Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reflection “After Ten Years,” written for Hans von Dohnanyi, Bonhoeffer’s close friend and confidant, and Major General Hans Oster, a German military officer involved in the resistance against the Nazi regime, reports on what happens to human decency, courage, and wisdom when a political culture disintegrates. Of even more importance, for Bonhoeffer, Bethge, and the church, the ten years he reflects on are years in which the whole edifice of Christendom, the church-state symbiosis regnant in the West for more than a thousand years, came crashing down around their feet. Bonhoeffer’s reflections, then also attest to a failed church culture that assimilated so fully with the large culture that Bonhoeffer indicted it in these damning words: “Our church has been fighting during these years only for its self-preservation, as if that were an end in itself. It has become incapable of bringing the word of reconciliation and redemption to humankind and to the world” (Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison: DBW 8 (Kindle Locations 10999-11000). Augsburg Fortress. Kindle Edition).
Without suggesting an equivalence between Nazi Germany and American culture today, there are similarities in at least two ways. The American church is every bit as assimilated to its culture as the German church in the 1930’s. Both provided their people no ballast against the incursions of pagan idolatries and tyrannies blessing them instead as part of God’s good plan for his people. And second, we too are living through the death of Christendom on our continent. Whereas Bonhoeffer experienced this death in a total and comprehensive way, all at once as it were, we are experiencing it in a piece-meal, episodic way that confuses and obscures what is happening from us.
And therein lies the poignancy and value of these reflections for us. As a culture and a church we are in a crisis situation. It would not be surprising to discover similar pathologies at work here as Bonhoeffer discerned there. It seems appropriate to allow his observations to season our own Lenten reflections this year.
For Ash Wednesday we’ll take the first two sections of this letter to enter into Lent this year.
After Ten Years
Ten years is a long time in the life of every human being. Because time is the most precious gift at our disposal, being of all gifts the most irretrievable, the thought of time possibly lost disturbs us whenever we look back. Time is lost when we have not lived, experienced things, learned, worked, enjoyed, and suffered as human beings. Lost time is unfulfilled, empty time. Certainly that is not what the past years have been. We have lost much, things far beyond measure, but time was not lost. Indeed, the insights and experiences we have gained and of which we have subsequently become aware are only abstractions from reality, from life itself. Yet just as the ability to forget is a gift of grace, so similarly is memory, the repetition of received teachings, part of responsible life. In the following pages I want to try to give an accounting of some of the shared experience and insight that have been forced upon us in these times, not personal experiences, nothing systematically organized, not arguments and theories, but conclusions about human experience—lined up side by side, connected only by concrete experience—that have been reached together in a circle of like-minded people. None of this is new; rather, it is something we have long been familiar with in times gone by, something given to us to experience and understand anew. One cannot write about these things without every word being accompanied by the feeling of gratitude for the community of spirit and of life that in all these years was preserved and shown to be worthwhile.
Without Ground under One’s Feet
Have there ever been people in history who in their time, like us, had so little ground under their feet, people to whom every possible alternative open to them at the time appeared equally unbearable, senseless, and contrary to life? Have there been those who like us looked for the source of their strength beyond all those available alternatives? Were they looking entirely in what has passed away and in what is yet to come? And nevertheless, without being dreamers, did they await with calm and confidence the successful outcome of their endeavor? Or rather, facing a great historical turning point, and precisely because something genuinely new was coming to be that did not fit with the existing alternatives, did the responsible thinkers of another generation ever feel differently than we do today?
“Time is lost when we have not lived, experienced things, learned, worked, enjoyed, and suffered as human beings.” Losing time, we can be sure, is among the enemy’s prime tactics against us. Robbing us of experience, learning, working, enjoying, and suffering “as human beings” by narcotizing us to aspects of our humanity takes different shapes in different cultures. Two complementary analyses of this narcotizing stratagem and its effects on American life are worth taking another look at here.
George Orwell, in 1984 (1949), envisioned an authoritarian pan-optic society in which the governing authorities impose a way of life upon the people enforcing it through a perversion of language (e.g. “enhanced interrogation,” “surgical drone strikes”) and authority backed with the threat of force. Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World (1931) posited a more “fist in a velvet glove” vision.
“In Huxley's seemingly dystopic World State, the elite amuse the masses into submission with a mind-numbing drug called Soma and an endless buffet of casual sex. Orwell’s Oceania, on the other hand, keeps the masses in check with fear thanks to an endless war and a hyper-competent surveillance state. At first blush, they might seem like they are diametrically opposed but, in fact, an Orwellian world and a Huxleyan one are simply two different modes of oppression” (http://www.openculture.com/2015/03/huxley-to-orwell-my-hellish-vision-of-the-future-is-better-than-yours.html).
Each and both of these modes of oppression cause us to “lose time.” And each are present in varying degrees in American culture today. Huxley’s version seems more progressed and deeply ingrained in us. Affluence, comfort, expectation, and entitlement are its chief narcotizing agents. Life becomes an “all you can eat buffet” lived “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Life and time are lost in a haze of self-absorbed consumption. The suffering and pain of others are denied, diminished, or dismissed. Our ability to commit and even suffer for something greater than ourselves atrophies. The Orwellian version of this oppression has been more latent though some troubling aspects of it have come to light in the wake of the 2016 election.
These oppressions disorient us, pull the rug out from under our feet, make us feel as though we have no solid ground under our feet. Will anyone deny that we too find ourselves bereft of a place to stand? Does not our world seem but a hall of mirrors designed to deceive and confuse us. Economic life is precarious for most of us. Political life seems remote and uncontrollable, run by interests inimical to a general well-being. Sexuality and marriage are up for grabs. Our country is in a permanent war state and economy. Dorothy’s lament to Toto in The Wizard of Oz, “We’re not in Kansas anymore” resonates with all of us old enough to remember or at least imagine a different America.
Where do we look for hope and vision in times such as this? Are there mentors for us who, free-floating as we, found hope in undreamed of possibilities and visions beyond present perceptions of reality? Is Bonhoeffer one such mentor?
These are our questions too, aren’t they? Lenten questions? Life questions? Questions for a time such as this. And questions for those of us who are dust and to dust we shall return.
More next time!