Bonhoeffer on “Stolen Words” (Series on “Minding the Web”)

This is the fourth in a series of posts highlighting captivating, provocative, or simply entertaining quotes from the forthcoming book Minding the Web: Making Theological Connections by Stanley Hauerwas with Robert J. Dean (Cascade).

“To find the proper words” strikes me as the great challenge for the recovery of the church’s visibility. Consider, for example, Bonhoeffer’s reflections in the Ethics—tellingly in the section “Ethics as Formation”—in which he describes how Hitler, the one who tyrannically despises humanity, makes use of the meanness of the human heart by giving it other names. “Anxiety is called responsibility; greed is called industriousness; lack of independence becomes solidarity; brutality becomes masterfulness.”  The small number of people who oppose and expose such duplicity find that their courage is called revolt, their discipline Pharisaism, their independence arbitrariness, and their masterfulness arrogance. In short this tyrannical despiser of humanity hides his distrust of all humanity behind “the stolen words of true community.”

These Orwellian reflections by Bonhoeffer are so interesting be­cause Bonhoeffer connects the church’s failure to call into question these “stolen words” to the church’s desire to be politically relevant. As a result, Christians have failed to be properly visible. The irony is that the invisibility of the church is a correlative of the church’s attempt to be politically relevant—an ambition that tempts the church to use the foreign language—at least foreign for Christians—of what passes for po­litical speech. That language, moreover, meant even Christians could be seduced by the Nazis whose cynicism knew no limit.”1

  1. Stanley Hauerwas, “Why Bonhoeffer Matters: The Challenge for Christian Ministry at the End of Christendom,” in Minding the Web: Making Theological Connections (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018), 69-70. The quotes in the opening paragraph are from: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Clifford Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott, vol. 6 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, ed. Wayne Whitson Floyd, Jr. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 86.

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