A twist on tradition: Staggs brings Bonhoeffer to life


Al Staggs performs “A View From the Underside: The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” for the Hall of Philosophy audience Friday. Photo by Megan Tan.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent his final hour before his execution in the Hall of Philosophy.

Clad in a makeshift striped prison uniform, the Rev. Al Staggs portrayed Bonhoeffer at the Interfaith Lecture at 2 p.m. Friday in his presentation, “A View from the Underside: The Legacy of One of the Spies for God, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”

Staggs has a master’s degree in religious education from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a master’s degree in theology from Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate in ministry from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He studied applied theology under Harvey Cox and is the author of What Would Bonhoeffer Say?, published in January.

Staggs portrays approximately 30 comedic, historical and religious figures, including Archbishop Óscar Romero, Robin Williams, Thomas Merton and Willie Nelson, in addition to Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer preached against the general inaction of the German Protestant Church in Germany during the Nazi regime and plotted with other resistors to assassinate Hitler. He served as a double agent, ostensibly working toward Nazi goals but spreading rebellion and encouraging dissension instead. For his efforts, he was executed in a concentration camp in Flossenbürg, Germany.

The audience hung on to Staggs’ every word; patrons leaned forward in their seats and chuckled at occasional moments of wry humor, peppering Staggs with questions once his performance ended.

Staggs strode back and forth, taking long pauses, lapsing into hymn-singing, quoting letters Bonhoeffer had written to his friends and even holding a brief conversation with an imaginary cockroach.

Excerpts from Staggs’ performance:

  • “For the church is really only the church as she exists for others, and it is for that reason I will tell you with great deal of sincerity and conviction: I think the church should sell all of her property and give it to the poor. I am almost disgusted with worship services and liturgies and grand choirs and great music and splendid sermons in the face of the injustice which prevails in our land, for to conduct liturgies and to do worship in the face of this structural evil is blasphemy. And then there are most of the ministers who seem more concerned for their own security, their own station in life, than they do about the plight of the oppressed in our land.”
  • “There was another person that year who was to have an even greater impact upon me, and it was the person of Frank Fischer. … I came to the most radical and profound revelation, I do my believe, of my entire life. … For the first time in my privileged existence … I began to look at life and history and the interpretation of Scripture … from the perspective of the outcast … of all those who suffer.”
  • “Hitler promised to us security, and oh, how we worshiped at the god of security, while we allowed the systemic and structural evil of genocide to eat away at our souls like a cancer. And do you think that God is going to hold us guiltless? You see Christians in Germany face a terrible, terrible alternative. … We either work for the victory of our nation and thereby destroy civilization, or we work for the defeat of our very own nation and hopefully preserve civilization.”
  • “I have learned the secret of being able to transcend whatever size cell they put me (in). And what is the secret, hmm? It’s remembering — just remembering the experience God has allowed me in my life.”