Years ago, I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. Two or three years ago, I got the “Greatly Enlarged Edition” of the work, edited by his close friend, Eberhard Bethge. Recently, I picked it off my shelf, where it had been crying to me, “Are you ever going to finish reading me?”
In a letter dated 1 February 1944, Bonhoeffer writes to his friend about a loss of “moral memory.” Saying that its loss is “responsible for the ruin of all obligations, of love, marriage, friendship, and loyalty,” he adds, “Nothing sticks fast, nothing holds firm.” He wonders how Germany could have declined so far, so quickly, politically and ethically. Dietrich writes to his friend Eberhard, “The [one] who feels neither responsibility towards the past nor desire to shape the future is one who ‘forgets,’ and I don’t know how one can really get at such a person and bring him to his senses…You put it very well recently when you said that people feel so quickly and so ‘shamelessly at home.’”
I ask myself: how would I have behaved as a German citizen in the 1930s and early 40s? Would I have voiced my opposition to what was going on? Would I have held my tongue, kept my head down, and joined the many who felt “so quickly and so ‘shamelessly at home?’”
Obviously, our nation has not declined politically and ethically anywhere to the extent that Germany did under National Socialist rule. Those who equate Bush with Hitler only display a lack of clear thinking (and an alarming ignorance of history). However, we’ve no doubt taken a big step backward in many areas—not least of all in protection of human rights and observance of the rule of law.
But I must confess to a certain resignation at times, a feeling that we’ll just have to “wait this one out.” Still, there’s a real danger to becoming so “shamelessly at home.” As Bonhoeffer puts it in the prologue, “Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior.”