October 7, 2009
No example reveals the challenges of the question, "What does it mean to tell the truth?" more than the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his life-and-death struggle as a German theologian who came of age at just the time Adolph Hitler was rising to power. Dr. Bobby Kelly, Oklahoma Baptist University's Ruth Dickinson professor of religion, tackled that question during a weekly chapel service on Bison Hill Wednesday, Oct. 7.
Kelly's message, titled "Truthfulness," was based on Bonhoeffer's book, "The Cost of Discipleship." The book is the foundation of the year's chapel theme, "Costly Illumination: Counting Everything Loss in Light of the Surpassing Worth of Knowing Christ."
"I have become convinced that learning to live a fully honest life is one of the most difficult moral challenges I face, and yet it is rarely talked about or, certainly, preached about," Kelly said.
Kelly posed the question about truthfulness against the biography of Bonhoeffer himself. Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, Germany, on Feb. 4, 1906. Considered a "theological miracle," he earned his doctorate in theology from the University of Berlin at age 21.
He spent a post-graduate year studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he saw firsthand the plight of real-life victims of racism. He taught Sunday School at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem where he gained a personal affection for African-American spirituals. His experience in Harlem opened his eyes to the racism against Jews in his own country.
He returned to Germany in 1931 as a professor at the University of Berlin. A strong opponent of Nazism, he was involved in establishing the Confessing Church, which stated there was no Führer (leader) other than God. The group actively opposed Hitler's anti-semitic policies. Bonhoeffer led an underground seminary for training Confessing Church pastors in Finkenwalde. During this time, he wrote "The Cost of Discipleship," which counters the notion of "cheap grace," or ethical laxity, with the truth of "costly grace."
"Cheap grace is grace without the cost," Kelly said. "Cheap grace is grace without suffering. Costly grace is the true Gospel. It involves suffering. It involves the cross. It is costly. It cost the life of God's Son, and nothing can be cheap to us that is costly to God."
Bonhoeffer was appalled at the atrocities of the Nazis, and he was appalled at the silence of the Church. With increasing danger in Germany, he sailed for the United States in 1939 with the intention of teaching at Union Theological Seminary. However, shortly after arriving, Bonhoeffer knew he must return to his own country to act on behalf of the Nazi regime's victims.
"The question for him was not, ‘Where am I safe?' but ‘What is the will of God?'" Kelly said.
Returning to Germany, Bonhoeffer joined a resistance movement of high-ranking military officers in the Abwehr, or Military Intelligence Office, who sought to assassinate Hitler. The theologian filled the role of a double agent who plotted murder.
"So many lies, so much deception," Kelly said. "Bonhoeffer wrestled with the possibility of winning the resistance, but losing his soul. As a double agent plotting to assassinate Hitler, he had to lie. In fact, he had to live a lie."
Bonhoeffer was arrested in April 5, 1943 and charged with conspiracy. He was imprisoned for more than a year. His interrogators demanded the truth and the names of his co-conspirators, and yet he remained silent.
Kelly said the question of truthfulness for Bonhoeffer - and for every person - is: "How do we define a lie?" Kelly said Augustine considered a lie to be an intentionally misleading statement. Thomas Aquinas, he said, defined "levels" or variations of lies: white lies, helpful lies and malicious lies. John Wesley said he could not tell a lie to save the souls of the whole world. Bonhoeffer obviously did not agree, Kelly said.
A few months before the war ended, Bonhoeffer wrote the poem, "Who Am I?" while in Tegel prison. The poem clearly addressed his personal conflict over truthfulness:
"Who am I? They often tell me I stepped from my cell's confinement calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a Squire from his country house.
"Who am I? They often tell me I used to speak to my warders freely and friendly and clearly, as though it were mine to command.
"Who am I? They also tell me I bore the days of misfortune equably, smilingly, proudly like one accustomed to win.
"Am I then really that which other men tell of? Or am I only what I myself know of myself? Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds, thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness, tossing in expectation of great events, powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance, weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
"Who am I? This or the other? Am I one person today and tomorrow another? Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others, and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling? Or is something within me still like a beaten army, fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
"Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!"
After an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944, connections of Bonhoeffer to the conspirators were discovered. He was executed by hanging in Flossenbürg on April 9, 1945, just three weeks before the liberation of the city.
"Today, Bonhoeffer's legacy lives on - a legacy of costly discipleship of sacrifice, of compassion and action ..." Kelly said. "A legacy that demands that we answer the question, ‘Who is Jesus for us today?' A legacy that invites us to wrestle with the challenges - the ethical challenges - of living out costly grace in a fallen world."
Kelly said most ethical reflections on Bonhoeffer's life raise the question: What would you do in his place? Would you tell the truth? Would you be willing to die? The reality is, Kelly noted, most people do not face such life-and-death dilemmas about truthfulness.
"You will go out of this place today, and you will be tempted to lie, to exaggerate, to do something other than tell the truth," he said. "It will not be to save someone who is at risk. ... It will be to protect your pride. It will be for your own selfish reasons so that you don't have to face the consequences for some dirty deed you've already done. It will be born of selfishness and arrogance and pride.
"If we want to follow Jesus, then we must put away deceit and exaggeration and outright lies and dwell in the truth. As followers of Jesus who is the truth, we should know the truth, tell the truth, live the truth, walk the truth, be truthful.
"Ultimately, this commandment of complete truthfulness is really another name for costly discipleship."