We Americans have fashioned many Dietrich Bonhoeffers for ourselves in the decades since the German theologian was put to death at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in 1945. In The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump, Rhodes College professor Stephen R. Haynes offers a survey of the varied interpretations of that remarkable man, excavating the ways his name and legacy have been used—and too often misused—in American public discourse. Haynes holds up a mirror and asks, “Who do we need Bonhoeffer to be? And how is this need affected by the way ‘we’ define ourselves and the threats we face?” In other words, the battle is not really for Bonhoeffer, and the image in the mirror is our own.
Of course, with words like “battle” and “age of Trump” right there on the cover, this book crosses territory rich in minefields. Like an embedded journalist feverishly filing stories from the front, Haynes writes knowing that he cannot fully account for all the Bonhoeffer-ing happening around him, especially in our undulating political times. But because Bonhoeffer is employed for all kinds of ends in American political discourse, and his legacy used to burnish others’ public profiles, Haynes balances a commitment to the protocols of the academy with a burden of responsibility to speak directly to our current political moment.
History and Hagiography
In the first part of the book, Haynes recounts the history of Bonhoeffer’s reception by the American public through sketches he amassed in his 2004 volume The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon. He revisits and updates those earlier types, including the liberal, the radical, the evangelical, and the universal Bonhoeffer. To these Haynes adds a new sketch—the “populist Bonhoeffer.” (More on this later.) Most illuminating for me was Haynes’s discussion about Jewish evaluations of Bonhoeffer’s legacy, especially that he has been reviewed by Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust memorial) and refused recognition as a “righteous Gentile,” a term reserved for those who took extraordinary personal risk to save Jews.
Haynes devotes a full chapter to the history of how American evangelicals have received Bonhoeffer. While they tend to be familiar with the pastor’s devotional writings (likeThe Cost of Discipleship or Life Together), Bonhoeffer’s university lectures, sermons, and his later prison letters (where, for instance, he mulls over his idea of “religionless Christianity”) presented real obstacles for evangelicals in the late 20th century. These theological concerns faded, however, as his life story became more widely known, feeding a steadily growing focus on his resistance work against the Nazis. Evangelicals creatively engaged his story in documentary films, an award-winning radio drama, and even a Christian romance novel in which, writes Haynes, “Bonhoeffer serves as the main character’s spiritual inspiration.”
Having sought himself to make Bonhoeffer’s life and thought accessible to general readers—with Lori Brandt Hale, he co-authored the Bonhoeffer edition of the Armchair Theologian series—Haynes acknowledges value in some of the quirky ways Bonhoeffer’s life has been interpreted for American evangelical audiences. Although he prefers history to hagiography, naming certain popular treatments with that derisive term, his posture is not one of an arrogant academic trying to raise the guild’s drawbridge from storming peasants.
Bonhoeffer’s name gained an even wider dissemination in American political discourse, Haynes notes, following the terror attacks of 9/11 and the growth of the internet as a means of communication. Politicians, public theologians, and other cultural leaders drew on Bonhoeffer with greater frequency, and urgency, in the post-9/11 national debate. Bonhoeffer was invoked both in support of and in opposition to the 2003 war with Iraq. Critics of the war referred to him again as the war continued far longer than the Bush administration anticipated. Online media elevated Bonhoeffer to a wider range of Americans. (And now, in the age of social media, misattributed quotes are often superimposed on photographs of his face, which are then traded as virtue-signaling currency.) For wherever Bonhoeffer stands as an imagined brother-in-arms for one’s side, the other side is, well, Hitler.
That form of inflammatory rhetoric was fanned hotter during the Obama administration, when conservative Christians, feeling politically and culturally embattled, drew heavily on Nazi-era terms as a means of making sense of the moment and calling the faithful to urgent political battles. For example, the public’s and courts’ changing views on homosexuality and marriage law represented “Gestapo-like” threats to religious liberty. Amidst this maelstrom, Eric Metaxas first stepped onto the Bonhoeffer interpretation stage in conjunction with the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, a joint statement from Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Christians on abortion, marriage, and religious liberty. Metaxas compared it to the Barmen Declaration, issued in 1934 to denounce German churches that had meekly submitted to Nazi ideology.
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Source: Christianity Today