First Twelve Observations about Goodness
by Ed Simon
One fourteenth century morning in the village of Montalilou, a simple woman named Bartholomette d’Urs, who slept every evening in her bed next to her young son, awoke to find that her boy had died of some unknown cause in the night. Perhaps some infection that was impossible for the medicine of the era to identify or treat, or an accident that led to the crushing of the infant and which d’Urs was too heartbroken to confess to, or simply one of the common tragedies whereby a child dies for some unknown reason. Jacques Fournier, both the official inquisitor and the bishop whose reach included this Pyrenees town, and who would one day reign from Peter’s second chair in Avignon as Pope Benedict XII, recorded Montalilou’s spiritual comings and goings for 1318 through 1325. Charged with enforcing theological conformity in those years when the dualistic Cathar heresy beguiled the French people away from the certainties of the One True Church, Fournier provided a creedal biography of this community of only a few hundred endangered souls (as all souls are so endangered, of course). Fournier recorded the incident, which was later elaborated on by French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in his 1975 annales microhistory Montaillou, village occitan de 1294 à 1324. D’Urs’ unbaptized baby was officially besmirched with that original sin passed down unbroken through generations, but that poor infant must surely have seemed as innocent as the lamb to his grieving mother. Still, this unbaptized baby’s ultimate destination was forever ambiguous, for he did not yet know the cleansing water of the sacrament. Perhaps he would dwell in the Arcadian hills of Limbo with Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Saladin. But d’Urs was a Catholic, and whether she was bound for hell, purgatory, or heaven was an issue of her conduct, and regardless of whether her life was faithful or not, good or not, she was guaranteed that she would never see her beloved child again, for she would never be bound for Limbo. God may have given his only living Son, but being God He at least had the certainty that he would see his boy again, d’Urs (like all of us) must live in painful ambiguity which the Lord is lucky enough to be incapable of experiencing. And so, d’Urs went to find some certainty, some supplication, and some succor from her priest. He told the woman, “Do not weep. God will give the soul of your dead son to the next child you conceive, male or female. Or else his soul will find a good home somewhere else.” Such consolation, such affirmation! The vagaries of theology are what they are, guiding words at best and baroque idols at worst, but this priest embodied his pastoral role, truly a good shepherd in telling d’Urs what he did. Fournier did not agree. The priest, whose comfort to the woman sounded a bit too much like that Pythagorean metempsychosis of the Albigensian heretics still hiding as remnants in those Occitan hills, was imprisoned for heresy for eight years, and forced to forever wear the yellow cross of heresy upon his cloak. Did she find comfort in the priest’s utterance? Did he ever regret telling her what he did? Was the priest a Cathar, did he genuinely believe in reincarnation? Or was his comfort just a bit of human sweetness, a sacred white lie? Maybe he was orthodox, but thought that the only soul being endangered by such a lie was his own. Does it matter? I think that he was probably a very good man.
Whither reincarnation, or paradise, or perdition, or salvation, or damnation? Fodder for schoolmen and philosophers, yet also visceral and tangible for the mere believer. What is truth without compassion? All the salvation d’Urs needed was perhaps in that priest’s noble falsehood, and perhaps both of their souls were saved then, a moment of heaven experienced during that supposedly misguided sacrament. Religions tend to be founded by advocates for the spirit of the law, but they are normally governed by partisans of its letter. From Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan to Hillel discoursing about the Golden Rule while standing on one leg, our religious traditions emphasize that before God is one of truth, or justice, or even law, that he is a God of mercy. “Prisons are built with stones of Law,” as William Blake said, and in God there can only ever be freedom. No doubt the adherent of orthopraxy, concerned as he is with correct belief, would disagree with my sentimentalizing of the Occitan priest. If it is true that correct belief is necessary to our salvation, then who am I to celebrate his indiscretion, offering d’Urs a bit of arguably illusory comfort at possibly the expense of her mortal soul? Is that not the road to theological relativism, the chicanery of a New Age gospel where feeling alright is more important than the creed? Maybe. But I don’t think so.
Don’t mistake me here – I’m not an antinomian, or at least I’m a pretty bad antinomian, and an even more boring libertine. I’m not speaking against the law per se, and I have no interest in ham-fisted allegories pitting obstinate, stiff-necked legalism against some sort of freeing gospel. Laws and rules are like people – good and bad. And when they serve the interests of justice, they can be very good indeed. But I do think distinction must be made between issues of ritual and metaphysics – which also like people can be good or bad – and ethics. Nothing necessarily too radical here, assuming that you’re not Benedict XII doling out the yellow cross of punishment to our poor priest. But in our own era, when all epistemic certainty has been on a slow fizzle from the sixteenth-century onward, when both fideism and positivism seem like a sucker’s game, you can see how some diseased minds would be attracted to certain forces of occult reaction, the “Dark Enlightenment” or whatever you call that mélange of Randian libertarianism, neo-monarchism, social Darwinism, and flat-out fedora wearing douchebaggery. The net result of that Cartesian thinking which maintains that axiomatic first principles and pure deductive reasoning can generate a complete ethical system is that sooner or later when the ladder of reason is shown to be unsteady and gets kicked over you start to get anxious that you’re going to be stuck up in that tree, and then you’re willing to listen to any one who walks by and claims that they can get you down. In building an ethic from deductive axiomatic first principles, in the end it is reason which ironically gets abandoned. Christ, I sound like Edmund Burke, don’t I? Well that’s embarrassing, I promise you that I mostly disagree with him. But might I suggest, that if we’re to build any kind of ethic, it comes not from the first rules of the Euclidian moralizer, the Benthemite with his felicific calculus where you plug in values like “propinquity,” “fecundity,” and “duration” to arrive at a numeric answer to what’s the greatest for the greatest number; nor from the decrees of revealed religion, but rather from that shared moment of connection between individuals in pain (as all individuals are)? A connection that we’ve elected to call compassion? In other words, I neither know what is right or wrong, nor how to prove which one a given action is, but I do know fear, anxiety, pain, relief, peace, love, and the visceral, physical, psychological experience of those states, and that must be the basis for any ethic of goodness to our fellow humans. That’s not relativism, it’s an acknowledgement that empty is the ethic which theorizes first principles, but not the desire to embrace someone in pain; lame is the theology which parses rituals, but does not have an awareness that to feed the hungry and heal the suffering is the aim of faith; sophistic is the philosophy which explicates the epistemology of morality, but does not give a dollar to the homeless guy standing outside of Penn Station. And lest you think me preachy, I’ll cop to only walking quicker past those guys as well. If humans were angels there would be no need of rules, and all the rest, but humans are humans and that should be good enough to build a moral of feeling, and an ethic of empathy. Do you feed the hungry because Christ says you should, or because rational first principles say that feeding the hungry maximizes overall order in the world, or conversely do you not feed the hungry because you’re an everyman-for-himself type who quotes Austrian economists? No, you feed the hungry because you have a stomach – and that’s where morality has to begin, not in our heads, or even our hearts, but are bowls and bowels. Why the skepticism about doing what’s right, or being able to justify it by recourse to some absolute quality, whether God or reason? You try to do good because you’re a person in the world and people should try to do what’s good. Tautological? Very well then. Doesn’t alter the reality that goodness isn’t about what’s argued for in the Metaphysics of Morals, or certainly with what’s contained in Leviticus, or even in the Sermon on the Mount, but that goodness is about holding another’s hand in the dark so you’re both a little less frightened about the fact that you will one day die. If the rules help in that endeavor then great, and if not, then hold high that value which states that kindness is always the only rule that really matters. Goodness is never circumscribed by law, or literalism, or mere metaphysical speculation, it is only defined by compassion. So that’s the first axiom.
God in the earliest pages of the Torah is a tangible deity, who for all of his abstractions (rarely is he ever literally described) is still identifiably corporeal, enjoying as he does a quiet walk through the cooling of the evening as the first dusk’s spindly orange fingers close on the glowing western horizon. If he is ineffable to us then he seems frankly present to the patriarchs, if a bit mysterious, if not a bit spooky. Think of God and his two strange compatriots (angels? Persons of the Trinity?), dining in a sandy tent with Abraham upon that Jordanian plain, supping on what, lentils and flat-bread? Chickpeas and figs? I imagine it as a silent dinner, until those negotiations where the ever faithful Abraham tried to intervene on behalf of the people of Sodom, including his nephew Lot – for if the Bible is anything it’s an account of how one must always be willing to negotiate with an unpredictable being such as God. The Lord assured Abraham that Sodom would be spared from destruction if fifty righteous people who dwelled within that city could be found. How about forty-five? Forty? Thirty? Surely twenty? What about ten people? If ten righteous men were found would that be enough to off-set the iniquity and sin of the other multitude in that malevolent twined city? And so a deal was struck, and the angels were dispatched to discover if any light, any benevolence hid among that wicked assemblage. To spare you the suspense, they would discover only one supposedly good man in the entire town. As they found it, that would be Lot himself, a man who apparently evidenced more goodness than all the other inhabitants of that place. Lot, a man who was good enough to protect his angelic guests from being raped by a crowd of Sodom’s citizens who were at his door, but who was also the man who proffered as a solution letting those same Sodomites rape his daughters instead. The same daughters whom he would later have sex with in a cave overlooking the burnt remains of the city. That – that was the best man in Sodom. I am not being sarcastic. Who are we to say that such a man, who by any standard of decency would certainly be considered despicable today, didn’t evidence just enough righteousness that he should have his own soul sparred, if not that of the rest of Sodom? Goodness has to work with what it has, I guess.
Lot’s being the spared person amongst a group of unrepentant sinners is not the first instance of God’s magnanimity in the Bible, there is of course Noah’s exemption from the deluge earlier in the Genesis narrative. The account of Sodom and Gomorrah has an additional element however, and that is Abraham’s strange negotiation with the Lord, bargaining for the survival of the former city if a certain minimum threshold of good individuals could be found. Noah’s world was presumably screwed from the get-go, since as righteous as Noah may have been it seemingly never occurred to him to haggle over its continued survival if good men and women other than his family members could be found in that otherwise sin-filled antediluvian age. We encounter a strange and fascinating idea in Abraham’s attempt to spare all the inhabitants of Sodom – righteous and unrighteous alike – based on the presence of some specific number of good people. Genesis implies that the mere existence of goodness at a certain critical level is enough to redeem the rest of us. Sodom is composed of almost entirely sinners, and based on a reading of the text itself, in opposition to the common definition of “Sodomy” today, it seems that the ancient Sodomites were primarily guilty of rape, rejection of the stranger, and greed, which might as well be the platform of one of the United States’ major political parties in 2017. Abraham’s is an evocative suggestion – could the presence of righteous, good individuals compensate for all of the rest of that evil? And what is an equivalent amount of absolute good when weighed against absolute evil? Good seems to sell at a much higher level than does evil; even factoring the presumed smallness of Bronze Age cities in Canaan, one would imagine that Abraham’s initial proposal of the discovery of fifty righteous people being able to justify sparing the entire city would still be a relatively small percentage of Sodom (the population of that village wasn’t fifty-one). Demographers put the average size of the major Middle Eastern communities in the second millennium of the common era (when it’s presumed that the patriarchal age of the Bible is set) at anywhere from 10,000 to the veritable Times Square that is bustling Uruk at 80,000 souls. In either case, fifty is a relatively small percentage to off-set all of that iniquity from everyone else, and of course even smaller is forty-five, thirty, twenty, or ten. Typologically the narrative prefigures Christ’s sacrifice, where one righteous man can compensate for everything else wicked that the rest of us are engaged with. As it was, Abraham’s proposal could never be tested, since ten good men couldn’t be found in all of Sodom. It’s too bad he didn’t negotiate the deal down to one person.
One, would of course, be an auspicious number, not least of which because it’s the smallest number of people you can have around while still having people around (or person around, if we’re being grammatically correct). Don’t sell ten short though, there is a lot of numerological significance to the number ten (though of course the number forty, Abraham’s starting point in the divine deal-making, is similarly important). The ancient Hebrews, like the Romans, counted in a base ten numeric system, but beyond the mathematical importance of the number, it’s also repeated throughout the Tanakh. There are, after all, ten plagues which bedevil the Egyptians, ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and ultimately ten lost tribes of Israel after that northern kingdom is run over by the Assyrians. And, of course, there are Ten Commandments, even if Jews, Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants disagree on how to group those decrees in Exodus. But ritually, the number ten is most important in Jewish practice in terms of the minyan. Certain prayers, in particular public ones, can only occur within the context of the community, and both the Palestinian and the Babylonian Talmud agree that the minimum number of Jews needed to fulfill the quorum of the minyan is ten. The connection to Abraham’s and God’s final agreed upon amount for the minimum number of righteous Sodomites needed to spare that city seem obvious, almost as if the presence of a minyan of ten praying Jews fulfills a similar role of supplication in any subsequent age (and to thus presumably avoid apocalyptic disaster). Easy to assume, but not the actual logic used in either version of the Talmud. The authoritative Babylonian Talmud, in Megillah 23b, justifies the number of a minyan being as based on three different scriptural sources, none of which involved Abraham and Sodom (for you Inside Baseball types, the Babylonian Talmud cites a verse in Leviticus and two in Numbers in justifying the quorum number). The earlier Jerusalem Talmud does cite Genesis in its justification for the number ten (along with three other scriptural references), but the derivation from Genesis is at 42:5, in a portion of the Joseph story, again having nothing to do with that forlorn undiscovered party of ten on a hot and rainy day in old Sodom. But the resonance seems unmistakable, that there is some minimum number of the good, some smallest amount of goodness, that though it be tiny is still fierce, that despite being miniscule, could still have the power to save the world. That evil might be massive, that its tendrils may fill and flit into every corner of the world like the brimstone and smoke of burning Sodom covering the doorways and alleys and creeping down the stone roads, but that despite evil’s seeming all-encompassing power, it can be defeated with just an atom of goodness.
Seven is also an integer of numerological significance, whose entry in the encyclopedia of gematria would be longer than average. And thus, observation seven is more than an appropriate place to discuss another religiously weighty number: thirty-six (you may have wondered why that was the number of thoughts I was willing to entertain on the subject of goodness, across the significant number of three articles, grouped in a similarly evocative bushel of twelve observations). That particular number is important to this idea of there being a minimum number of good people required to stave off apocalyptic destruction. The Talmud, at both Tractate Sanhedrin 97b and Tractate Sukha 45b, speaks of a class of human being known as the Tzadkhim Nistarim, the “hidden righteous ones,” sometimes also referred to as the Lamed vav Tzadkhim, or the “thirty-six righteous ones.” Lamed vav Tzadkhim are among those esoteric and frankly weird ideas that sprinkle the ephemera of organized faith, an idea that for all of its strangeness contains a fundamental wisdom, albeit in enigmatic form. As a concept it posits that at any given moment in human history, whether we speak of the era of Abraham, or that of Christ, or Luther, or Lincoln, or us, that there are exactly thirty-six hidden, purely righteous men and women whose continued existence is that upon which the rest of ours’ hinges. This quorum of the absolutely good are all that stand between the rest of us sinners and the world’s destruction, they provide enough cumulative goodness that they pull the rest of us along with them, their righteousness constitutes those kernels of dispersed resistance against the entropy of evil, the machinations of malice. They are as a stop in the door of reality, wedging the entrance open just enough so that the light can continue to come in. Among the thirty-six humans there will be a range of ages, from newborn mewling infants, to crooked dying old men; when one expires, another is born. A member of the thirty-six can live in any country and on any continent, they can be rich or poor, smart or stupid, beautiful or ugly. Anyone you’ve met, anyone you walk past on a busy Manhattan street, or in a small Illinois town, or at a midnight diner, or on a Greyhound bus could be one of them. The lamed vovnicks (as they’re called in Yiddish) don’t know each other, and in fact they are unaware of their own status as being members of such a crucial minority. If somebody claims to be a lamed vovnick then it is most certainly instant assurance that they are not one, for the humility of such a saint necessitates that they themselves are incapable of conceiving of their own self-identity in such grandiose terms. I say that despite the strangeness of its literalism (where the hell do those ancient sages get the number thirty-six?), which leaves open the question of whether it is description or allegory, the concept does serve the rhetorical function that the best of parables share. The idea of the lamed vovnick reminds us of two things: that goodness can be obscured and hidden within our midst, and that even the smallest of victories for goodness is as a complete triumph when it is viewed through the totalizing hungry eyes of absolute Evil, who can broach absolutely no defeat, even of the smallest kind. From among their ranks, in every generation, comes the potential anointed one, the moshiach, the messiah; though, like the hidden Mahdi they will only arrive when either the world is so full of goodness that they can safely and easily be revealed, or conversely when everything is so degraded, wicked, awful, and evil that they have no choice but to be revealed so as to save us. As the German Jewish philosopher (and kabbalah enthusiast) Walter Benjamin put it in his 1940 essay Theses on the Philosophy of History, “For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.” Every hour, minute, and second is a portal through which the moshiach may arrive, and though the admixture ratio of goodness to wickedness may shift throughout the ages of humanity, those stalwart, absolute thirty-six unknown to each other or themselves forever stand guard against our complete inundation by evil. Recalling those Hasidic folktales which imagine an immortal Elijah covered in sores and swaddled in rags, his identity hidden to everyone, wandering through the frozen paths of Poland and Ukraine’s shtetls, trying to find some succor, or of Christ hidden as a beggar. And anyone could theoretically be a member of this group, perhaps you, perhaps me (but probably not). Possibly the tired but cheerful barista who gave you back your incorrect change, the kid selling candy-bars for his school at rush-hour on the Q train, the woman begging in front of a Midtown skyscraper, with so many acid burns on her face that you have to avert your eyes, because her deformity sickens your stomach.
By one of those rhetorically convenient coincidences that are ever-useful to writers such as myself, but which may or may not have any actual significance in their own right, the number thirty-six appears in a source very different from the Talmud. In 1895, Rhode Island born French writer Georges Polti published an unusual little book entitled Les trente-six situations dramatiques, one of those periodic texts in which the author claims to have identified the minimum number of possible narrative plots across novels, drama, and epic (and perhaps presumably life as well, however we choose to organize the order of those events). From Vladimir Propp’s Russian formalist The Morphology of the Folktale (with its almost mathematical short-hand for folkloric narrative tropes including “RECEIPT OF A MAGICAL AGENT” and “WEDDING”) to Christopher Booker’s Jungian archetype inflected The Seven Basic Plots, or the Aarne-Thompson Classification Index, the Arthurian Grail (there’s a plot!) of narratology has been the proper identification and organization of the basic elements of any story that we could tell. And, over a pint, you’ll hear all sorts of numbers bandied about, from Booker’s seven to Polti’s thirty-six. Kurt Vonnegut thought that there were six and John Gardner thought that there were only two (somebody goes on a journey, a stranger comes to town). Polti’s system of categorization is more baroque than most, but for my purposes it has the nice resonance of listing a number of plots equivalent to the number of unseen lamed vovnicks in the world. From the first plot (“The supplicant appeals to the power in authority for deliverance from the persecutor”) to the thirty-sixth (“The killing of the Kinsman Slain by the Executioner is witnessed by the Kinsman”) Polti argued that he had discovered a classification system whereby every story that had or could be told had been properly identified. His system does seem thorough, running through comedy and tragedy, transcendent of mere genre or mode, encompassing the grand narrative threads of humanity in all of its complexity. Consider situation number three, “Crime pursued by vengeance,” where “The criminal commits a crime that will not see justice, so the avenger seeks justice by punishing the criminal,” or situation thirty-one which sees “Conflict with a god.” I like to think that each one of Polti’s dramatic scenarios corresponds exactly to the life-stories of all of those lamed vovnicks living in our midst. Maybe the previously mentioned first plot corresponds to that hidden lamed vovnick who is an overworked public defender working hard to have a woman’s wrongly imprisoned son released? Maybe situation two (“Deliverance”) corresponds to the woman who jumps onto the train tracks to save a child who has fallen onto the platform? If each one of Polti’s scenarios corresponded to the individual tales of those hidden righteous it would underscore the diversity of goodness, how it manifests itself, the variety of people and situations in which goodness can be found. What Elijah in shadows or Christ obscured teach us is not that we should treat all of our fellow humans with compassion because they might secretly be Elijah or Christ, but rather that all of our fellow humans, in a manner, actually already are Elijah and Christ, regardless of where their tab is set for the moral goodness account. Who knows what benevolence beats in the heart of the sinner, after all, for Christ was strung up between two criminals. So, let it not be lost that not all of the plots are ones which necessarily reflect positively on their protagonist, because that’s precisely the point. It’s hard to see the goodness implicit in the situation three’s revenger, or the main character in situation thirteen (“Enmity of Kin”) as being a saint – but maybe that’s the point. After all, we’re speaking of the thirty-six lamed vovnicks, not saints. Again, goodness has to work with what it has.
Augustine famously posited that evil was not a positive category, rather it was simply the absence of the good. Maybe he had that reversed, maybe good is simply the absence of evil? But that doesn’t sound right, does it? If evil has a visceral, tangible, physical reality, one that you can identify emotionally in its presence, the feeling of a cool, calm, intentional, smirking something behind the veil of everyday reality, of creatures that make your scalp shrink and the hair on your arms to stand erect, and of a something whose designs we see in whatever atrocities we occasion upon, from the twisted accounts of concentration camp guards and serial killers, then good must of course also be similarly positive and tangible in its existence. And, as evil has that physical effect on us, so must the presence of the actual, glowing, touched Good. From stories of anonymous self-sacrifice, of tenderness, compassion, empathy, then goodness seems like a real thing just as surely as evil does – a self-evident truth observed by the very fact of being alive for a little bit amongst our individual little plots of land. If Augustine saw good as total and evil as mainly a matter of perspective, than the prophet Mani (of whom Augustine was a follower in his youth) rather borrowed from Persian Zoroastrianism and preached that the universe is forever locked in a state of permanent combat from roughly equally powerful absolute Good and Evil. You get no opinions from me on the accuracy of either model, I’m not in the theodicy business here. Rather, what I offer is a simple vision, and you can draw whatever philosophical conclusions from it that you wish. Imagine a cloudless ink-black night sky on some hypothetical world with a variable number of stars. There could be so many stars that the entire night sky is transformed into a blazing world of glorious light, or there can be only one star, but there can never less than that. But even if there is only one star in that night sky, it’s still enough to make out the human face of the person next to you on the surface of that otherwise dark planet.
That speaks to the nature of absolute evil – its psychology is totalizing, it requires nothing less than complete dominance, total control over everything. Anything less than totality is a defeat for absolute evil, for the capricious, cannibalistic, carnivorous hunger of evil allows only for the devouring of everything. Evil is by its nature a beast of avarice. So to prevent evil’s victory at the level of a mile, a foot, an inch, and for just a day, an hour, or a second might seem as if a small victory on behalf of goodness, but for absolute evil the existence or endurance of any goodness is a total failure, for the greediness of absolute malice abides by no partial victories. This is the second axiom, and it can be referred to as the “non-totalizing power of goodness.” If anything, goodness is good not in spite of its modest non-totalizing, but in part because of it.
Pray that in the last moments before his execution at the Flossenbürg concentration camp that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was able to call into his memory some of those black gospel songs which he loved so much. That in the minutes and seconds before he would be lynched by the Nazis that he was able to perhaps remember the melodies of Thomas Dorsey, Sallie Martin, Mahalia Jackson, or Sister Rosetta Tharpe and that he drew some of that sweet comfort which sings that there “will be peace in the valley for me, some day.” Consider Bonhoeffer – the slight, anxious, bookish, effeminate and incomparably brave man who would be martyred in that factory of death. When Bonhoeffer studied towards his Doctor of Theology degree at the University of Berlin, religion was arguably more academic than personal for him, more a set of interesting cultural and intellectual propositions than a living gospel. Born in a largely secular family enraptured to Enlightenment ideals, religion was more puzzle than guide, something approached with the head before the heart. In 1930, when he had the opportunity to continue his studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York, he embarked to the New World with little enthusiasm. Of America, he wrote, “There is no theology here.” What theological brilliance could there be in America, a land of holly rollers and snake oil salesman, given over to the empty enthusiasms of revival and faith healers, a land that hadn’t produced a bona fide theological genius since Jonathan Edwards? And yet there was a genius in American religion which Bonhoeffer encountered after his new friend and fellow seminarian Frank Fisher encouraged the young German academic to venture further uptown. It was at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church at the heights of the Depression and three years before Hitler would come to power that Bonhoeffer first encountered the living God, the God of the oppressed, the God who had stood before Pharaoh. Listening to the Revered Adam Clayton Powell Sr., Bonhoeffer didn’t necessarily learn anything he hadn’t already known, but he finally understood it. Raised on the neoclassical perfections of Bach and Mendelsohn, the Romantic pathos of Beethoven and Schubert, he had never quite heard anything like the Negro spiritual. Bonhoeffer was so taken with the Abyssinian Baptist Church that he became a Sunday school teacher there, the quiet German making his way from the Upper West Side to Harlem every weekend. The Bible, of course, was used as a means of oppression against slaves who were wretched across the Earth on the teeming hell-scape factories that were the boats of the Middle Passage. From the hermeneutic of oppression came ignoble lies like the Curse of Ham, or the platitudes of Paul imploring the slave to cheerfully serve his master. And, the Bible, of course, was also used as a potent means of resistance, the cry of “Let my people go” beginning first as whisper, repeating as idee fix, and concluding as triumphant declaration. The example of the slave rebellion leader Nat Turner demonstrates both contradictory observations. Now, here in the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the descendants of those slaves brought to bear the accumulated religious wisdom of how faith operates, and how it is necessary, when the boot of oppression is pressing on your neck. Slaves, prohibited from reading by their masters, would meet by moonlight to study the Bible, its stories of Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar and Haman humbled before the Lord, for God was not of the masters, but of the servants. Those nocturnal, clandestine gatherings of Christ – those churches – evoked nothing so much as the first generations of Christians meeting in subterranean Roman catacombs. And as it would be, they prefigured Bonhoeffer’s own Confessing Church, formed in the decade after he returned from Harlem to the Babylon that was Nazi Germany. A gathering of Protestant clergy who rejected the idolatries of so-called “Aryan Christianity” where Constantine’s cross was beaten into Hitler’s sword. From Rev. Powell, Bonhoeffer understood that “the Black Christ is preached with rapturous passion and vision,” that Christ is always black, and a Jew, and a Gypsy, and anyone who is ever the dispossessed of the world. But Christians, like any group of people, are often more than willing to deny the savior before the cock has even crowed, so as to gain a little security or power. Many Christians in Bonhoeffer’s Germany gladly welcomed this Hitler who would have sent the Lord to the gas chamber. And so, the Nazis founded a heretical German Evangelical Church, which was to subsume all of the Protestant denominations of the country under a new doctrine which denied Christ’s Judaism and purged the scripture of the Old Testament. In response, men like Karl Barth, Bonhoeffer, and many of the remainder of the pious resistance of Germany formed the underground Confessing Church to act in opposition to Hitler, not just spiritually but providing material means of escape for Jews and other persecuted minorities. In that later role, Bonhoeffer was recruited by his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnányi into one of the German government’s intelligence rings, the Abwehr, to act as a double-agent. Under the guise of his ecumenical connections around the world being helpful to the Reich, Bonhoeffer and Dohnányi delivered information from the anti-Nazi resistance to contacts in western intelligence agencies. And so, the tweedy theologian more conversant with Augustin, Luther, and Calvin than with cryptography, subterfuge, and drop-off boxes was suddenly a spy against Der Fuhrer. While in this service, Bonhoeffer learned from Dohnányi, who was involved, that there was a plot to assassinate Hitler being hatched within the Abwehr. As a committed Christian, Bonhoeffer understood that for all of Hitler’s wickedness that he was still a man, created in the image of God as all men are. And, as a committed Christian and pacifist, Bonhoeffer understood that to take a life – any life – is a grave sin. To do so is to destroy a world, for the commandment to not murder has no asterisks by it. And yet as a human being he also knew that despite those theological abstractions that it was morally and ethically just and imperative that Adolf Hitler must be killed. So Bonhoeffer, the Christian and pacifist, aided in whatever way he could to make sure that that result came to pass. And for that he and his brother-in-law were arrested on April 5th, 1943, beginning two years of imprisonment and torture before his execution. Of the brilliant theologians that the twentieth-century produced – Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans Kung – there are many who have earned our respect, because of their erudition, their learnedness, and yes, their humanity. Yet among all of them it is only Bonhoeffer whom it is easy to love, for he was willing to make that supreme sacrifice of his own deeply felt principles so as to lead to a greater good, even if he would risk damnation to do it. As he wrote, “when a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it… Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.” In Bonhoeffer’s harrowing of hell he risked his own damnation so as to save others. He died two weeks before the 90th and 97th United States Army divisions liberated Flossenbürg. Pray that he had music in his heart, for he was a supremely good man.
Sometimes goodness is expressed with denying official teaching, as with our Occitan priest, and sometimes goodness is manifested by denying God’s commandments, as with our German theologian. Let’s make that the third axiom. That will be the terms of the conversation. Now, there are twenty-four more observations that I will have to share with you.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is the associate editor at The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, he holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University. He can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.