When people discover that I have written a book on the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, they often ask me what I think of the popular biography written by Eric Metaxas. My standard answer runs something like this: “Well, Metaxas is certainly an engaging writer. However, he does seem to be in over his head when it comes to understanding the politics of the Church Struggle in Germany and the finer points of Bonhoeffer’s theology. That being said, he has done a great service for the church in helping to make Dietrich Bonhoeffer more widely known.” Usually, this is all the person is looking for. However, if I were to go into more depth I would comment, among other things, upon Metaxas’s failure to understand the centrality of Bonhoeffer’s peace ethic to his theology, his lack of engagement with Bonhoeffer’s prison letters, and his tendency to portray Bonhoeffer in the terms of right-wing American evangelicalism. Some recent public comments by Eric Metaxas have led me to believe that I have perhaps been far too generous in my assessment of Metaxas’s reading of Bonhoeffer up to this point.
Over the past couple of weeks, Metaxas has offered a series of endorsements of Donald Trump’s candidacy for President of the United States. When an interviewer recently asked, in light of Metaxas’s most recent book that argues for the importance of recovering a culture of virtue, whether one can vote for Trump, Metaxas replied, “Not only can we vote for Trump, we must vote for Trump, because with all of his foibles, peccadilloes, and metaphorical warts, he is nonetheless the last best hope of keeping America from sliding into oblivion, the tank, the abyss, the dustbin of history, if you will.” Perhaps even more audaciously, Metaxas suggested on his Twitter account that his “Bonhoeffer bio invites some unpleasant parallels with the current election.” He then proceeded to conduct a poll asking people whether they will be voting for Donald Trump or “Hitlery” Clinton. (To be fair, he also provided the option “Not vote bc you’re a wuss.”) In another Tweet, he made clear that the historical analogy he was drawing was between Bonhoeffer’s decision to participate in the conspiracy against Hitler and the decision facing the American electorate of choosing the lesser-of-two evils.
At this point, Metaxas stands in long-standing tradition of misappropriating Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the conspiracy. In calling upon Bonhoeffer in this way, Metaxas stands in the company of: abortion doctors who claiming sanction for blowing up abortion clinics; Pat Robertson calling for the assassination of Hugo Chavez; and George Bush searching for justification for a pre-emptive war with Iraq. This disturbing trend of misappropriating Bonhoeffer on the basis of his involvement in the conspiracy led me to include an entire appendix in my recent book on the theme of “The Ethics of Tyrannicide.” A close reading of Bonhoeffer’s own writings demonstrates that Bonhoeffer never operated according to the ethical paradigm of the “lesser-of-two-evils.” Rather, Bonhoeffer’s thought is much more complex and nuanced and cannot be easily appropriated — at least legitimately — in the way attempted by those listed above.
While we cannot simply equate events from history with contemporary circumstances, if there is an analogy to be drawn between Bonhoeffer’s time and our own, surely it is with the events of 1933. A once great nation had been humbled by its defeat in the First World War and was suffering under the humiliating conditions imposed upon it by the Treaty of Versailles. Rabid inflation had left many struggling to make ends meet and millions were left unemployed. In the midst of this constellation of circumstances, there arose from outside of the establishment a charismatic figure promising a return to Germanic greatness and glory. His criticisms of the workings of Weimar Republic establishment and his xenophobic and isolationist impulses appealed to struggling sectors of society looking for a scapegoat. Church leaders, who had seen their power and influence wane following the formation of the constitutional democracy of the Weimar Republic following the First World War, eagerly embraced the carrot of restored cultural influence and power dangled before them by the charismatic leader.
I am certainly no fan of Hillary Clinton. Furthermore, as a Canadian, I am only in an interested observer of American politics — I have no vote. However, if there are “unpleasant parallels” between the upcoming American election and the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, they may not be the ones that Metaxas has in mind.