Laura Fabrycky and her husband and three children moved to Berlin in 2016. From there, she watched the American presidential election in dismay. “Something seemed to have snapped in our hyperpolarized and tribal politics that could not be easily put back together,” she writes in the introduction to Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus: Exploring the World and Wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And though her book is unlikely to repair our factious political scene, it may serve to unite and inspire Christians struggling to find a faithful stance within it.
Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus is not primarily a biography, although it’s rich with biographical information. Fabrycky knows her stuff. For three years she served as a volunteer tour guide in the Bonhoeffer house, immersing herself in study, interviews, and explorations of the ethics and events surrounding the rise and fall of Nazi Germany.
As Fabrycky leads us through the rooms of Bonhoeffer’s large house, she presents stories from her family’s own attempts to make sense of a foreign land. In one chapter, she moves seamlessly from a survey of Germany’s history and the evolution of the concept of citizenship to her family’s visit to Colonial Williamsburg, where two actors hold a lively debate on religious freedom. She takes us to her daughter’s harsh, mandatory bike-safety training to examine her own instinct to yield to authoritarianism. We see her struggling to love a cranky neighbor who disapproves of her gardening skills.
In all of this, she reminds us of the fuller definition of politics: “civic housekeeping,” by which she means “the hard, often boring work of living a common life” and the practice of neighbor-love “expressed in pothole filling and road paving, trash collecting, and pollution solving, compromise and deliberation, justice and restoration.” Even in times of societal disorder, we cannot avoid our housekeeping responsibilities.
What, then, might we learn about fulfilling these responsibilities in our own moment of political disease and disruption? The reader will find cautionary instruction throughout. As Adolf Hitler rose to power, the majority of the Protestant church in Germany, like their fellow citizens, supported his charismatic leadership and his promises to restore Germany’s economy and status. In dissent, Bonhoeffer joined others in founding the “Confessing Church.” He believed the church was in status confessionis—a state of confession, like a witness in a courtroom sworn to tell the truth. While the German church had abandoned its confession of faith, the Confessing Church vowed to act in accordance with Scripture.
But reading and even confessing the Scriptures is insufficient, as Fabrycky reminds us. In the midst of anti-Semitic fervor, Christians in both churches prayerfully consulted the Die Losungen, a daily reading of selected Old and New Testament passages. Bonhoeffer did as well. Yet, “some still went marching in torchlight, arms raised, under the Hakenkreuz, the twisted cross better known as the swastika.”
As Bonhoeffer became an active resister, he entered into a life of dying, of ars moriendi. His country’s descent into madness awakened his responsibility as a citizen and as a Christian, moving him to lay down his reputation, his safety, and his obedience to a government ruled by evil. As Fabrycky astutely observes, he even let go of his own righteousness, knowing that spycraft involved lying and deceit.
Fabrycky’s guidance through the rooms of Bonhoeffer’s house leads inevitably to the question she asks herself, the question we must ask as readers: Would I have remained with the majority of German Christians and become complicit with the Nazi agenda, or would I have resisted, even to death?
We’re not allowed to remain safely distant from this question. Fabrycky intends for her tour to lead us back to our own homes. As Christians, how will we comport ourselves there, in our own troubling times? Fabrycky will not tell us. Her job, she writes, is to help us remember—which is our “moral responsibility”—and to carefully weigh the price of our own passivity and silence.
As Fabrycky concludes, “I see from a distance that my country is failing to fulfill its task of keeping house. We are failing to model what civic housekeeping requires and we are suffering because of it.” I wanted her to go further sooner, issuing a firmer call to specific action here on our own shores. Perhaps that’s another book. Or maybe it’s not a book at all. She’s already brilliantly given us keys to warn and inform our moral imaginations. It’s our job to use them.
Leslie Leyland Fields is the author of Your Story Matters: Finding, Writing, and Living the Truth of Your Life (NavPress). She lives on Kodiak Island, Alaska.
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