I’ve had Dietrich Bonhoeffer on my mind a lot lately. If you’re not sure who that is, Bonhoeffer was a Christian theologian who at the cost of his life had the courage to speak out against injustices of the Third Reich. He was eventually accused by the Nazis of his participation in a plot to assassinate the Führer.
Bonhoeffer really throws a kink into how I understand what it means to be a Christian. Here was a guy who had every reason to denounce the religion altogether. In his context, Christianity had become a silent supporter of the Nazi Party. So, there’s obvious heroism in Bonhoeffer’s willingness to speak openly against the Nazis, but what I find perhaps more shocking and heroic about Bonhoeffer (looking back from my 21st century context) is that he remained Christian, that he never allowed the culture to determine what Christianity meant to him.
I’m not sure we live in a world that affords us that courage anymore. Culture overpowers us. If we don’t like the culture of something, we run from it rather than confront or change it. We attempt to divorce ourselves (and others) from that identity and take on something new. Bonhoeffer confronted Nazi Christians; we run away from Christianity over homophobia and bigotry. Lately, I’ve caught myself doing just that – trying to distance myself (through language) from “Christians” I don’t like. In the midst of Obama saying that “ISIL is not Islamic,” I’ve agreed: ISIL is no more a part of Islam than West Boro Baptist, or the KKK, is Christian. But then there’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose life seems to say otherwise. That is, it makes it a lot harder to say that “ISIL is not Islamic” simply because they’re extremists. In a way, Bonhoeffer was an extremist, too, just the kind of extremist we happen to agree with today.
My working theory up until now has been that as one’s ideology approaches an extreme on any given ideological scale, the likelihood increases that he or she ceases to adhere to their claimed ideology to instead favor a new set of principles altogether. Seems logical enough, right? But the kink in the theory is that it relies entirely on cultural perception. Who defines ‘extremism’? Who defines the “norms”? Some of the most renowned religious figures throughout history might well be “extremists,” or at the very least counter-cultural enough that they questioned the norms of their religion and traditions. Kinda like Jesus.
So, does it all just boil down to self-identity? I am who I say I am and, for each of us, that’s final? We may choose to say “ISIL is Islamic,” because they say so, but judging by their actions it seems that they’re just really, really bad at being Muslim. Or, perhaps the KKK is Christian – simply because they claim to be. They’re just really terrible Christians (in the opinion of many). To say as much is a commentary on their actions – the how, not on their identity – the what. To put that another way, if we were to separate the how from the what, we’d be saying that a person’s “true” identity is not really our judgment call. Or that we can judge a person’s actions based on the evidence of harm but cannot judge their inner reasoning or their heart. To make that argument is ultimately to say that a person’s identity is left to themselves – or to God or to Allah. But I don’t find that satisfactory. I want to believe we can strip people of the labels (and, thereby, the power) they claim lest we devolve into some kind of Sheilaism, or new age relativism. But who am I to strip anyone of their label? What a shame it was those who silenced Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or those who tried to silence Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s easy to say we want to strip people of their identity when the people we’re talking about are beheading innocents. But what happens when we’re the ones doing the beheadings?
And yet, ironically, Bonhoeffer had no qualms calling Hitler the antichrist, because to him, that’s how Hitler lived. Perhaps because of his encounter with social justice movements of American Christianity, the young theologian didn’t separate the inner identity (faith or “the what”) from the action (practice or “the how”) the way some of us might today. On this note, one author writes:
…as an undergraduate, Bonhoeffer joined a university fraternity, the Hedgehogs. The Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided the world, intellectually, between the ‘Fox’ and the ‘Hedgehog.’ While the Fox’s worldview draws upon a diversity of ideas and experiences, the Hedgehog claims to know one big, supremely important thing. Theologically, Bonhoeffer may have had the Fox’s broadmindedness, but in his highest convictions, he was a Hedgehog. His one big thing was that Christianity is not merely a matter of what one believes, but of how one lives.”
And that seems to be my dilemma here. It’s said that “πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα (the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing),” and those are the two worlds I juggle. Am I to be the Fox proclaiming, “To each his own,” the way our postmodern world beckons us or the Hedgehog melding faith and works with a set proclamation that “right is right,” and “I know it when I see it“?
The truth is, I fear, even if I could find some way to be a fox, I’d probably be a hedgehog about it.