Friday, July 11, 2008

What if Bonhoeffer had been Quaker?

I have long been an admirer of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: because of his clear-sighted theology in prewar books such as The Cost of Discipleship, because he championed the "Confessing Church" and resisted the Nazification of Christian churches in Germany, and not least because of the courage with which he endured imprisonment and met his death by execution at the hands of the German state.

As he himself recognized, however, there is a contradiction between his early radical pacifism, which is very evident in "The Cost of Discipleship" and his later participation in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Unlike the Austrian Catholic peasant Franz Jaegerstatter, Bonhoeffer believed that the unique challenge presented by the Nazis forced him to abandon absolute pacifism, precisely in order to be faithful. (Jaegerstatter, who was also executed by the Nazis, was punished because he remained a pacifist and refused to serve in the army).

I'd like to propose an unlikely scenario for the consideration of my readers and invite them to consider some questions it would raise:

Imagine that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been a Quaker instead of a Lutheran. Imagine that as he considered the possibility of trying to assassinate Hitler he had asked for a Clearness Committee from his Meeting. What do we think would have been the result? What do we think should have been the result? I ask this without having thought through my own answers. The ways we look at these questions might illumine more fundamental questions about discipleship, activism, faithfulness, testimony, and "effectiveness" as Quakers.

I invite people to respond either in comments on this blog or on their own blogs with links back to this one. I'm creating a "Bonhoeffer Question" label for this post.
- - Rich Accetta-Evans

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Blogger Bill Samuel said...

It would depend on the meeting and the clearness committee. Ideally a clearness committee is a true place of spiritual discernment. I would like to think such a process might have led him to a stand that might have gotten him executed but wouldn't have involved him personally committed to violence.

But I think it's not uncommon today for a clearness committee to be a cheering squad for the direction the focus person is considering, rather than a place for true spiritual discernment. Members of a clearness committee should be exercising some of the role of the traditional elder function in Friends when it was truly what it was supposed to be, but many Friends today really shy away from that.

8:49 PM, July 11, 2008  
Blogger Jeanne said...

These sorts of questions are hard to consider because we have the benefit of knowing how it all ended, for Bonhoeffer as well as Hitler (and Nazis).

But I enjoyed imagining myself on his clearness committee. What would I have asked him to hopefully help shed Light on his leading?

Would killing Hitler end the Nazi regime and the brutality of their actions? How does assassinating a duly elected head-of-state find support in the Christian texts? Is this leading about killing a person or people or is it about ending the murder of millions of innocent people? How is the Adversary served by killing Hitler? How are you led to serve the Light?

I agree with Bill; Bonhoeffer would probably have been detained if not executed anyway.

And I'm sad to agree with Bill that in liberal Meetings at least, Bonhoeffer might have found a cheering squad or two for his plan to assassinate Hitler.

I don't want a cheering squad when I ask for clearness--I want elders who know how to help me see where God is at work in my life and where God is NOT at work.

1:47 AM, July 12, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Rich --

There are quite a few things it is easy to overlook in this scenario. One of them, as Jeanne has already pointed out, is the fact that Bonhoeffer and his coreligionists didn't have the perspective that we do.

Another is that Bonhoeffer did have a clearness committee. It was composed of his co-conspirators. You think they didn't labor together for clearness, and to know the will of God in the matter?

Calling Bonhoeffer and his coreligionists "Lutherans" is at best a half-truth. The Lutheran tradition is a tradition of established territorial churches, answerable to the rulers of their respective realms. Luther explicitly, passionately, and repeatedly rejected the radical Protestant movement, which wanted to set up "believers' churches" organized not on a territorial basis but on the basis of a shared understanding of Christianity, and answerable not to the local government but to God as they collectively understood him. By dropping out of the official German Lutheran church to form the "Confessing Church", Bonhoeffer crossed a very profound divide separating Lutheranism from sectarianism.

But on the other hand, Bonhoeffer and his co-religionists were steeped in the Lutheran tradition and its assumptions. Much like that subset of Friends that volunteers for the post of monthly meeting FCNL representative, they were inclined to place much more weight on the importance of political things than Christ and the apostles ever did. This was undoubtedly a major seed of that spirit that led Bonhoeffer into the assassination conspiracy. And this is a third fact that it is easy to overlook.

Bonhoeffer fell into the conspiracy because those who served as his "clearness committee" were possessed by the same politics-is-crucially-important spirit as himself. And if, instead, he had had a "clearness committee" composed of early-twenty-first-century liberal Friends who think politics is crucially important — say, a subcommittee of the FCNL governing committee that had somehow gotten access to a time machine — I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that, after a few weeks or months of tortured deliberation, the outcome would have remained the same.

Even if the clearness committee had been composed of very traditional Friends, Friends who believed that obedience to the crucial teachings of Christ in favor of pacifism overrode concerns about the eleven million persons slaughtered in concentration camps and the tens of millions dying unnecessarily on the Eastern Front, there is a major question as to how they would have brought Bonhoeffer to share their point of view. How many people reading this blog have ever brought an adult around to such a dramatic change in viewpoint?

But you also ask, friend Rich, that we Bonhoeffer to have been a Quaker himself. And in that case, much changes. We have to begin by asking, what kind of Quaker would he be? Someone like ourselves? That seems unnecessarily trivial; a person like ourselves would think like ourselves; there would be no need for us to labor with him in a clearness committee because he would agree with us already.

A twenty-first century East Africa Yearly Meeting (North) Quaker, then, transported back to Hitler's Germany by time machine? Or a product of his own time and place?

German Friends in Bonhoeffer's time were members of a tiny, very tiny subculture, culturally attached to Friends in England in many significant ways. On the activist side, their attachment to England gave them a sense of what is possible in community relations that owed as much to the successes of Quakerism in England as to the horrific tragedies of Anabaptism in Germany. During the 1930s, Friends in Germany (both native German and foreign) cashed in on the good will Friends had acquired after World War I by feeding and clothing German war victims, to win Nazi approval for numerous small mercies, such as select German Jews' requests to emigrate. They followed the standard Quaker method of treating people they strongly disagreed with (the Nazis) as people worthy of respect and capable of seeing and doing what is right. This left the German Quakers with a certain sense of empowerment — that they could make a difference for the better, on a scale proportionate to their numbers, even in situations as seemingly impossible as dealing with the SS, without resorting to violence.

But on the passivist side, I will note that German Friends were also influenced, as much by that same attitude of treating their opponents as worthy of respect, as by a keen awareness of what had happened to the dissenting German Anabaptists, to keep their heads down regarding political matters throughout World War II. A crucial turning point, according to Friend Michael Seadle in his booklet Quakers in Nazi Germany (Chicago: Progresiv Publishr, 1978), was a letter written by the clerk and executive committee of the German Yearly Meeting in April 1933. It read, in part, "The Society of Friends is no peace society, no welfare union, no humanitarian league of any sort, but rather a religious society.... The Society of Friends has never taken a fundamental stand to the state as such or to the form of the state as such. It has always given to Caesar that which is Caesar's. ... We ask (all members) to act completely on their own responsibility and not to believe that as Quakers they must do something, or that under that name they could do more than where their own power would suffice."

With that kind of background, none of the German Friends were potential recruits for assassination conspiracies in the first place. Bonhoeffer, I think, with such a background, would not have been a potential recruit for such a thing, either.

So that is the fourth and final point I would offer: that the impact of Quakerism is not through an institution or formal process like a clearness committee, but through deep orientations of the mind and heart, orientations that are transmitted not by clearness committee dialogues but by the ambience and interpersonal behavior of the community in which one learns what is possible and what is not. I cannot easily see Bonhoeffer's mind being changed by five or even fifteen two-hour clearness committee sessions with modern Friends; there were too many deep assumptions in his mind, regarding the importance of political events and the value of political interventions, that mere committee process would have found difficult to overcome. But had Bonhoeffer been exposed for a significant time to the life of the German Friends community — that, I think, might have altered him profoundly.

All the best,

12:18 PM, July 12, 2008  
Blogger Paul L said...

I've haven't read Bonhoeffer in a long time, so I'm speculating some here, but I'm not sure I can even imagine him as a Quaker; the differences between Bonhoeffer's Lutheran position and the Quaker position are so profound that I'm not sure there's much basis for comparison.

The point that I remember (from my college studies) is that Bonhoeffer did not consider his participation in the plot as doing God's will. He made no attempt to justify himself -- he knew it was a sin to murder a man, even a man such as Hitler. And it would have been a sin to not take a decisive step within his grasp to stop the suffering and murder of others. He was quintessentialy (sp?) Lutheran in his understanding the human predicament and that he would have needed God's mercy and forgiveness whichever path he took.

This is fundamentally different from the Quaker's witness that God's will is indeed knowable and that perfect obedience is possible.

I personally doubt that very many Quakers in Bonhoeffer's position, even one with his moral courage and penetrating intelligence, would choose assassination -- it would have been more characteristic to resist in other ways and taken their lumps for it.

I think that Pastor André Trocmé, the Protestant pastor of the church at Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in France during WWII acted more as I would have expected a Quaker to act. He led the effort that saved approx. 2500 Jews from the Nazis.

In the book Lest Innocent Blood be Shed, the author relates how Trocmé was pressured not only by the Nazis' Vichy puppets to acknowledge their legitimacy, but also by the armed Resistance to join their efforts at sabotage and assassination, and he refused both for reasons that would sound very familiar to a Quaker. Indeed, he was assisted by Quakers through the AFSC among others.

In this sense, I think Marshall's description of what real-life Quakers did do is probably an accurate prediction of what Bonhoeffer would have done if he was a Quaker.

7:00 PM, July 14, 2008  
Blogger James Riemermann said...

In thinking about this question I'm inclined to not put quite as much emphasis on the doctrine and influence of one's religious affiliation, though it certainly has an influence.

Bonhoeffer's courageous if morally problematic decision to take part in the failed plot, was by no means predictable or determined by his being a Lutheran, nor by his theology. This was an individual human of remarkable courage and sensitivity, seeking for a way to struggle with the great evil of his time. The influences that brought him to his final decisions had to have been far broader and more subtle than his religious training or reflection. Arguably this is the case for the hardest decisions one makes in any life--no less for a Quaker than a Lutheran. A strength of the Quaker approach, I think, is the emphasis on constantly listening to what the spirit is saying right now, to these circumstances, in this moment.

Before and after becoming a Quaker I have had very strong pacifist leanings, and an even stronger abhorrence for participation in war. But I cannot imagine accepting total pacifism as an excuse to avoid thinking, to avoid engaging fully and honestly with the conflicts that sometimes arise in life, where all alternatives have evil in them and choices must be made.

I won't second-guess Bonhoeffer's moral struggle, and a first-rate clearness committee wouldn't have second-guessed it either. A good commmittee would have raised hard questions--questions which would presumably have been very close to the questions Bonhoeffer asked himself.

11:27 AM, July 15, 2008  
Blogger James Riemermann said...

Sorry to post again so quickly, but Paul's mention of Andre Trocme and Le Chambon brought to mind the time Trocme's daughter, Nelly Trocme Hewitt, spoke at our meeting after a showing of the amazing documentary "Weapons of the Spirit." Some Friend trotted out that withered old quasi-dilemma about Friends struggling with the truth testimony when hiding escaped slaves as part of the Underground Railroad, and some little evasion so they didn't have to technically lie. The question was something like: "How did the residents of Le Chambon deal with the ethical dilemma when Nazis asked them questions about the Jews they were hiding?"

I heard a slight tone of impatience in Ms. Trocme Hewitt's voice as she said something like, if Quakers have to wring their hands about lying in a situation like that, they're not thinking things through very well.

Right on, Nelly.

12:09 PM, July 15, 2008  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Reading these comments makes me glad that in this post I asked a question rather than proposing my own answers. The resulting responses have brought out more perspectives than I had envisioned, and about more topics than I had envisioned.

I had thought we would be wrestling mainly with how or whether one could or should be a pacifist and still be morally responsible in the face of great evils being done by a powerful state. This did come up, but the way in which the question was phrased also brought out insights about "clearness committees" and how they function, about dubious value of hindsight in considering past events, about the possible differences between Lutheran, Confessing Church and Quaker versions of Christianity. About the moral fussiness of some Quakers, etc. I'd like to try to add my own thoughts.

Bill Samuel said that "ideally a clearness committee is a true place of spiritual discernment", and he thought that if that were so Bonhoeffer might have been led to "a stand that might have gotten him executed but woudln't have involved him personally committed to violence." I agree with Bill, but I'd also like to add that the desirable thing about such a stand would not be that it might have gotten him executed but that it might have hastened the end of the Nazi regime in some non-violent way or that it might have saved the lives of some its victims. I imagine that this was extremely important to Bonhoeffer. In an odd way, his compromise of pure pacifism had an element of purity and sacrifice in it: he was willing to sacrifice his own consistency in order (as he saw it) to save lives. The irony is that on a practical level his actions saved no lives at all, but it was his courage, faithfulness, and apparently "pointless" martyrdom have helped many others, including many pacifists, understand what Discipleship and faithfulness mean.

Billuels Sam has another point, also: that "clearness committees" in today's RSOF sometimes act as "cheering squad[s] for the direction the focus person is discussing" rather than as true places of spiritual discernment. I agree that this can and does happen, but I've seen cases where it didn't. Will T has written somewhere (I can't find a link to the exact post right now) that his clearness committe back at the New Swarthmoor Community helped him see that God was not calling him to push for the role of draft resister and seek a confrontation with his draft board. This despite the fact that part of Will himself was leaning that way and that the New Swarthmoor community at large was highly supportive of noncoooperation with the draft.

In his post, Bill Samuels says that the clearness committee "should be exercisign some of the role of the traditional elder function in Friends". I agree with this, though I long for more of a definition of what that traditional elder function was. If it was to intervene between the Friend and the Light and authoritatively pronounce to him what these other Friends thought God was saying, then I don't think it would be any better in principle than if they simply cheered on the first Friend's own original inclination. The question is, how - exactly - could a clearness committee really serve to help a Friend discern God's true calling and distinguish it from the other voices that are always yapping at us from within and without?

Finally, before leaving Bill's comment, I'd like to acknowledge that the term "clearness committee" as I introduced it here is one of those Quakerese phrases that is increasingly both ill-defined and mythologized.

The eldering function Bill mentions is very old in Quakerism - going back really to the very beginning, even when the elders were very young. But my unscholarly impression is that most of the time the concept of a "meeting for clearness" or a "committee of clearness" had a much narrower application than it does today. Friends would need to ask for clearness if they were going to get married (the Meeting wanted to know they weren't already married or otherwise "entangled" in conflicting commitments), if they wanted to travel in the ministry and needed a travel minute, if they were seeking membership in a meeting, and maybe in one or two other common situations.

While I was in New Swarthmoor Community and Young Friends of North America (in the late 1960's and early 1970's) we began using "clearness committees" much more broadly: when we faced decisions about the proper response to Selective Service, decisions about where to live, decisions about how and whether to hold on to money or earn money, etc. etc. Such committees were often assembled by the person seeking clearness and based only on that person's perception of who would give wise counsel. Most of us were only loosely connected to actual Friends Meetings and not inclined to give them or their elders much of a role in our spiritual lives. Despite this, many such clearness committees went pretty deep, involved earnest silent seeking, and managed to be helpful. I think some of us thought we were reviving an old tradition, but I think we were really participating in the invention of something new. (I say we were participating in this invention but not that it was absolutely new with us; I suspect that some of the elders we looked up to then had already started doing something similar).

More recently, I see the term "clearness committee" used in still another way - to describe a kind of conflict resolution group which sits down with people who have serious disagreements and attempts to help them resolve those disagreements. I mention all this not to say we should stop using the term in these new senses, but only to urge that when we do so we should recognize that we are doing so. If it gets too confusing, then we should look around for a different term or terms.

So far, I've only responded to Bill Samuels' comment. I'm eager to respond to them all, but that's all the energy I have for tonight. As soon as I can, I hope to consider the comments of Jeanne Marshall, Paul L, and James.

For me, this is a valuable discussion.

Peace of Christ,
- - Rich Accetta-Evans

8:54 PM, July 15, 2008  
Blogger Bill Samuel said...

Traditionally, Quaker elders at their best (that some acted differently and much less constructively is one reason, IMHO, why the practice of having elders was dropped in many Friends groups) served as spiritual nurturers and something like spiritual directors. They helped Friends in their spiritual journeys and in discernment. Being enforcers, which many contemporary Friends think of when they think of elder, is a perversion of the role.

These traditional positive roles continue to be needed. Clearness committees sometimes serve in that role, although not in the lifelong way that elders did. Sometimes they do this well, and sometimes not so well. Rich is correct that clearness committees in this manner did not traditionally exist in Friends, but Friends did understand the need to serve the same purpose.

9:11 PM, July 15, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not a Quaker, but I think the question asked here central to the issue of the validity of the Quaker Peace Testimony.

While it troubles me to stand in opposition to that testimony, which is near and dear to my heart, I do not personally believe that we should be preguessing what constitutes right action and wrong action before having real need to distinguish right from wrong. Before that moment all we are doing is playing mental mind games with hypotheticals. Worse we well may be making it harder to be lead rightly.

I think we should have faith not in creeds, such as "God would never ask me to do that", but in an inner guide which listened to rightly can be hoped to make us wiser than we are. I think each of us should follow the dictates of this guide, (where possible with moderating insight from others least one becomes ranter)and that none should presuppose what those dictates prior to being discerned will be, or categorically reject dictates that seem at odds with our own presumptions as to what those dictates would reasonably be.

To do otherwise is to put more faith in ones own value system than in Gods direction. I am sure that Abraham would have told you that God would never demand the sacrifice of his son, prior to that demand being made.

(Nice to see dearly missed friends here).

Ian Davis

10:26 PM, September 18, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In thinking more on this issue, it has occurred to me that a relevant follow on question to that asked might reasonably be "What should Quakers do about George Bush". It is easy to employ 20-20 hindsight and label Hitler bad. George Bush has invaded Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Pakistan, and has almost certainly been instrumental in inciting wars in Lebanon, Somalia, Israel (between Hamas and the PLO) and Georgia. Hitler would have been impressed.

For myself I am resolved to hold to the notion that there was that of God in both Hitler, and George Bush. But I'd not be opposed to pissing on the grave of either. I am of course presuming that of God in each of us, departs before the worms get to us.

It might be that the fitting response to both Hitler and George Bush is for Quakers to do no more than remember their crimes, in perpetuity. Eventually, if enough people come to grasp that war is a crime, we might yet make an end to war, not through assassinations, or through wishful thinking, or through placards, but through the rule of law.

Ian Davis

8:25 PM, September 20, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Rich,
I just wandered in here because there is such a dearth of intelligent discussion groups on the Quaker internet (maybe any kind of internet) these days. Bonhoeffer isn't a subject I have a lot to say about.
But really--"clearness committees"! People who follow orders from God don't go to clearness committees.
Rich is right that originally a clearness committee was just a committee appointed to make sure Friends didn't undertake oversight of a disorderly marriage, where one of the parties had a prior engagement to somebody else.
Are you going to review my second work of fiction, Tales of Styrnmouth?
Looking forward to your next post.
Licia Kuenning

"All my cats are in one basket."

5:48 AM, September 26, 2008  

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