The Dark Side of Idealism

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Commemorative Stamp in honor of the 50th Anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s execution at Flossenbürg concentration camp

Idealism is a doubled-edged sword in life and in leadership. I’ve learned the hard way that while idealism can be a positive force in casting vision, it can also erode joy, contentment and graciousness in relationships. This insight really came home when I read this sentence from German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945).

He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

Bonhoeffer was one of the most fascinating pastoral leaders of the 20th century. He was a complex man. He shared profound reflections on the Christian faith seen in his books like The Cost of Discipleship where he wrote bluntly, “When Jesus calls a man (sic), he bids him come and die.” At the same time he was also involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler with a bomb that nearly succeeded (This plot was the basis for Tom Cruise’s movie The Valkyrie). Because of that he was imprisoned in Flossenbürg concentration camp and executed just three days before the Allies liberated the camp. You can read more about him in Eric Metaxas’ highly- acclaimed biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

One of the fascinating aspects of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ministry was his leadership of the Confessing Church seminary community at Finkenwalde (1935-37) immediately preceding WWII. Bonhoeffer was leading and teaching a group of men who were willing to defy the Nazi’s by studying to be pastors of the Confessing church. These men were idealists, committed to Christ and the church to the point of willingness to be arrested and even executed (some of them eventually were.) But, one night in 1935, early in their life together as a seminary community, Bonhoeffer asked for help in the kitchen with the dinner dishes. There were no volunteers, and Bonhoeffer washed dishes alone that night.

I think Bonhoeffer was speaking first to himself when he wrote,

“Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 27).

When I was first assessed for entering pastoral ministry, the pastoral counselor highlighted what I now call the “dark side of idealism.” One sentence in his report still echoes in my mind, “Doug tends to set very high standards for himself and for those around him and to experience disappointment when these standards are not met.” Over 40 years later… it’s still more true that I would like to admit.

As a person in relationships and a leader in community, I realize the ideals for “the best” can have the unintended consequences of discontent and criticism. I’m continually learning not to allow my ideals to get in the way of developing gracious, realistic fellowship. Do not give up on ideals—the hope for what God can do in Christ. But temper them always with love for who we are and patience with where we are now.

[Special thanks to the Rev. Dr. Steve Stager for his helpful research in preparing this post.]