A Deafening Silence
Bonhoeffer’s Germany, Part Four
“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”
(Edmund Burke, 1729-1797)
The phrase “a deafening silence,” gets used a good bit these days, usually to describe a situation when something ought to be said but isn’t. But on the evening of February 1, 1933. a “deafening silence” really did echo across Germany, when toward the end of a radio broadcast given by a young professor, Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, suddenly listeners experienced what those in the broadcasting world call “dead air.”
The broadcast suddenly and, at the most crucial moment in Bonhoeffer’s speech, went silent.
We can only imagine the confusion as families were gathered around their radios in their sitting rooms, in those days when the radio was still both a large piece of furniture and a big part of most people’s lives, listening to the young scholar earnestly speaking on a subject of considerable interest to many listeners.
His argument had unfolded step-by-step, reasonably, rationally. He was just reaching the climax of his address. He was just about to make the critical point. He was about to raise the concern for which he had carefully set the stage, trying to earn credibility with his audience before raising the alarm.
Then. Suddenly. Nothing. Dead air.
To this day, it remains unclear exactly what happened in the control room of the broadcast center. Even Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s student, close friend and biographer, couldn’t discover what really occurred that night. But, whatever happened, whoever pulled the plug on the radio broadcast, and for whatever reason they did so, the broadcast of Bonhoeffer’s speech on the topic “The Younger Generation’s Altered View of the Concept of Führer” came to an abrupt halt before Bonhoeffer could utter the most provocative words in his script.
His listeners that evening never heard those final words which we can now read.
In the closing sentences of his address, Bonhoeffer wanted to warn his listeners that if a national leader surrenders “to the wishes of his followers, who would always make him their idol – then the image of the Leader will gradually become the image of the ‘misleader’ … Leaders or offices which set themselves up as gods mock God.”*
Bonhoeffer’s address was really quite conservative. It was also deeply critical. He raised questions about why youth in Germany at that particular historical moment placed so much hope in a “strong leader,” allowing their enthusiasm to be transformed from a political movement to a personality cult.**
Whenever he communicated, Bonhoeffer’s message was theological, even when he examined social, cultural and political matters. But his theological message was never abstracted from the human arena.
Anyone who has read Bonhoeffer’s doctoral dissertation, “Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church” (1930), for example, will know that, for Bonhoeffer, there was no impermeable firewall between theology and the so-called “secular disciplines” such as sociology and history.
When Bonhoeffer took up consideration of a theological question, he refused to ignore the human and social dimensions of that question. To understand Bonhoeffer’s theological reflections, one must be prepared to allow theology to touch the ground. And, conversely, it is helpful in understanding Bonhoeffer’s social, cultural and political remarks (such as his radio address) to examine also his explicitly theological statements.
Roughly at the same time that Bonhoeffer was wrestling with the subject of his radio address, the ways in which the youth of Germany were thinking about the “Führer,” Bonhoeffer also wrote a fascinating theological essay: “Thy Kingdom Come! The Prayer of the Church-Community for God’s Kingdom on Earth.”
As one can tell from the title of this essay, it is a theological text about a fundamental act of faith: prayer, specifically the prayer of the Christian community. The essay, in which the full range of Bonhoeffer’s extraordinary mind is on display, from biblical interpreter to philosopher, culminates in passages of crystalline clarity, stripped of all technical jargon, words simple and direct. He writes:
“The kingdom of God is found not in some other world beyond but in our midst. It seeks our obedience despite contradictory appearances, and then it constantly seeks, through our obedience, the miracle, like lightening allowed to flash from the perfect, blessed world of the final promise. On Earth, God seeks to be honored by us in the other, and nowhere else. God plants his kingdom in the cursed ground. We must open our eyes, become sober, obey God here.”***
Bonhoeffer believed that our faith in God is a matter of life and death. Bonhoeffer believed, in fact, that our faith in God is even more important than that. He believed it is of eternal consequence. And he would not allow talk about such things as “eternity” or “eternal consequence” or even “God’s kingdom” to float off into the stratosphere of abstractions.
Our love for God is demonstrated in the ways we treat other human beings, most especially those from whom we have nothing to gain, those with whom we have little or nothing in common, the powerless, the outsiders, the strangers, the vulnerable, the forgotten, the hated and the despised. Either we love them, or we don’t love God.
The reign of God changes us in the here-and-now because to speak of God’s reign is to speak of the ways in which God demands our ultimate allegiance in this life. The ultimate allegiance which God demands of us takes the concrete shape of love, not an emotion, nor some thin affection, but a living commitment “to be for the other” no matter what the cost.
“On Earth, God seeks to be honored by us in the other, and nowhere else,” writes Bonhoeffer. If Bonhoeffer had uttered those words from his “Thy Kingdom Come!” essay on the radio, let’s say at the beginning of the radio address, I wonder how long he would have remained on the air. In some ways, this explicitly theological message speaks even more directly to his contemporary situation than his radio address did. But, the concern in both the radio address and the essay was the peril of idolatry, worshipping that which is not God in place of God, allowing that which should never claim our ultimate allegiance to shape all our actions and attitudes.
Whom we worship is synonymous with whom we serve. And whom we serve determines who we are.
Bonhoeffer was observing the fundamental problem of turning over our ultimate allegiance, which properly belongs only to God, to any human leader. Whatever fear and insecurity, uncertainty and resentment drove the youth (and others) of his day to surrender their allegiance to a human “Führer,” the outcome would never live up to the promises. Human idols have a way of ushering in demonic reigns.
It is striking to note the scarlet thread that runs through Bonhoeffer’s life and thought from his first days as a preacher and teacher to his last days as a political prisoner. I have often wondered what it must have been like for this gregarious and kind young man, who loved music from the most formal Bach chorales to the lively gospel anthems he heard in the churches of Harlem, New York, who loved conversation and the free flow of ideas, to endure the months and years of incarceration.
The reports of him in prison are of a person engaged fully in his vocation even behind bars. I mean his “vocation” in the strictest sense of the term, as his “calling” to follow Jesus Christ. This vocation, for Bonhoeffer, trumped every other claim on his own allegiance. And this vocation kept shaping him as a person, kept expanding his love for others, including his enemies, even in the midst of oppression, even in the shadow of the scaffold.
“The church is the church only when it exists for others.”**** So Bonhoeffer wrote in one of his last communications from prison.
Existing “for others” is what it means to be like Jesus of Nazareth. Not to exist “for others” is to deny Christ. Thus, if some “Führer,” some “strong leader” or some political idol sculpted and crafted by human hands comes along and tells us that our prosperity, security or national future can be secured by demeaning, destroying, torturing and vilifying others – strangers, aliens, foreigners, immigrants, outsiders – the Christian’s choice isn’t all that hard to figure out.
It may cost a very great deal to make that choice. But, however much it may cost to make the choice, it costs infinitely more to avoid.
*Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, revised edition, 2000), pp. 259-260.
**Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Younger Generation’s Altered a View of the Concept of Fuhrer,” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Berlin: 1932-1933, Works, Volume 12, Larry Rasmussen, editor (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), pp. 266-268.
***Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Thy Kingdom Come,” Berlin: 1932-1933, p. 295.
**** Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1972), p. 382.