Orig. published 1984

Rev. Dr. Keith Clements, who served as the General Secretary of the Conference of European Churches (1997-2005), reflects on the 40th anniversary of the publication of his book A Patriotism for Today: Love of country in dialogue with the witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in light of current political and religious realities, including the resurgence of autocracies and racist nationalisms around the world.

A word from the author:

Forty (!) years ago today saw the first appearance of A Patriotism for Today: Dialogue with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. With a foreword by Eberhard Bethge, it was published by Bristol Baptist College, where I was teaching at the time, after being turned down by a succession of editors in the theological book trade. “Quite original, but Bonhoeffer no longer sells books,” was the typical comment. Oh well. The book in fact did modestly well under the college’s imprint (we had to learn about marketing from scratch). Then, huge thanks to John de Gruchy, who in his South African context and the struggle against Apartheid, was in no doubt about the theme of national loyalty, and the continuing relevance of Bonhoeffer. He put a copy on the desk of Sue Chapman, editor of religious books at Collins, who immediately seized upon it, acquired the rights and in 1986 published a second edition with a slightly changed subtitle and the eye-catching cover shown below. So it eventually took off. It’s still in print today, with Wipf & Stock, reissued in 2011.

One thing to say is that, while the Falklands/Malvinas conflict of 1982 and Margaret Thatcher’s crusading nationalism made the book appear very timely, this was not the actual stimulus for writing it. The planning of the book and much of the writing was completed well before that episode. It was rather the sense that Britain had underlying, long-term problems in coming to terms with the post-imperial world that really motivated the writing – together of course with the belief that, as one reviewer put it, Bonhoeffer “brilliantly illuminates the issues of national loyalty from a Christian ethical perspective.”

Partly for that reason I’ve always said ‘no’ to an updated version, even though the odd factual error called for correction, and history does move on in important respects. In fact, one commentator recently described the book as having been ‘prescient’ which perhaps merits the response ‘Discuss.’ At any rate, the world today is exhibiting anew just how important is Bonhoeffer’s theological critique of unexamined national loyalty: resurgent autocracies across the world, not to mention ‘Christian nationalism’ in the USA and parts of Europe, racism, post-Brexit untruth-telling and the entanglements of power and religion in the Middle East. Bonhoeffer died accused of treason against his native Germany, when in fact his ‘treason’ was the only way he could find to be faithful to the God of truth, justice, peace, and human dignity, and to show what genuine love of country looks like. He himself will go on speaking to context after context.

~Keith Clements, April 2024




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