What hath Saint Francis of Assisi to do with Deitrich Bonhoeffer? I've been thinking about both gentlemen recently. First, who are they? Saint Francis was a devout Christian in the 12th-13th centuries who started a religious order within Catholicism called the Franciscans. Coming much later in history, Bonhoeffer was a devout German pastor and theologian mostly during the Third Reich in Hitler's Germany. And they handled similar (though not completely comparable) historical situations very differently.
First, St. Francis. During one of the Crusades, as a European army was sieging an Egyptian city, Saint Francis went to go speak directly to the Sultan of Egypt to try and talk to him earnestly about Jesus, to "convert" him as it were. It's important here to remark on one of the historical misunderstandings about the Crusades here. After the rise of Islam in the mid 700s, Islam spread often through war and forced converts, including the areas around Egypt and what today is now Israel. Why is that important? Because despite all the historical complexities, the Crusades were not simply a mis-spent religious war. The Crusades were not simply about Christian aggression, but about defense of indefensible people. No doubt, much of the Crusades were a mis-adventure and an unfortunate blight on Christian witness in the world. And that's where Assisi's model comes in. Despite some just causes for the war, we still applaud his peaceable attempt at resolution. He was embodying non-violence to try and make a difference in the world. And we love St. Francis for this. Even though his visit to the Sultan did not change his views, we respect St. Francis. We ought to.
And then we come to Bonhoeffer. But before we come to Bonhoeffer, let's note that many German and American pastors had chances to entertain an audience with Hitler prior to WWII, and tried to "convert" him and show him the error of the ways in how he was managing his government, with particular reference to the Jews. But because Hitler is Hitler, we view those pastors more as spineless. They didn't do anything about the problem, they just tried to change Hitler's mind. Bonhoeffer didn't. He always suspected Der Fuhrer, and eventually joined the Resistance movement in an assassination plot to kill Hitler. To Bonhoeffer, what was happening was so atrocious, so ungodly, that action and not mere words was needed. Indeed, Bonhoeffer even felt the call of God to join the assassination plot, even though his attempt failed and he was ultimately martyred for it, weeks before the war ended.
Somehow, we love St. Francis and Bonhoeffer for what they did. We admire them both, even though they went about the work of God, so to speak, in radically different ways.
More than anyone I know, I try to conceptualize principles for living, economics, politics, Christian involvement in the world. I love to come up with a set of principles that will tell me beforehand what I should do or believe in certain situations. But the more I read of history and of Christian saints, I'm convinced that the only true and right principle is to listen to God and to do what he asks. It might be completely different in different situations, but which of us has truly enough wisdom on our own to determine how God will use us? What principles could we live by that would give us the courage to do either what St. Francis did or what Bonhoeffer did?
Truly, we must listen to God, even as to how we involve ourselves in our culture and the major issues of our day.