"The huge masquerade of evil has thrown all ethical concepts into confusion. That evil should appear in the form of light, good deeds, historical necessity, social justice is absolutely bewildering for one coming from the world of ethical concepts that we have received. For the Christian who lives by the Bible, it is the very confirmation of the abysmal wickedness of evil." ----Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a theologian -- an academic; a Lutheran. It's not the likeliest description of one predisposed to public activism -- at least in our usual stereotype. We more likely picture classrooms and libraries and lofty lectures and papers. Certainly there are and have always been noisy exceptions, but I suspect that Bonhoeffer would not have included himself among them. He was a pastor, a prolific writer on the spiritual life; he was a musician and wrote fiction and poetry.
But the spine anchoring all those other descriptions was his faithfulness. His most famous book, after all, is titled, The Cost of Discipleship.
Bonhoeffer read the prophetic calls for a different relationship with each other and God -- one that finds treasure in the diverse uniqueness of every part of creation, and welcomes the stranger along with the outcast; one that embraces and enfleshes the divine purpose in love -- and took them to heart. He watched and took as exemplary Jesus' way in the world, internalizing his teachings about the least, the lost and the last; and was convicted by Jesus' willingness to lose himself on behalf of those he loved.
And so it was that he "left the classroom," so to speak. Unlike most of us -- myself included -- who mutter among our friends or mouth off on Facebook from time to time and call it enough, Bonhoeffer got to the end of his rope with the "huge masquerade of evil" that had "thrown all ethical concepts into confusion" and confronted that evil with his life. Joining a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, in whom he came to believe that masquerade of evil had become embodied, Bonhoeffer was eventually imprisoned when the plot failed, housed in a concentration camp, and ultimately brought quite literally to the end of his rope; executed by hanging at the ripe old age of 39.
I quite frankly don't know what to do with Bonhoeffer's example. I won't backseat drive his choices. I wasn't there; I wasn't in the thick of it. It was, indeed, a despicable, dehumanizing time. It's impossible to condone assassination, but then I suspect he, under other circumstances, wouldn't either. And yet there he was, choosing what I have to imagine seemed to him to be a lesser evil to overcome one still greater.
And then I wonder what his counsel would be today when it feels, for all the world, like the "huge masquerade of evil" has thrown everything, not merely ethical concepts, into even greater confusion? What would he say, and more importantly, what would he do?
At the very least he would speak the truth as the gospel had trained him to see it. Since he did so in his own moment I have no doubt that he would caution, indeed chastise, those in ours who elevate patriotism over discipleship -- or dare to conflate the two. He would condemn those would build walls in protection of their own at the expense of those who have nothing left to protect. He would scoff at our collective celebration of flash and fizz; our contentment with facade; our capitulation to empty and paternalistic promises. He would recoil at the deification of "economic forces" and tribal allegiances and would weep at the trivialization and contamination of our "life together."
If, as he once said, "The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children," ours would almost certainly earn a failing grade. We eat garbage. We talk trash. This once-noble experiment in governance and culture on different and better terms is bequeathing our children a fetid inheritance.
As our calendar inexorably shoves us toward July 4 and tempts us with the usual self-congratulatory celebrations, maybe we could choose a different course. Instead of telling ourselves how wonderful we are -- "the greatest nation in the world" -- perhaps we could prayerfully reflect upon the kind of nobility to which those founders aspired, reaching back behind the mere words of the documents to the aspirational soul to which they hoped to give voice. This year, maybe lamentation should take the place of celebration -- the candles of penitent confession rather than the fireworks of proud assertion.
Whatever else, I'm sure Bonhoeffer would insist that it's worth the effort. Surely we have not been so corrupted that we can no longer recognize the corruption; the decay.
This week my dentist affixed a crown to repair a broken tooth. It wasn't as easy as snapping over the fracture a hardened and durable cover. A week or so before, some drilling was required to remove the resulting decay; a mold was taken so as fashion the desired replacement and a temporary "fix" was put in place with the admonishment to be careful what and where I chew. The "meantime," after all, is fragile. And then this week the more permanent fix. That, too, involved air on exposed nerves, a little more drilling and wincing and tapping and capping. The process was tedious and laborious and hardly free of pain. But it was worth it.
Maybe that's the kind of work that could begin this 4th of July: naming the cracks, drilling the decay, remolding nobler intent, and submitting to the nerves and the need to heal.
It's just a thought.