Riding high on a swell of popularity, only to be unceremoniously dumped. From shooting star to first term fizzer, all in a matter of a few months. Whatever else Rudd's demise means, it must be a crushing personal disappointment to the former Prime Minister. It's hard not to feel sorry for the man. Where can Kevin Rudd turn for consolation? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, of course.
Rudd described Bonhoeffer as the man he most admires from the twentieth century. Bonhoeffer's many qualities included humble faith, a formidable intellect, resolute conviction, and a sense of justice and public duty. As it turns out, his own high hopes ended in dismal failure. A German church leader, Bonhoeffer took a courageous stand against the Third Reich and his involvement in the famous Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler led to his execution one month before the end of the war.
Along with Bonhoeffer as pastor, prophet and political operative, Kevin would do well to ponder Dietrich the failure. How did Bonhoeffer deal with disappointment? He had plenty of time to think it over. His famous Letters and Papers from Prison and Love Letters from Cell 92, written during a two-year incarceration to his family, friends and fiancé, record his musings. They throw up lessons for Kevin, as well as anyone else dealing with disappointment. Here are three of the most pertinent.
First, Bonhoeffer recommends focusing on the invaluable. According to Bonhoeffer not all disappointments are equal. He urged an ordering of priorities: “There is hardly anything that can make you happier than to feel that you count for something with other people. What matters here is not numbers, but intensity. In the long run, human relationships are the most important thing in life. . God uses us in his dealings with others. Everything else is very close to hubris.” Dietrich would remind Kevin that popularity comes and goes. Numbers don't matter. People who count are key.
Secondly, don't give up. Bonhoeffer's Christian faith gave him a way of coping with difficulty. Before his arrest he wrote: “We have to learn that personal suffering is a more effective key for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune.” His remarkable resilience was not cultural or constitutional, but theological. As he wrote to his parents, “My time is in your hands is the Bible's answer to life's frustrations.” The day after the failure of the main plot to kill Hitler he wrote to console his friend, Ebehard Bethge: “By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.” Dietrich would counsel Kevin to continue trusting in and serving something bigger than himself.
Thirdly, stay cheerful. Bonhoeffer wrote to his fiancé Maria Von Wedemeyer: “Go on being cheerful, patient and brave.” And he told Ebehard to “spread hilaritas.” No one would decry Rudd's tears at his resignation speech or his forlorn appearance on the backbench. But, according to Bonhoeffer, even in the midst of hardship, a joyful optimism can prevail. Cheerfulness was in fact an abiding quality of Dietrich even in the horrors of prison and eventually on death row. His visitors and the guards were inevitably impressed by it. In his famous prison poem, 'Who am I?,' the opening stanza reads: “They often tell me I would step from my cell's confinement calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a squire from his country-house.”
No comedy hour, Bonhoeffer's letters from prison are dotted glimpses of delightful humour. He quips: “Prison life brings home to one how nature carries on uninterruptedly its quiet, open life, and it gives one quite a special – perhaps a sentimental – attitude towards animal and plant life, except that my attitude towards the flies in my cell remains very unsentimental.” In Dietrich's case cheerfulness was no accident of temperament; it was born of his unshakeable confidence in God: “I'm traveling with gratitude and cheerfulness along the road where I'm being led. My past life is brim-full of God's goodness, and my sins are covered by the forgiving love of Christ crucified.”
'What would Bonhoeffer say?' rang the Opposition taunts early in Rudd's term in office. What would Bonhoeffer say now? At this point of crushing disappointment, out of his own bitter experience, Dietrich might say to Kevin, hang out with Therese and the kids, hang onto something bigger than the high office, and don't hang up your sense of humour.
Dr Brian Rosner is a fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity and the editor of The Consolations of Theology.
This article originally appeared in The Australian