Misappropriating Bonhoeffer

The ten chapters and postscript “Open Letter to Christians Who Love Bonhoeffer but (Still) Support Trump” of Stephen R. Haynes’s Battle for Bonhoeffer are some of the densest I’ve ever read outside of graduate theses, but far more engaging. 

Dense is by no means bad. Battle is carefully organized, clearly written and always compelling. And well it should be, since this closely-argued discursus explores possibly the most incandescent questions in American Christians’ conversation since the Vietnam War: “Why and how has Dietrich Bonhoeffer become a hero to evangelicals in the first twenty years of the 21st century, when for decades after his death his theology was widely suspect outside mainline Protestantism? Why do so many Evangelicals support Donald Trump?” Such rocky geography covers the American evangelical battleground that Stephen Haynes attempts to delimit. Yet it offers deep, often heated insight into issues that challenge not only American evangelicals – and many Christian Reformed folks – but also Canadian Evangelical enthusiasts of Donald Trump.

As theology professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee and author of four books on Bonhoeffer, in addition to post-Holocaust studies, Haynes is eminently qualified to explore such confounding issues. In Part One he combs the literature to introduce the German theologian as “Critical Patriot, Righteous Gentile and Moral Hero.” Most colours for these Bonhoeffer portraits come from the palette of mainline Protestant academic authors. That is fitting, since this “Battle for Bonhoeffer” takes place mostly in the minds, hearts, books and churches of American Christians. Not surprisingly, this fight bewilders, to the point of incomprehension, Bonhoeffer students in other nations and societies.   

After surveying scholarly writing on Bonhoeffer, Haynes shifts to the current evangelical embrace of “the populist Bonhoeffer.” This recent Bonhoeffer portrait finds its often hagiographic sources more from historical fiction, plays and biographical films than academic writing. Based on his deep and long study of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology, Haynes sees Bonhoeffer’s status as an evangelical hero in American culture and political wars as an unpredictable, illogical, even untruthful lurch from serious, deliberative theological examination.

Haynes lucidly articulates Bonhoeffer’s influence and reputation among changing audiences since his execution on April 9, 1945, days before Germany’s surrender. Yet when early on he coins “the populist Bonhoeffer,” Haynes dives into the cesspool that alienates the very people he hopes to address in his concluding “Open Letter.” Many evangelicals flinch at “populist” as condescending or arrogant, considering it equivalent to Hillary Clinton’s injudicious “deplorables” to shame Trump supporters.

Yet Haynes’s analysis is not one-sidedly anti-conservative evangelical. For example, he debunks the aspirational status of “righteous Gentile” that notable progressive scholars have applied to Bonhoeffer. That is a technical term to be respected as intellectual and spiritual property of Jerusalem’s “Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Center and thus should not be used lightly.” As rightful user of that honorific, Yad Vashem has several times declined to name Bonhoeffer a “righteous Gentile.” While recognizing that he did address the Jewish issue in his writings, Yad Vashem concluded that he did not risk his life in attempts to aid Jews during Nazi rule. 

As well, Haynes charges the 1960s’ “Death of God” theologians of misusing Bonhoeffer to promote the paradoxical, even nonsensical “Christian atheism.” That exaggerated and damaging gaffe did much in those years to develop evangelical caution, even opposition towards Bonhoeffer’s theology. 

Though respected (Australian) New Testament scholar Leon Morris’s appreciated certain parts of Bonhoeffer’s work, he shied away from “religionless Christianity.” He understood Bonhoeffer to advocate abandoning necessary Christian disciplines as corporate worship. How accurate are Morris’s and other evangelicals’ evaluations remain moot.

While throughout Haynes’s tone and diction are far from careless, he reveals his persistent target in chapter three’s title “The Evangelical Bonhoeffer before Metaxas.” Haynes’s temperature rises whenever he refers to Eric Metaxas’s 2010 biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. That book hugely popularized Bonhoeffer before Trump. Yet Haynes alleges that popularity is a shallowly researched counterfeit portrayal of the German theologian-pastor. Based on his career-long study of Bonhoeffer, Haynes infers that Metaxas had not read all of Bonhoeffer’s work or earlier biographies. Neither did he steep himself in German political and theological history. As a result, Metaxas selectively quoted Bonhoeffer, depicting him more as an American evangelical than a complex person writing during a fraught and dangerous time in his homeland.

Not surprisingly, Haynes considers Metaxas, the most influential evangelical apologist for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and current administration, a careless writer. Although many evangelical scholars have come to share Haynes’s evaluation, his tone occasionally leaves the firm roadbed of dispassionate critical analysis, nearly sinking into the quicksand of ad hominem ire.

Despite such rhetorical kicks, Haynes makes a strong case that the entire “Battle for Bonhoeffer” constitutes serious misappropriation of the man’s theological and social legacy. He strongly faults the (mis)reading of the “populist Bonhoeffer” as promulgating egregious support of Donald Trump. Though he asserts that Trump is no Hitler or fascist, as not a few progressive evangelicals claim, he is alarmed that Trump knows fascists and white supremacists who have flocked to his camp. Meanwhile he also condemns previous hyperbolic evangelical vilification of Barack Obama. Allegations that the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision would supposedly impose Hitlerian fascism and shrink religious freedom misunderstands the independence of American judiciary from the Executive Branch. Whether he would amend that opinion following the brutal politicized confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh as Supreme Court justice is a provocative question.

Haynes consistently argues that American Christians, progressive or conservative, are badly misguided in trying to equate contemporary America with Germany under Adolf Hitler, to whose terrorized society Bonhoeffer returned from safety at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. As an antidote to such theological and political fevers, Haynes advises all warriors to step back, call a ceasefire and examine far more respectfully all of Bonhoeffer’s work and life. The goal is to discern sensibly and responsibly Bonhoeffer’s contribution to American social, spiritual and political weal, without drawing egregious parallels to today’s political scene. 

Will American evangelicals heed Haynes’s convictions? I fear that his call may remain one more articulate, authoritative voice unheard in the raucous, destructive war engulfing fellow Christians. While it took courage for Eerdmans to produce The Battle for Bonhoeffer, Eerdmans was the easy choice among Christian publishers. Yet had a conservative Christian publisher such as Thomas Nelson, Moody Press or even Zondervan dared accept Haynes’s manuscript, that would surely send Haynes’s difficult message to a larger evangelical readership. 

Did Haynes flog the book with those houses? If he did, did they seriously consider the cost of their own discipleship or reject it out of hand? Will we ever know? Perhaps a reprint by one of those publishers might help bridge today’s chasm among U.S. evangelicals that so discredits the faith in Jesus.  

  • Jim is a semi-retired Christian Reformed pastor and missionary who now works for Resonate Global Mission ten hours a week as "Member Care Coordinator," which means "Pastor to Missionaries," because where lots of our missionaries work it's inadvisable to use pastor or missionary publicly. That cool job puts a framework to his week, keeps him in contact with hundreds of even cooler servants of Jesus all over the world, compels him to travel to visit them once in a while, though he connects with them via email and Zoom most of the time. The rest of the time Jim reads books--lots of free ones that he "pays for" with reviews. He was acclaimed President of Christian Courier Board of Directors while on his way to that meeting from a long ophthalmologist appointment. As long as God gives his wife Rose and him health, they ride a tandem bike around Niagara and other places in the bikeable months, paddle canoes and kayaks, visit children and grandchildren in the distant places they live because their parents provided them poor role models for stability of residence.

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