[Our guest essayist, Dr. Mark DeVine, is associate professor of history and doctrine at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author of Bonhoeffer Speaks Today: Following Jesus at All Costs.]
Wayne Grudem’s defense of a vote for Trump evoked an avalanche of repudiation, a veritable beat down by an array of theologically likeminded, #NeverTrump “friends.” A vote for Trump would be “wicked,” they said. It would violate Christian conscience and stain one’s reputation. We’ll come back to Grudem and his critics, but first let’s revisit a few chapters from the extraordinary life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor, theologian, and conspirator to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
A few days before his departure from New York City Bonhoeffer wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr:
“. . . I have had time to think and to pray about my situation and that of my nation and to have God’s will for me clarified. I have come to the conclusion that I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people. . . . Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make that choice in security . . .”
Key features of Bonhoeffer’s thinking would survive all the way to the gallows of Flossenburg concentration camp: that the will of God is discerned for a Christian, particularly in what he called “boundary situations,” only through intense, sustained prayer and reflection upon the word of God; that obedience in such situations more often leads disciples into, not away from, suffering—“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” His realization that, however global one’s human and Christian identity, one’s national identity also counts and must impinge upon pursuit of the will of God and discernment of “true patriotism.”
But Bonhoeffer’s stated motive for the return to Germany weakened with time, namely the quest to salvage his moral standing in the eyes of others for the sake of future usefulness. The path from pacifist to conspirator to double agent to encourager and even volunteer to commit tyranticide forced Bonhoeffer to let go of such motives and hopes. Obedience to the will of God required decision after decision Bonhoeffer expected to so stain his reputation, so compromise his character in the eyes of others, as to disqualify him from the sort of future constructive role he once thought his return might make possible.
In a 1942 Christmas letter prepared for fellow conspirators Hans von Dohnanyi, Hans Oster, and Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer wrote:
“We have been the silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?”
Should he survive, Bonhoeffer expected his ordination as a minister of the word of God would be stripped from him. He had, in a thousand ways, knowingly dirtied his hands in the conspiracy—even to the point of volunteering to carry a bomb to Hitler.
Not that Bonhoeffer came to despise his own moral “reputation” as worthless or indifferent (adiaphora). His immersion in the Psalms taught him the crucial importance of reputation, both to God and to his children. The same Psalms where “putting to shame,” and “being put to shame” figure repeatedly and prominently as central preoccupations, also teach that the one committed to doing God’s will cannot secure and must not attempt to secure his own reputation himself. The obedient servant looks to his master alone for vindication:
Then I shall not be put to shame, having fixed my eyes on all your commandments (Psalm 119:6)
Being put to shame is the opposite of being blessed. My life is put to shame when that which I relied upon breaks apart. For then I have nothing left that could give my life meaning and due, nothing to which I could appeal. My life becomes a mockery and shames me. I relied upon my own strength, and I became weak and sick. I counted on my property, and it was taken from me overnight. I trusted in reputation and power, and fell deep. I took pleasure in my honesty, and was overcome by sin. In the same way anyone’s life can be put to shame if they consider “mere flesh their strength” (Jer. 17:5). But if my gaze seeks not people, honors, and riches in the world but God’s commandments alone, then I will not be put to shame. For God’s commandments cannot break apart because God himself holds on to them and with them everyone who looks to them. I will never have to be ashamed of heeding God’s commandments. . . . Even if the world’s judgment is against me, God’s judgment speaks for me. I look at God’s commandments when I base my decisions neither on other people nor even my own thoughts or experiences, but rather when I ask ever anew, even if contrary to my pious thoughts and experiences, for what God commands me. I can be put to shame even by my most pious decisions and ways but never by God’s commandment. God alone, not my piety, will preserve me from shame and dishonor.
And how does the Christian discern this commandment of God?
“. . . only the entire richness of God’s commandments can guide me safely through life. Thus I can be certain that there is no situation in my life for which God’s word would not give me the necessary advice. But serious attention, tireless asking, and learning are necessary to recognize the right commandment and to recognize the inexhaustible kindness of God in all his commandments. The harder the world confronts and judges me, the more dire and miserable my way becomes, the firmer my gaze must stay directed toward God’s commandments . . . .”
We know what came to “trump!” other considerations as Bonhoeffer tirelessly asked of God’s word for the right commandment of God for him. Amid rising demands for an Aryan Clause in the church, this urgent and overriding concern emerges perhaps most vividly in an address delivered to a group of pastors in 1933. Here the 27-year-old Bonhoeffer identified “three possible ways in which the church can act toward the state.” The third way “is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.”
The overriding concern? Not one’s reputation, not making some sort of statement about one’s own integrity, but doing what one could to help others, to serve others, to reduce or prevent the suffering of others. In Jesus Christ, for the Lutheran Bonhoeffer, God shows himself as the God who is for us (pro nobis), making his Son “the man for others,” and his followers servants of those same “others” in his name.
Bonhoeffer bemoaned as scandalous the spectacle of church leaders who, though poised to pop the Champagne corks to celebrate Hitler’s arrest or assassination from a safe distance, were unwilling to soil their own consciences or their own hands to see the deeds done themselves. They wanted the spoke hurled, just not by them:
“The man with a conscience fights a lonely battle against the overwhelming forces of inescapable situations which demand decisions. . . . Some who seek to escape from taking a stand publicly find a place of refuge in private virtuousness. Such a man does not steal. He does not commit murder. He does not commit adultery. Within the limits of his powers he does good. He must be blind and deaf to the wrongs which surround him. It is only at the price of an act of self-deception that he can safeguard his private blamelessness against contamination through responsible action in the world. Whatever he may do, that which he omits to do will give him no peace. Either this disquiet will destroy him or he will become the most hypocritical of Pharisees.”
Between the 1933 address and one of the last letters penned at Tegel prison 11 years later, Bonhoeffer’s prizing of righteous action over clean conscience-fixated recoil into an ostensibly reputation-preserving and character-protecting safe space deepened.
I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it. I suppose I wrote The Cost of Discipleship as the end of that path. Today I can see the dangers of that book . . . . .
“I discovered later, and am still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman . . ., a righteous man or an unrighteous one, . . . By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In doing so we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world . . . .”
For Bonhoeffer, when the suffering of others is at stake, virtue acts to stop, prevent, or mitigate the suffering. It acts not for itself but in service to others, even if such service threatens to soil ones ostensibly “clean hands,” or jeopardizes one’s present or potential future reputation, or even one’s life. It does not understand sanctification as a cooperative effort between believers and God to make one clean. “Already you are clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3). It understands sanctification as a divine setting apart of justified sinners for holy use—to serve others. Sanctifying of oneself means yielding to the prior and fundamental divine sanctification of oneself for such use.
For Bonhoeffer, Christian virtue does not turn opportunities for such service into occasions for self-display, self-expression, or self-protection. It does not shrink back from the moral cesspool that is this world and settle for some lesser and less urgent cause fixated on oneself rather than others.
Could such virtue in 2016 treat as less urgent the potential harm a sitting president of the United States might unleash upon hundreds of millions around the globe than some chance to display the purity of its conservative or liberal credentials or to teach a political party a lesson by staying home on election day or to cast a protest vote for a candidate who cannot win? No.
I see, and Grudem too seems to see, two wheels rolling towards hundreds of millions of actual people, each bound to discharge its own unique mix of help and harm. He has one spoke to jam into one wheel and perhaps prevent deliverance of one package of potential hurt to others. Retreat from that binary choice offers no platform of superior sanctity on which to preen, no pulpit from which to educate others, no paddle with which to spank a political party, and certainly no ostensibly “spiritual” refuge within which to pursue personal or private virtuousness. Others’ lives are in the path of two wheels, one of which shall roll over them. The names of these wheels are Trump and Hillary. No other names and no other options enter in. Surely Election Day 2016 beckons each voting age American follower of Jesus Christ to jam his or her one spoke into one of those two wheels.
Mark DeVine is associate professor of history and doctrine at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author of Bonhoeffer Speaks Today: Following Jesus at All Costs.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Works, Volume 15 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), p. 210
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.
 Ten Years After, employed as the Prologue to Letters & Papers From Prison: New Greatly Enlarged Edition, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York, Macmillan, 1971), p. 16
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 15 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), pp. 507-508.
 Ibid, p. 508.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Geoffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson eds. (San Francisco: HarperSanfrancisco, 1995),p. 132
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Touchstone, 1995), pp. 68-69.
 Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers, pp. 369-370.