• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Wisdom from Bonhoeffer…for Everyone, Not Just Someone Else

I am conducting a seminar this semester on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s great work, Ethics. In preparing for a class next week, I came across a passage that so arrested me I thought I would set it out here. It’s long, even in the slightly truncated form I’m presenting it here, but I think you’ll find it electric as well.

I do not mean by setting out the following to imply any simple and absolute parallels between Bonhoeffer’s time and ours. But I do mean to listen to the wisdom he offered in his day in order to help me navigate the challenges of my own.

(I will add paragraphing here to make it easier to read in weblog form.)

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The message of God’s becoming human attacks the heart of an era when contempt for humanity or idolization of humanity is the height of all wisdom, among bad people as well as good. The weaknesses of human nature appear more clearly in a storm than in the quiet flow of calmer times.

Among the overwhelming majority of people, anxiety, greed, lack of independence, and brutality show themselves to be the mainspring of behavior in the face of unsuspected chance and threats. At such a time the tyrannical despiser of humanity easily makes use of the meanness of the human heart by nourishing it and giving it other names. Anxiety is called responsibility; greed is called industriousness; lack of independence becomes solidarity; brutality becomes masterfulness.

By this integration and treatment of human weaknesses, what is base and mean is generated and increased ever anew. The basest contempt for humanity carries on its sinister business under the most holy assertions of love for humanity. The meaner the baseness becomes, the more willing and pliant a tool it is in the hand of the tyrant.

The small number of upright people will be smeared with mud. Their courage is called revolt, their discipline Pharisaism, their independence arbitrariness, and their masterfulness arrogance.

For the tyrannical despiser of humanity, popularity is the sign of the greatest love for humanity. He hides his secret profound distrust of all people behind the stolen words of true community. While he declares himself before the masses to be one of them, he praises himself with repulsive vanity and despises the rights of every individual. He considers the people stupid, and they become stupid; he considers them weak, and they become weak; he considers them criminal, and they become criminal.

His most holy seriousness is frivolous play; his conventional protestations of solicitude for people are bare-faced cynicism. In his deep contempt for humanity, the more he seeks the favor of those he despises, the more certainly he arouses the masses to declare him a god.

Contempt for humanity and idolization of humanity live together.

Good people, however, who see through all this, who withdraw in disgust from people and leave them to themselves, and who would rather tend to their own gardens than debase themselves in public life, fall prey to the same temptation to contempt for humanity as do bad people. Their contempt for humanity is of course more noble, more upright, but at the same time less fruitful, poorer in deeds. Faced by God’s becoming human, this contempt will stand the test no better than that of the tyrant. The despiser of humanity despises what God has loved, despises the very form of God become human.

There is, however, also a sincerely intended love for humanity that amounts to the same thing as contempt for humanity. It rests on evaluating human beings according to their dormant values—the health, reasonableness, and goodness deep beneath the surface.…

With forced tolerance, evil is reinterpreted as good, meanness is overlooked, and the reprehensible is excused. For various reasons one shies away from a clear No, and finally agrees to everything. One loves a self-made picture of human beings that has little similarity to reality, and one ends up despising the real human being God has loved and whose being God has taken on.

Only because God became human is it possible to know and not despise real human beings. Real human beings may live before God, and we may let these real people live beside us and before God without either despising or idolizing them.

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(“Ethics as Formation,” in Ethics, ed. Clifford Green, 85-87). UPDATE: For those who would like a survey of Bonhoeffer’s thought particularly in terms of ethics, I can offer you a chapter’s worth in my Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World (OUP, 2008). And, if you’re a reader of “Comment” (and why wouldn’t you be?) my review of the latest, and best, Bonhoeffer biography is here.