Thursday, August 25, 2005

Dietrich Bonhoeffer v. Pat Robertson

Pat RobertsonDietrich Bonhoeffer
Pat Robertson has apologized for his public call for the assassination of Hugo Chávez, but then compared the Venezualan president to Adolf Hitler and asked, "would it not be wiser to wage war against one person rather than finding ourselves down the road locked in a bitter struggle with a whole nation?"

To sum up: Robertson is sorry he said the U.S. should kill Chávez. But he's not very sorry.

"Is it right to call for assassination? No, and I apologize for that statement," he said. "I spoke in frustration that we should accommodate the man who thinks the U.S. is out to kill him."

Now, try to follow the Robertsonian logic on this point:

1. Robertson is frustrated because we are accommodating "the man who thinks the U.S. is out to kill him"—presumably by not killing him.

2. The best way to refute "the man who thinks the U.S. is out to kill him" is to kill him.

After all, dead men don't complain about the people who want them dead.

Robertson compares self to Bonhoeffer

But if Chávez really is a Latin Hitler, surely no one could accuse Robertson of going over the top merely for advocating his violent removal from the plane of history. So later in the week the televangelist had one of his brainwaves (which he calls a "word of knowledge") and conjured up the spirit of the martyred German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as a witness for his own defense.

This is what Robertson said:
I want to tell you about a statement of, uh, the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who suffered under Adolf Hitler, and wondered what would be the case of a wicked dictator like Hitler, how would Christians react to that. And, uh, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is reported to have said "if you see a car going out of control, and heading toward a group of people, do you try to stop the car or you console the victims after it hits them?" And he said after weighing the moral consequences of that, he determined it would be better to stop the car and therefore he allied himself with those who were attempting to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and to take this monster off the world stage.
Robertson's comment on RealAudio

So, let's sum up: Chávez = Hitler, therefore Robertson = Bonhoeffer. After all, wasn't Bonhoeffer another misunderstood Christian prophet who, just like Robertson, got into hot water when he conspired to assassinate the evil dictator of his day? But can Bonhoeffer really be compared to a talking head sitting comfortably in an air-conditioned studio in Virginia Beach issuing death threats against political enemies?

True, Bonhoeffer joined the conspiracy to overthrow the Hitler regime by force. He paid for that choice with his life: he was hanged on Hitler's direct orders just weeks before the end of the war. But, unlike Robertson, he wasn't so quick to shoot from the lip. He was a lifelong pacifist who made an exception in Hitler's case only after years of soul-searching.

Robertson knows nothing about Bonhoeffer. His casual incitement to political murder is the opposite of Bonhoeffer's reluctant acceptance of killing in one extreme circumstance. "The first right of natural life consists in the safeguarding of the life of the body against arbitrary killing," Bonhoeffer wrote in his magisterial "Ethics." He continued:
The destruction of the life of another may be undertaken only on the basis of an unconditional necessity; when this necessity is present, then the killing must be performed, no matter how numerous or how good the reasons which weigh against it. But the taking of the life of another must never be merely one possibility among other possibilities, even though it may be an extremely well-founded possibility. If there is even the slightest responsible possibility of allowing others to remain alive, then the destruction of their lives would be arbitrary killing, murder.... Life may invoke all possible reasons for its cause; but only one single reason can be a valid reason for killing. To fail to bear this in mind is to undo the work of the Creator and Preserver of life Himself.
Here, Bonhoeffer is making a case against abortion, euthanasia, war and political murder. Like the late Cardinal Bernardin, Bonhoeffer sees the protection of life as a seamless garment: you can't oppose abortion, as Robertson does, and simultaneously advocate the extrajudicial killing of unfriendly politicians.

Bonhoeffer and the limits of power

Bonhoeffer, who knew and admired America, thought we were better than the kind of country (he was thinking of Nazi Germany) that puts national interest before moral values. In "Ethics," he contrasted the ideas of democracy that animated the French and American revolutions. Democracy in France was predicated on the "emancipated man," but in America, "quite on the contrary, upon the kingdom of God and the limitation of all earthly powers by the sovereignty of God."
It is indeed significant when, in contrast to the "Declaration of the Rights of Man," American historians can say that the federal constitution was written by men who were conscious of original sin and of the wickedness of the human heart. Earthly wielders of authority, and also the people, are directed into their proper bounds, in due consideration of man's innate longing for power and of the fact that power pertains only to God.
Robertson undoubtedly would agree with Bonhoeffer that "power pertains only to God," and as a self-proclaimed Jeffersonian democrat he could hardly believe that the U.S. government has unlimited authority to kill its enemies for raison d'état. Or could he? Jefferson's god was the transcendent prime mover of deism, a clockmaker who sets the universe in motion and then allows it to run on its own power. Robertson's god is a fussy micromanager who can be summoned minute by minute to fix any problem—whether chronic back pain or the unfulfilled wish for a Supreme Court vacancy. This raises the question of who (or what) is the god Robertson worships.

Like many other millenarian evangelicals, Robertson reads the Bible as a systematic outline of God's plan for the end of history. And the plan, he believes, is that at some point in the not-too-distant future God will move against his enemies in an end-times battle for political power. The trumpet will sound, the heavens will open, and the Lord will return to the earth as a military messiah leading an army of born-again Christians against the forces of Antichrist. Robertson's fantasy novel about Armageddon, "The End of the Age," reveals his messiah as the muscular action hero of pop culture—a homicidal Punisher, Terminator or Darkman who executes judgment with brutal efficiency.

Robertson's Jesus is not the crucified One whose arms reach out in an embrace wide enough for all humanity, but a vengeful archon who does not constrain but liberates the demons of human nature. There is no moral distinction between his bloody ascent to universal power and the power politics of a nation prepared to set aside its moral values to defeat its enemies—real or imagined. Thus, it is possible for this god's many worshippers to demonize an adversary (Chávez equals Hitler) and then publicly exhort the state to take his life.

I truly believe that Robertson's god is not God, but (as Bonhoeffer's mentor, Karl Barth, would have said) a no-god: an hypostasis of the human will to power. And that god is roaring around America like a ravening lion these days—a graver threat to our nation than one Latin American strongman could ever be.


At 4:48 PM, Anonymous randy carbone said...

The media aren't paying much attention to this, but many mainstream evangelicals feel shamed by Robertson's self-projection as a leader of their movement. For one thoughtful response, check out Stones Cry Out.

At 7:15 PM, Blogger Andy Lang said...

More dissent from evangelicals. Christianity Today today editorialized that Robertson is a threat to Latin American evangelicals.

At 7:59 AM, Anonymous Steve Kurdziel said...

Pat Robertson's claim to Bonhoeffer's legacy is even more shameful, if that were possible, when you recall that Bonhoeffer agreed to participate in the plan to kill Hitler with a deep sense that the plan might be, in God's eyes, a sin. Bonhoeffer was aware that we often can talk ourselves into believing God is on our side when we choose violence. Bonhoeffer's heroism consists in that he was willing to risk his soul, to take the risk of being damned for eternity as a murderer, to relieve the suffering of his countrymen. He chose to act without the false comfort of a convenient theology. Would that Robertson had even a scintilla of Bonhoeffer's understanding of the greatness of God.

At 8:21 AM, Anonymous Willis Elliott said...

Great blog, Andy!

Robertson's pappa was a U.S. senator; & I see him as blender-blending (biological)pappa-power,(political) pappa-power, (religious) Father-power, & his own fantasizing ego....

....a tragic fundamentalistic mess, corrupting Christian speech.

At 1:21 PM, Blogger RevJen said...

I get a bunch of editorial cartoons in my morning email. They are having a field day with this.

Thanks to Randy and Andy for the response from some of the evangelicals.

At 1:54 PM, Blogger Andy Lang said...

I removed a graf from the article because it was a distraction from the main argument. But it might be useful for some readers:

Yes, Chávez is a strident critic of the United States. He might be as far to the left as Robertson is to the right, though most of his reforms are of the plain-vanilla, social-democratic variety. But Venezuela has not held back a single drop of oil from the U.S. since Chávez took office, and apart from symbolic gestures his government has not taken one step against U.S. interests or property in the hemisphere. Venezuela on his watch hasn't exactly become a Latin copy of the Third Reich: all five private television networks are anti-Chávez, and no one has tried to switch off their lights. Opposition parties, newspapers and trade unions are thriving—in fact, they're bathing obscenely like Eric Cartman in piles of American cash supplied by the U.S. government-subsidized National Endowment for Democracy.

At 9:06 AM, Anonymous Atlanticus said...

Anyone who is not happy with the authoritarian and anti-American Chavez should discourage the driving of SUVs.

After all Chavez is financed by customers of oil... So Pat Robertson should be angry with SUV drivers...

At 9:55 PM, Anonymous F. Christopher Anderson said...

I live in York, PA. Dover, PA is a suburb of York. Pat's comments about Dover voting God out of their town has gotten quite an interesting response in a very conservative area. People who would normally have some respect for him are thinking he has lost his marbles.

It reminds me of the time Pat prayed to have Agnes not hit where he lived and instead have God ruin the wedding of some hippie Jesus Freak friends of mine in Danvers, MA. It amazes me that he can continue to make such statements and not lose all of his credibility but then again I still worry about Harold Camping's heretical comments about "the end of the church age."

Anyway, Andy, I love your blog. And as Arnold (the gov. not the pig) said "I'll be back."

Chris of Heidelberg

At 10:36 PM, Blogger William Leiserson said...

Ack! I found your blog too late! So, maybe you won't read this. But I wanted to re-emphasize your point about Bonhoeffer not coming to his conclusions, lightly. In Ethics, he writes about taking on the guilt of killing someone (Hitler, in this case), and throwing himself on the mercy of God for this heinous sin. At one point, he asked his friends (pastors in the Confessing Church) whether they would absolve the murderer of a tyrant.

I cringe to imagine Pat Robertson comparing himself to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And I certainly can't imagine his views coincide, very well, with Neo-Orthodoxy.

At 3:19 PM, Blogger Charles said...


Your article on Pat Robertson is another good illustration of the fact that while Robertson does not believe in evolution, his pronouncements are the world's best proof of it. ie none of us are all that far from the apes.

And I've got photographic evidence to support this ... of course, it's "only a theory." The theory, that is, of Pat Robertson's Evolution.


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