Theology in Uncertain Times: An Interview with Bonhoeffer Scholar Victoria J. Barnett
Contemporary Church History Quarterly
Volume 24, Number 3 (September 2018)
“Theology in Uncertain Times: An Interview with Bonhoeffer Scholar Victoria J. Barnett”
By Collegeville Institute
This article was originally published in Bearings Online, July 17, 2018. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the Collegeville Institute. You can view the original interview here.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent those of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Victoria J. Barnett is a scholar who has served as a general editor of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, the English translation series of the theologian’s complete works, published by Fortress Press. She is the author of For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest against Hitler (Oxford University Press, 1992) and Bystanders: Conscience and Complicity during the Holocaust (Greenwood Press, 1999).
Barnett recently wrote a new introduction to Bonhoeffer’s essay After Ten Years. In this interview, the Collegeville Institute spoke with her about the resulting book, “After Ten Years”: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Our Times (Fortress Press, 2017).
You’ve written the introduction to a new edition of Bonhoeffer’s essay, After Ten Years. In the past that essay has usually appeared as a preface of sorts to Letters and Papers from Prison. Why a new edition of that particular essay now?
This is my favorite Bonhoeffer text, and I’ve thought for several years that it deserved to be published as a stand-alone edition. It’s so eloquent and powerful. As I wrote in my introduction, it is timeless—which is interesting, because it has such a concrete historical context. I don’t think it’s accidental many of the most-quoted passages from Bonhoeffer are from this essay. But to your question, why now?: We’re living in a time where many of us are wrestling collectively and individually with issues of conscience and our responsibilities as people of faith and as citizens. This essay goes to the heart of those issues.
Bonhoeffer addresses a wide range of issues in After Ten Years including the failure of German institutions, moral passivity and civic cowardice on the part of its citizens, the susceptibility of Germans to the influences of propaganda and group think, and more. Have you underlined a passage in the essay that you think is particularly worth highlighting? If you have, why does it catch your attention?
My favorite sentence in the essay comes from the section on “Some statements of faith on God’s action in history”: “I believe that our mistakes and shortcomings are not in vain and that it is no more difficult for God to deal with them than with our supposedly good deeds.”
It’s simultaneously a reminder for humility and against hopelessness—a reminder that while we may fall short and we don’t know what the outcome of our actions will be, that’s no reason to lose hope and it’s certainly no reason not to act. That perspective—don’t lose hope, take responsibility for whatever you can do, and don’t become paralyzed by doubt or your own failings—is the subtext of so much of this essay. Many other passages touch on it—think of the section “Are we still of any use?” It’s the aspect of the essay that moves me the most personally.
Bonhoeffer’s emotions seem unusually close to the surface in After Ten Years, even more so than in the letters he writes from prison. Do we learn anything about Bonhoeffer from this brief essay?
This kind of relates to what I was just talking about. I wouldn’t quite describe this essay as “whistling in the dark,” but he wrote it at a very uncertain time, and I get the sense that he was trying to clarify and strengthen his own resolve. The day-to-day pressures of those years must have taken their toll. In my own research I’ve found several accounts by people who knew Bonhoeffer who describe a certain emotional fragility (and of course Bonhoeffer himself wrote about his struggles with depression). I personally believe that’s one reason for his frequent trips out of Nazi Germany; he just had to get out and breathe free air for a little while. By late 1942 things were closing in—everywhere, not just in Bonhoeffer’s circles. Both for the victims of National Socialism and those who opposed it, the atmosphere in Berlin was grim on so many levels.
I’ll add another interesting note: last fall I happened to meet a US physician who had a long friendship with Eberhard Bethge (Bonhoeffer’s friend and biographer) and his wife Renate. This doctor shared with me an interview he did with Bethge, and I learned for the first time that Bonhoeffer’s father Karl read this letter to the entire family at Christmas 1942. That was news to me. After Ten Years has been understood as a confidential letter to his closest friends in the conspiracy, although Bethge does note in his biography that Bonhoeffer gave a copy to his father. It’s interesting if Bonhoeffer’s father shared this with the family—and this was an extraordinarily close family—and that makes me think more about the emotional undertone you mention.
I would add that Bonhoeffer wrote this between November 1942, when Maria von Wedemeyer’s family had asked him not to write her, and January 13, 1943, when she wrote to say that she would marry him. While there’s been a lot of speculation about their relationship, his January 17 response to her letter and the subsequent love letters between them do indicate some genuine emotional attachment—it’s as if their relationship opens a new door for him and he begins to envision a personal future in a way that he hadn’t before. So I agree with you; I think there’s a lot going on here.
In your introduction to the new edition you warn readers about the hazards of drawing simplistic historical analogies in general, and about the period of National Socialism in particular. Yet, aspects of political life in Bonhoeffer’s Germany seem to help many to gain insight into our own political situation, and, as you have said, you think a new edition of the work is timely. Are you, nevertheless, resistant to pointing to Bonhoeffer and his times as a useful historical analogue to our own? If so, why?
I think Bonhoeffer’s reflections in this essay hold many insights for us today, but I stumble over the phrase “useful historical analogue.” I don’t mean at all to minimize the significance of the xenophobia, hatred, and nationalism that we’re seeing in some parts of our society (and internationally as well), and threats to civil liberties and the free press should be taken very seriously. There are clearly people in our country and elsewhere today who draw inspiration from the history of Nazi Germany and that’s extremely disturbing. Frankly, however, I think we’re wrestling more with the demons of our own history than with German ones, and any response or solution we come up with has to address those demons.
The level on which historical analogies may be most useful is at the level of ordinary human behavior—and of course, to some extent that’s what Bonhoeffer is writing about in After Ten Years.The level on which historical analogies may be most useful is at the level of ordinary human behavior—and of course, to some extent that’s what Bonhoeffer is writing about in After Ten Years. I wrote a book several years ago about the issue of “bystanders,” in which I argued that the political and social dynamics by which certain groups are “otherized,” for example, or the processes by which ordinary people start out as “bystanders” but end up becoming complicit in evil, or the processes by which we rationalize such complicity, or the processes by which bureaucrats and institutions get co-opted, tend to be very similar, whatever the political circumstances.
My biggest concern is that a focus on comparisons to Nazi Germany may deflect our attention from the very American roots of much of what we’re seeing. This is hardly the first time in US history when racism, xenophobia, isolationism, nativism, and nationalism became powerful political forces. The Ku Klux Klan had a resurgence during the 1920s, and the antisemitism, racism, and anti-Catholicism of that era led to a dramatic rise in hate groups during the 1930s. Last summer Neo-Nazis and white supremacists convened in Charlottesville because of the city of Charlottesville voted to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee—a Confederate monument that was commissioned—like many Confederate monuments—during the Jim Crow era (the Lee statue was commissioned in 1917 and dedicated in 1924).
In addition to our ongoing struggles with racism and the legacy of slavery, we’re wrestling with other issues, like deeply clashing philosophies about centralized government vs. states’ rights, about regulation of corporations and businesses, about distribution of wealth. All that sounds very wonkish but these things have consequences not only politically but for our values as a civil society. Should the federal government be run like a corporation, and what does that mean for the ideals of public service or foreign policy? Should we privatize and outsource certain agencies (as has already happened with much of our prison system)? Do we want to live in a society where the rights of women, or immigrants, or gay or transgender individuals, or the poor, vary from state to state? Do we believe in having some kind of social safety net? Do we believe in having free access to information? All those things are on the table.
We could also draw on the long and rich tradition in our history of resistance by people like Elizabeth Stanton, Harriet Tubman, Dr. Martin Luther King, etc.—people who didn’t just fight against injustice but articulated a new language and vision for what our society can be.
So I think the key here is not to impose Nazi Germany as the template by which we measure what’s happening, but to bring Bonhoeffer’s insights into conversation with those voices in US history who have spoken to similar issues in our context. That’s why at the end of my introductory essay for this edition of After Ten YearsI mention Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and Abraham Heschel’s No Religion is an Island. Those texts, like Bonhoeffer’s essay, acknowledge the reality of social and political evil but in a provocative and challenging way that appeals to our better selves.
Sorry this has turned into such a long answer, but as you can see I think a lot about these things.
As an editor of the English translation of Bonhoeffer’s complete works, the editor and reviser of the first unabridged English edition of Eberhard Bethge’s monumental biography of Bonhoeffer, a historian of the German church under National Socialism, and as a Bonhoeffer scholar in your own right, you must have read nearly every known word the man wrote. Can you point to some ways that this prolonged and detailed exposure to Bonhoeffer has affected you?
This certainly wasn’t planned! When I wrote my first book on the Confessing Church I deliberately focused on the “non-Bonhoeffers” because I felt that there was already enough literature on Bonhoeffer. Oh, well.
I’d say that for all the differences between his world and perspective and my own, I’ve come to see him as a reliably thoughtful conversation partner, especially with regard to how we Christians think about our role as citizens. We tend to read him only as a theologian, but like all of us, he was a complex person who was shaped by many factors, one of which was the humanism and sense of public responsibility that characterized much of his family, and that resonates with me. This may sound odd, but I also feel almost a tenderness about the poignancy of this young man and his brief life.
There were moments throughout the Bonhoeffer project, often in one of his letters, when I would suddenly get a deeper glimpse of the person and that was always moving. When you spend years looking at the close-up, sometimes daily, record of someone’s life, you’re reminded constantly how short our life on this earth is, and how little control we have over much of what happens to us.
Just as various divergent Christian theological camps claim Reinhold Niebuhr as their own—there’s the conservative Niebuhr and the liberal Niebuhr—there is now a struggle over Bonhoeffer. Is he to be seen through the lens of evangelical Christianity in the US, or is he more appropriately placed in the tradition of progressive Christianity? What do you make of this tug of war?
First, I think this is a very US-specific phenomenon, and it’s been part of the Bonhoeffer story from the beginning. When Eberhard Bethge arrived at Harvard in 1958 to work on the biography, he commented that “everyone here has his own Bonhoeffer.” That’s partly due to the drama of Bonhoeffer’s life story and partly due to his ability to write about the meaning and challenges of Christian faith in the modern world in a language that speaks to Christians, whether they are evangelicals or liberal mainline Protestants. So everyone likes to claim him but they take the story and his theological significance in different directions.
Politically, his attitudes are pretty clear. He was very outspoken during his time in the US about our problems with racism and horrified by the treatment of African Americans, including the lynchings of that era. In February 1933 when the new Nazi government started targeting its political opponents he wrote Reinhold Niebuhr that Germany needed a Civil Liberties Union. He urged his church to speak out for those who were targeted and powerless. He offered an immediate and unambiguous critique of the Christian nationalism that was embraced by so many German Protestants.
Theologically, he’s complex and doesn’t fit neatly on one side or the other of our American religio-culture wars. There are certain texts that resonate more for mainline Protestants and others that resonate deeply among evangelicals. Bonhoeffer writes about the daily practices of faith, and he also writes about the centrality of social justice as a core part of Christian discipleship. But you know, all these texts were written by the same man, and I wonder whether we might be able to have a different kind of conversation about Bonhoeffer if we acknowledged that and tried to read him on his terms, not ours. The fact that Bonhoeffer’s words resonate with so many people from very different Christian backgrounds should tell us something.
One of the biggest problems however is the hagiography. There’s a popular picture of Bonhoeffer as the leader of the Confessing Church, the one person who spoke out consistently against the persecution of the Jews, and the primary example of Christian witness against National Socialism—a general tendency to portray Bonhoeffer as the central figure in a clear-cut tale of good against evil. In fact, he was on the margins of his church and often struggled with what he should do. There are other Confessing Church figures whose record of resistance, especially during the 1930s, is much clearer than his. The wartime resistance circles in which he moved were a very complicated group. That’s one reason why I tried to give some critical historical details in my introduction to After Ten Years, including the fact that the German resistance included some people who would have been tried for war crimes had they survived. These weren’t all heroic figures who rose up against a system they had always hated; many of the high-ranking generals and bureaucrats who were in a position to overthrow the regime had been very much a part of the Nazi system.
Is there anything important, in your view, that biographers and commentators on Bonhoeffer are missing?
I think we need to recover the person behind the hagiography.We’ve been sifting and re-sifting the same material for decades now, and the time has come to step outside the material in the Bonhoeffer Works—that is, outside the Bethge narrative—if we really want to discover something new. I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re not going to get new biographical or historical insights into Bonhoeffer unless we do that, and I suspect that such research might also give us some new insights into his theology.
There’s now this vast literature about Nazi Germany, the role of the churches, the Holocaust, and many fascinating but overlooked contemporaries of Bonhoeffer. Exploring Bonhoeffer’s life through that broader lens might give us some new information, and it could also be a corrective to some of the things we’ve gotten wrong. As full disclosure, I should add that I’m writing a new book on Bonhoeffer in which I’m attempting to explore his significance from that outside perspective. And I’ve come across quite a bit of new material, some of which has surprised me and is leading me to rethink my own assumptions. So I guess I’m not done yet.