So this week, for my Christian Ethics class, we were asked to watch one of three films about the Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I was obligated to go for the only one that was free, on youtube, titled or found after a search labled as Bonhoeffer.
Here is what I was asked:
What is the most salient part of Bonhoeffer’s life and thought for you? How would you see yourself sharing this with your community of faith?
Honestly, I am not sure what to do with this question. Having watched Bonhoeffer, my first moment of total disconnect occurred when his Jewish relatives were grousing about ‘deception’ in their false papers to leave Germany. The next occurred in the (however brief) ethical struggle Bonhoeffer appeared to have over A) lying to the government and B) assassinating Hitler. By ‘disconnect’ I mean yelling at the movie and pausing it to search for the other films on option for this week (I was unable to find or view them). And the disconnect involved some spontaneous, if not necessarily kind, dark humor.
Jews trying to flee Germany were trying to flee Germany. Lying to the Nazis, I would respectfully argue, was not even a tertiary concern for someone who needed to escape that kind of genocidal insanity. It would not have been a concern at all for me and in fact I hope I would always have the spine and the facility to lie to any human being seeking the death and destruction of other human beings be it in Nazi Germany, Peru, Guatemala or South Africa. My only priority would have been to lie effectively. And while I agree with the combat veterans who have nurtured and protected and taught me all my life, that I have no way of knowing what I would do in a killing scenario, I would volunteer to kill Hitler any day of the week. This includes any eventuality of having to actually do it myself. Could I? I cannot say 100%. Would I try? Hell, yes.
I am an ethnic Jew. I am alive today, and my family is alive today because while we descend from Prussian Jews, my grandmother was born in the US. Here is, from my compiled understanding of a variety of sources, what would have happened if she had been born in her grandmother’s native Prussia.
- Declaration under the “racial purity” laws that my great grandmother and grandmother were Jews.
- Various penalties on my great-grandfather (Episcopalian) and my grandfather (Roman Catholic) for marrying and producing children with Jews.
- Deportation of my grandmother, my Aunt Carole—a toddler in 1939—and my mom, either a newborn or “in utero” as it were (Mom was born in 39) to a concentration camp. Possibly deportation of my grandfather and great grandfather but that is a murky area.
- Immediate ‘selection’ upon arrival at death camp. As a pregnant or nursing mother with a second small child that (almost always) meant instant execution, either shooting, primitive gas chamber, or an ‘advanced’ gas chamber and crematorium system.
And I would not be here engaged in the pursuit of ministry. I would not be here trying to work past what I must confess as a sort of dismissal of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I would never have been born at all, nor would my cousins, or my uncle.–And if my husband had been born 15 years earlier, he would have been murdered at birth because of his heart condition.
I have debated posting this particular response. I understand that hindsight is 20/20. I also understand that Bonhoeffer stood up for what he believed was right (please forgive my massive and shameless simplification) and died a painful and humiliating death for it. I do not want to dismiss him, or undervalue his contributions to Christianity. I find myself with a great deal of respect and humility towards a man who, at least in his portrayals, tried to live and die as Christ would have—which was different from the way that many Christians survived World War II in Germany.
And, I truly beg forgiveness for belaboring this: I am not a Christian. As a pagan, as a woman, as an ethnic Jew and an ethnic Celt, I think I might well draw more ‘salient’ figures and their example before my congregation some day—some of them Christian, some of them not. Hypatia of Alexandria, Harriet Tubman, the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Hannah Sezenes who parachuted behind axis lines as saboteurs, spies and resistance fighters—few of her compatriots survived.1 Yet, as a Druid, and a UU I have a joint obligation to remember and share Bonhoeffer’s story because both those hearts of my religious belief place enormous importance on preserving history, sharing history, the right of conscience, and the inherent worth and dignity of every soul. So how would I ever be right in dismissing or belittling Bonhoeffer’s stand on opposing Hitler and the Nazi’s? But how do I fully relate to his moral compunctions because while I respect them, lying and assassination would have been acceptable factors with me in terms of resisting Hitler?
So I feel conflicted because especially when viewed through a modern cinematic attempt (at what, I think remains debatable; this was not a good film), the most salient aspect of Bonhoeffer’s life is both incredibly profound and appreciated—standing up to Hitler at the cost of his freedom and life. Yet in comparison to what even Anne Frank and her family endured, in comparison to resistance by the enslaved or marginalized before World War II and during, I know there are other stories I would almost always share with a congregation before Bonhoeffer’s.