The world and its mother is at the tiny Welsh village of Hay-on-Wye (Welsh name: Llqweckjhbqlkjewcb’goch’jones) — the second-hand bookshop capital of the world — this week for its annual literary festival. And one of the star turns was prime-minister-in-waiting Gordon Brown, launching his new book Courage.
Courage is a series of profiles of eight, well, courageous types, Aung Sung Suu Kyi, Martin Luther King, yadadada. If you think that sounds familiar, well it’s the old Kennedy trick — prior to his election, JFK wrote Profiles in Courage. Not the book, just the title. Theodore Sorensen his speechwriter, apparently filled in details like the text.
Interestingly, one of the profiles in Brown’s book is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the hitherto obscure German pastor who was chosen by Kevin Rudd as the major influence on his life.
What is it about Bonhoeffer that attracts these guys? He was a Lutheran theologian, who wrote on the idea of what a genuinely Christian community might be. He campaigned against Hitler from the mid-30s onwards and eventually became involved in the plot to plant a bomb in the Fuehrer’s bunker, for which he was executed weeks before the end of WW2.
The lesson of Bonhoeffer’s life and of his writings is that you can’t hide behind the law or even your own pre-existing beliefs (ie. the 10 Commandments) when confronted with what is clearly wrong. The crazy thing is that this man is being quoted as an influence by two professional politicians who would appear to have never stuck their neck out in any way that might later have affected their career chances.
Rudd was a diplomat in the China service, supping with a government using gulags as a source of sweatshop labour, and the death penalty as a supply for the live organ transplant market. Brown, at least, was of the socialist left of British labour — in Scotland in the ’70s, when it was de rigeur.
And both bravely resisted the temptation to take a clear moral stand when it was politically expedient to do so — Rudd on mandatory detention, Brown on Iraq.
I don’t mind them being professional politicians; but they’re attaching themselves to people like Bonhoeffer not because he represents their values or genuinely influenced their life choices, but precisely because he didn’t. They both took a path that led them to empty centrist politics — and in order to now give it some moral content, they appropriate a man whose heroism consists of radical thought and action.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, an Australian with a genuine claim to have followed Bonhoeffer’s path, has been assaulted by fascist thugs and arrested. Peter Tatchell, the gay-rights (among other things) activist, is probably best known as the Labour candidate for Bermondsey in the early 1980s — the choice of a radical left openly gay candidate resulting in the working-class-hitherto-solid-Labour seat being lost to the Liberals (who ran a wink-wink homophobic campaign, and a candidate — Simon Hughes — who later came out himself).
Since then, Tatchell has been in the media for disrupting a service by the Archbishop of Canterbury, music awards honouring homophobic rap music, attempting to arrest Robert Mugabe, and countless other actions (as well as tireless organisational work) against persecution of homosexuals. You don’t need to agree with every position he takes to see that this is what Bonhoeffer was on about — moral action and to hell with the chaos it causes.
But, I wonder if either Brown or Rudd would take his call?