Not illegitimately, we tend to view Bonhoeffer's life and work through the crystallizing lens of his death as a martyr under the National Socialist government in Germany. For those less familiar with him, Bonhoeffer was a theologian, a pastor, a leader in the Confessing Church movement under National Socialism, active in the global ecumenical movement, and in the end, a double agent and conspirator against the Nazis. He was imprisoned and put to death at the age of 39, within the final weeks of Allied victory against the Nazis in World War II.
It's easy to paint him in the glossy brushstrokes of a hero. Heroes are also easier to appropriate for ourselves. Their stories are more clay-like in our hands than we admit, and simultaneously glittery and golden; we hope that some of the glitter rubs off on us. As one friend of mine rightly put it: "We love to love Bonhoeffer," and thus we must be careful how we "use" his life. We must be on guard for the neat terms of a heroic retelling, for falsifying shadows. But making sense of a life in the context of its messy present, even at a historical distance, can issue a witness to us. This phenomenon is true for Bonhoeffer's legacy as well.
Of course, Bonhoeffer did not live his life self-conscious of his being or becoming a kind of hero, although he lived and worked acutely aware of his responsibilities as a citizen and a Christian. No doubt his social class, education, and economic situation contributed mightily to that sense of responsibility. For as much as the strong undercurrent of condescension can accompany the noblesse oblige tradition, the concept at least retains some semblance of moral obligation and responsibility upon the powerful, wealthy, and privileged.
While Jesus himself reminds us that the poor will always be with us, the inverse is also true. There will always be powerful, wealthy, and privileged people. What matters is what we/they do with it. Or, let's put this in more accurate terms: to the degree that we, the living, the breathing, are privileged with life itself, we are reminded that we must do something with it; that judgment awaits.
Bonhoeffer seems to be not so consumed by his power, wealth, and privilege as he is of his sense of responsibility to others; Charles Marsh makes this important point in his biography of Bonhoeffer:
"Crisis had induced---at least in Bonhoeffer's case---a more generous vision of the righteous and the just. Still, there remained the practical question of who but 'the last gentlemen and gentlewomen of the era of Bismarck' would come to the defense of culture, humanity, justice, and reason. In this [Bonhoeffer] was appearing to a different German tradition and value system, one entirely familiar to his fellow conspirators and their elite families. His appeal was to a time-honored sense of noblesse oblige. In this turn from the phraseological to the real, Bonhoeffer was proposing less the sacrifice of privilege than its reorganization on a higher plane. The conspiracy could only be led by the aristocrats, not of blood but of responsibility" (315).Bonhoeffer had to make sense of his moment in time -- the terms, the events, and the figures; the crises -- with all available light and wisdom. The same is true for us. We are born and bound in by history, and we struggle to make sense of the terms, the events, and the figures. We hand-wring, pray, give, and succumb to the frustrations of the crises. But in all of it, we either embrace the responsibility of our humanity, our moral debts to our fellow man (in the most robust, fulsome meaning of that word) or we lay it down. The late, great Elshtain once quoted Václav Havel, the Czech playwright and president, "The secret of man is the secret of his responsibility." And with Bonhoeffer in mind, perhaps we could say that those who truly embrace their responsibilities are those who have become truly human.
But then and now, we see through a glass, darkly (1 Cor 13:12), but that does not mean we can see nothing at all. The image of God is not so fallen; we are not so helpless. There are still some among us that have a dim awareness that we are responsible.
Two days after Hitler took office, a nearly 27-year old Dietrich Bonhoeffer took to the radio to give an address on a concept extant in German social thought called "The Führer Principle."
And here was must pause. Of course, now, the very word "Führer" is a byword for the evil figurehead of the Nazi regime, but it simply means "leader" in German. It is not now used in political contexts. Its simple on-its-face meaning cannot be washed of its historical significance; indeed, it should not be washed. The stain is indelible. And yet, in common parlance, one will hear the word used from time to time as part of compound nouns like a "tour guide" or a "travel guide" (e.g., Reiseführer; OK - actually, for me, Reiseführerin, but you get the idea). When I offer a tour of the Bonhoeffer Haus to visitors, I am leading them, guiding them, and acting in that capacity.
Bonhoeffer's message was an early--indeed one of the earliest--public criticisms of Hitler after his consolidation of power, and the incisive theory he offered was critical and remains so today. Knowing the term Führer as "leader" in German, and not as simply "Hitler" is critical to hearing better what Bonhoeffer says. He warns of a leader who allows himself to be made an idol of the people, or who cultivates worship for himself and for his office, the conjoining of the man and the office, becomes a "misleader" -- literally, someone who misleads, in the the way we understand con-artists, liars, Pied Pipers, and manipulators -- and in German that word is "Verführer." That person, enthroned as idol, mocks God.
The pattern is rather commonplace, and it is important to see how it plays out theoretically. Authority makes other authority possible, and good authority will point to and recognize, honor, and support the authority of others. A true leader sees that in the shade of their leadership, they support the authority of others. We may call them "lesser authorities," but they are truly endowed with authority. A true leader isn't consumed with their power, their own leadership. Rather, their leadership serves these other leaders, whether these are parents, teachers, judges, community leaders -- anyone shouldering responsible care and guidance to people.
But a misleader will be consumed with their own power, will find themselves perpetually threatened by lesser authorities, ever-thirsty for greater draughts of pure power. They seek consolidation of power. They are enthralled with their own narrative rather than a larger one involving communities and other authorities. The misleader demands ever greater forms of servitude to their power, to their aggrandizing narrative, ever more offerings of loyalty, ever more sacrificial assurances of other leaders' non-threat to their power. Anyone who commands attention that deviates from the misleader is seen as a threat; the spotlight must always return to him, the glory must finally rest on him.
Ironically, the misleader also eschews responsibility even as he slavishly hopes to accumulate more power. He pushes responsibility off onto others, so inert is he in his own idolatry; so enthralled with his own power that he cannot embrace its concomitant responsibilities. Read Pilate's words to the crowd in Matt 27; disoriented and drunk on his own power, Pilate washes his hands of Jesus's blood, declaring in utter self-delusion to the crowd, as he issues his verdict, "It is your responsibility!"
The misleader misleads because he is, fundamentally, the misled, the conned, the confused. It is too easy to simply heap blame upon the misleader, for the symbiosis, the spiritual co-dependency, between the misleader and misled is complete. Each have called forth the other into being. Both have a duty to one another: it is the leader's burden to push off the expectations of idol-making by a people, and it is the people's responsibility to refuse to make of him an idol, to hand him their worship. It is the leader's moral burden to point back to the myriad places where human authority, human responsibility, makes life good; it is the burden of the led to refuse worship if and when it is demanded. This boundary-keeping can be exhausting, but it is essential.
This misleader mocks God, as Bonhoeffer describes it, because, chiefly, he refuses to see that any power he has been permitted to hold for a blip of time is on loan from God. In his foolishness, to the deafening adoration of crowds of people, he has forgotten that he is a lesser authority, that being thus authorized he is the chief servant, responsible to many, and ultimately accountable to God. Jesus himself offers this warning to Pilate, witnessing to his own authority -- which leads him in service and love to the cross -- and to Pilate's own predicament about his temporal power (John 19:11): "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above." That does not mean that Pilate is to be worshipped, as if his authorization was akin to divinity. It means that he is to be refused worship because he is a lesser authority; there is an authority greater still.
Romans 13 is often invoked to cudgel and corral Christians into refraining from criticizing a leader. It is a passage I am very glad Bonhoeffer understood rightly and fulfilled well, issuing as he did such a prophetic witness for his time, a witness that reverberates into our modern era. True authority will arrive in forms of service, a reluctance to power and its corruption, a refusal to accept and give false worship, a constant discipline against accruing for oneself what is only to be given to God.
Ultimately, we see what true authority looks like in Jesus, the only one who both in his person and in his office is due worship. The gospels depict Jesus as reluctant to be crowned, slipping away from crowds that sought to craft him in their image, to make of him an idol for their own uses. He maintained disciplines of prayer, solitude, and service that were inimical to the accrual of power, and thereby he depicted his true authority. He didn't set about to get mobs foaming at the mouth for him, and yet, he drew vast crowds by his teachings, his miracles, and his manifest authority which was unlike those wielded by other religious leaders and politicians. True authority recognizes others, endows them, and lifts them up. We who have been authorized by the King of Kings must embrace that authorization in the only way we are permitted to: in humility, in service, and in embracing our many responsibilities to be his kingdom agents, even if that involves suffering, ridicule, and death. In John's gospel, Jesus in his glory was Jesus on the cross. Our noblest obligation, our highest privilege, our only allegiance and obedience and adoration, is to him.
Bonhoeffer's 1933 radio address was cut off before he could finish it. No matter, he went on to publish and distribute it. This is the behavior of one authorized by Christ.