Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany during the rise of Adolf Hitler and World War II. Throughout his career as a professor and parish pastor, Bonhoeffer opposed Hitler’s rule, and especially Hitler’s Aryan policies. Bonhoeffer was vocal in his opposition to Hitler, participated in underground efforts to smuggle Jews out of Germany, and played a key role in the most significant attempt to assassinate Hitler. His role in the assassination attempt got him arrested and ultimately hanged as a traitor in one of Hitler’s Nazi death camps.
One most meaningful concepts for which Bonhoeffer is best known is the notion of “cheap grace.” Bonhoeffer coined this phrase to describe the German Lutheran Church’s indifference to and, at times, support of Hitler’s attempt to create the perfect race. For Bonhoeffer, “cheap grace” described those individuals who professed to follow Jesus the Christ, while at the same time looking the other way as Hitler shipped increasing numbers of non-Germans to their deaths in concentration camps. Bonhoeffer believed that if one claimed to be a follower of Jesus, his or her life and actions would reflect the teachings of Jesus—teachings such as protecting the helpless, caring for the destitute, and defending the defenseless.
In a time of Wikileaks, Eric Snowden, IRS investigations, drones, mental health deception, and political gridlock, the concept of “cheap grace” has applications. These applications are not religious, but rather ethical. In a country that claims to be a home for the downtrodden, abused, and discounted, our society has become indifferent to the poor, the homeless, and the unemployed. As our government cuts funding for needed social and health services, its citizens remain indifferent and accepting of labels that demonize those in need.
Our culture now lives under “cheap grace”—“I am an American. I have earned my place and my possessions and I do not have to share them with anyone for any reason. People who do not look like me, act like me, or believe like me are suspect and are the enemy.” We are no longer a culture that lives by the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
As a society, we are choosing security over freedom, rigidness over understanding, judgment over acceptance, legalism over spirituality, self-indulgence over compassion, and comfort over sacrifice. With little or no awareness, our culture is choosing a destiny that will leave its members destitute and soulless. Don’t misunderstand—it is indeed our right and privilege to choose our destiny; it was the intent of our founders that we have the freedom to make such a choice.
But instead of providing a place where individuals of different races, creeds, and colors can pursue life, liberty, and happiness, we now find ourselves in a crucible of materialism, moralism, and “me.” We spend more time defining what life is, then learning to live fully. We are more focused on fear of others—whether terrorists, bandits, or our neighbors—then we do enabling liberty and justice for all who dwell within our borders. We no longer work toward experiencing happiness, we demand it as it a constant condition of existence. Success is now defined strictly in dollars and cents, the last quarter’s balance sheet, and the number of homes, cars, and boats one owns.
Many express their fear and concern that President Obama and other political leaders in Washington are moving us toward some kind of dictatorship or Orwellian existence. Yet, while wallowing in those fears, the citizenry is creating its own perfect race—one that is exclusive, filled with absolutes, dominated by fear and anger, and will ultimately destroy itself.
The question confronting those of us in existential psychology is are we willing to follow the path that Bonhoeffer walked? Are we willing to accept the ethical and moral responsibility of challenging our society’s growing narcissism and isolation? Are we ready to step forward, individually and corporately, to defend those who need defending? Or will we sit idly by, indifferent to the deterioration of our society and culture and accept “cheap grace?”
— Steve Fehl