with a reference to his theological notoriety.

HOMILETICS: Jeff Stout, in his book Democracy and Tradition, says that “no theologian has done more to inflame Christian resentment of secular political culture” than you. First, I didn’t know that Christians resented secular political culture, and second, what does he mean, and three, do you agree that no theologian has caused this resentment more than you?

HAUERWAS: What was the first part of that question again? [laughter].

HOMILETICS: Do Christians resent secular political culture?

HAUERWAS: I find Jeff’s estimate of my influence vastly overrated. I had no idea any theologian could have that effect, particularly among other Christians! [laughter]. So, I don’t know what he means, really, by suggesting that I’ve convinced Christians to give up on a democracy, which is his main charge.

I have argued that Christians’ first political responsibility is to be the church, and by being the church they should understand that their first political loyalty is to God, and the God we worship as Christians, in a manner that understands that we are not first and foremost about making democracy work, but about the truthful worship of the true God.

I would like to think that I could make a contribution to any social order, but it has to be done one witness at a time. Jeff doesn’t get how influential Yoder’s influence has been on me, in the sense that John Yoder never thought that Christians withdrew from society, even Christians committed to nonviolence as he was and as I am, but we think that the kind of truthfulness that nonviolence requires should be of service to any political order anywhere. So that led into what I was doing with Bonhoeffer, namely Bonhoeffer’s discovery that one of the greatest political contributions Christians can make to any social order in which they find themselves is to tell the truth and to be capable of receiving the truth!

When I wrote the Bonhoeffer essay, Jeff’s book hadn’t appeared yet. So I wasn’t writing in response to that book, but I think the essays are in a certain sense a response to his book. I should say, as I’ve said in the epilogue in Performing the Faith where I respond to Jeff — I think Jeff’s book is a great opportunity for Christians. Jeff obviously is not a Christian, but he is theologically musical, and he is taking Christians seriously, and I think that is a great gift, and I really admire what he’s about in the book. I would hope that this would be a part of a constructive conversation that we’ve really been desperately needing to have.

What Jeff has done is — he’s left behind some of the weighty secular thinkers such as Rawls and Rorty and says that they are wrong to exclude strong convictions from political debate, and I think he’s right about that. So it’s really an opportunity that he’s offered for Christians to say, “We have something to give.”

HOMILETICS: Your recent book on Bonhoeffer, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence — I thought “performing” was an interesting word. Faith as performance.

HAUERWAS: That was very intentional. One of the things that liberal democratic society has encouraged Christians to believe about what they believe is that what it means to be a Christian is primarily belief![laughter]. So you hold to these 26 absurd propositions before breakfast, you know.

This is a deep misunderstanding about how Christianity works. Of course we believe that God is God and we are not and that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit but that this is not a set of propositions — but is rather embedded in a community of practices that make those beliefs themselves work and give us a community by which we are shaped. Religious belief is not just some kind of primitive metaphysics, but in fact it is a performance just like you’d perform Lear. What people think Christianity is, is that it’s like the text of Lear, rather than the actual production of Lear. It has to be performed for you to understand what Lear is — a drama. You can read it, but unfortunately Christians so often want to make Christianity a text rather than a performance.

The crucial chapter in the book is the chapter “Performing the Faith” in which James Fodor and I try to display what it means for Christians to see the practice of the faith.

I could have started the book with that chapter, but I didn’t want to do that because I wanted to pull you in by attending to the “performance” of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a performer of Christianity.

HOMILETICS: We typically view Bonhoeffer not as a pacifist, don’t we, but as a person who aggressively attempted to stop the wheel from crushing the oppressed — are you saying he became a pacifist?

HAUERWAS: There’s no question that he was a pacifist. He had been strongly influenced at Union by a Calvinist, Jean Lasserre, who wrote The Cross and the Sword, who was a Huguenot originally, and he had decided that Christian nonviolence was necessary to be a Christian. So he was not a just war person.

Bonhoeffer remained deeply committed to nonviolence. People think that his committment was decisively changed because of his involvement with the Abwehr plot against Hitler. Certainly, Bohoeffer toward the end, thought that Hitler should be assassinated. This was a very complicated matter because when he first joined the plot against Hitler they didn’t want to kill Hitler. They were afraid if they killed Hitler it would make Hitler a martyr and make German reconstruction even more difficult than it was going to be anyway.

But once the British had turned down any possibility that if they had overthrown Hitler there might be something less than unconditional surrender, once the British had rejected that and they wanted complete capitulation and they wouldn’t stand for a German government to be established, then Bonhoeffer and his colleagues thought that they had to kill Hitler.

We simply do not know how Bonhoeffer thought about that decision. I have no doubt, however, that Bonhoeffer thought clearly that what they were going to have to do was sin. It was sin —

HOMILETICS: And sin boldly [laughter].

HAUERWAS: And sin boldly.

HOMILETICS: And suppose he had succeeded and that he indeed had pulled the trigger, how would that have affected our evaluation of him now?

HAUERWAS: That’s really an interesting question. Bethge reports that one time Bonhoeffer volunteered to pull the trigger, and they said, “You wouldn’t know which end of the gun to point!” [laughter]. So they said, “You’re not the man.” If they had been successful and Bonhoeffer would had lived, people would have been very surprised by his conservative theological position — and by conservative I mean only that he was thoroughly orthodox in his convictions and Barthian all the way down — they would be surprised by that, and secondly they would be very surprised by his conservative politics. He distrusted “the people.” We forget that Hitler had support from the German people. Bonhoeffer did not think that after the defeat of Germany, trying to erect an English or an American democracy was the future for Germany. So I suspect that people would have found him remarkably critical of some of the assumptions that we would just make Germany democratic. He thought the rule of law was very important, and he thought that the rule of law was unintelligible without the acknowledgement of God.

HOMILETICS: So we can’t live as Barth suggested, “Et si deus non daretur,” as if God does not exist.

HAUERWAS: That’s true. In Letters and Papers we get this idea that we have to let the secular be secular. What he meant by that is that we have to get over Constantinian Christianity. The church’s presumption was that it would have to rule a society, or at least have one favorably established by the government and social habits. This, Bonhoeffer thought, we had to get over. Now, how that was consistent with his own view, too, that the rule of law required an acknowledgement of the “commandment” as he put it, and by “commandment” he meant the first commandment — I don’t know. I don’t know how he would straighten that out. Bonhoeffer, as early as Sanctorum Communio, really was beginning to understand that the day of established Christianity was over and that intellectual positions that presupposed established Christianity were simply no longer in the works.

HOMILETICS: You say that you want to show that “from the very beginning Bonhoeffer was attempting to develop a theological politics from which we still have very much to learn.” How does theological politics differ from a political theology?

HAUERWAS: The distinction comes from a book by Arne Rasmussen. Arne understands political theology to be exemplified by someone like Jorgen Moltmann, who wants to theologize over a politics that already exists, so therefore theology comes as a handmaiden to understand —

HOMILETICS:a politics that’s already in place.

HAUERWAS: A theological politics refuses to do that. It asks, “What kind of community do you need to understand how these claims should be embodied.”

HOMILETICS: So Bonhoeffer was doing the latter.

HAUERWAS: Absolutely.

HOMILETICS: Developing a theological politics that would suggest a different approach to —

HAUERWAS: Absolutely. I certainly think that is right. That was true all the way through his extraordinary work from beginning to end. In fact, the kind of community he was trying to establish at Finkenwald was an attempt at theological politics. In many ways, during that time at Finkenwald, Bonhoeffer was becoming an “abbot” trying to establish forms of life for the formation of these people going into the ministry that would provide an alternative to the politics of the world.

HOMILETICS: And part of his developing theological politics involved recovering or reclaiming the visibility of the church.

HAUERWAS: Absolutely crucial was the notion of reclaiming the visibility of the church. John Yoder says that before Constantine, Christians knew God was in the church, but they had to believe that God was also in the world because the world was beating the hell out of them! [laughter]. But after Constantine, Christians now knew that God was in the world, because the world favored them, but they had to believe that God was in the church! [laughter]. Because it was very clear that the church was no longer being informed in terms of what constitutes a holy community. That’s what I mean by Bonhoeffer’s reclaiming the visibility of the church. It becomes very complicated.

If you believe as I do that the development of the modern state — and it starts as early as the 14th century — had to create the privatization of Christianity, it’s because you want people shaped by the presumption that what Christianity is about is fundamentally forming subjectivity, rather than forming bodies that will be resistant to the formation of bodies by states. So what Bonhoeffer was about was really reclaiming the formation of Christian bodies that would be able to resist nation states, and that’s what I mean by the recovery of the visibility of the church. His criticisms of Troeltsch in Sanctorum Communio were exactly an attempt to reclaim from the thought forms of Protestant liberalism exactly that kind of privatization.

HOMILETICS: And truth-telling was a critical aspect of this. He believed, as you show, that the gift of the church to any politics is the truthful proclamation of the gospel.

HAUERWAS: That’s what Barth thought also. Barth thought that you had an indication of the totalitarian character of the Nazis as soon as a law was passed prohibiting Christians from preaching to Jews. Because it was outlawed for a Jew to become a Christian. Barth said, you don’t have the free preaching of the gospel. Bonhoeffer saw clearly in a way that Barth did not — and Barth later said, to Bonhoeffer’s credit, that he saw that the free preaching of the gospel had been abrogated to the extent that Christians did not see the Jews as God’s chosen people. Therefore it was anti-semitism at the very heart of the Nazi project, and Bonhoeffer saw clearly that Christian preaching had to be against it, which of course would get the church into a lot of trouble. And you have to remember that you’re in Lutheran Germany where there is a strong distinction between the order of creation and the order of redemption and the church did not engage in issues in the order of creation, because that was God just maintaining order. And so Bonhoeffer’s critique of that dualism meant he was going to give you a quite different understanding of what preaching looked like.

HOMILETICS: So what was Bonhoeffer’s view of the role of the state?

HAUERWAS: It was to keep as nonviolent order as possible in the process of caring for the orphans, widows and so on. In that sense, he had a relatively traditional view of what the state can do.

HOMILETICS: So would you vote for a pacifist candidate for president?

HAUERWAS: I would, but my hunch is that he wouldn’t stand much of a chance of being elected [laughter].

HOMILETICS: But what if we had a president who was a pacifist?

HAUERWAS: Well, as Christians we would have to be ready to support him in all kinds of risky possibilities. For example, the way I try to help people think about this — when people talk to people committed to Christian nonviolence, they often feel threatened and they give you questions like “What would you do if — ?”

My way of deflecting those kinds of questions which often assume a kind of mechanistic account of the necessity of violence that doesn’t create an alternative — I would be more than happy to enter into a discussion with just war people about what kinds of social arrangements do we need that people can be called to the police function in a way that they’re not brutalized by performing that office? Right now, policemen often come from classes just above criminal classes, and then we throw them into some of the most complex situations anyone can imagine.

How often do you walk into domestic disputes and as soon as you get there, the two people who’ve been fighting one another turn on you! [laughter]. And police are not supposed to become cynical or brutal. So it’s hard. So I am more than ready to enter into those discussions as someone committed to Christian nonviolence because that has partly to do with my way of understanding ethics because I think ethics too often assumes that the only possibilities you have are those created by our unfaithfulness. But I think that Christian faithfulness creates the possibility of miracle.

Think about the 1989 revolution in Eastern Europe. Who could have anticipated that? It was fundamentally also a nonviolent revolution. The Soviets’ duplicity simply couldn’t be maintained.

HOMILETICS: But Reagan bled them dry with Star Wars.

HAUERWAS: Yes, I’m sure that was part of it. I don’t know how effective that was. But that doesn’t explain why Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic were able to gain independence from the Soviet Union. In Hungary it was reformed pastors that led, and then they were installed in government and people asked “Why?” And the answer was, “They don’t lie. They believe in telling the truth” [laughter].

HOMILETICS: Is it possible for a politician not to tell a lie?

HAUERWAS: The difficulty about becoming a public official in America is that the training necessary for being a politician makes you the kind of person that can’t distinguish a lie from the truth anymore.

HOMILETICS: So politicians should not go to law school, they should go through seminary.

HAUERWAS: That would be a really good idea — a way of formation. But then, you see, one of the things that bothers me deeply about the situation we’re in is how seldom preachers tell their congregations the truth! That’s where you’ve got to start in a genuine politics.

What would it mean to preach truthfully today? Seldom do congregations hear sermons on dying. You’re going to die! Seldom are we told that and what it means to respond Christianly to that. Seldom are we told how Christians should understand war. What possesses the souls of mainline Christians in America? Greed! Everyone concentrates on sex, but greed is what’s tearing us up. We concentrate on sex because we think we can figure out when we’ve done that wrong, but people can’t figure out when they’re greedy. What would they say? Owning two SUVs [laughter] may be an indication of greed? What would it mean for us to acknowledge the fact that we’re really possessed by greed. And it goes without saying that in America we’re possessed by greed.

After 9/11, what were we asked to do? Shop! I mean, what an extraordinary thing — that we’re supposed to shop as a way to resist terrorism. Christians all over the country should have said, “Hey, that sounds pretty silly to us.”

There’s this extraordinary claim that September 11, 2001 changed the world. False. Christians should be saying, “No, A.D. 33 changed the world.” We need to narrate 9/11 in the light of A.D. 33 and not vice versa. Nothing is more important for Christians than to demand the truth from our ministers.

Most American politicians don’t lie because they’re venal. The American people don’t want to know the truth. Do you want to know you’re a slave nation? Do you want to know you’re a genocidal nation?

One of the examples I give is what George Bush senior said when he appointed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court: “This is the most qualified candidate I could find.” Everyone knew that was wrong. He needed to appoint an African-American to the Supreme Court, and rightly so, because African-Americans need to be appointed to positions where they can protect other African-Americans. You need to say that you need to do that because we’re a racist society in which African-Americans still need that kind of protection.

So what if he had said, “I’m appointing Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court because we’re a racist society and we need to have African-Americans in positions of power where they can protect other African-Americans”? Would the American people have wanted to hear that? I don’t think so. So I don’t necessarily blame the politicians.

How can the church create zones for truth-telling for the kind of world in which we find ourselves? It would be an extraordinary contribution to our wider political life.

HOMILETICS: How can pastors preach Bonhoeffer as we come up on the 60th anniversary of his death?

HAUERWAS: Well, first, they need to read him! You can’t preach him without reading him. I think they don’t read. Part of the problem is that so many of the clergy don’t read anything at all anymore.

HOMILETICS: So when we read Bonhoeffer we read Discipleship, and Letters and Papers. Maybe we should read the Ethics.

HAUERWAS: Oh, you should definitely read the Ethics — though the Ethics is a very confusing and confused book because we don’t know how he meant it to go together. You can’t read Discipleship often enough. I think Life Together is also an absolutely beautiful book. And I would certainly go back to Sanctorum Communio. These new editions that Fortress is putting out are just absolutely wonderful. Extraordinary. I’ve just read the manuscript of Ethics that’s coming out soon. And they’ve done a superb job. So there are ample resources.

To read someone like Bonhoeffer or Barth, what you need to see is that they’re about helping us reclaim Christian grammar. Most of us don’t speak Christian grammar. We speak American, and we kind of fit the Christian into that. The question is, how can we learn to speak as Christians in a manner that our language is not overtaken by the presumption that Christianity is not about sustaining the freedom of the individual? In fact, Christianity is not at all about sustaining the freedom of the individual. It’s about the triumph of the Son of God through the cross and the resurrection.

HOMILETICS: Well, even Bonhoeffer when he got to Union was surprised at our American inability to articulate theologically.

HAUERWAS: He was shocked. He thought that Reinhold Neibuhr would be a theological resource. And he liked Neibuhr very much. I think Neibuhr was a thoroughly impressive man. But he had no use for his theology, because he saw it very clearly as a form of Protestant liberalism that he had little use for. He had left that behind at the University of Berlin, and he saw so much of it here in America. He didn’t think that was the way to go. He loved going with Frank Fisher to Adam Clayton Powell’s church in Harlem. What he liked so much about that was the unapologetic use of Christian speech. They talked about Jesus! That resonated deeply with him.

HOMILETICS: So what is the enduring relevance of Bonhoeffer for us today?

HAUERWAS: What a truthful witness looks like. It’s very hard for us to imagine. Bonhoeffer combined extraordinary acuity with a life faithfully lived. As such, it’s a gift he’s given us to contemplate his life and work in the hope that in some small way we may be worthy of witnessing to that kind of witness. His importance will only continue to grow.

HOMILETICS: Two more questions. Is there a sense in which we are different today after 9/11? You say in your book that our first reaction, or perhaps yours, was: “Let’s kill the bastards.”

HAUERWAS: We are a country mesmerized by fear. Death was brought to the American shore. It’s a reality Americans do not want to confront.

There’s a connection between the amount of money Americans spend on medicine and our reaction to 9/11. Both are attempts to deny that we’re not going to get out of life alive.

America has become a much more repressive society after 9/11. If Americans have to choose between security and freedom, it’s very clear that Americans are going to choose security.

And we are so powerful. Americans don’t realize how powerful we are in the world. We’re going make the rest of the world pay for frightening us to death. It’s a very dark time. It’s a very dark time.

The worst thing that happened was the words, “We are at war.” September 11 was not war, it was murder. You want to arrest murderers. As soon as the words “We are at war” were said, it gave Bin Laden what he wanted. It made him a warrior. Before that, he was a murderer. Islamic people also abhor murder. And if we had kept the language within that range we would have had a better chance at securing the cooperation we needed from people who could actually do something.

Once you got war against terrorism as a metaphor, then it easily migrated to war in Afghanistan and then to war in Iraq — all under the cover of war against terrorism. I think it’s just a disaster. God knows what’s going to happen. I have nothing but the deepest sympathy for those young people in our armed forces who are in Iraq, who are thinking that every person coming on the street might try to kill them. What a terrible, terrible situation to be in.

HOMILETICS: You’ve decided to speak to preachers.

HAUERWAS: I have two books coming out. The first is called Cross-shattered Christ. It’s a meditation on the seven last words of Jesus. I found this to be one of the most demanding things I’ve done. I’ve tried to write the meditations reminding people, “This is about God.”

HOMILETICS: So are they sermons?

HAUERWAS: Meditations. It’s hard to know whether you can preach a sermon on the seven last words of Jesus, so I offered them as meditations.

What’s at the heart of them is an attempt to reclaim “This is God’s action on our behalf” in a way that avoids satisfaction accounts of the atonement. I think I’ve done that pretty well, as a matter of fact.

The other book is called Disquieting Time — a book of sermons and prayers and what I call “sundries” of short pieces I’ve written on people and preaching. There’s an essay in there on why Will Willimon never explains [laugher]. It’s a tribute to my friend’s preaching and shows how Will has an ingenious way of proclamation that never explains and why sermons that try to explain are dead.

HOMILETICS: Which reminds me of what you say in Performing the Faith in a chapter called “Explaining Nonviolence,” and the penultimate sentence of the chapter says that “contrary to the title of this essay, nonviolence cannot be explained.”

HAUERWAS: Right! Explanations are attempts to domesticate the wildness of God’s Spirit in a cause-and-effect model. You can’t explain God. If you think an explanation is possible, then you think that there’s some principle that is more determinative than God to explain God. One way to put it: People say, “Well how do I know that Jesus was raised from the dead?” I say, “If you need a theory of truth to explain that Jesus was raised from the dead, worship that theory, don’t worship Jesus!” It’s an attempt to avoid theological reductionistic accounts. And there are a lot of those out there. So both of these books are my attempt to exhibit how I think Christian preaching should look today.

I don’t regard myself as a great preacher in any way. I love to preach. Indeed, I always feel theologically freer when I preach than any time when I am doing my theological work exactly because I am under the obedience of the text.

HOMILETICS: You describe yourself as a reluctant pacifist. Is this because it took a lot to overcome your Texan machismo?

HAUERWAS: That’s part of it. Also, to be committed to Christian nonviolence changes everything. It makes life at once more challenging and more interesting, but also you’re not sure you want to have to think through all of that [laughs], and it also means you always have to remember the life of nonviolence is impossible if you are not willing to depend on other people to make your life a reality. It creates a vulnerability that no one likes to have. But it’s exactly what salvation is: vulnerability.

So I am a reluctant pacifist, as anyone should be. It doesn’t come naturally to anyone. We always find ourselves in violences we hardly know how to name. That’s why I don’t like the language of pacifism because it’s so passive. Nonviolence commits you to a very aggressive stance toward the world. I don’t like nonviolence because it makes it sound like whatever is peace is not violence. Part of the argument is that you never know how to recognize violence unless you’re already embedded in practices of peace.



Stanley Hauerwas

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