Speaking out for truth: Following Bonhoeffer’s lessons in courage

By the Rev. Thomas Johnson

“What is the truth?”

That question has echoed through the generations and continues today. Lies and manufactured propaganda can be so dangerous.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and professor, encountered lies and propaganda as Hitler’s Nazi regime brainwashed the German people with a false narrative of nationalism and patriotism.

The slogan “Make Germany great again” essentially meant ridding itself of those who were said to be “polluting the blood” of “pure” Germans. Bonhoeffer was one of the first to speak out about how the Jews were being treated as scapegoats for all of the country’s economic problems.

Bonhoeffer’s sister was married to a person of Jewish descent, so he knew firsthand how they were being discriminated against.

Bonhoeffer was eventually captured for his commitment to the truth and was held in prison for two years before being executed on April 9, 1945.

But his influence and words live on today. One of those he deeply influenced was Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., especially in his commitment to nonviolent resistance as espoused by Bonhoeffer in his most famous work, “The Cost of Discipleship.”

For the past 11 years Claremont has held an annual Bonhoeffer Festival. The event is inspired by and commemorates Bonhoeffer’s example of courage and the willingness to uphold the truth in the face of dangerous lies.

This year’s 12th Bonhoeffer Festival will be held at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church Thursday, April 18, with a 12:30 p.m. lunch followed by a 1:30 program featuring Stephen Haynes, author of numerous books on Bonhoeffer, including his latest, “The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the age of Trump.” An interreligious panel will respond to his presentation, with plenty of time for questions and answers. The public is invited this free event (donations are appreciated). RSVP via email to tjohnson@cst.edu. The event will be streamed over Zoom. Email the same address for a link.

The event was previously held at Claremont School of Theology, where I taught a class on Bonhoeffer for more than 10 years and served as director of the center for Lutheran studies.

At a time when many prefer lies and hateful propaganda to the truth, my hope is that learning more about Bonhoeffer will inspire us to stand up and speak the truth once again. We must make it clear that untruths and violence are never justified, and that no one should be discriminated against.

As Bonhoeffer said, “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others, we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”

Today we are challenged to uphold the truth of love and justice for all. We must speak out and confront the lies that can hurt and undermine our basic values and promotion of peace and dignity for all.

The Rev. Thomas Johnson is a semi-retired Lutheran pastor and professor and 30-plus year resident of Claremont.


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