Monday, February 7, 2011

One Man's Journey Toward Pacifism

Called the biography for this generation, Eric Metaxas has written the most recent scholarly account of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The following lines are a worthy detail in the journey of this popular theologian toward pacifism. I quote …

“Following is the reporting of The now-classic antiwar novel All Quiet on the Western Front exploded across Germany and Europe in 1929. Its publication was a phenomenon that had a hugely significant effect on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s view of war, which in turn determined the very course of his life and ultimately led to his death.

“It was written by Eric Maria Remarque, who had served as a German soldier during the war. The book sold nearly a million copies instantly, and within eighteen months was translated into twenty-five languages, making it the best-selling novel of the young century. Bonhoeffer likely read the book for Reinhold Niebuhr’s class at Union in 1930, if not earlier, but it was the movie more than the book that would change Bonhoeffer’s life.

“With a rawness and power unheard of at the time, the film pulled no punches in portraying the graphic horrors of the war. It won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, but for its aggressively antiwar stance it caused a firestorm of outrage across Europe. In the opening scene, a wild-eyed old teacher exhorts his young charges to defend the fatherland. Behind him, on the chalkboard, are the Greek words from the Odyssey invoking the Muse to sing the praises of the great soldier-hero who sacked Troy.

“From the old teacher’s lips comes Horace’s famous line, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (It is a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s country). The glories of war were for these young men a part of the great Western tradition in which they were being schooled, and en masse they marched off to the mud and death in the trenches. Most of them died, and nearly all of them cowered in fear or lost their minds before doing so.

“The film is antiheroic and disturbing, and to anyone harboring nationalist sympathies, it must have been at times embarrassing and enraging. It’s no surprise that for the budding National Socialists, the fil seemed vile internationalist propaganda, coming from the same places--principally Jewish--that had led to the defeat of Germany in the very war being depicted.

“In 1933, when they came to power, the Nazis burned copies of Remarque’s book and spread the canard that Remarque was a Jew whose real surname was Kramer--Remark spelled backward. But now, in 1930, they attacked the film.

“Their newly minted minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, leaped into action … As a result, the film was soon banned across Germany and remained so until 1945.

“In the United States, however, it was on screens everywhere, and one Saturday afternoon in New York City Bonhoeffer saw it with Jean Lasserre. It was a sear indictment of the war in which their countries were bitter enemies, and here they sat, side by side, watching German and French boys and men butchering one another. In perhaps the most moving scene of the film, the hero, a young German soldier, stabs a French soldier, who eventually dies. But before dying, as he lies in the trench, alone with his killer, he writhes and moans for hours.

“The German soldier is forced to face the horror of what he has done. Eventually he caresses the dying man’s face, trying to comfort him, offering him water for his parched lips. And after the Frenchman dies, the German lies at the corpse’s feet and begs his forgiveness. He vows to write to the man’s family, and then he finds and opens the man’s wallet. He sees the man’s name and a picture of his wife and daughter.

“The sadness of the violence and suffering on the screen brought Bonhoeffer and Lasserre to tears, but even worse to them was the reaction in the theater. Lasserre remembered American children in the audience laughing and cheering when the Germans, from whose point of view the story was told, were killing the French. For Bonhoeffer, it was unbearable. Lasserre later said he could barely console Bonhoeffer afterward, Lasserre believed that on that afternoon Bonhoeffer became a pacifist.

“Lasserre spoke often about the Sermon on the Mount and how it informed his theology. From that point forward sit became a central part of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology, too, which eventually led him to write his most famous book, The Cost of Discipleship. Just as important, though, was that as a result of his friendship with Lasserre, Bonhoeffer became involved in the ecumenical movement, which eventually led him to become involved in the Resistance against Hitler and the Nazis.”

Of course, it was this resistance by Bonhoeffer to Hitler’s National Socialist Party, and the secularizing of the German church, that Bonhoeffer's premature death as the war came to an end. For people whose theology is informed and shaped specifically by the teachings and ministry of Jesus, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s example provides a startling contrast to the self-described Christian discipleship of much of our current pop culture, especially as related to issues of war and peace.
From Warner’s World, this is

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