Response to Renate Wind, “A Spoke in the Wheel: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Political Resistance”

March 31, 2003

by Lisa Dahill

“Who are you, Christ?” In her paper, “A Spoke in the Wheel,” Dr. Renate Wind has presented a compelling glimpse of a Christian whose probing of that question, that prayer, over the course of some of the most perilous years in human history can provide insight for us in our own potentially “perilous praxis.” In a few words of response to Dr. Wind’s paper, I would like to suggest specific forms by which I see Bonhoeffer’s resistance to evil having taken shape for his own time. Perhaps some of these might prove helpful for our time as well.

As Dr. Wind notes, Bonhoeffer’s resistance is grounded not in theories of social ethics, but in Christology —meaning not disembodied Christological abstractions, but a living connection to Jesus Christ in the world, the One who for Bonhoeffer is the very unity of God and world. Bonhoeffer’s experience of prayer and community provided a touchstone of reality, centered in Scripture, discernment, and friendship, in a frightening, disorienting world of lies, suspicion, brutality, and hatred. For Bonhoeffer, “discipleship is joy” (cf. Discipleship prologue and chapter 1) because it draws the disciple into intimate connection with Christ, the very reality of God and the deepest reality of the world. The Christian can thus avoid the twin pitfalls of despair, rage, and cynicism, on the one hand, or pious withdrawal from the world on the other.

I will describe several concentric “circles” of resistance, which give rise to strategies of resistance:

  • The first level or “circle” is that of personal prayer, one’s own heart and deepest conception of the Real—thus the strengthening of personal faith as the essential first step. Prayer in and of itself is the very heart of resistance, NOT “prior” to real resistance, or something ancillary, a selfish luxury. It is what grounds us in Reality itself, namely (for Bonhoeffer) Jesus Christ so intimately and powerfully present to each person, and simultaneously redeeming the whole world. Without prayer, resistance really is futile (!); but prayer itself is resistance and opens a different world shaped by God. The daily practice of intentional presence to God shapes Christians’ perception of reality itself, and makes possible new forms of courage, hope, and action.
  • For B the next “circle” of resistance is a confession partner/s. At Finkenwalde he instituted the practice of mutual confession to another person as the act of mutual self-disclosure, friendship, and accountability. Here one moves into difficult, radical truth-telling about one’s life, to learn the contours of one’s own blind spots and capitulations, and to experience the incomparable gift of trust and the profound liberation of truth-telling within human and divine friendship. Ultimately, Bonhoeffer teaches us, we will simply not be able truly to tell the truth about society/church if we can’t face and confess shameful aspects of our own selves; it’s all of a piece.
  • Third is the level of close friendships—for him, also family. Strengthening friendship and family bonds is itself resistance to evil bent on erasing the sweetness of living love and separating us from the goodness of life and creation. Like the divine love tasted and soaked up in prayer, the experience of human love ushers us into a different reality than that overshadowed by evil. In prison B’s capacity for prayer as a lifeline of reality, and for human love, deepens into profound and heartfelt letters and poetry—the agony of imprisonment within a world so rich with friendship, love, and the created world—and an overarching gratitude able to encompass everything within the mercy of God.
  • Next Bonhoeffer emphasizes close Christian community, a place of common prayer, Scripture, worship, the discernment of one’s situation and of one’s vocation to respond; and of support and celebration. He studied Anglican and RC monasticism in order to consciously build new forms of Christian community, not as a retreat from the world (cf. NY decision where he chooses not to retreat, precisely for the sake of those in his closest circles of faith and resistance) but as spiritual grounding able then to discern God’s calling to truly costly new dimensions of discipleship in the world, and support one another every step of the way in that.
  • A further level for B is that of the Christian church as it is meant to be in the world—a place of hospitality, advocacy for all those made to be “other” in one’s society, relinquishment of privilege, public truth-telling and civil disobedience—becoming a spoke in the wheel of state if necessary. His role at this level includes his work trying to rally the church to civil disobedience, publicly speaking out from the very outset of Hitler’s rule, and using his great intellectual gifts of clear-eyed theological analysis, preaching, teaching, and writing.
  • Finally, civic society as a whole (world come of age)—choosing solidarity with the suffering as the “place” from which reality is best viewed; building bridges with like-minded non-Christians and acting responsibly for coming generations; also a national/international role as free citizens. Cf. B’s early international ecumenical work (bearing fruit in Abwehr role); and then conspiracy = collaborating with non-Christians in underground and very risky political action. In a situation where no option was guilt-free, this willingness to move into actual political action also meant the willingness to incur guilt: to act in ways of love even if that meant one’s own hands got dirty. So Bonhoeffer attempts to discern which option is God’s call within the situation of inevitable sin. This does not “justify” the use of violence, which is always a grave offense before God and makes a person truly guilty. Yet the mandate to “obedient [i.e., called by God alone] and responsible [i.e., potentially effective, not suicidal or destructive] action” is the ultimate act of unconditional trust in a profoundly this-worldly God.

Strategies =

#1 — daily prayer practices
#2 — confession and the capacity for radical truth-telling
#3 — friendship, love, and gratitude
#4 — monasticism and discernment
#5 — civil disobedience, public ecclesial resistance (“spoke in wheel”)
#6 — bridge-building with like-minded cohorts of other/no religion, solidarity with oppressed, direct political action

Again, all of these are rooted not in asceticism, or the heroic desire for self-sacrifice, but in the ever-incarnate love at the heart of Bonhoeffer’s spirituality: the desire to be with Jesus Christ wherever he is, and to follow him wherever he leads, simply for the sake of the joy and freedom of living in his way. If that union with Christ and action on behalf of the “least of these” brothers and sisters leads a person also into death, then such martyrdom (#7 above = martyrdom) becomes the ultimate “strategy” of resistance to evil, as in fact Bonhoeffer’s own legacy has borne powerful fruit for persons in situations of injustice around the world—and perhaps his legacy may become a gift for us on many levels in our own present-day resistance as well.


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