There are some serious, if not dangerous, fault lines in American discourse these days. Some have been around for decades – notably attitudes toward guns and abortion; and we take care to avoid these issues or tread lightly around them in conversation with people who come at them from the other side. But a new crevasse has cracked into our culture in the past several years: being woke. And more and more people seem to have something to say about it. For some, being woke is a badge of honor, in that one is open (awakened) to new ideas, insights and perspectives. For others, woke is regarded as an ideological hammer, brought down on people who hold onto traditional notions of patriotism, religion and history. In her response to the State of the Union address last week, Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas derided the President’s “woke fantasies”, suggesting that Mr. Biden does not live in the real world, and refuses to adequately honor the legacy of those who have fought for freedom.
The woke and non-woke are digging in and doubling down — and hurling nastiness across the growing divide.
There are many days when I pride myself on being woke. That I am enlightened, and open – and can see that the country we live in does not provide a level playing field. And there are occasional moments on those days when I diminish – or dismiss, people who are unable – or unwilling, to see the inequities that are baked into our society. And when I do that (and I know I am not alone in this), the fault line deepens and becomes ever wider.
A friend and colleague reminded me recently of the faith and brilliance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945). A German theologian, Bonhoeffer came to this country for a short time in 1939 to teach, but returned to his homeland after a few weeks to offer his wisdom and commitment to thwart the advancing menace of the Third Reich. In a letter to Reinhold Niebuhr, who was then America’s most prominent theologian, Bonhoeffer explained his decision to return to Germany:
“I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people … Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.”
Committed to nonviolence and peaceful protest, he nevertheless participated in a plot to kill Hitler. He was arrested in 1943 and was hanged just a few weeks before Germany surrendered.
Bonhoeffer challenged people to be awake, which for him meant to live without illusion. He encouraged people to open their eyes to the stark reality of a murderous machine, and to confess a faith that was committed to justice, rather than acquiesce to the dictates of a totalitarian state. For Bonhoeffer, being awake involved engaged in a discipline of removing illusions. Nearly eighty years later, as “wokeness” becomes another issue in an expanding culture war, those who claim to be woke need to recognize the illusion of having “arrived” – of claiming moral superiority; and those who denounce wokeness need to recognize the illusion of airbrushing out moments of history and denying examples of injustice that are not aligned with one’s preferred world view.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer could have remained in the United States. He would have been safe. But he recognized that his need for security would blind him to the stark reality of the world. He worked at confronting, naming, and then discarding, his illusions. He followed the call to be awake, which for Bonhoeffer — and for us, is an ongoing exercise.