Today I watched Martin Doblmeier’s documentary, Bonhoeffer, with my Christian Tradition class. (I have two sections of students so I actually viewed it twice).
When I was creating the syllabus for this course back in the fall, it didn’t occur to me that I had scheduled the film on the anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s death.
But so it was that on this chilly, gray day in April we took in the story of this extraordinary man who met a martyr’s death on a chilly, gray day in April of 1945.
Many of the students had never heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer until this week. My uncontained passion for his work and witness probably seems over the top for their quiet reserve. What must they think of me? I want to bring Bonhoeffer’s story to life that their lives might be changed; they wonder what they need to remember for the test. They think they’re watching yet another black-and-white historical documentary; I believe them to be, albeit through the mediation of celluloid and mixed sound, in the presence of greatness.
As we’ve been reading Bonhoeffer this week and watching Doblmeier’s film, I’ve been reminded of Denise Giardina’s wonderful novel, Saints and Villains, of which Annie Dillard said, “A masterpiece . . . one of the handful of best books I’ve ever read.”
In telling the compelling life story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Giardina, a native of West Virginia and an alumna of our school, artfully and plausibly brings the plight of coal miners into the orbit of Bonhoeffer’s experience. (He spent time in America in 1930-31 and briefly again in 1939).
The injustices Bonhoeffer battled can seem a world away to the young people I teach. But maybe the injustices that have been occuring for decades in the coalfields of southern West Virginia–and brought to the fore again this week with cruel clarity–will seem a little more pressing to them in light of his witness. And maybe they’ll come to see the connections between Bonhoeffer’s time and their own, between his call to be courageous and theirs.
And maybe some of the words uttered by Dietrich Bonhoeffer before his death on that chilly, gray April day in Flossenburg will stick with my students long past the exam.
Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sermon on II Cor. 12:9