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February 5, 2011

Pondering Bonhoeffer today…

by Chris Lindholm

I’ve been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer; A Spoke in the Wheel by Renate Wind for a few weeks now, and I find myself absorbed by the struggles he faced and how they might apply to my own journey.  The  writing allows us to sense we’re hearing directly from Bonhoeffer as he processes his internal toil trying to reconcile an upper-middle class upbringing while seeing suffering all around him, the tension between grace and doing the real work we’re called to do, and how the church he served was aligning itself with Hitler and the nationalist movement sweeping Germany in the 1930s.  The martyr and author of Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer seemed to be constantly haunted by the realization that others in his church didn’t see – or act upon – the happenings around them.  His desire was to help the church change course, but losing ground, he was eventually driven to conceed and part ways with his beloved institution.   Bonhoeffer not only decided to part ways, the master theologian helped to facilitate a plot on Hitler’s life – a decision that seems impossible for a christian preacher – and one that cost him his life. 

Bonhoeffer blessed us with volumes of his writings that record the incredibly deep struggle that took place in his mind and heart facing the realities of Hitler and the German church.  No question the propoganda of the Third Reich painted him publicly as a villain and a radical who others should fear, and yet today few question the moral grounds upon which he made the decision to help in the plot on Hitler.  It is the picture we have today of Bonhoeffers internal struggle and his desire to be a man of grace and forgiveness that allows us to see just how difficult this was for him.  In the end, he concludes that the grace that ultimately forgives us is indeed costly if one recognizes the true commitment called for.

Bonhoeffer’s journey connects to each of us in our own struggle to reconcile having more than others, our struggle to stand opposed to the media barrage that has created a culture of “more, fast, easy, and fun,” and in our personal struggles walking our talk on commitments while balancing being a parent, spouse, and friend in our communities.  I think particularly of his struggle with the German church in my role as an education leader.  Bonhoeffer knew his instution was not lining up behaviors with it’s true calling, and he just couldn’t reel it in…  Similarly, public education has evolved over time serving many parties at the cost of the true mission – student learning.  If maximizing student learning was at the core of all decisions, I am convinced we would have a different calendar, we wouldn’t grade student work like we do, we wouldn’t move students in groups of 30, our teaching would be truly connected to the community and relevant to students, and we would individualize instruction to meet the needs of all learners.  I believe most educators struggle with the internal rub of this reality (if they can catch a chance to pause long enough to reflect!!), but we all feel quite powerless to do much about it.  It’s as if the train is so very far down the track – how do we change it?   

Truthfully, learning from Bonhoeffer’s writing and his life is not all that uplifting – but it is what I need right now.  He paints a realistic picture of leadership and the cost of answering a calling all the way to the end.  He offers us fellowship in our struggles (communion of saints) and helps us see that the mission is ultimately worth it.   I don’t believe the challenges immediately facing public education will be or are easy, fast, or fun.  They will be costly and difficult to understand.  They will require many to sacrifice and will likely be very unpopular.  If indeed our mission is to prepare every child to be post-secondary ready, we have much to change.  Aligning all of our structures and work to best deliver on this mission calls into question nearly everything we do…   Is the public ready for that?  Are we educators ready for that?   

I love working in education because we all go to work each day to help kids.  Maybe, just maybe, we can find ways to work with legislators, the public, businesses, etc… to better align our work to the mission.  It’s why we went into this in the first place, right?


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