So, I was listening to this podcast that I listen to sometimes – http://irenicast.com/ – and they were talking about deconstructing white privilege, which I think is a fine thing to do, and somebody mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer and everybody agreed that he was a perfect example of a person in the Lutheran tradition who benefited from white privilege and therefore deserved a good deconstructing and the conversation moved on – except for me ’cause I was still going “What? Bonhoeffer? Y’all gonna be talkin’ shit on Bonhoeffer?” and then a week went by and I was still thinking about it and now I’m apparently goin’ on about it here. But I gotta give it some kinda context because not everybody knows nuthin’ about Bonhoeffer.
I should start off by acknowledging that Dietrich B was privileged as all get out, but it was more class privilege than white privilege because Deutschland in the early 20th century was pretty much all white. There might’ve been some Turks in the cities, but not a whole lot. The Bonhoeffers were rich and well-known and the kids certainly had access to the best education and social connections and all the perks that come with not being poor. They were also, by all accounts, a stable, loving family so Dietrich didn’t even have dysfunctional family shit to deal with. Privileged. Prob’ly the weirdest thing that happened in Haus von Bonhoeffer was when one of the twins decided to get all religious and become a pastor – that was Dietrich. The Bonhoeffers were Christian, but they were Christian in the way that prominent, intellectual families were at the time – they showed up occasionally, respected the Church and acknowledged its importance as a social institution, but they weren’t really serious about it. Dietrich’s siblings went for careers in medicine, science and academia – respectable, well-paying jobs. Dietrich’s intention to become a lowly parish pastor was surprising, but the family certainly supported him.
During a break from seminary, Dietrich traveled to the US and was appalled by the racial conditions. The segregation he witnessed disgusted him. He visited AME churches in New York and saw that they had a better understanding of the message of Christ than the white liberals who were hosting him. He spent as much time as possible among African-Americans during the rest of his time in the States.
Back in Germany, Bonhoeffer saw that the political situation was becoming problematic – the Nazis were in power and were amping up the antisemitism. They were also cracking down on Christians. A lot of people don’t know that the Nazis formed an “official” version of Christianity with an Aryan, antisemitic Jesus who proclaimed racial superiority. Bonhoeffer was having none of it. He spoke out publicly, denouncing the Nazis and opposing the growing tide of antisemitism. This got him in trouble. By 1939, he was clearly in danger. Through family connections, he was able to secure passage back to New York.
He was in NYC for a couple weeks. His conscience gnawed at him until he went back to Germany. He said that he would not be able to participate in building a new Germany if he did not endure the suffering. See, Bonhoeffer was sure that there would be another world war, and that Germany would be defeated again. He got a job at a civilian intelligence agency, working for the Nazis, and used his position to relay information to the German resistance. He also helped smuggle Jews out of Germany. Within the resistance, which included some high-ranking military officers, there were some who wanted to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer reluctantly became part of the plot.
I wanna flag this point because it’s a major thing for me. Bonhoeffer wasn’t exactly a pacifist, but he wasn’t keen on murder either. He knew that killing anybody, even Hitler, was a pretty big sin. But not killing Hitler meant the killing of Jews – people of color, homosexuals, people with mental illness, alcoholics &c – would continue. There was no option that wasn’t wrong.
Hitler survived the explosion in the cabinet meeting. If he had died, the conspirators would have initiated Operation Valkyrie – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Valkyrie – and ended WWII. (There’s a movie about it which is irredeemably marred by the presence of Tom Cruise.) The conspirators were found out, including Bonhoeffer.
All accounts of Bonhoeffer in prison represent him as a deeply compassionate and serene man. He ministered to his fellow prisoners and to the guards. He went to the gallows quietly, forgiving those who were about to kill him. He died two weeks before the prison camp was liberated.
So, let’s deconstruct that. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a privileged individual who did everything he could to oppose racism and oppression. He spoke out publicly, rejected the opportunity to escape suffering that his position gave him, and died in service to the liberation of oppressed people.
I’m all for deconstructing white privilege if “deconstructing” means tearing it down. If, however, “deconstructing” means a buncha liberals sitting around talking about how much privilege somebody else had, I don’t see the point. We are not going to advance the cause of justice by yammering with our friends about how privileged other people are or were. Certainly, the problem must be understood, and some adjustments have to be made about how we think about historical figures, but trashing Bonhoeffer or Thomas Jefferson or Woodrow Wilson will never fix anything. Those dudes are dead.
The privilege we have to examine is our own. (Matthew 7:4-5). Whether it’s white privilege or class privilege or cis-het privilege or whatever. And after we acknowledge it, we have to get up and do something. Actively, physically, go out and do something. I’m not necessarily saying get in the middle of a riot and throw a brick through a Starbucks window, but that would be better than sitting around with some hipsters yammering about the white privilege of a dead dude. Do anything. (I started to talk about what I do, but then realized that I was very close to boasting, so I deleted it.)
Talk is not action. Examining figures like Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a fine thought experiment, but if ya really dig down, Bonhoeffer becomes one to emulate, not criticize. If all white folks were willing to hang for racial justice, we wouldn’t have to.
I have taken the Irenicast peeps to task here. I really like the podcast and encourage people to listen. They’re doing good stuff. This whole post was inspired by one comment about one dead Lutheran nerd – that’s what podcasts should do. Get people thinking. I will continue to listen to Irenicast – and I’ll send them this post.
Aight. I will write more about Bonhoeffer eventually. The point I flagged is a major one to me – the point of no good options. I wanna unpack that.
But now, I gotta go work. I’m helping a friend renovate his house. We only kinda know what we’re doing.