Dietrich Bonhoeffer (probably) fancied men. Should evangelicals be (more) bothered?

I recently found the time to read an RNS piece on a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The big bombshell, according to the RNS headline, is that Bonhoeffer may have been gay. Or, put in the more precise terms you get in the article itself, including in quotes from Charles Marsh, author of the biography, Bonhoeffer seemed to have a romantic attraction toward at least one man, his friend Eberhard Bethge, though as another Bonhoeffer biographer quoted in the piece put it, “there is almost no evidence at all that would suggest anything more than attraction.”

None of this is particular newsworthy.

I mean, I’ve overheard this conversation at more than one conference that Bonhoeffer was probably (in one case, “almost certainly”) attracted to Bethge. Marsh seems to have some interesting facts that I hadn’t heard of before, but the basic idea seems like one most academics at least more or less took for granted. The real shocker is that evangelicals aren’t more up in arms over this new book, apparently. Bonhoeffer’s one of those figures that is so well-thought of, pretty much everyone working in this area wants to have on their side. It’s like when Glenn Beck tried to argue that Martin Luther King would have been in favor of the Tea Party program a few years back. Everyone wants to baptize King into their cause. In theological circles that’s more or less how it works with Bonhoeffer. So the biographer was concerned, and the RNS [= the AP of the theological world] saw fit to write a piece on it, Because Bonhoeffer is a favorite son among more intellectual evangelicals (yes, they exist), wouldn’t they be upset if someone claimed Bonhoeffer was one of teh gayz?

Not so much, as it turns out. The RNS piece claims several reviews from evangelical professors and influential bloggers, and nary a pitchfork is in sight. A lot of the reviews go on about how Marsh shouldn’t focus too much on the sex. The concern seems to be part that it’s tabloid stuff and part that it’s unfair to impose modern concepts of sexual orientation on someone who’s not contemporary. I’m not so sure about that last concern; Bonhoeffer died during World War II and he was pretty young. The standard approach seems to be that Bonhoeffer may or may not have been gay but his biography (certainly this part of his biography) isn’t so important and we should stay focused on what he wrote.

Here’s what interested me about the piece, though. Dr. Marsh apparently thought evangelical Christians would be strongly against that bit about Bonhoeffer being sexually attracted to a man. Was he being overly cautious or maybe even trolling for a controversy to boost his book’s profile? Or was this a realistic concern? Should evangelicals have been concerned here?

On the surface level, absolutely not. Setting aside the fact that you can produce good theology (or philosophy, or political theory, or whatever else) even if your personal life is a mess, Bonhoeffer’s personal life wasn’t a mess by standard evangelical standards. I grew up with the very common idea that there’s nothing in standard Christian belief that says gay attraction is immoral, it’s the lying with a man as you’d lie with a woman that’s the problem. Say Marsh is right, and Bonhoeffer was pursuing a romantic relationship with Bethge, even desired him sexually. As long as we’re not crossing into adultery-in-my-heart territory, which I usually heard described as wilfully choosing to fantasize about having sex with another man, thinking that you would do it if you could get away with it, if you wouldn’t face the censure of your neighbors or God or whomever –as long as it’s just a kind of involuntary attraction, there’s nothing wrong with that. From what I’ve read and heard, there’s nothing that suggests Bonhoeffer had sex with anyone, and he himself claimed to be a virgin when the Nazis were getting ready to execute him. So at a surface level this isn’t just not problematic, it actually makes him into a kind of role-model for what it means to be a “good” gay (or man-attracted-to-men) Christian. Good for him! Etc.

The problem is that while a lot of the reviews aren’t upset about this, I think they are upset it’s dwelt upon. And I think this comes down to the fact that for a lot of evangelicals, while celibates being attracted to their gender may be okay in the sense that it’s avoiding actual sin there’s a limit to how compatible that is with being truly praiseworthy. Particularly with evangelicals who put so much emphasis on the importance of the heterosexual family, I think there’s a sense that a chaste life like that is somehow incomplete, it may be tolerable and the best we can do but you have to ask whether it’s the kind of thing that should be encouraged and praised. There’s also a sense that if you’re truly spiritual you won’t have to deal with “temptations” like this.

Which is why I think you see those evangelical reviewers who are okay with Bonhoeffer experiencing attraction to other men so long as we don’t talk about it. It’s an uncomfortable fact, this idea that a hero of the faith could experience this kind of attraction. It suggests that maybe contemporary gay people need to be listened to, may have something authentic to contribute to the conversations not just about sex and gender but all the other things worth discussing. And that’s uncomfortable for a lot of evangelicals, and more generally for any kind of people when they think a certain character trait is somehow shameful or disqualifying. This is a problem, but it’s a common problem in evangelical circles. Look at the arguments in evangelical circles for why it’s okay to consult books written by women but not be taught by women; it’s generally because their particular womanly traits are less obvious so you’re less conscious of being subjugated to a woman. I think there’s a very similar dynamic at work here: it’s okay to be taught by a homosexual but not as a homosexual person. Poor theologians, theologians of color, female theologians are all allowed to have a voice in theological things, but only so far as we can abstract those voices from those things that make them different from the white, upper-middle-class, straight, male vantage point that I think a lot of people coming from the majority identify with a universal human nature rather than their own unique starting position.

In this particular case, I think Bonhoeffer’s romantic attraction for Bethge is much more relevant than it might have been otherwise. Because Bonhoeffer was living in Nazi Germany, where being gay could get you sent to jail. And Nazi jail, not the cushy American equivalent; I’m no expert on the period, but I wouldn’t be surprised if people in jail for homosexuality in the period faced something pretty close to concentration camp conditions without the crematoria. So if Bonhoeffer’s plot to kill Hitler was driven by this personal threat, this intense angst (and I do mean that in the German sense) that people just like him were being put through that horrible treatment, that would seem to be relevant to people who think that event was more driven by abstract principles. I would think that how he, as a man who experienced gay attraction, was impacted by the criminalization of homosexuality, how we read his reaction or lack of reaction changes quite a bit when you realize he wasn’t as disinterested as you might think. In fact, I suspect that this detail that he could have been among the persecuted groups for his sexual attraction draws into doubt the whole idea that we could or should be disinterested here.

Finally, I found it interesting – hilarious, actually – that so many of the evangelical reviewers expressed concern about whether our modern sexual categories could be safely imposed on someone living less than a century ago. I bring this up because a major point of contention in theological circles today when it comes to homosexuality is that precise point: whether what the Biblical authors condemn as sin (“man lying with a man as he would a woman,” etc.) is the same thing as what we mean by homosexuality. There are translation concerns (I personally believe that what the New Testament passages typically translate as homosexuality is much more in line with pedophilia) but there’s also the historical question of whether what we mean by homosexuality, any sexual orientation, would even be the kind of thing the Biblical writers would have had the language framework to talk about at all. Evangelical theologians are usually first in line to insist that those verses used to condemn gay sex are talking about all sex between men and women, not just some particular cultural practice that’s miles away to my mind from the modern sexual practice. So it’s a bit interesting when they say in the case of Bonhoeffer: he lived 70-80 years ago, so it’s irresponsible to describe him using the terms we use today.

Anyway it’s an interesting discussion, I thought. I think Dr. Marsh may have been on to something when he wondered if evangelicals would be bothered by his book’s claim, though I’m not sure it’s so straightforward as thinking this would make Bonhoeffer a sinful or not suitably evangelical figure. It’s more complicated than that. No more excusable, in my book, but certainly there’s more to the question than just “would evangelicals consider same-sex attraction to be sinful.

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