By Grace Gaddy
Former pastor Al Staggs brought German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer back to life through an original dramatization during Monday’s chapel in order to encourage students to think seriously about society’s ills.
Bonhoeffer, one of Staggs’ 10 characterizations, was a Lutheran pastor who resisted Nazism in Germany during World War II. He was arrested and later executed for his involvement in plans to assassinate Hitler.
For 25 minutes, Staggs paced back and forth onstage in a black-and-white striped prison uniform in a scene portraying Bonhoeffer’s final hours. Talking, shouting and even lapsing into song, Staggs as Bonhoeffer wrestled with questions surrounding the atrocities and injustices of the Nazi regime and the apparent complacency of the German Protestant church. He indicated that “God’s true people” could not sing sacred hymns in a church on Sunday while the cries of Holocaust victims rose simultaneously to the sky.
“I believe we Christians have either created a living hell for people right here on this earth, or we have allowed it to exist by our apathy,” Staggs exclaimed.
Staggs, who served as a Baptist pastor for 24 years before feeling God’s call to relay his message through the dramatic arts, said he hoped viewers would take away something more than “just a plunge into history.” Rather, he wants his performance to stimulate questions relevant to the modern day and age.
“I would like to evoke in the audience a sense that what Bonhoeffer struggled with in his own time, we are struggling with in a different way in our time, and that is the structures of injustice,” Staggs said.
He added that people will interpret those structures differently.
“It’s like looking through a prism. People see different ideas, and they see different concepts, and that’s as it should be. It’s not doctrinaire in that sense,” he said.
University chaplain Dr. Burt Burleson emphasized the importance of students to observing such ideas over the course of their education. “We want to sort of introduce to them the idea that there’s this large conversation going on, and it has been going on throughout the centuries, and now they get to join in it,” Burleson said.
He then said he hopes that Chapel will expand that conversation for students by hosting a wide array of speakers, or, in this case, the dramatic presentation of a theologian who left his mark on history.
“Bonhoeffer is a significant figure in the last century for folks who understand the development of theology, and while he was a scholar, he was also a very committed churchman and pastor,” he said.
Burleson noted Bonhoeffer’s founding role in a movement known as “the Confessing Church.”
“It was this movement to say this is not something you’re simply born into just because your daddy was a Lutheran… This is a faith you must confess by the way you live your life,” Burleson said.
Johns Creek, Ga., freshman Alex Parker, said Stagg’s performance gave a call to action.
“I feel like this made you think, like how the church today isn’t what it should be,” he said. “I feel like the church has just become complacent not really doing what they are called to do.”
A religion major, Parker plans to branch out into full time ministry through missions after graduation.
“It all goes back to ‘actions speak louder than words,’” he said. “You can’t just stand by and see suffering in the world and not do anything about it.”
Staggs said he just wants to cause a “spark.”
“I’d like to see Christians question the structural and systemic evils of society. Having said that, I can’t tell them what to do,” he said. “All I can hope to do is just to make them curious about what it is that God is up to in this world today and what their part might be in that world.”