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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Bonhoeffer & Leadership: Being “in Process”

Written by: on February 3, 2021

Two realities seem as evident and disastrous today as in the time of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Idolatrous Religion & Racism.

The former is an experience of religion built upon arrogant orthodoxy that centers performance and piety as the means by which God’s attention and affection can be seduced.

The latter is a set of behaviors that actively seeks to diminish the worth of another. Yet racism is not based on hatred. Rather, as Ibram X. Kendi argues, it is an unnatural hierarchy of humanity designed and weaponized by the powerful to accumulate and protect their interests at high cost to others.[1]

These two factors, when braided together, become a lethal contagion that has been far more devasting than global wars and pandemics combined. While not isolated to Christianity, the continuous fusion of idolatrous religion with racism has caused Christianity to be among the deadliest religions on the planet.[2]

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Every time that I’ve walked the hallowed halls of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, I am undone by the scale and scope of the Third Reich’s innovative violence. As is true of every museum, this sacred space of remembrance has a very clear message:

“The world tried to exterminate us, yet we survived.”

One of the features that make Yad Vashem stand out among global museums is the way in which the curators have made the genocide deeply personal. Each exhibition invites the guest into unthinkable devastation by offering stories of the individuals who both perished and survived.

In my initial journey through the museum, the personal stories of the women, men, and children broke me open to a severe awakening.

Many of the Nazis were Lutherans. They were Christians.

Among other factors, the fusion of idolatrous religion and racism had caused German Christians to move beyond polite indifference and forcible exclusion to the willful endorsement of and participation within Jewish extermination.

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In the years just before the devastation of the Holocaust there already existed a sense of German Christian elitism. Lutheranism was the predominant expression of Christianity and Bonhoeffer had emerged as a prodigy theologian within the tradition. Unique to his approach was the conviction that Christianity found its credibility not in orthodoxy alone, but in its fusion with orthopraxy.

Within a tradition that sought to center rigid adherence to intellectual assent, Bonhoeffer centered Christ. He “differentiated between Christianity as a religion…and following Christ.”[3] He emphasized the message of grace and the distinction of the Christian religion being that it “preaches the infinite worth of that which is worthless and the infinite worthlessness of that which is seemingly so valued.”[4]

As one could imagine, in a milieu where idolatrous religion and racism were already being fused, Bonhoeffer’s lectures received both positive and negative responses. Yet his theological journey alongside his boldness in articulating this message of embodiment and embrace was still theoretical.

He was smart, articulate, and in process.

In short time, informed by another immersion, this time in New York City, Bonhoeffer’s theological musings would sink into his life and leadership. What happened in New York City would eventually cost Bonhoeffer his life.

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[1] Kendi, How to be an Antiracist, 42.

[2] https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/dec/31/which-religion-most-violent/

[3] Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, 84.

[4] Ibid., 85.

About the Author

mm

Jer Swigart

12 responses to “Bonhoeffer & Leadership: Being “in Process””

  1. mm Dylan Branson says:

    What always strikes me about Bonhoeffer is that you can feel there is a bold humility in his writings. From my perspective, he is the embodiment of Philippians 2 in a lot of ways as he seeks to have that mindset of Christ and doesn’t use his own privilege for his own benefit, but for that of others (thinking in particular about how he used his position while in prison and to be an outspoken supporter of the Jews). I think a lot of that stems from having active “skin in the game” with the poor and oppressed to where it only made sense to put one’s faith into active practice. He wasn’t one to stay locked away in the Tower, but was actively traveling the path until the very end.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Bold humility is a apt description of Bonhoeffer. Yet one of the components of his life that was missing in my opinion…at least in Metaxas’ writing…was that we rarely observe Bonhoeffer in relationships with the Jews who suffered so. Of course, we see it in the relationship with his sister and her husband, but the privilege of the Bonhoeffer family meant that they were able to escape before the violence intensified. It does make me wonder about the fuel of his advocacy through theological training. Was he as concerned about the actual plight of the Jews as he was the renovation of Christiainty?

  2. mm Greg Reich says:

    Jer,
    Due to your blog I need to take a tour of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. I know my wife in one of her visits to Europe visited the concentration camps where they murdered and cremated Jews. For her it was a life changing event. For Bonhoeffer His time in the US was not only key but so dynamic he was willing to die for it. That type of conviction is indeed rare especially in this day and age. There are very few Christian leaders in the last 100 years that I can say that I would have loved to spend time with. He is definitely one of them. As you read his biography, if you had chance to ask him one question what would you ask?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      I’d probably ask him to coach me in how to approach Christian Nationalism with the same kind of subversive intentionality as he did. I’d wonder with him about the risks that he didn’t take that he could have / should have. How about you? Based on what you know if Bonhoeffer, what would you ask him?

  3. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    “innovative violence”

    Such insidious evil. I’ve only been to the Holocaust museum in Washington DC, and the genocide museums in Rwanda. The evil that weaves through those spaces sucked the air from my lungs and made my knees buckle. I distinctly remember having to take a seat or quickly leave a room when walking through the spaces. It was just too much to take in.

    “innovative violence” isn’t just relegated to holocausts and genocides, as you noted. It happens within the walls of our churches everyday. It is just tidier and has a pretty theological red bow on top of the coffin in which we shove the remains to those we leave in our theological wake. How do we move churches engrained in right orthodoxy to one that embraces grace-filled orthodoxy partnered with orthopraxy? What does that process look like on a systemic level? As leaders, it would seem we absolutely must embrace the process of becoming. How do we do that in a religious system that expects leaders to remain the same (doctrinally, theologically, etc.)? It takes a special leader to be able to grow a congregation in parallel to their own growth and transformation.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Perhaps the myth that those in power must remain the same and protect/sustain the status quo is among the greatest innovations of violence. We need different leaders who have a proven track record of rebelling against this evil.

  4. mm John McLarty says:

    What was Bonhoeffer’s approach to getting Nazi Lutheran Christians to faithfully examine how their religious and political beliefs had become fused? Did anyone listen?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      In my view, Bonhoeffer was very strategic in cultivating young faith leaders in a way that invited them into liberation from the aforementioned fusion and empowered them for subversive leadership. His underground seminary embodied a mustard-seed / yeast-in-the-dough approach. I’m not sure that he imagined that the general community of German Lutherans would take the journey. It was about the remant.

      • mm John McLarty says:

        so…not a church growth strategy! At least not in the ways most of us measure success. In reality, faithful leadership is about planting seeds and trusting God with the outcome, regardless of what the immediate results are or whether or not one lives to see it.

        • mm Jer Swigart says:

          I do imagine that Bonhoeffer lived with a sense of urgency, believing that he could make a difference in his time. But I don’t get the sense that he was driven by any kind of growth strategy with the exception of the growth/depth of faith leaders who had what it took to embody a power-under rather than a power-over approach to life and pastoral leadership.

  5. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    I’ve latched on to Kendi’s analysis of self-preservation, too. I wonder if that sets the table nicely for the parable of the good samaritan or the command to love neighbor as ourselves. If we gave a fraction of the energy towards preserving others as we give to ourselves…

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