After seeing Eric’s link to Hauerwas’ talk on Bonhoeffer last night, I went and watched it
I took down some notes, then realized that the talk was probably online somewhere (at least the article he wrote that he was reading from). It was. It has some rather pointed things to say to the church, especially those that find themselves in a setting alongside “empire”.
Stanley Hauerwas: “Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Truth and Politics”
In his book, Living In Truth, Vaclav Havel calls attention to the innocent act of a manager of a fruit and vegetable shop who puts in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: â€œWorkers of the world, unite.â€ Why, Havel asks, does the shop owner put the sign in his window? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the possibility of the workers of the world uniting? Does he want to communicate his enthusiasm for this ideal to his fellow citizens? Does he have any idea what it might mean for workers to be so united?
Havel suspects the majority of shopkeepers who put such a sign in their window never think about what they are doing nor does the sign express their true opinions. The poster was delivered from the headquarters along with the onions. The shop owner put the sign in his window because he had always done so and if he did not he could get in trouble. Moreover the greengrocer thinks nothing is at stake because he understands that no one really believes what the slogan says. What is important is the subliminal message the sign communicates. Havel suggests the signâ€™s real message is: â€œI, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.â€ 42
To help us understand what is happening with the display of this sign, Havel suggests a thought experiment. Suppose the greengrocer had been asked to display the sign, â€œI am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient.â€ Even though the new sign expresses the truth, Havel observes that the greengrocer would be ashamed to display such a sign. He is, after all, a human being with some sense of his own dignity. The display of the sign â€œWorkers of the world uniteâ€ allows the greengrocer â€œto conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.â€
I suspect most of us think there to be a great distance between the sign in the greengrocerâ€™s window and the rise of National Socialism in Germany. Yet I think Bonhoeffer rightly saw that the Christian acceptance that truth does not matter in such small matters prepared the ground for the terrible lie that was Hitler. In order to expose the small as well as the big lies a community must exist that has learned to speak truthfully to one another. That community, moreover, must know that to speak truthfully to one another requires the time granted through the work of forgiveness. Such patient timefulness is a gift from the God the community believes has given us all the time we need to care for the words we speak to one another. Any politics absent such a people quite literally is doomed to live lies that are the breeding ground of violence. Bonhoeffer believed that the church is the sign God has placed in the windows of the world to make possible a truthful politics.
This means Bonhoefferâ€™s observations about the character of theological education in America are not what might be considered his personal prejudices. Rather they are a challenge to teacher and student alike that few things are more important than us holding ourselves as well as being held by the church to speak the truth. As odd as it may sound, given the accommodated character of the church in liberal societies, if the church does not itself preach the Gospel truthfully then politically we condemn ourselves and those to whom we are pledged to witness to what Bonhoeffer called â€œthe void.â€ A sobering observation, but one that at least directs those of us who count ourselves Christian to the task God has given us, that is, to be a people capable of speaking truthfully to ourselves, to our brother and sisters in Christ, and to the world.
Since the church too often seems unwilling to take the first step (ie.,”to be a people capable of speaking truthfully to ourselves, to our brother and sisters in Christ,”, it cannot proceed to step 2: “[to] the world.”) I think he has something here. Which makes it all the more exasperating that the church remains so mired in being “acceptable” and “nice” and taking the utilitarain position that if you rock the boat too much, then people will leave and then what do you have. It is very much a “politic” that is tragically been adopted from the world’s politics. “Inclusivity” has become “one size fits all”, and so the gospel gets neutered in the teaching of the church. In fact, there is rarely any “teachings” left to speak of, at least in practice.
“In order to expose the small as well as the big lies a community must exist that has learned to speak truthfully to one another. ” This is a big reason why I think That the ecclesia lived out “in the tradition of The Church of the Saviour” is so crucial, and so neglected and “unheard of” and so often dismissed by “big church” people as “idealism” or even “monasticism” (which isn’t really a negative characterization as far as I’m concerned). The underlying “foundation” that characterizes such a community is non-existent in much of American churches, which makes it impossible to be any kind of force or “polis” in the world. In fact, far from being a “polis”, it is simply an “activity” that we go and “sit and listen to”. And I’m tired of it, frankly.