Ideas of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer explored during first Theologian-in-Residence session
Questions about God’s presence in a world of injustice and evil, God’s favored people and the responsibility of Christians to their fellow man were among the issues explored during the first session of the Theologian-in-Residence lecture series Tuesday at Tusculum College.
The questions were among the themes of “A View from the Underside: The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” a one-man play performed by Dr. Al Staggs at the beginning of the session of the 2010 Theologian-in-Residence series, co-sponsored by the Holston Presbytery and Tusculum College. The annual series includes sessions each Tuesday in February.
Staggs, who has more than 20 years in service as a pastor and hospital chaplain, told the audience of about 115 ministers, lay leaders and church members as well as Tusculum students, faculty and staff that he felt led into ministry as a performance artist as a way to raise issues that can not be addressed safely from a pastoral role.
“The plays are mostly to reach people to think about issues,” he said. “It is not to lead people to a particular opinion, but to get them to think. … My role is to ask questions, and sometimes, asking a question is as important or more important than the answer.”
In the play, Staggs portrayed Bonhoeffer in a cell inside a Nazi prison during World War II. Bonhoeffer was arrested and later executed for involvement in a resistance movement, including his involvement in a conspiracy among German military intelligence to assassinate Adolph Hitler. The play’s dialogue gives voice to Bonhoeffer’s moral outrage of the Nazi treatment of the Jews and other people groups and the German Christian church’s lack of reaction to the Holocaust. Bonhoeffer believed that German churches had sold out because they either supported Hitler or said nothing about the atrocities that were committed at his command.
Another primary theme of the one-man drama is Bonhoeffer’s assertion that it is the responsibility of Christians and the church to speak up for victims of injustice, to come to the aid of those victims and “jam a spoke in the wheel of the state” when it is committing injustices to a people group. He also said the church should sell all it has and give it to the poor.
When asked what he thought Bonhoeffer’s assessment of the church today, Dr. Staggs said he thought that Bonhoeffer would not like what he would see in the public face of Christianity, particularly the prominence in the media of the “health and wealth” gospel in which people are told that the Christian life brings blessings of wealth and good health.
Bonhoeffer’s life was a contrast to this ideal as he was from a privileged background, the son of the leading psychiatrist in Germany who had the connections to obtain a pastorate of a large church and live comfortably. However, he left that life of privilege to speak out against the Nazis and eventually lost his life for expressing his beliefs.
In the play, Staggs also brings out Bonhoeffer’s struggles with such questions as where is God in a time when might seemed to make right and insidious evil led to the victimization of the Jews and others and who are God’s people when the Jews were being systematically murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust in a nation that called itself Christian. The play expresses Bonhoeffer’s view that if the Jews were removed from the western world, it would be removing Jesus as well since he was a Jew.
The drama also shows Bonhoeffer as more than just a theologian wrestling with these questions, it illustrates a man struggling with the confines of a lonely jail cell. He wonders if he will ever be able to marry his fiancée and battles his feelings of confinement by remembering his past experiences such as his friendship in seminary with a student from Harlem and his discovery of a new perspective on history and the Bible through the view of those who have suffered after worshipping in a church in Harlem.
The one-man drama also explores Bonhoeffer’s ideas of how the German Christian church had ended up in such an ethical quagmire. Bonhoeffer described how the German people were taken with Hitler’s promises to restore a battered economy, rebuild the reputation of Germany to once again be a world leader, fight the Bolsheviks and restore traditional moral values and the security of the nation.
The drama about Bonhoeffer is the first that Staggs wrote and performed. In his studies at Harvard, he recalled that he had read all of Bonhoeffer’s works and felt that he raised issues that were as relevant for the Christian church today as they were in the time that they were written.
Staggs had also found an interest in liberation theology while a student and that the various versions of liberation theology all shared a focus on the poor and marginalized in society. “I felt the (Holy) Spirit leading me to some unfamiliar and uncomfortable areas,” he said.
He noted that in studying the entire Bible, one finds that God does have a preferential concern for the oppressed and the poor. “The more that I saw that, the more I saw a disconnect from that principal in my own life and in the church.” As he struggled with these issues, Dr. Staggs said he found that performance was the way he could share these issues with the Christian community.
While a major theme in the Bonhoeffer drama concerns the responsibility of churches to be advocates for the poor and oppressed and its failing to do so, Dr. Staggs said it should not interpreted as a condemnation of churches. Much good comes from churches, he said, for example, the ministry to individuals facing a difficulty whether an illness, loss of a loved one, broken family relationships or financial hardship.
However, a church’s ministry should be “both/and” rather than “either/or” in a focus on ministering to individual needs and addressing social issues such as poverty.
When asked about how a church and Christians can become more open and active in advocating for the poor and oppressed, Dr. Staggs said there is not a single formula that can work for all because each church and its members are different. However, he said, the pastor cannot do it by himself, there has to be church members interested and willing to help make it a priority in ministry.
The series will continue next Tuesday, February 9, as Dr. Staggs performs his play, “Clarence Jordan and the God Movement.” The session begins at 10 a.m., continuing through 1:30 p.m. Lunch is provided. There is no admission fee for the series, but reservations are required. For more information or to make reservations, please call 423-636-7319 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.