“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.
“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?
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