I read something today that reminded me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s great words of wisdom. Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who refused to support the Nazi regime. As a Christian he could not, and as a theologian he could not. The depth and sincerity of his commitment to ‘love thy neighbour’ made it impossible for him to join the persecutors. His refusal put him at odds with the majority of German Christians who implicitly or explicitly acquiesced with the regime. His refusal went further, to acts of resistance including attempts to assassinate Hitler.
At a time when his colleague Niemöller had been imprisoned for eight years in concentration camps as the personal prisoner of Adolf Hitler, Bonhoeffer wrote these wonderful words:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionist, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Jew.
And then they came for me –
and there was no one left to speak for me.”
In the end, Bonhoeffer too was arrested and imprisoned. Even as the Nazi regime crumbled, one of Hitler’s last acts was to require some of his loyal henchmen to ensure that Bonhoeffer be executed. And so he was hanged, just two weeks before the liberating army arrived, and three weeks before Hitler committed suicide.
Although I am not a Christian, I am inspired by the perennial question ‘who is my neighbour’. Bonhoeffer is telling us that the neighbour is not only the one who is in some way like me. The neighbour is the stranger, the ‘other’, the ones whose lives disrupt my comfortable self-enclosure. The connection I was seeing today concerns the natural world, and so I am bringing social justice and ecological justice together in thinking with Bonhoeffer.
The division between social and natural is completely arbitrary and has its roots in the idea that humans are separate from and in some ways at odds with nature. This separation is false in the way it separates humans from all the others, and it is equally false in the way it lumps all humans together.
These days many of our biggest struggles are between two main human types: those who understand themselves as part of nature and want to see both humans and nature flourish vs. those who either despise nature or see themselves as its masters and conquerors. For this latter group nature seems to be only a collection of ‘things’ that matter to the extent that they can be made profitable.
For those of us who understand ourselves to be part of nature, our neighbours are not only human, but are all those fellow participants in living systems: forests, reefs, dingoes, Tassie devils, flying-foxes and the myriad other earth creatures.
Bonhoeffer was not saying that we should defend others because it is in our self-interest. Rather, he is saying that we are all part of this world of life. Turn our back on any of the others and we turn our back on anyone’s claim to be part of the world of life. As a theologian he was almost certainly saying that to turn away from others is to turn away from God.
We who love the nonhuman world and want to see earth life thrive are often, I know, beset with the question: how does one keep going when the odds seem so stacked against us and all that we love? Where is hope to be found, and when it seems hopeless, what sources of inspiration keep us going?
I was inspired by an article from the Wilderness Society concerning the Tasmanian Forests. The Tasmanian Legislature has been debating whether or not to throw out the Tasmanian Forest Agreement. This agreement brought forest activists, the timber industry, the unions, and other key groups together to work out a path that would be good for the forests and good for people. This long work of reconciliation took decades, and it set in place a legal agreement that was recognised by all the parties.
Now it is on the line. The report from the Wilderness Society expresses the matter perfectly:
“With questions and opposition from the independent upper house and key stakeholders – including environment groups – flying thick and fast, and the novice Government amending its own legislation on the fly, the bill may yet fail or be heavily changed in the coming days.
What is clear, however, is that if the bill passes, the Tasmanian Government is lining itself up for years of pain. The Tasmanian community will hold the Government responsible for damaging the environment, hurting Tasmania’s reputation, and taking an axe to a forestry industry slowly recovering as a result of unprecedented collaboration between former adversaries….
The Tasmanian Forest Agreement has already delivered a securely-protected World Heritage area, kept the chainsaws away from half a million hectares of forest, and shown that a strong commitment to working with past adversaries can deliver for nature.
Regardless of the outcomes of the impending vote, the Wilderness Society is committed to working with the community to see Tasmania’s old growth forests and wild places protected – forever.”
Commitment as Bonhoeffer advocated recognises that ultimately we are all connected, and ultimately we must defend the world around us, even when it may seem hopeless. Over the last few years I have met many people who rescue and care for wildlife and who are activists on behalf of nonhumans. I am constantly awed by the way they keep on working with love and dedication even when the opposition is brutal and relentless.
I keep asking myself questions that resonate with Bonhoeffer and that I know trouble concerned people everywhere. This is the ‘where was I?’ question.
They came for the reef, and where was I?
They came for the flying-foxes, and where was I?
They came for the dingoes, and where was I?
They came for the forests, and where was I?
We can’t all be everywhere at once, and as we see so much that we love being trashed, it seems particularly vital to remember that we are part of a multispecies community of care. Within this widely inclusive community, it is good to remember that we humans too are creatures to be treasured. The nonhuman world needs defenders. The defenders need support from others. Who will be there?
Today it was great to read that the Tasmanian government has postponed debate on the bill to destroy the forest agreement. I love their slogan:
‘Governments come and go but my love for nature only grows’.
© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)
Resources: There is a wonderful biography of Bonhoeffer, written by Eric Metaxas, titled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (2010)
The full text of the Wilderness Society article is available online (view here).
The more recent announcement with the great slogan is also available (view here)
In an earlier essay and accompanying video I address the Prime Minister’s efforts to remove some of the Tasmanian forests from their World Heritage Listing (view here).