Jacob L. Goodson
What wisdom, if any, does the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer have to offer us today? By “us,” I mean a general category: citizens of countries seeing the rise of populism—which comes with it anti-Semitism, racism, and white supremacist ideology. By “us,” I also mean a very particular category: academics, professors, and scholars who speak out and write about the problems of our current political crisis—and political divisions—but might feel hampered or limited by being mere academics.
As the General Editor of a journal tasked with promoting serious thinking about the treatment of religious believers and the inter-relationships between Christian, Jewish, and Muslim believers and scholars, I made the call to do a special issue on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology because of a wise and wonderful essay submitted to us by Claire Partlow after white supremacists took over Charlottesville, Virginia for a weekend in August 2017. In her essay, “Thinking Through Charlottesville with Bonhoeffer and Hauerwas: The Church-World Intersection and the Transforming Power of Ritual,” Partlow clarified how Bonhoeffer’s theology serves us in the 21st century for countering racism and encountering our racist enemies and neighbors. In addition to Cambridge, England, Charlottesville provides the home of Scriptural Reasoning (SR). In addition to her use of Bonhoeffer’s theology, Partlow’s reflections on SR really put down the gauntlet for me about what the JSR should be publishing and thinking through in relation to the rise of populism—with its manifestations of anti-Semitism, racism, and white supremacist ideology.
We present three sections to our readers: Re-reading Bonhoeffer in the 21st Century, Critical Responses to Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and a section of book reviews concerning Jewish theology and the politics of immigration. In the first section, Shayla Jordan and Nicholas Scott-Blakely provide honest arguments concerning the promises (Jordan’s essay) and limitations (Scott-Blakely’s essay) of looking for wisdom in Bonhoeffer’s theology. Jordan argues that Bonhoeffer’s account of discipleship offers a theological foundation or framework for fighting racism and white supremacy whereas Scott-Blakely claims that a residue of German anti-Semitism remains on Bonhoeffer’s theology—putting him in the lengthy and problematic tradition of Christian supersessionism. Both of these arguments become vitally important for questions concerning what wisdom, if any, Bonhoeffer has to offer us today. Jordan says Bonhoeffer has much theological wisdom for addressing racism and white supremacy in the 21st century, but Scott-Blakely warns against using Bonhoeffer’s theology for addressing anti-Semitism.
In the second section, we publish two critical responses to Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonheoffer (Knopf, 2014). Jackson Lashier emphasizes the “strangeness” of Bonhoeffer’s life and thinking, which is suggested in the title: Strange Glory. Martin Kavka reads Marsh’s biography as leaving readers with an unresolved tension between sexuality and subjectivity. While Kavka’s response is more critical of Marsh’s biography than Lashier’s is, it seems that both critical responses demonstrate the difficulty of affirming the question: what wisdom, if any, does Bonhoeffer have to offer us today?
We have several reviews ready for publication, but I wanted to publish two relevant reviews to the overall questions and themes of the present issue. The first review by Hanoch Ben Pazi offers positive reflections on Jewish theology, without having to address the problem of anti-Semitism. Second, Gary Slater reviews a recently published Cascade Companion on the politics of immigration. I do not pretend that any essay, response, or review published in this special issue is adequate for addressing the real problems of anti-Semitism, racism, and white supremacist ideology. However, Bonhoeffer’s ideas and name get thrown around and used during turbulent political times. At the very least, this special issue achieves what C. S. Peirce claims as the purpose of philosophy: to clarify vague ideas. In this special issue, we clarify some of the vague uses of Bonhoeffer’s theology in relation to the political problems we face today.