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Rachel Muers (University of Leeds) recently gave a keynote lecture at the University of Aberdeen for a postgraduate conference titled "Bonhoeffer's Contemporary Voice." The conference considered how Bonhoeffer’s theology can inform contemporary issues in dogmatics and ethics. Dr. Muers’ lecture, titled “Truth, Trust, and Institutions: Thinking with and beyond Bonhoeffer,” explored Bonhoeffer’s essay fragment “What Does It Mean to Tell the Truth?” In the lecture, Dr. Muers draws upon Emilie Townes’ concept of the ‘true true’ to interrogate contemporary systems and institutions, asking how they express (or don’t express) “what is real in God.” The conference was graciously organized by Bradin Francabandera and Kevin O'Farrell. Bradin and Kevin are both PhD candidates at the University of Aberdeen.

A recording of Dr. Muers lecture is available, in full, at the following link: https://youtu.be/wJhvQn17Vn0

 

Bonhoeffer’s New Beginning: Ethics after Devastation

Q: We’re excited to talk about your new book on Bonhoeffer! This book grew out of your doctoral research at the University of Chicago so we know many years of work went into it. Going back to the beginning, what initially drew you to Bonhoeffer’s theology as a topic for your dissertation? In short, “Why Bonhoeffer?”

AD: Thank you for your interest in my book and your invitation to discuss it.

I started reading Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship in high school and his Ethics at Wheaton College. His sacrificial vision of Christianity and his courageous action in the face of Nazi totalitarianism deeply inspired me.

Then, early in my doctoral studies at the University of Chicago, I read his Creation and Fall several times. I was obsessed with the question of (new) beginnings, due in large part to my long-standing interests in Genesis 1 and some devastating experiences in Ethiopia, where I had worked as a pastor for three years. I was (and remain) convinced that how we think about “beginnings” – of the world, human life, waking up in the morning – profoundly defines and reveals how we understand ethics. So Creation and Fall was an uncanny fit, because the book theologically exposits Genesis 1-3 and searchingly discusses “beginnings.”

Nonetheless, I wrote an ambitious dissertation proposal in which Bonhoeffer had no role. I entitled it The Archeology of Ethics and the Constitution of Creation: On the Concept of Beginning in Genesis, St. Augustine, Hannah Arendt, and Deep History. I laugh now, because that project was at least four dissertations.

Then my beloved advisor, Jean Bethke Elshtain, passed away on August 11, 2013, and this proved to be an opening salvo of grief in my life. Soon after, my mother had a severe stroke; a close friend’s mother died of breast cancer; my mentor’s wife suddenly died of heart failure; and my marriage went through a season of intense pain. Meanwhile, I was practicing universal entry, which I’ll discuss below. The question of new beginnings – the interrogation and hope for them – became extremely personal to me, again, and Bonhoeffer remained an important inspiration.

Back to August 2013, I wrote an email to Professor Charles Mathewes asking for advice on my dissertation. He wrote back and asked, “Have you read Bonhoeffer’s CREATION AND FALL?” It’s amazing to me how a simple question can change our lives forever. It’s also amazing how we can love someone so much, and yet not put them at the center of our work. Chuck’s email flipped a switch, and within a few weeks, I had decided to abandon my original project to write on Bonhoeffer’s ethics of new beginning. I’m deeply grateful for Chuck’s guidance. More so, I’m grateful for the exceptional guidance of my final advisor, Professor William Schweiker. His ability to listen to my ideas, clarify them with prescient questions, and then provide empowering direction (especially my book’s focus on capacity, justification, and practice) astonished me. Bill’s generous leadership allowed my work to make a new beginning after Professor Elshtain’s grievous death, and illustrates for me Bonhoeffer’s principle that new beginnings can be hidden in our apparent endings.

I then embarked upon reading every surviving word that Bonhoeffer ever wrote in chronological order. That study took me almost exactly a year, and what I discovered was (1) that Bonhoeffer wrote a lot and often about beginnings, (2) that no study had ever been done on this central theme in his thought, and (3) that his position was very beautiful and compelling. (My book refers to around 250 Bonhoeffer documents.)

As an aside, I’ll never forget reading the final lines of the final volume – a gut-wrenching letter from his parents that he never answered because he was transferred to another prison and then executed. Of course, I had known exactly how Bonhoeffer’s story ended since high school. But getting to those last words was like nothing I have ever experienced as a scholar. I sat at my desk in a daze – grateful for his life, grieving his death, saddened that our year-long conversation had come to an end, wondering how anyone could kill such a beautiful human being, and passionately determined to write a comprehensive study of Bonhoeffer’s thought on (1) the human (in)capacity to make new beginnings, (2) justification and guidance for new beginnings, and (3) practices of new beginning.

And that’s what I did. As a younger scholar, it has been extremely encouraging that established scholars I respect like David Gushee, Jennifer McBride, and Victoria Barnett have called the book groundbreaking, prodigious, and some of the best work on Bonhoeffer in the last ten years.

More broadly, Bonhoeffer was the right choice for my research on the ethics of new beginning for at least three reasons.

First, Bonhoeffer was not an idealist or naïve optimist. If we are going to talk seriously about new beginnings, we must reckon unflinchingly with the reality of horrific evil and devastation. Nietzsche made this point very fiercely: most of us are not willing to stare into the face of the world and the human condition, because it terrifies us, and we don’t have the courage for an uncensored encounter with reality. But Bonhoeffer did.   

Second, Bonhoeffer nevertheless possessed a radical hopefulness precisely as he looked into the face of evil, which I find extremely inspiring, prophetic, and urgently needed today. While there is no escapism in Bonhoeffer, there is also no cynicism or defeatism in him either. Through it all, Bonhoeffer believed in the goodness of God, the faithfulness of Christ’s promise to renew all things, and thus the defiant witness of new beginnings. His final recorded words before he was hanged – “This is for me the end, but also the beginning” – capture his sensibility and appear to have been a personal mantra of sorts. I document this in the appendix to my book. Hope is the spring of human life, and Bonhoeffer is a profound witness to it.  

Third, Bonhoeffer was a thinker but also a practitioner. Of course, the question of beginnings is extremely profound on the theoretical level, as any reading of Plato, Augustine, Kant, Hegel, Mann, Arendt, or Bonhoeffer himself makes clear. But I believe the question of (new) beginnings is fundamentally a practical moral question: Can we make a new beginning? If so, which one, and why? If not, then what? Bonhoeffer’s thought directly engages these urgently practical questions about how we should live as creatures who ask about our beginnings and seek new beginnings today and tomorrow and at the limit of human existence – death itself. Bonhoeffer’s commitment to practicing and living his ideas, especially in such a catastrophic period, was extremely important to me. 

 

Q: Two seemingly simple, and yet profound questions operate like a melody line throughout your book: “Is it good to exist?” and “Should life in the world with others be loved without exclusion?” At first blush, these can seem like fairly straightforward questions. However, as you detail in your book, that is far from the case. What problematizes potential answers to these questions—particularly in today’s context?

AD: It’s important to recognize the uniqueness and profundity of these questions when thinking about what it means to be human. Philosophically speaking, all things that are exist (metaphysics). Moreover, some of the more complex forms of life have some knowledge of their existence (epistemology). But it is a uniquely human vocation to interrogate whether it is good to exist and thus whether life in the world should be loved (ethics).

All things exist, and some things know it, but only humans can make a judgment about whether being alive in the world is worthy of love or hatred or indifference. Amidst our experiences of joy and grief, justice and violation, community and loneliness, life and devastation, we want to know if it is good to be alive, if it should be cherished and committed to as a gift or only endured as a given or abandoned as a burden or actively attacked as a curse. Camus said that “to breathe is to judge.” His point was that the fact that each of us has not committed suicide, which is also a uniquely human capacity, indicates that we have made a judgment, implicit or explicit, that it is better to be alive than to kill ourselves. But this begs the questions of why we believe this and what the ethical implications are for how we live.  

These questions are even more challenging when they are universalized to include all people in our moral consciousness: “Is it good to exist, and should life in the world with others be loved without exclusion?” Some people may look at their lives and straightforwardly judge that they “have it good” and “can’t complain,” so, sure, “love it.” But what happens when others and their horrific suffering and devastation are brought into the question and our circle of concern, especially in our globalized world in which we have 24/7, worldwide access to human injustice and misery?

In Addis Ababa, there is a large roundabout called Mexico Square. It’s a major junction in the city and a place where some of the most desperately poor and maimed people beg. One day, I saw a very old woman begging for help in the name of God. Her one eye was blind. Her other eye had been ripped out of her eye-socket and was cocooned on her emaciated cheekbone. She was all alone in a river of people rushing by her as she cried out for help.

A year later, I was back in Addis and walking through Mexico Square again, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. That poor woman was still there, all by herself, begging for help, just like she was the year before. And then it hit me with incredible force: each day, each hour, each moment of the last year of my life – wherever I was, whatever I was doing – she was more than likely sitting alone desperately begging for help in blindness, aloneness, humiliation, and extreme poverty in Mexico Square. And it didn’t matter whether she was 7,000 miles away or right next to me; she exists, I know it, and her life matters. That recognition got me asking questions that intensely arrested and disturbed my consciousness.

If she is just as valuable and worthy of care as myself or my beloved mother, can there be any real joy in clear eyesight, delicious food, safe dwelling, and loving community – when she is subjected to such misery? In all of those experiences, I know that the woman in Mexico Square is suffering and deprived of most, if not all, of the goods I enjoy. So, are these goods really good if, to enjoy them, I must ignore or even actively expel the sufferings of this woman from my moral consciousness? Can you sit in a nice restaurant with dear friends and a tasty meal and actually declare, “This isgood!” when you know that she is simultaneously endangered, alone, and hungry?

But, of course, the problem is far worse. First, the woman in Mexico Square represents tens of millions of fellow humans who live their lives in abject misery. Researchers estimate that there are around twenty million slaves in the world today. Or look at Syria or Somalia or parts of the Southside of Chicago. I tell some of these stories in the first chapter of my book. Second, the moral questions I mentioned above can be asked in every moment of our lives, not just at nice restaurants – while studying, working, playing, grocery shopping, watching a movie, trying to fall asleep at night.

Again, is it good to exist and should life in the world be loved when this “goodness” and “love” are contingent upon overlooking or excluding our most devastated sisters and brothers? What kind of authentic goodness and love is predicated upon and only sustainable by radical privilege and exclusion? But giving access in our minds to the realities of other people’s lives opens us to a cataclysmic tidal wave of injustice, grief, and potential nihilism.

If we embrace what I call “universal entry” – this exercise of allowing others like the woman in Mexico Square to find a home in our moral consciousness rather than screening them out – it is anything but obvious that it is good to exist and that life in the world with others should be loved. And thus our ethical consciousness, which is so constitutive of our humanity, is critically problematized and even shattered. Even goodness becomes a “demented icon” of evil. When we really grapple with universal entry, suicide takes on a new seriousness.

And for me, this raises the fundamental problem of new beginnings: something is terribly wrong with ourselves and our world; can we start over? Can our fundamental convictions that it is good to exist and that life in the world with others should be loved without exclusion be resurrected after they have been crucified by an honest confrontation with reality?

That’s the gravitas of what my book is wrestling with.   

 

Q: Many people that are familiar with Bonhoeffer’s life and work may not be as familiar with the other thinkers in your book. How do the four philosophers you put Bonhoeffer in conversation with, Friedrich Nietzsche, Hannah Arendt, Jonathan Glover, and Jonathan Lear impact your reading of Bonhoeffer?

First, each of these thinkers was, or still is, a nonreligious philosopher, so they immediately introduce a different point of view. I didn’t want my book to be a Christian echo chamber.

Second, each of them grapples with the enormity of (real or imagined) evil and devastation. Nietzsche’s whole philosophy is constituted by the claim that human existence and, indeed, the universe as a whole is driven by “the will to power and nothing more” – the rapacious desire to conquer and consume others. Arendt wrestles with “radical evil” in the ruins of the Holocaust “after all hopes have died.” Glover painstakingly documents a “moral history of the 20th century,” guiding the reader through its most terrible conflicts and genocides and estimating that one person was killed in war every thirty seconds (!) of every minute of the last century. Lear examines the “cultural devastation” of the Sioux Indian tribe after the American government conquered and relocated them to a reservation where it was impossible for them to practice their traditional way of life. So each of these figures puts a searching microscope on the brutal realities of the human condition, which sets up my book’s central problem: the ethics of new beginnings after devastation.

Third, each of them tries to offer a compelling ethics of new beginning in response to the picture of reality they describe. Can they make a plausible case that it is good to exist and that life in the world with others should be loved without exclusion? What is their solution, and what are the implications? I try to accurately reconstruct each of their unique but overlapping positions.

Fourth, I argue that they can’t provide positive answers to my questions, and thus I turn to Bonhoeffer to see if he can.

In short, then, these significant thinkers illustrate the enormity of the problem, a variety of secular responses to it, and also – so I argue – the need for another option. The rest of my book reconstructs Bonhoeffer’s ethics of new beginning and why I think it enables us to affirm that, yes, it is good to exist and, yes, life in the world with us should be loved. That is, I argue that Bonhoeffer’s ethics is capable of redeeming our overall interpretation of and commitment to reality as uniquely (im)moral creatures. 

 

Q: A central theme of your book is interrogating the possibility of recovery after devastation or, as you put it, “beginning anew” after devastation. What do you mean by devastation, and how does it relate to what you call the “exercise of universal entry?”

AD: First, in the preface (entitled “Beginning”) to my book, I mention that I understand “devastation” not only as the destruction of our capacity to begin again but also the demoralization of our will to begin again. That is, we are radically devastated when we think not only that we can’t begin again but more fundamentally that we shouldn’t or that it is no longer worth trying, because existence is so atrocious and/or evil. In this sense, “devastation” is a double destruction of both our existential and ethical condition and very close to nihilistic despair, the undermining conviction that reality is morally empty, meaningless, and doomed to nothingness.

What I try to argue in the first chapter of my book is that the practice of universal entry – intentionally making the mind a welcoming space for others in their suffering – is, in fact, devastating – unless a new beginning can be found that redeems its universal embrace of others in their devastation. (I call universal entry an exercise, because, like Nietzsche, I think most of us are terrified by reality, and thus confronting it requires an intentional, consistent, courageous practice. Otherwise, we remain in partial honesty and illusory optimism at best.) I write about “consciousness becoming an asylum of sufferers, a mourning tent, a burial ground for the dead and dying” within the practice of universal entry. And rather than dramatic exaggerations, each of these images describes ways that I have felt as I face the world and especially as I try to practice universal entry.

So universal entry becomes the grounding – or really the unearthing – trial of the questions I ask: Is it good to exist? Should life in the world with others be loved without exclusion? And absent any obvious positive answers to these questions, it sets the problem to which my book tries to respond: if universal entry is what a good mind looks like (a mind that doesn’t blithely enjoy life based on ignoring or excluding others but welcomes all), and if universal entry is devastating, is it possible to be good and to still love life? Or does joy in life become, at best, a bitterly necessary evil and goodness, self-ruin? 

 

Q: According to Bonhoeffer, what (or perhaps we should ask who) is a new beginning and how exactly do new beginnings happen?

AD: Thank you for reading my book carefully, which your question reveals.

In the third chapter, I make the argument that Bonhoeffer thinks that humans are not capable of autonomously making new beginnings for ourselves. This is Bonhoeffer’s critical moral anthropology. In fact, Bonhoeffer believes that this drive to make ourselves anew goes to the core of what is wrong with us (“the fall”) and what ultimately devastates us. (The rhetoric of “new beginning” in Hitler and Nazism is fascinating and sobering.) Rather than receiving our lives and the world as God’s precious gifts born from nothing but love, we dis-grace creation and want to re-create it as our own. Thus, in Creation and Fall, Bonhoeffer calls the drive to possess and make the beginning a “satanic” temptation.

In our age obsessed with novelty, innovation, “start ups,” and other forms of trying to make new beginnings (I think of Yuval Harari’s interesting work in Homo Deus), I’m convinced that Bonhoeffer’s critical analysis is extremely important. Through Bonhoefferian lenses, so much of what we identify and idolize as “new” – that which promises greater power and self-importance – is in fact desperately old and often disastrous.

The paradox is that Bonhoeffer’s new beginning begins in an apparent ending: when we recognize and embrace that we ourselves are not capable of starting over by ourselves. This is why I argue at the end of chapter five and in the appendix that Bonhoeffer’s last recorded words – “This is for me the end, but also the beginning” – encapsulates his ethics of new beginning. Only when we surrender our drive to autonomously begin are we ready to begin anew.  

Moreover, Bonhoeffer thinks that the new beginning emerges precisely in the place of pain where we enter into the sufferings of others like Jesus describes in Matthew 25:31-46. (I haven’t done the numbers, but this must be one of the most quoted or alluded to passages of the Bible in Bonhoeffer’s corpus. Bonhoeffer repeatedly returned to this parable and insisted that we meet Christ himself in suffering others when we embrace them with love.) The devastation of universal entry has the potential, at least, to be a participation in the sufferings of Christ and thus redemptive.

Bonhoeffer fundamentally believes that the new beginning is a self-transcendent life of being with and for others, like God at the beginning of the world. That is, Bonhoeffer’s new beginning is radical love. And Bonhoeffer thinks that this new beginning, precisely as you said, is not a “what” or abstract idea or possibility but a concrete person: Jesus of Nazareth who is also the embodiment of God. Jesus was “the human being for others” to the point of crucifixion and the agonizing powerlessness of death, and it was precisely as such that Jesus is revealed as the Son of God who was resurrected and defeated death with newness of life. And thus when we participate in Christ and embrace his “form” of self-transcendent love (which Bonhoeffer also sees as the form of God’s act of creation “in the beginning”), we are liberated from our self-imprisoned egocentrism, and a new beginning commences. In my book, I call this “welcoming, waiting on, and responding to others.”

So new beginnings happen in this miraculous liberation from self to be with and for others in love “just like Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:2). And, again, part of Bonhoeffer’s (often Luther-influenced) argument is that we cannot make this happen or fabricate this for ourselves. It is a gift that mysteriously happens to us through Christ’s grace.

Having said that, I argue that Bonhoeffer also believes that Christ has given us practices of new beginning, which help rehabilitate our agency for new Christological beginnings – what he calls “paradoxically passive action.” More practices could be traced in his work, but I discuss six in some depth: (1) baptism; (2) prayer, intercession, and discernment; (3) repentance, confession, and forgiveness; (4) service, resistance, and suffering; (5) gratitude; and (6) witnessing God’s own practical promise of resurrection.

To sum up: (1) Christ – in creation, incarnation, cross, and resurrection – is the new beginning. And (2) Christ is new precisely because he is the one who freely welcomes others as good gifts – those who never were before and needn’t have existed except for Christ’s self-transcending, self-giving love. And thus (3) we experience and embody Christ’s new-beginning power when we enter into his way of life and exist with and for others. That is, for Bonhoeffer, the human new beginning is a following after (Nachfolge or “discipleship”). In a profound sense, then, (4) each one of us is a/the new beginning when we live in self-transcending love, and this points to an extremely fascinating and repeated emphasis in Bonhoeffer that we can be “Christ for one another.” This takes us back to Matthew 25:31-46 and his interpretation of repentance, confession, and forgiveness: while we cannot replace Christ, Bonhoeffer thinks that we can “stand in the place of Christ” and forgive one another and thus give one another God’s own new beginning. 

I want to emphasize how novel Bonhoeffer’s position is precisely because it isn’t about novelty at all. Bonhoeffer’s critique of human-made new beginnings makes a lot of sense, because Bonhoeffer was living in a society whose leadership was making vaulting promises of newness, and yet they produced extermination camps and hell on earth. Thus, Bonhoeffer’s new beginning is not fundamentally or primarily about myself, my innovation, my enlargement, my new start – or my group’s. Bonhoeffer’s new beginning is about the other and their priority and a new community in which we love one another as ourselves. And this, again I believe, furnishes us with a powerful critique of and alternative concept to contemporary notions of newness, which so often are egocentric and even narcissistic. Certainly, Bonhoeffer would unequivocally argue – against the shameful distortions of Eric Metaxas – that Trump’s promise of a new, great-again-America is fundamentally old and perhaps even satanic, because of its pervasive narcissism and antichrist devaluation and exclusion of others. Bonhoeffer would be deeply alarmed by the populist, often racist animus of much contemporary politics.    

 

Q: Towards the end of the book, you write about “practices of new beginnings” in Bonhoeffer’s thought. What are some of the practices that Bonhoeffer identified as central to cultivating new beginnings after devastation? How do power and privilege trouble/impact these practices?

AD: As I mentioned above, I try to unpack six practices (or nuclei of practices) in Bonhoeffer’s corpus. I am inspired and challenged by all of them, but let me mention a few.

First, baptism is a once-enacted but ever-reenacted practice of dying, and only then being risen to a new beginning by Christ himself. Bonhoeffer thinks that the waters of baptism should wash us clean of nationalism, racism, classism, and the other divisions that belong to the “old world” and dis-gracefully attack Christ’s will for us to be with and for one another as God’s good gifts. Thus, for example, Bonhoeffer argues that baptism in antebellum America should have destroyed the institution of slavery and racism with it, because if the slaving “Christians” of America had truly taken their baptism seriously, they would have been dead to this dehumanizing system and seen their slaves as sisters and brothers, indeed, as embodiments of the suffering Christ himself (Matthew 25 again). The problem here is that baptism easily becomes a marker of (antichrist) Christian identity, which perversely endows the baptized with privilege in the identity group and power over others outside or beneath it. Here Bonhoeffer fiercely attacks the Nazified Christian idea that baptism did not equalize Germans and Jews as equal children of God.

Second, prayer and especially intercession is a practice in which we voluntarily bear the weight of others’ pain and brokenness, bring them before God in our hearts, and ask God to bless and heal them. I love Bonhoeffer’s definition of blessing: “Despite everything, you belong to God.” It is evident how this practice would liberate a self-imprisoned ego to welcome, wait upon, and respond to others. For example, Bonhoeffer argues that it should be impossible for Christians to hate anyone, because Christians should actively pray for their enemies, and how is it possible to hate someone that you have patiently, persistently lifted up before the face of God for him to bless and heal them?! So prayer here is not exactly my “alone” or “private” time with God but rather a hidden practice in which I am surrounded by so many others in the presence of God, and my prejudices and animosities are abolished. But, like baptism, the danger of prayer is that it devolves into a privileged experience where it’s “just God and me,” others are forgotten, and I focus my attention on my desire for special favor above/against others.

Third, Bonhoeffer roots his endorsement of political resistance in his practice of self-giving service for others. Bonhoeffer’s paradoxical insight here is that when a totalitarian government is dominating the weak and powerless, resisting that government and willingly suffering for doing so, if need be, is a form of participating in the suffering of Christ for powerless humanity. That is, rather than political resistance being a form of violent aggression, it becomes a paradoxical form of Christological ministry in which we embrace guilt and give ourselves for others’ liberation. (As an aside, I’m convinced that Bonhoeffer was never a pacifist in any simplistic sense. His July 1932 address “On the Theological Foundation of the Work of the World Alliance” is crucial on this matter.)  I believe Bonhoeffer’s insight here is extremely important and must be (re)discovered by Christians around the world, especially those living in oppressive contexts like I do in Ethiopia where the church – like most of Bonhoeffer’s church – is all but silent and passive in the face of so many neighbors’ horrific destruction. Once again, the danger is that the church becomes a self-preserving entity in which there is “no risk-taking for others” and only exercises power for its own protection and privilege.

Finally, the physical resurrection of the dead by God’s miraculous power is the lynchpin of Bonhoeffer’s ethics of new beginning, which is ultimately God’s practice of new beginning to which we witness now. Students have asked me if the later Bonhoeffer abandoned his belief in the resurrection, but he certainly did not, and I trust my book makes this clear. If Christ is not risen and God will not raise us with him, our world is damned to devastation – to the finality and ultimacy of injustice, violence, death, and nihilism. Bonhoeffer is brutally, refreshingly blunt on this point. In fact, Bonhoeffer was emphatic that this very earth on which Christ’s cross was lifted up is the earth that God will renew and we with it. But, like all the other practices of new beginning, the danger of witnessing the resurrection is that we see it as a self-privileging elevator to heaven beyond the troubles of earth, rather than a source of courage to give ourselves for our neighbors, even to the point of death, trusting that God will make all things new when heaven and earth are fully reconciled. (I’m convinced that Bonhoeffer’s theology leads to a nuanced, hopeful universalism, perhaps like C.S. Lewis. One of the striking discoveries in my research was Bonhoeffer’s repeated claim that true believers should be willing to give up their salvation for the damned and that this is a sign of their true salvation, which Bonhoeffer roots in Romans 9:3.)

The fifth chapter of my book on Bonhoeffer’s practices of new beginning is by far the longest, and I cannot summarize it here. But the essence of each practice is welcoming, waiting upon, and responding to others in love and thus abandoning and overcoming our entrenched drive to privilege ourselves. These are practices of learning how to be “humans for others” like Christ himself and thus they have Christological, sacramental significance, though Bonhoeffer doesn’t often use that language. 

Q: It seems that globally, we are desperately in need of new societal beginnings. Are social, collective, political, or structural new beginnings possible? And can we draw upon Bonhoeffer’s own life and political resistance as a resource or guide?

AD: This is an urgently important question. My short answer is mostly no and hopefully yes.

I say mostly no, because if we are not careful, this desperation will betray our lingering hubris and the conceit that we ourselves can make some messianic change in our societies and their governing structures. Bonhoeffer’s worry – and I think this is prescient – is that these structural programs all too easily claim and justify unlimited power, which is often a cloak for what Bonhoeffer called “the spirit of annihilation,” which leaves behind “fields of corpses.” Again, the Nazi promise of a new beginning for Germany and the “Arian race” is extremely sobering. So part of the paradoxical nature of the Christian work of new beginning must be the critique and challenging of our idols of new beginning. As I mentioned above, I think Trump’s slogan and the ideology behind “making America great again” merits serious Christian criticism. The American “new world” was also a place of conquest and genocide, which we conveniently forget.

I also say hopefully yes, and Bonhoeffer insists that this must begin with repentance, confession, and forgiveness. That is, there is no real beginning without the grief and lamentation about the devastation that has been wrought. Thus, rather than the new beginning commencing with a sense of triumphal optimism and human possibility, it starts with a sober ownership and acknowledgement of our capacity to unleash terrible evil on one another.

In fact, this is precisely what Bonhoeffer prophetically does in his Ethics. In the section on the Ten Commandments, rather than using these commands as benchmarks of the church’s holiness or even ideals for its approximation (“Christian culture”), he uses them as judgments that call for the church’s own naked confession of its complicity and indeed active role in the evil of the socio-political order. Thus, Bonhoeffer saw the church as a prophetic community amidst devastation, not because of its privileged holiness, but because of its leadership in confessing the damnamus against itself – the rejection of its own failure to follow in the way of Christ’s new beginning. Surely, for example, Bonhoeffer would call white Evangelicals in America to explicitly and boldly denounce its racist past and seek forgiveness among our African-American sisters and brothers, something that has never played in any role in the churches with which I am familiar.   

Nevertheless, I think Bonhoeffer would soberly caution us against any form of optimism about sudden or systematic change. We find our best hope for new beginnings when (1) we recognize that we desperately need a new beginning and (2) we begin by confessing that we don’t have the autonomous knowledge or power to make it happen and thus that (3) we are radically dependent on a power that transcends ourselves (to speak in a secular idiom) and one another across boundaries as neighbors who will be fallible until death but still filled with hope now and then.  

 

Q: Perhaps this question may be too much of an attempt to psychoanalyze Dietrich Bonhoeffer the person, but does he have his own “new beginning” at some point in his life?

AD: This is a wonderfully thought-provoking question. As I document extensively in footnote 153 of chapter 4, Bonhoeffer always insisted that his life was marked by fundamental continuity, saying, “I don’t think I have changed very much.” But he does mention several moments where his life shifted in some significant way. One certainly includes discovering the theology of Karl Barth, though Bonhoeffer was never an uncritical disciple of Barth. Certainly his travels to Italy and North Africa in 1924 made a profound impression on his life, as if he fell in love with the world for the first time (and made him question if Barth had ever really traveled!). His time in North America in 1930-1931, primarily at Union Theological Seminary and in Harlem among African-Americans and new friends, profoundly influenced him. (See Reggie William’s Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus.)

One thing I am convinced of, however, is that there is almost nothing “new” in Bonhoeffer’s prison writings. I believe one could document precedents for almost all of Bonhoeffer’s statements and formulations in his earliest work. “Religionless Christianity” was certainly not some kind of novel discovery, much less a “new beginning” or departure in his thought. He says this explicitly, and any reader of his early work knows this. Bonhoeffer’s prison theology intensified and sharpened his earliest convictions.

Something I would like to discover is when Bonhoeffer first read and/or encountered Matthew 25:31-46. He starts quoting or alluding to it as early as 1926 when he was twenty, and I am convinced that it was one of the keys to his life and thought. From very early on, this very privileged young man became convinced that God is especially near to and found among – found in – the poor and powerless, the condemned and outcasted. (See pp. 214-215 of my book for a montage of references.) This is one of the things that most impresses me about Bonhoeffer: he did not live his life trying to cement the status of people like himself but gave his life writing, ministering, and fighting for people so unlike himself. When and how did this begin?

Regarding psychoanalysis, some scholars have asked whether Bonhoeffer had romantic feelings for his best friend Eberhard Bethge. I don’t have a strong opinion but a tensioned observation. On the one hand, some of Bonhoeffer’s personal letters to Bethge evince an affection and odd possessiveness that could be interpreted in this direction. On the other hand, Bonhoeffer’s engagement with Maria strikes me as very passionate and real. It is interesting to note that in one of the later volumes of Bonhoeffer’s Works, there is a footnote in which the editor says that some sensitive material has been cut out. I have asked several Bonhoeffer scholars about this singular footnote, but most of them hadn’t noticed it or don’t know what is behind it.

From Bonhoeffer’s own theological perspective, perhaps the most profound new beginning in his life was his death. As a believer in the resurrection, I hope to meet Dietrich Bonhoeffer in what he called “the new world of the resurrection” when God gives us the most radical gift of new beginning after everything has fallen apart.   

 

Q: Now that Bonhoeffer’s New Beginning has been published, what are you working on?

AD: I have sketchy outlines of thirteen books I’d like to work on before I turn forty.

The first is called What Is Christianity? Presence, Practice, and Protest. Its root claims are (1) that the Christian God is the lover of the nothing (creation), the enemy (Christ), and the dead (resurrection), and (2) that the Christian life is meant to be lived as the practice of this God’s presence in our world, and (3) that doing so serves as an embodied protest to the forces of devaluation, hatred, and violence in our communities.

Another book project I’m outlining is a study of the Book of Ruth as an overlooked but provocative source for Christian ethics today. I see Boaz as the Bible’s first paradoxically biblical dissident. While Deuteronomy and so many other texts insist that Moabites must never be included in the community of Israel, Boaz gives his hesed – his covenantal, divine love – to the officially forbidden Moabitess Ruth. In that scandalous way, Boaz helps give birth to the messiah Jesus, which Matthew highlights on the first page of his Gospel. Boaz is the embodiment of God’s faithful love by being unfaithful to the Mosaic Law precisely through his faithful love for a condemned, cursed outsider. So how should this biblical book help us reimagine Christian ethics and Christian community today?

In the coming months, I hope to film an online video course tentatively called Neighbor-Love: A Biblical Idea that Could Save the World, which will accessibly unpack my research on neighbor-love in Christian thought and history. Arendt once said that most thinkers only truly work on one thought in their lives, and if mine is not beginnings, it is neighbor-love. (1) What does it mean and require to love all others as ourselves, in light of Jesus’s universalization of the “neighbor,” including the enemy? (2) How can we cultivate the practice of neighbor-love in our character and ordinary lives? (3) And how can neighbor-love become central to our churches’ and societies’ ideals and initiatives? Whether it’s racism in America or ethnocentrism in Ethiopia, we urgently need to see the other person as our neighbor, someone we are commanded – and gifted! – by God to love and care for. I firmly believe that neighbor-love could save us from so much devastation and hell. Jesus centralized neighbor-love in his preaching and practice, but I fear that many of our communities have neutered, neglected, or completely lost this revolutionary idea. It is our time’s crucial new beginning.  

Getting back to Bonhoeffer directly, I would love to find time to write a compact monograph on Bonhoeffer’s use of Matthew 25:31-46 and his repeated, rich, and revolutionary claim that we meet Christ in others. In a 1928 sermon, Bonhoeffer declared, “‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me,’ Jesus says. I am for you, and you are for me God’s claim, God himself; in this recognition, our gaze opens to the fullness of divine life in the world.” I’ve collected 30,000 words of similar statements from Bonhoeffer’s corpus. How did Bonhoeffer come to believe this? How should we interpret and evaluate it? And what are its ethical implications for our belief and behavior today?

I’ve devoted the next five years of my life to these projects, while serving as a mentor for young leaders and developing a Christian center in Ethiopia devoted to being a voice for these values in East Africa. If there are readers who would like to learn more or get behind this work, please email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and/or visit my website at www.andrew-decort.com.

Thank you again for your interest in my work! It’s a special gift.

Andrew DeCort’s new book, Bonhoeffer’s New Beginning: Ethics after Devastation is available for purchase on the following websites:

Rowman's: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781978700994/Bonhoeffer%E2%80%99s-New-Beginning-Ethics-after-Devastation.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Bonhoeffers-New-Beginning-Ethics-Devastation/dp/1978700997

The Fourth International Barth Symposium

The organizers of the Fourth International Karl Barth Symposium invite proposals for presentations. The symposium will take place at the Johannes a Lasco Library in Emden from May 9th to 12th, 2019.

The theme of the conference is:

“God-Shattered – God-Certain: The Relevance of Karl Barth’s Doctrine of God.” “Gotteserschütterung – Gottesgewissheit: Die Relevanz der Gotteslehre Karl Barths

This symposium will deal with Karl Barth’s doctrine of God. It is intended to aid our understanding and interpretation of Barth’s texts, but we also hope to discuss fruitful connections and the potential wider repercussions of his ideas. The overall goal is to ask for the present and future relevance of

Barth’s doctrine of God.

In addition to plenary lectures, there will be presentation panels in the afternoon. We are seeking proposals for short presentations (30 minutes max) as part of these panels.

Presentation panels will be devoted to these topics:

  1. Barth’s TheologicalRealism

(e.g., the question of analogy, gender issues, God and the gods, Barth’s notion of the lordless powers)

  1. Contextual Talk about God inProclamation

(e.g., Barth’s time in Safenwil, the churches and the Nazi state, Barth’s prison sermons)

  1. Barth’s Doctrine of God and “Postsecular”Society

(e.g., atheism, multi-religious society, Barth and Islam, subjectivity theory, Barth and Plantinga)

  1. Barth’s Doctrine of God andEthics

(e.g., the question of peace, Barth and Hauerwas, the foundations of ethics in the doctrine of God, the crisis of democracy)

We invite proposals dealing with these or similar subtopics. Junior scholars such as doctoral students are especially encouraged to submit proposals.

Proposals for presentations should not exceed 500 words. Besides the proposed topic, main arguments, and conclusions, please include your professional position, your most important relevant publication, and area(s) of academic work. Presentations can be delivered in English or German, but the conference will be held mainly in German.

Proposals should be submitted no later than July 1, 2018.

Please send your text to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.Prof. Georg Plasger can also be reached at this email address with any further questions. A small committee will select the most suitable submissions and inform applicants in August 2018. Successful applicants will receive free registration, meals, lodging, and travel costs.

Victoria J. Barnett is a scholar who has served as a general editor of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, the English translation series of the theologian’s complete works, published by Fortress Press. She is the author of For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest against Hitler (Oxford University Press, 1992) and Bystanders: Conscience and Complicity during the Holocaust (Greenwood Press, 1999). 

You’ve written the introduction to a new edition of Bonhoeffer’s essay, After Ten Years. In the past that essay has usually appeared as a preface of sorts to Letters and Papers from Prison. Why a new edition of that particular essay now?

This is my favorite Bonhoeffer text, and I’ve thought for several years that it deserved to be published as a stand-alone edition. It’s so eloquent and powerful. As I wrote in my introduction, it is timeless—which is interesting, because it has such a concrete historical context. I don’t think it’s accidental many of the most-quoted passages from Bonhoeffer are from this essay. But to your question, why now?: We’re living in a time where many of us are wrestling collectively and individually with issues of conscience and our responsibilities as people of faith and as citizens. This essay goes to the heart of those issues.

After Ten YearsBonhoeffer addresses a wide range of issues in After Ten Years including the failure of German institutions, moral passivity and civic cowardice on the part of its citizens, the susceptibility of Germans to the influences of propaganda and group think, and more. Have you underlined a passage in the essay that you think is particularly worth highlighting? If you have, why does it catch your attention?

My favorite sentence in the essay comes from the section on “Some statements of faith on God’s action in history”: “I believe that our mistakes and shortcomings are not in vain and that it is no more difficult for God to deal with them than with our supposedly good deeds.”

It’s simultaneously a reminder for humility and against hopelessness—a reminder that while we may fall short and we don’t know what the outcome of our actions will be, that’s no reason to lose hope and it’s certainly no reason not to act. That perspective—don’t lose hope, take responsibility for whatever you can do, and don’t become paralyzed by doubt or your own failings—is the subtext of so much of this essay. Many other passages touch on it—think of the section “Are we still of any use?” It’s the aspect of the essay that moves me the most personally.

Bonhoeffer’s emotions seem unusually close to the surface in After Ten Years, even more so than in the letters he writes from prison. Do we learn anything about Bonhoeffer from this brief essay?  

This kind of relates to what I was just talking about. I wouldn’t quite describe this essay as “whistling in the dark,” but he wrote it at a very uncertain time, and I get the sense that he was trying to clarify and strengthen his own resolve. The day-to-day pressures of those years must have taken their toll. In my own research I’ve found several accounts by people who knew Bonhoeffer who describe a certain emotional fragility (and of course Bonhoeffer himself wrote about his struggles with depression). I personally believe that’s one reason for his frequent trips out of Nazi Germany; he just had to get out and breathe free air for a little while. By late 1942 things were closing in—everywhere, not just in Bonhoeffer’s circles. Both for the victims of National Socialism and those who opposed it, the atmosphere in Berlin was grim on so many levels.

In my own research I’ve found several accounts by people who knew Bonhoeffer who describe a certain emotional fragility.

I’ll add another interesting note: last fall I happened to meet a US physician who had a long friendship with Eberhard Bethge (Bonhoeffer’s friend and biographer) and his wife Renate. This doctor shared with me an interview he did with Bethge, and I learned for the first time that Bonhoeffer’s father Karl read this letter to the entire family at Christmas 1942. That was news to me. After Ten Years has been understood as a confidential letter to his closest friends in the conspiracy, although Bethge does note in his biography that Bonhoeffer gave a copy to his father. It’s interesting if Bonhoeffer’s father shared this with the family—and this was an extraordinarily close family—and that makes me think more about the emotional undertone you mention.

I would add that Bonhoeffer wrote this between November 1942, when Maria von Wedemeyer’s family had asked him not to write her, and January 13, 1943, when she wrote to say that she would marry him. While there’s been a lot of speculation about their relationship, his January 17 response to her letter and the subsequent love letters between them do indicate some genuine emotional attachment—it’s as if their relationship opens a new door for him and he begins to envision a personal future in a way that he hadn’t before. So I agree with you; I think there’s a lot going on here.

In your introduction to the new edition you warn readers about the hazards of drawing simplistic historical analogies in general, and about the period of National Socialism in particular. Yet, aspects of political life in Bonhoeffer’s Germany seem to help many to gain insight into our own political situation, and, as you have said, you think a new edition of the work is timely. Are you, nevertheless, resistant to pointing to Bonhoeffer and his times as a useful historical analogue to our own? If so, why?

I think Bonhoeffer’s reflections in this essay hold many insights for us today, but I stumble over the phrase “useful historical analogue.” I don’t mean at all to minimize the significance of the xenophobia, hatred, and nationalism that we’re seeing in some parts of our society (and internationally as well), and threats to civil liberties and the free press should be taken very seriously. There are clearly people in our country and elsewhere today who draw inspiration from the history of Nazi Germany and that’s extremely disturbing. Frankly, however, I think we’re wrestling more with the demons of our own history than with German ones, and any response or solution we come up with has to address those demons.

My biggest concern is that a focus on comparisons to Nazi Germany may deflect our attention from the very American roots of much of what we’re seeing.

The level on which historical analogies may be most useful is at the level of ordinary human behavior—and of course, to some extent that’s what Bonhoeffer is writing about in After Ten Years.The level on which historical analogies may be most useful is at the level of ordinary human behavior—and of course, to some extent that’s what Bonhoeffer is writing about in After Ten Years. I wrote a book several years ago about the issue of “bystanders,” in which I argued that the political and social dynamics by which certain groups are “otherized,” for example, or the processes by which ordinary people start out as “bystanders” but end up becoming complicit in evil, or the processes by which we rationalize such complicity, or the processes by which bureaucrats and institutions get co-opted, tend to be very similar, whatever the political circumstances.

My biggest concern is that a focus on comparisons to Nazi Germany may deflect our attention from the very American roots of much of what we’re seeing. This is hardly the first time in US history when racism, xenophobia, isolationism, nativism, and nationalism became powerful political forces. The Ku Klux Klan had a resurgence during the 1920s, and the antisemitism, racism, and anti-Catholicism of that era led to a dramatic rise in hate groups during the 1930s. Last summer Neo-Nazis and white supremacists convened in Charlottesville because of the city of Charlottesville voted to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee—a Confederate monument that was commissioned—like many Confederate monuments—during the Jim Crow era (the Lee statue was commissioned in 1917 and dedicated in 1924).

In addition to our ongoing struggles with racism and the legacy of slavery, we’re wrestling with other issues, like deeply clashing philosophies about centralized government vs. states’ rights, about regulation of corporations and businesses, about distribution of wealth. All that sounds very wonkish but these things have consequences not only politically but for our values as a civil society. Should the federal government be run like a corporation, and what does that mean for the ideals of public service or foreign policy? Should we privatize and outsource certain agencies (as has already happened with much of our prison system)? Do we want to live in a society where the rights of women, or immigrants, or gay or transgender individuals, or the poor, vary from state to state? Do we believe in having some kind of social safety net? Do we believe in having free access to information?  All those things are on the table.

We could also draw on the long and rich tradition in our history of resistance by people like Elizabeth Stanton, Harriet Tubman, Dr. Martin Luther King, etc.—people who didn’t just fight against injustice but articulated a new language and vision for what our society can be.

The key is to bring Bonhoeffer’s insights into conversation with those voices in US history who have spoken to similar issues in our context.

So I think the key here is not to impose Nazi Germany as the template by which we measure what’s happening, but to bring Bonhoeffer’s insights into conversation with those voices in US history who have spoken to similar issues in our context. That’s why at the end of my introductory essay for this edition of After Ten Years I mention Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and Abraham Heschel’s No Religion is an Island. Those texts, like Bonhoeffer’s essay, acknowledge the reality of social and political evil but in a provocative and challenging way that appeals to our better selves.

Sorry this has turned into such a long answer, but as you can see I think a lot about these things.

As an editor of the English translation of Bonhoeffer’s complete works, the editor and reviser of the first unabridged English edition of Eberhard Bethge’s monumental biography of Bonhoeffer, a historian of the German church under National Socialism, and as a Bonhoeffer scholar in your own right, you must have read nearly every known word the man wrote. Can you point to some ways that this prolonged and detailed exposure to Bonhoeffer has affected you?

This certainly wasn’t planned! When I wrote my first book on the Confessing Church I deliberately focused on the “non-Bonhoeffers” because I felt that there was already enough literature on Bonhoeffer. Oh, well.

We tend to read him only as a theologian, but like all of us, he was a complex person who was shaped by many factors.

I’d say that for all the differences between his world and perspective and my own, I’ve come to see him as a reliably thoughtful conversation partner, especially with regard to how we Christians think about our role as citizens. We tend to read him only as a theologian, but like all of us, he was a complex person who was shaped by many factors, one of which was the humanism and sense of public responsibility that characterized much of his family, and that resonates with me. This may sound odd, but I also feel almost a tenderness about the poignancy of this young man and his brief life.

There were moments throughout the Bonhoeffer project, often in one of his letters, when I would suddenly get a deeper glimpse of the person and that was always moving. When you spend years looking at the close-up, sometimes daily, record of someone’s life, you’re reminded constantly how short our life on this earth is, and how little control we have over much of what happens to us.

Just as various divergent Christian theological camps claim Reinhold Niebuhr as their own—there’s the conservative Niebuhr and the liberal Niebuhr—there is now a struggle over Bonhoeffer. Is he to be seen through the lens of evangelical Christianity in the US, or is he more appropriately placed in the tradition of progressive Christianity? What do you make of this tug of war?

First, I think this is a very US-specific phenomenon, and it’s been part of the Bonhoeffer story from the beginning. When Eberhard Bethge arrived at Harvard in 1958 to work on the biography, he commented that “everyone here has his own Bonhoeffer.” That’s partly due to the drama of Bonhoeffer’s life story and partly due to his ability to write about the meaning and challenges of Christian faith in the modern world in a language that speaks to Christians, whether they are evangelicals or liberal mainline Protestants. So everyone likes to claim him but they take the story and his theological significance in different directions.

Politically, his attitudes are pretty clear. He was very outspoken during his time in the US about our problems with racism and horrified by the treatment of African Americans, including the lynchings of that era. In February 1933 when the new Nazi government started targeting its political opponents he wrote Reinhold Niebuhr that Germany needed a Civil Liberties Union. He urged his church to speak out for those who were targeted and powerless. He offered an immediate and unambiguous critique of the Christian nationalism that was embraced by so many German Protestants.

Theologically, he’s complex and doesn’t fit neatly on one side or the other of our American religio-culture wars.

Theologically, he’s complex and doesn’t fit neatly on one side or the other of our American religio-culture wars. There are certain texts that resonate more for mainline Protestants and others that resonate deeply among evangelicals. Bonhoeffer writes about the daily practices of faith, and he also writes about the centrality of social justice as a core part of Christian discipleship. But you know, all these texts were written by the same man, and I wonder whether we might be able to have a different kind of conversation about Bonhoeffer if we acknowledged that and tried to read him on his terms, not ours. The fact that Bonhoeffer’s words resonate with so many people from very different Christian backgrounds should tell us something.

One of the biggest problems however is the hagiography. There’s a popular picture of Bonhoeffer as the leader of the Confessing Church, the one person who spoke out consistently against the persecution of the Jews, and the primary example of Christian witness against National Socialism—a general tendency to portray Bonhoeffer as the central figure in a clear-cut tale of good against evil. In fact, he was on the margins of his church and often struggled with what he should do. There are other Confessing Church figures whose record of resistance, especially during the 1930s, is much clearer than his. The wartime resistance circles in which he moved were a very complicated group. That’s one reason why I tried to give some critical historical details in my introduction to After Ten Years, including the fact that the German resistance included some people who would have been tried for war crimes had they survived. These weren’t all heroic figures who rose up against a system they had always hated; many of the high-ranking generals and bureaucrats who were in a position to overthrow the regime had been very much a part of the Nazi system.

Is there anything important, in your view, that biographers and commentators on Bonhoeffer are missing?

I think we need to recover the person behind the hagiography.

I think we need to recover the person behind the hagiography. We’ve been sifting and re-sifting the same material for decades now, and the time has come to step outside the material in the Bonhoeffer Works—that is, outside the Bethge narrative—if we really want to discover something new. I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re not going to get new biographical or historical insights into Bonhoeffer unless we do that, and I suspect that such research might also give us some new insights into his theology.

There’s now this vast literature about Nazi Germany, the role of the churches, the Holocaust, and many fascinating but overlooked contemporaries of Bonhoeffer. Exploring Bonhoeffer’s life through that broader lens might give us some new information, and it could also be a corrective to some of the things we’ve gotten wrong. As full disclosure, I should add that I’m writing a new book on Bonhoeffer in which I’m attempting to explore his significance from that outside perspective. And I’ve come across quite a bit of new material, some of which has surprised me and is leading me to rethink my own assumptions. So I guess I’m not done yet.

This article was originally pubished by Bearings Online and is reprinted here with permission. 

It is to the great credit of the Church of England that it has decided to publish in full the review by Lord Carlile into its procedures dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse by the late Bishop George Bell. The Church cannot be accused of lack of transparency here! At the same time, the public reactions of the church leadership to the review will merit scrutiny. So far, the statements published today (15 December) come under the category of recognising that while “acting in good faith”, they should have done better and that lessons will be learnt. That is verging on blandness. In fact Lord Carlile’s review contains a damning catalogue of flawed practices and misjudgements which should be specifically addressed in the interests of integrity.

On Good Friday 2016, regarding the Bell case the archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby stated on BBC Radio Kent: “On the balance of probability, at this distance, it seemed clear to us after very thorough investigation that that was correct and so we paid compensation and gave a profound and deeply felt apology.” It is now patently clear from Lord Carlile’s report that, as the George Bell Group has always maintained, there was no “very thorough investigation” at all. This should now be clearly acknowledged by the church leadership.

Lord Carlile emphasises that it was not in his brief make a judgment on the truth or otherwise of the allegations against George Bell, but it is quite clear from his review that on several counts Bell’s name has suffered a grave miscarriage of justice. Child sexual abuse is a deeply serious matter, and one can only applaud the much more rigorous attention that safeguarding is now receiving in church circles. But no less important is the need to search for the truth in any such case, however difficult it may prove to be. Those of us who have been  concerned for the reputation of George Bell have not been making any special pleading on his behalf: one would hope that, in the best traditions of British justice, all accused and all claimants will be treated fairly regardless of who they are. But in Bell’s case it is sadly ironic that one who fought so tirelessly for victims of injustice while he was alive, should himself have been denied justice after his death.

Much has been made of the harm this case has brought to the Church of England. But George Bell was not just an outstanding Anglican. He is acknowledged and admired worldwide and in all Christian traditions as one of the greatest figures in the modern ecumenical movement. There are many beyond these shores and beyond the Anglican Communion who will welcome Lord Carlile’s findings, and who will now want to share in the responsibility of continuing to honour him, learn from him and to sing with as great a vigour as ever his hymn “Christ is the King! O friends rejoice”.

Keith Clements


PRESS RELEASE

GEORGE BELL GROUP STATEMENT ON LORD CARLILE’S REVIEW, 15 DECEMBER 2017

The George Bell Group, together with admirers of the Bishop worldwide, heartily welcomes Lord Carlile’s independent review of the process which led to the statement by the Church in October 2015 painting Bell as a paedophile. Lord Carlile deserves congratulations for producing such a comprehensive and authoritative report.

In his response to the report Archbishop Welby has chosen to emphasise that Lord Carlile has not sought to say whether George Bell was in fact responsible for the alleged assaults. That is not surprising, it was no part of Lord Carlile’s terms of reference from the Church to say whether Bell was innocent or not. But his devastating criticism of the Church’s process shows that Archbishop Welby was wrong in 2016 when he described the investigation as ‘very thorough’ and the finding of abuse as clearly correct on the balance of probabilities. A close reading of the detail of Lord Carlile’s report can only lead to the conclusion that he has thoroughly vindicated the reputation of man revered for his integrity across the Christian Church.

It is no wonder that the Church’s investigation has been compared by Lord Carlile tothe discredited police investigation of Lords Brittan and Bramall. The Safeguarding Group appear to have gone about their work looking for reason to doubt the veracity of the complainant. A proper investigation would have looked to see whether they could find independent corroboration of the complaint. That Bishop Bell had been dead for over half a century did not justify depriving him of the presumption of innocence or of due process. As Sir Richard Henriques pointed out in his report for the Metropolitan Police on historic sex offence investigations, the policy of believing victims shifts the burden of proof onto the suspect and ‘has and will generate miscarriages of justice on a considerable scale’.

The misconceived approach of the Safeguarding Group, described by Lord Carlile as neither fair nor equitable, was aggravated by the failure of their investigation to reveal easily discoverable evidence:

 

·         They failed to speak to Bell’s domestic chaplain during two of the four relevant years, who lived with the Bells in the Bishop’s Palace. He could have explained to them precisely why the complainant’s account did not add up;

 

·         Nor did they speak to Bell’s biographer, the historian Professor Andrew Chandler, who has studied the layout of the Bishop’s Palace at the relevant time;

 

·         They did not interview former choristers of Chichester Cathedral who might be thought to have been aware if Bell had been a paedophile. Eleven of them wrote to the Times complaining that the Bishop had been smeared to suit a public relations need.

 

Lord Carlile’s report has now left the Church with many searching questions, including how best to remedy the many defects in the current Practice Guidance so as to ensure that such an injustice can never recur. But most important of all, the time has now come for the Church of England to redress, without hesitation or qualification, the immense damage done to the fine reputation of a man who served it for so long and with such courage and devotion. Those institutions which summarily removed Bell’s name from their titles should now fully restore it.

Archbishop Welby, who has said in his response to Lord Carlile that he realises that ‘a significant cloud’ is left over Bell’s name, should join with the Bishop of Chichester in removing that cloud. The Church deprived the Bishop of due process, they should not deprive him of the presumption of innocence. There is not just no fire, there is no smoke. We share Lord Carlile’s disappointment that the Church has rejected the protection of innocence as a clear and general principle.

As Bishop Bell said in a broadcast to the German people in December 1945, now engraved in the Bell Chapel at Christ Church in Oxford: ‘Without repentance and without forgiveness, there can be no regeneration.’

 

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