Thanks to the power of social media I discovered this morning that it is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. While almost any other year I would have seen the Facebook post, sent a prayer up and gone on my way, this year it is different. It is different because I am in the last week of a month-long class on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Throughout this class, I have struggled with some aspects of Bonhoeffer’s theology but even more so I have struggled with how do we apply Bohoeffer’s teachings today, in a context so unlike his. To learn from the past means finding the similarities, the common experiences.
One of our first assignments in the Bonhoeffer class was to watch Agent of Grace. On a good day it would have been difficult, as I am someone who has a really hard time thinking about the details and horrors of events such as the Holocaust. I get physically ill trying to wrap my brain and my heart around the reality of such violence. On that day it was almost impossible to watch. That day I had had my heart broken by disappointment when, for valid reasons, ministry didn’t happen for the least of these. Seeing Bonhoeffer’s struggle and sacrifice I could not understand how we could not do even a comparably small thing for those in need. Before I had read the first word of Bonhoeffer’s writings (for this class anyway), I was seeing a similarity between the needs I see in today’s world with the needs in Bonhoeffer’s.
Unfortunately, in drawing comparisons in order to see where Bonhoeffer’s powerful experiences and reflections speak to our experiences today, I have come to fear running afoul of a sort of reverse Godwin’s Rule.
For those unaware, Godwin’s Law really is more accurately applied to discussion threads that go on too long and end up with gradually increasing insults until someone or something is compared to Nazism or Hitler. In such situations, when the topic is assumed to be completely unrelated to World War II, it is deemed prudent to walk away when it reaches that point (see the link for a more detailed explanation).
When you start with World War II, Nazi Germany, and Hitler, the danger is that it is too easy to start applying a comparison to experiences that are on a completely different scale. To try and gleam insight from specific parts of Bonhoeffer’s writings to address issues that have little in common with the historical context in which he was located is like proof-texting the Bible.
Yesterday I watched another video for class that drove this point home. It was a discussion between John Piper and Eric Metaxas (author of a Bonhoeffer biography) based on audience questions. Instead of discussing Bonhoeffer, his theology, his historical experience, the conversation became much more about political and social issues today such as marriage equality and abortion. To me it seemed the comparisons came too easy, too freely. It is co-opting the horror of the Holocaust and the courage of those who worked against it from a place of privilege. Saying that America is worst then the Third Reich by comparing the number of abortions in the United States to the lives lost in the Holocaust serves to stop the conversation before it even begins (suggesting that with the right cultural flash point we could end up in a war over abortion the same way the Civil War was triggered over “state’s rights” cuts conversation off even more [starting at about 22:30 in the video]).
I must say that watching that conversation made me angry at first. But then it made me reflect. Since that first day of class and throughout the readings, I too have been drawing comparisons. Finding ways that Bonhoeffer’s theological assertions can be used to support my own preferred political and social agenda. When dealing with an individual theologian, it is easy to either to accept or reject their assertions, to pick and choose what will impact us. The danger comes when we treat Bonhoeffer (and other theologians from the past) like we so often treat scripture – isolated from their context and historical situation. Bonhoeffer’s audience was not 21st century American Christians, it was German Christians who were either complicit with an abusive government or looking for strength to continue fighting against it. Their fight is not our fight.
And yet. And yet there is still value, there is still insight to be gained. There is still truth to be found that applies to our reality. If we are to find it, we must be intentional. We must be on guard against broad generalizations and comparisons. We must learn from but not co-opt. Words of judgment must be heard as speaking to us as much as (if not more so than) they are heard as being directed at those we see as our opponent. Learning from history, whether Bonhoeffer in particular, or the Holocaust in general, requires a critical mind and humble spirit.
On days like today, we recognize the value of remembering history. May we also value honest reflection about what history has to teach us about the present.