To Willing Conflators Of Dietrich Bonhoeffer And Jeremy Todd (first letter)


Dear Friends,
Thirteen years is a long stretch in a person’s life. It certainly has been for this project and I. Time is the most precious gift in our possession, for it is the most irrevocable. This is what makes it so disturbing to look back upon time we’ve lost. Time lost is time when we have not lived a fully human life, time un-enriched by experience, creative endeavour, enjoyment and suffering. Time lost is time we have not filled, time left empty. The past thirteen years have not been like that for me. My losses, and perhaps ours too, have been immeasurable, but we have not lost time. True, knowledge and experience, which are realized only in retrospect, are mere abstractions compared with reality, the life we have actually lived. But just as the capacity to forget is a gift of grace, so memory, the recalling of the lessons we have learned, is an essential element in responsible living. I have hoped to put on record some of the lessons I’ve found and the experiences we’ve shared during the past thirteen years. These are not just individual experiences; they are not arranged in an orderly way, there is no attempt to discuss them or to theorize about them. All I have done is to jot down, as they come, some of the discoveries, discoveries about the business of human life. The only connection between them is that of concrete experience. There is nothing new or startling about them, for they have been known, I presume, long before. But to us has been granted the privilege of learning them anew by first-hand experience. I cannot write a single word about these things without a deep sense of gratitude for the fellowship of spirit and community of life we have been allowed to enjoy and preserve throughout these years.
Surely there has never been a generation in the course of human history with less ground under its feet as our own. Every conceivable alternative seems equally intolerable. We try to escape from the present by looking entirely to the past or the future for our inspiration, and yet, without indulging in fanciful dreams, we are able to wait for the success of our cause in quietness and confidence. It may be however that the responsible, thinking people of earlier generations who stood at a turning-point of history felt just as we do, for the very reason that something new was being born which was not discernible in the alternatives of the present. Who stands their ground?
A great masquerade – a phantasmagoria — has wrought havoc with all our ethical preconceptions. This appearance of evil in the guise of light, beneficence and historical necessity is utterly bewildering to anyone nurtured in the expectation of a common good and its related ethical systems. The failure of rationalism is evident. With the best of intentions, but also with a naive lack of realism, the rationalist imagines that a small dose of reason will be enough to put the world right. In the rationalist’s short-sightedness, there is a want of justice for all sides, but in the sometimes covert battle of conflicting forces one gets trampled without achieving the slightest effect. Disappointed by the irrationality of the world, one realizes at last the futility of such a position and retires from the fray, weakly surrendering to the winning side. Worse still is the total collapse of moral fanaticism. The fanatic imagines that their moral purity will prove a match for the power of evil, but like a bull the fanatic goes for the red rag instead of the person who carries it, grows weary and succumbs. The fanatic becomes entangled with non-essentials and falls into the trap set by the superior ingenuity of adversaries. Then there is the person with a conscience, fighting single-handedly against overwhelming odds in situations demanding a decision. But there are so many conflicts going on, all of which demand some vital choice — with no advice or support save one’s own conscience. It is impossible not to be torn to pieces.
What then of the person of freedom? One who aspires to stand their ground in the world, valuing the necessary deed more highly than a clear conscience or the duties of one’s calling, ready to sacrifice a barren principle for a fruitful compromise or a barren mediocrity for a fruitful radicalism. What then of such a person? One must beware lest their freedom should become their own undoing. For in choosing the lesser of two evils one might fail to see that the greater evil can prove to be the lesser in the end.  Here we have the raw material of tragedy.   Some seek refuge from the rough-and-tumble of public life in the sanctuary of their own private virtue. Such people however are compelled to seal their lips and shut their eyes to the injustice around them. Only at the cost of self-deception can they keep themselves pure from the defilements incurred by responsible action. For all that they achieve, that which they leave undone will still torment their peace of mind. They will either go to pieces in face of this disquiet, or develop into the most hypocritical of all Pharisees.
Who then stands their ground? It is only the person whose ultimate criterion is not found in reason, principles or conscience, freedom or virtue, but in sacrificing all of these things. If I have gleaned anything from persisting with these not sent letters over the past thirteen years, it is this root fact. I am still trying to face it — to make the required commitment. I can’t bring myself to walk away and will write again soon.