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The Political Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel
An international congress on Bonhoeffer's political thought at Sigtuna, Sweden, reminds us how he spoke from the perspective of the crucified.
By Ed Knudson
Four years ago I started an article about a conference on the political theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer which was to occur the summer of 2012. I never finished the article but through a glich in my website the draft versions of articles can be viewed by others and this article has been viewed over 1600 times. Apparently there is some interest in Bonhoeffer. I am here quickly adjusting the article for now.
The title of the conference included "a spoke in the wheel" and I said that we need more attention to this idea in the United States these days. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 the United States has come to think of itself as the only significant power in the world, an "empire" which thinks it can do whatever it wants in the world, even if that is leading to more and more war and violence especially in the Middle East, and even though climate change is threatening the very future of the earth.
So we need right now more attention on the idea of a "Spoke in the Wheel," a phrase from Bonhoeffer referring to throwing a wrench into the wheel of the state machine to slow it down and cause it to fail. The machine he had in mind, of course, was the state fascism of Adolf Hitler which was doing such terrible damage to the people of Germany, to the Jews and others including gays and persons with disabilities sent to concentration camps, and to other nations of Europe as Hitler sought to create a Third Reich empire through military conquest. For Bonhoeffer the spoke in the wheel was the resistance movement in which he decided to participate, an attempt to actually kill Hitler, the so-called head of state at the time. The attempt failed and Bonhoeffer was rounded up with others and hanged a few days before the end of the war.
For this political act Bonhoeffer gave up his life. It was a witness to his faith. And this is one reason his thinking about theology has continued to be so important down to the present day. Among the major theologians of the 20th century, such as Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, it is Bonhoeffer who has continued to have the most attention and interest. But it is not only because of his courage to take a political action that he should be remembered, it is also the quality of his thought, his understanding of Jesus Christ at the center of the life of the world, his focus on the "church for others" following Jesus to the Cross.
Almost alone it was Bonhoeffer who declared that the church must be in solidarity with the Jews then being crucified in the camps. Even the Barmen Declaration, the brave statement of the Confessing Church in Germany, did not speak up specifically against the holocaust. This has been an important factor in my own theological understanding, in my views of the role of the church in the world. The church, the true church, is that body which stands with those who are oppressed by the state and other corporate institutions of the world, those who are being crucified as Jesus was crucified those many years ago. It is fundamentally a political meaning of the cross, not just a personal but a social meaning. It is not just an ethics, but part of the fundamental identity of the church and being a Christian. Anyone who reads even a little about Jesus in the gospels must see that Jesus hangs around with people otherwise excluded by society, the abused and the poor are invited to the banquet. He has nothing good to say about oppressive institutions, especially religious leaders. In the power of the same spirit, Martin Luther fiercely attacked a Roman Church which had become an oppressive religious institution in the 16th century, dominating and terrorizing the hearts and minds and lives of the people at the time. And in that same spirit Bonhoeffer publicly declared that Jews were our brothers and sisters and his total opposition to the Nazi government's policies and practices.
Seeing the world from the perspective of the cross means to see reality from the perspective of the crucified. The cross is, then, a source of knowledge. It is an epistomology (how one knows) as I have just been reminded in a book by Lutheran theologian Vitor Westhelle, The Scandalous God: The Use and Abuse of the Cross. This has influenced my choice of reading over the last several decades including non-Christians who look at the world "from below" such as Michel Foucault and Georgio Agamben.
French philosopher Michel Foucault (died 1984) writes about the history of modern institutions from the perspective of those supposedly served by them, about the mentally ill, the sick, those in prison, about sexual minorities. More recently I have been impressed with the writings of Georgio Agamben, his notion of "bare life", life excluded from participation in community, life unworthy to be even killed or sacrificed, life as in the concentration camps. Modern western economic and political systems are creating massive numbers of "surplus populations" around the globe, especially around or within major cities, real human beings who are judged to be worthless to the dominating systems, refuse of the earth. If you don't want to believe this just read the book Planet of Slums by Mike Davis, or consider the fact that in this country right now there are 20 million persons unemployed but the primary political debate is whether millionaires should be given a large tax break. It is impossible to see the truth about an economic or political system unless one is willing to view it from the perspective of those being crucified by it. It is no little thing, this view from the cross.
So a "public theology" written from the perspective of the mighty and the powerful will be very different from one written from the perspective of the crucified. And that's one of the reasons the political theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has remained so interesting to people. He writes on behalf of those who were crucified by the Nazi state.
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