Where Action is Needed, Merely Thinking About it is Inadequate

Bonhoeffer's cell at Tegel prison, a 7' x 10' room where he spent 18 months.

Bonhoeffer’s cell at Tegel prison, a 7′ x 10′ room where he spent 18 months.

“We have learned a bit too late in the day that action springs not from thought but from a readiness for responsibility.”

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer,  Letters and Papers from Prison


Every night for a week I have sat in a darkened room and watched dramatized events from the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in our theatre company‘s production of The Beams are Creaking. For the past two months I’ve been judging each inflection, movement, gesture, costume piece, prop, stick of furniture, lighting and sound cue. I have heard the words but I have not had leisure to really listen and contemplate.

But tonight, relaxing into our second public performance, I had more brain room to soak in the theatrical experience of watching–through the eyes of one family–the disintegration of the country they love, and the radical steps they ultimately take to try to save it.

At least half a dozen times in the first act, a character says, “That couldn’t happen here…” or “How can this be happening here?” There is profound disbelief, a sense of disconnect between the idea of their national identity, and the reality of what it has become.

Bonhoeffer and co-conspirators in afO's production of "The Beams are Creaking" May 2013

Bonhoeffer and co-conspirators in afO’s production of “The Beams are Creaking” May 2013

“One man has turned creation upside down, and it may never recover. And where is religion? Where is the Church?” cries Bonhoeffer.

Earlier in the play, he observes, “I think that if Christianity were more a way of life than simply a Sunday’s obligation, something like the National Socialist Party could never have happened.”

And I nod and murmur, “Indeed, that’s what was needed.” And then I wonder-What about here? What about now? IS our faith a way of life? Or do we just like to think so?

Bonhoeffer facebook meme

It’s easy enough to sit and think, Yes, I would have stood with the Confessing Church against the twisted mockery that Hitler made of the so-called German National Church. But even the Confessing Church was ultimately no match for the pressures and threats of the Nazis against German Christians. Pastors by the score took the oath of allegiance to Hitler, even when it meant turning brethren of Jewish descent out of their churches.

And that’s where I come back to the quote with which I began this post. It’s not in the play, but it appears to be one of Bonhoeffer’s more popular epigrams, judging by the number of different sites on which it is quoted. What does he mean? Don’t we have to school our thoughts in order to control our actions? Isn’t it true that if we think rightly, we’ll live rightly?

Yes and no. I think what Bonhoeffer means is that ‘thought’ in the abstract–(“I would never let my children behave that way!”)–is a very different thing from making plans for how to put one’s belief into practice, and being willing to take the consequences.

It’s fairly easy after all to change one’s mind…it’s a bit harder to change the course of one’s actions once the ball has been started in motion. “Readiness for responsibility” to me means that I have an action plan, and I’ve looked at all the possible outcomes and I’m ready to accept whatever comes because I believe that this course of action is right, even if it doesn’t achieve the end I desire.

It’s a bit like Esther…it was one thing for her to hide in her queenly chambers and shake her head and tsk-tsk silently, hoping that the worst would not come to her countrymen. It was quite another for her to approach the king unbidden in order to ask him to save them, and to say, “If I die, I die.”

Thinking that something is wrong is quite a bit different from being willing to say so publicly. If this weren’t so, then “The Emperor’s New Clothes” would not be story which resonates so much with generation after generation. It’s one thing to think the truth, and quite another to stick one’s neck out and commit to the truth in a climate where truth is unpopular, inconvenient or illegal.

We spend quite a lot of time here at Two Heads giving you information to think about, and suggesting ways in which to think about current events. But we also hope that you are determining now, in your heart, what your active response should be to evil in the world…and that you are willing to accept the consequences of standing for what is right.

Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also.

The body they may kill. God’s truth abideth still.

His Kingdom is forever.


 “This is why you must take up the full armor of God, so that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having prepared everything, to take your stand.  Stand, therefore, with truth like a belt around your waist, righteousness like armor on your chest, and your feet sandaled with readiness for the gospel of peace.” 

–Ephesians 6:13-15, Holman Christian Standard Bible

14 responses to “Where Action is Needed, Merely Thinking About it is Inadequate

  1. Great post. You and JTR do a great job of expressing and speaking truth.

    • godsbooklover

      Thank you, Dan! We appreciate your own commitment to doing likewise!

      • Thanks I appreciate it. Lately though (maybe it’s because I’m reading Cost of Discipleship) I’ve been wondering what I do other than blogging. In blogging I try to be truthful and honest and take a stand for truth. But what am I doing in my personal life to show Christ to others? Am as forgiving as I can be? Do I give enough or can I do more? Can people actually see a “Christian” or am I just another guy in the office?

        I just watched the new movie “Les Miserables” and the scene that struck me most was when Jean Valjean was given aid by a church but then stole their silver. When he was caught by the police and brought back, the clergyman didn’t press charges but actually gave Valjean even more silver. I was left wondering, “Could I do that?” Could I be so forgiving and not care about my “stuff” that much if it meant helping to redeem a soul? That’s an extreme example but sometimes the extremes can help us figure out what we really believe. Bonhoeffer certainly had to decide how “extreme” he would go for Christ.

        • godsbooklover

          Members of our cast have been having the same conversation…what are we doing, and is it enough? Good questions to keep on asking until the answers appear! (And that scene you mentioned is one of my favorites in any version of “Les Miserables”.

  2. Reblogged this on Tin Foil Hat Book Club and commented:
    What can I do to stop the insanity? What can you do?

    • godsbooklover

      Thanks for the reblog, Sally. Good questions. Much prayer is needed that we find the answers soon.

  3. As someone once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

    Sadly, far too many fear what will happen when they DO take a stand for right, and live their lives in a quasi “Walter Mitty” scenario: Always THINKING in their mind what they would no, but not possessing the COURAGE to do it. “People will ridicule me.” “I’ll be outcast, and no one will like me.” Etc., Etc., Etc….

    Another quote I once heard, and really like:
    “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something is more important than fear. The brave may not live forever, but the cautious do not live at all.”

    • godsbooklover

      “Walter Mitty”–yes, especially with the profusion of options for immersing ourselves in electronic media, it’s very easy to live a Walter Mitty life. I like that Courage quote, too, PGH! Thanks for sharing it.

      • Psalm 27:1-14 (ESV)

        “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh, my adversaries and foes, it is they who stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident. One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple. For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock.”

  4. Excellent post. Thank you. I have been thinking about this subject so much lately, and I don’t want to stop because I have been slowly but surely gaining courage. Being uncomfortable seems to produce greater effectiveness as a Christian over time, and striving toward comfort can be detrimental. Being reminded of Bonhoeffer’s life is something very important for us these days and more people need to be talking about it. Again, great post.

    • Ben….I pray that you would find strength in the verses from Psalms that I posted. There is no doubt that many Christians do not proclaim the Gospel for fear of many things. But, I try to remind myself of the Apostles and what we learn in the Book of Acts, Chapter 5:40 – 42: (KJV)

      “…and when they had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.”

      The strength of the Lord is with YOU, my brother.

    • godsbooklover

      Thank you, Ben. It seems to be resonating strongly with our audiences, too…which is very encouraging to me.

  5. Pingback: Virtue or Vice? The Battle for our Children in Today’s Culture… | Two Heads are Better Than One

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