Performance artist brings Bonhoeffer’s prison letter to life


Al Staggs

Emma Morehart | Staff Writer

From makeshift jail cells across the U.S., Al Staggs brings to life the letter that a distraught Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from his German prison in the early 1940s.

“We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer,” the letter states.

This line inspired Staggs, a performance artist and former minister, to create a one-person play based on Bonhoeffer’s life and legacy. At 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, Staggs will re-create the scene from the cell in his performance, “A View from the Underside: The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”

“I combined that pivotal statement with my study of Latin American liberation theology, which contends that God has a preferential option for the poor and the oppressed,” said Staggs, referencing Matthew 25:31-46 and Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth. “When one reads Scripture … you come away with the concept that it does appear that God has a special concern for the poor.”

Bonhoeffer often sacrificed his safety for the advocacy of social justice and the equality that his Christian background inspired in him.

“I think that Bonhoeffer reminds us in his advocacy for those who were disenfranchised, Jews and other victims of the Holocaust … of what we are about, and that is people of faith,” Staggs said. “So I brought this into dramatic form in a sense to highlight what Bonhoeffer was about and also how that can be instructed for the church and for people of faith.”

Staggs grew up in a Fundamentalist Baptist church in rural Arkansas and took a more activist look at religion while at Harvard University’s Harvard Divinity School. There, he began to consider economics, politics and the structural aspects of life as they related to his faith and religion in general.

Although his early religious education continues to influence his worldview, Staggs said his studies at Harvard set his faith on a new trajectory that examines how faith impacts structural evil and injustice. In this sense, Bonhoeffer’s work and theology often resonates with him.

“Bonhoeffer was a federal agent and put himself in a very political situation,” Staggs said. “Here he was a pastor and a noted theologian and became an operative in the affairs of state to try to arrest control of its demonic machine.”

Staggs also performs speeches and teachings of other leaders who can be considered “spies for God,” like Martin Luther King, Jr., Clarence Jordan — and Jesus. In one program, Staggs performs the Sermon on the Mount in a way that “brings Jesus’ words to life in such a way that we hear them afresh,” according to a review by David Hindman, a United Methodist campus minister at the College of William and Mary.

Bonhoeffer’s combination of faith and activism and Staggs’ use of performance and history makes it possible for the audience to relate to the message in a personal way.

“The goal of my performance is to provoke the audience to think about what were Bonhoeffer’s actions and his challenges and how that relates to the challenges we now face with the issues we confront today,” Staggs said. “And there really is no answer, but at least it will hopefully be invocative and stimulating for people to think about what all of this means for us today.”