If you need a modern day martyr and theologian to bolster your cause (or beat up your enemies) no one is more popular that Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Kevin Rudd, the former Prime Minister of Australia, found that out the hard way when he came out for marriage equality on his blog.
I have come to the conclusion that church and state can have different positions and practices on the question of same sex marriage. I believe the secular Australian state should be able to recognise same sex marriage. I also believe that this change should legally exempt religious institutions from any requirement to change their historic position and practice that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman. For me, this change in position has come about as a result of a lot of reflection, over a long period of time, including conversations with good people grappling with deep questions of life, sexuality and faith.
One Saturday morning in Canberra, some weeks ago, a former political staffer asked to have a coffee. This bloke, who shall remain nameless, is one of those rare finds among political staffers who combines intelligence, integrity, a prodigious work ethic, and, importantly, an unfailing sense of humour in the various positions he has worked in around Parliament House. Necessary in contemporary politics, otherwise you simply go stark raving mad.
And like myself, this bloke is a bit of a god-botherer (aka Christian). Although a little unlike myself, he is more of a capital G God-Botherer. In fact, he’s long been active in his local Pentecostal Church.
Over coffee, and after the mandatory depressing discussion about the state of politics, he tells me that he’s gay, he’s told his pastor (who he says is pretty cool with it all, although the same cannot be said of the rest of the church leadership team) and he then tells me that one day he’d like to get married to another bloke. And by the way, “had my views on same sex marriage changed?”.
The Australian Christian Lobby is unhappy. They claim that Rudd has betrayed them politically and he has also betrayed Dietrich.
ACL was heavily criticised by some Coalition members for giving Kevin Rudd a platform along with John Howard at our 2007 Make it Count election webcast. ACL was also criticised by many sceptical Christians who could not reconcile Rudd’s behaviour with his claims to be a Christian, yet we defended him publicly as recently as two weeks ago.
While none of us are perfect, ACL was certainly prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt and to urge forgiveness for his occasional outbursts, and his commitment to marriage seemed genuine. However his capitulation this week against every clear Christian principle means we can no longer recommend him to Christians and we needed to say this. Rudd burned his bridges and his hero Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who gave his life for his biblical principles, would be turning in his grave.
ABC’s Mark Lindsay says that to claim Bonhoeffer for the conservative evangelical right turns him into “a pawn of poliical expediency.”
In his book The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon: Portraits of a Protestant Saint, theologian Stephen Haynes makes the point that Bonhoeffer, probably more than any other theologian of his time, has been embraced as the champion of all manner of divergent and often contradictory theological and ecclesial schools. For some, he is the evangelical guardian of conservative order. For others, he stands in the vanguard of liberation theology, or even the “death of God” movement. Other commentators want to claim him as their prophet-of-choice against established Church privilege. He is claimed by both conservative and liberal theologians, and by everyone in between. In other words, whichever theological position one wishes to defend, Bonhoeffer can be, and has been, claimed as one’s own.
This is precisely what Lyle Shelton has done, confusing an evangelisch Bonhoeffer with an evangelical Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was certainly evangelisch – insofar as that term in German simply denotes someone from the Protestant (usually Lutheran) side of the ecclesiological fence. But evangelisch is decidedly not the same as evangelical, which carries far more of a church-political, not to say hermeneutical, edge to it. According to Shelton, Bonhoeffer would be “turning in his grave” at Rudd’s back-flip on same-sex marriage. Why? Because Bonhoeffer “gave his life for biblical principles” – with the underlying implication that the biblical principles for which Bonhoeffer died were coterminous with the sort of conservative evangelicalism advocated by the ACL.
Lindsay reminds us that Bonhoeffer’s theology leaves room for both sides in the marriage equality debate.
Certainly, in the wedding sermon he writes for his friend Eberhard Bethge in May 1943, he describes marriage in deeply traditional ways. It is, he says, a “link in the chain of generations,” the foundation of a home and the haven for its children. Marriages are guided, established and made indissoluble by God. But there is nothing here that necessarily prevents a marriage being all these things even if it is between two people of the same gender. The fact that Bonhoeffer writes of a man and a woman may simply be descriptive of the fact that he is writing a wedding sermon for a particular man (his best friend) and a particular woman (his niece), and is not inherently a prescription for all marriages. Indeed, seven months after penning this wedding sermon, he writes, again to Bethge, “what different forms of good marriages there are!” Evidently, in spite of its divine dignity, marriage for Bonhoeffer was mutable, at least as to form.
Similarly in his Ethics, Bonhoeffer’s views on marriage cannot be tied down to only one type of theological interpretation. While in the one case he speaks of the foundation of marriage being in the union of a man and a woman, in another he speaks of the partnership of sex (an attempt to recover the ontological unity which was lost in the Fall) as a union between Mensch and Mensch – that is, between two people, where he explicitly does not specify gender. Indeed, Bonhoeffer goes on to say that there is an “essential freedom of the body in its sexual aspect.”
None of this, of course, adds up to a systematic or comprehensive exploration of Bonhoeffer’s theology of marriage. The point is simply to demonstrate that Lyle Shelton’s harnessing of Bonhoeffer to his own, and ACL’s, particular interpretation of Christian orthodoxy on this subject is based on a somewhat more uncertain footing than I suspect Shelton has appreciated.