Posted by: Robin | April 10, 2008

Harmony in Counterpoint

I just watched “Bonhoeffer,” a documentary on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and I am writing with my mind a rabbit warren of thoughts, emotions and questions. Normally I’d wait and live with it a little longer, but I can’t shake the need to write now. Little did I know that my thoughts about Wilberforce two days ago were only half of a story. Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer were both men of a deep, personal faith in Christ who shared a belief that following Christ meant wading into the messiness of life to stand with those who are oppressed, but their methods and outcomes could not be more at odds.

Wilberforce persevered through legal means to speak out for those without a voice and eventually succeeded in changing the law, taking a big step in the ongoing battle for equality before the law for all through outlawing in the British Empire the slave trade. Bonhoeffer, a theologian, spoke out as well, but when his voice as a vocal member of group of anti-Nazi pastors and believers called The Confessing Church was stifled, he became a part of the resistance actively intent on assassinating Hitler. He served as a double agent, nominally for the Nazi regime allowing him to travel outside Germany, while actually spreading intelligence of the conspiracy against Hitler. He was arrested in 1943, and hanged in 1945 (weeks before the fall of Nazi Germany) after the resistance’s final failed attempt to kill Hitler (1944). Not only did the final attempt fail, but when Hitler survived the Fuhrer used it as proof of his indestructibility. Superficially it would seem that the outcome of Bonhoeffer’s choices confirmed them as antithetical to the faith he espoused. But that is a very human perspective that is too easy to fall into. Outcomes are not the measure of right, or its justification.

My thoughts are only half formed, but what is clear is that neither man chose lightly. Neither sought the fight they gave their lives for. Anti-slavers came to Wilberforce because he was in a position to speak and be heard. Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law (as far as I can tell, not a religious man), working in a department of the Nazi regime that allowed him to know early and in excess the atrocities being committed by the Nazis, approached him. C. S. Lewis speaks in his Letters to an American Lady that we who follow Christ are called to do the present duty of the present day. Bonhoeffer believed that the love of Christ demanded he stand with the Jews and all those persecuted by the Nazis. He was not entirely certain that his involvement in attempts to assassinate Hitler was pleasing to his Lord, but as he prayed his conscience kept returning to the victims and the need to stop what was happening. According to interviews with his friends, he yielded his doubts and choices to the mercy of God and acted on what he believed to be the day’s present duty faithfully, just as Wilberforce did.

Sincerity and conviction are not the earmarks of right. Hitler was both, but what is remarkable is that neither man tried to force his convictions on anyone else, and they took full responsibility for their choices and the consequences, leaving the judgments to history and more essentially to God. Wilberforce saw his success as a gift not a just dessert. My guess is that Bonhoeffer saw his ‘failure’ in the same light.

When I wrote about “Amazing Grace” I championed that we can change things if we persevere, but what if we persevere and change does not come? That’s what has made most of us cynical and why most of us have fled participating in the political process. Does that excuse us? Bonhoeffer would say no, and so, too, would Wilberforce. They would say with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego before Nebuchadnezzar, ” . . . the God we serve is able to save us from [the blazing furnace], and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods . . .” (Daniel 3:17-18). Prayerfully we must be faithful to the conviction of our consciences. Outcomes are rarely in our keeping.

For most of us the present duty of the present day isn’t anything so grandiose or ethically demanding as those that confronted Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer, but I doubt it started out that way for them either. It may be no more than doing our work to the best of our ability, being kind (as opposed to nice) to those who cross our path, recycling our trash, paying attention to the news, praying for our enemies or preparing to vote intelligently. Above all we must watch and listen, ready to meet whatever might come to us and act. “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'” (Romans 8:15) In the end, I find myself left with the question, “Do I have the courage to care enough to act?” We’ll see.



  1. Outstanding “musings” Robin. Thank you for sharing them with us. It is indeed the perseverence that makes the difference. Each of us as Christians have our place and our duty in the time in which we live. For some it may be a calling that puts them heads above the crowd. For most us us, however, it is the normal every day responsibilities of life and faith and yes, citizenship. We can only be salt and light when we participate in the world around us. The contrasts of the two men, Bonhoeffer & Wilberforce, are food for thought.

  2. Great post:)

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