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Learn from Huck Finn, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Huckleberry Finn, the imaginary young rascal of 19th century America, has something important in common with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the 20th century German pastor and scholar. It is something which modern America has lost and badly needs to regain.

In America today we are living in moral confusion, bewildered by all the conflicting images of right and wrong which society pushes on us. Advertisers, marketers and entertainers are our most effective forces in shaping contemporary morality. Sadly, the values they teach are terrible. 

•Greed is taught as a virtue so that we can be parted more easily from our money. Think, for instance, of Target’s phrase, Expect More, Pay Less. 

•Compromise, a virtue badly lacking in our government, is taught as a negative. Have you seen Audi’s silly ad, falsely claiming their cars have “No compromise”?

•Irresponsible intimacy, which makes people lonely just as salt water makes them thirsty, is portrayed as a normal way for humans to relate.

•Burger King has promised us we can have things our own way and we think all of life is supposed to go our way.

•Dodge truck ads tell us the rules have changed but pickups are still pickups, changed only in detail. The ads clearly are not talking about Dodge trucks. They are trying to convince us their products are part of the new and better America that we hope is emerging from all this cultural turmoil.

Huck Finn found himself in a confusing situation similar to our own. Huck and Jim, a runaway slave, had become friends, yet Huck’s conscience bothered him because everything he had been taught about right and wrong made him think he was supposed to turn Jim in. God himself, Huck thought, stood behind all the rules.

Huck wrote a letter to Jim’s “owner,” telling where Jim could be found. Then he paused and thought about it again. He says, “I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ – and tore it up.”

In that moment, Huck was reaching inside himself to a place deeper than the rules and expectations of his upbringing. He found within himself a sense of goodness which was better and wiser than he had been taught even by good church folk.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a very highly educated German from a well-to-do family, lived in a society which taught him to obey all authority, especially that of the state. Recognizing Hitler as evil, Bonhoeffer struggled to understand how to be a good German citizen and yet resist Hitler.

Like Huck Finn, Bonhoeffer had to come to a place within himself where there was an innate goodness and godliness which was deeper than the lessons of church, schools or the culture. He decided that honoring God in his situation meant three things:

First, calling the government to accountability for the harm it was causing, especially to the Jews;

Second, helping those who were harmed by the state;

Third, doing whatever was necessary to stop the government from harming people.

In the end, Bonhoeffer was hanged for his role in the plot to assassinate Hitler.

Today we, like Huck and Dietrich, must become counter-cultural people.

The family and the church need to stand for a deep human and godly goodness, countering the messages of our greedy culture. Our political parties and politicians cannot help, since they are as confused as anyone else. Our business leaders are of no help, since they are the ones teaching us to be greedy and self-centered. 

No, the family and the church must rise to the occasion. And I believe that’s exactly what they will do.

Michael Hayes leads the Bonhoeffer Society of Red Wing, which meets at 10 a.m. the second Saturday, September through May, at Christ Episcopal Church.