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The writings, thought, ministry, and life of 20th Century German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer will be the focus of the final United Theological College (UTC) Colloquium of the year.

UTC’s Michael Mawson told Insights that Bonhoeffer remained ever relevant in the 21st century.

“As the diversity of the papers indicates, Bonhoeffer is not only a significant theologian in his own right, but continues to inspire diverse theological projects and agendas,” Dr. Mawson said.

“Younger scholars, in particular, have begun drawing on Bonhoeffer to develop new and creative approaches to pressing theological, ethical and political issues.”

The colloquium will include three papers that explore different aspects of Bonhoeffer’s writings.

Dr. Jacob Phillips’ paper will explore ‘Bonhoeffer on Simplicity in Adalbert Stifter’s Writings’.

Dr. Di Rayson from the University of Newcastle will explore Bonhoeffer’s contribution to Ecotheology and Ecoethics.

Charles Sturt University’s Dr. Peter Hooton will reflect on the place of mystery and paradox in Bonhoeffer’s work.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer took part in efforts to resist Adolf Hitler, and was executed weeks before the 1945 fall of the Nazi regime.

His most famous works include The Cost of Discipleship, Ethics, and the posthumous Letters and Papers from Prison. 

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Introduction:

The third reason Dietrich Bonhoeffer can impact is his emphasis on a non-compromising faith. This was known as “costly grace,” Bonhoeffer spoke against the “cheap” grace within the church. His classic statement is found in the Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”[1] To Bonhoeffer, this was basic Christianity. It was impossible to be a follower of Jesus and not live a self-sacrificing life out of obedience and love to him.

John de Gruchy, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ, writes that Bonhoeffer first began to explore Christ’s radical call to follow him while he was an “unpaid lecturer” at the University of Berlin[2]:

During his two years (1931-33) at the university he became a ‘minor sensation’, attracting a significant number of students to his lively seminars. Many of the insights which later found expression in The Cost of Discipleship were first explored in the informal discussions which Bonhoeffer had with the circle of students who gathered around him.[3]

Bonhoeffer’s chief concern in the The Cost of Discipleship is that “grace…has become so watered down that it no longer resembles the grace of the New Testament, the costly grace of the Gospels.”[4] Bonhoeffer called this a “cheap grace”[5] and it had “been the ruin of more Christians than any other commandment of works.”[6] Bonhoeffer defined “cheap grace” as:

…the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.[7]

“Costly grace”, on the other hand, is:

…is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.[8]

Of all the works of Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship is certainly his “angriest book—possibly his one ‘angry’ book…none of Bonhoeffer’s early works reveal him inflamed and vehement, as this book does. The tone throughout the book is entirely serious, rarely speculative, often rhetorically powerful—but always angry.”[9] There is an idea of Bonhoeffer’s anger in the first chapter of the book:

We Lutherans have gathered like eagles round the carcase of cheap grace, and there we have a drunk of the poison which has killed the life of following Christ…To be “Lutheran” must mean that we leave the following of Christ to legalists. Calvinists and enthusiasts—and all this for the sake of grace.

We justified the world, and condemned as heretics those who tried to follow Christ. The result was that a nation became Christian and Lutheran, but at the cost of true discipleship. The price it was called to pay was all too cheap. Cheap grace had won the day.[10]

There was urgency for Bonhoeffer to complete the book because he believed that true discipleship was the only hope for Germany:

The conditions Bonhoeffer faced are simple reason enough why. He wrote the book between 1935 and 1937, while directing the seminary at Finkenwalde. Hitler by now had roused the German people to a nationalistic furor and an utter blindness to social responsibility.

The imprisonment and terrorization of Jews raged through the large cities. Any outspoken criticisms of the Nazi regime, including those from the Confessing Church, were quickly squelched. Germany had been, not too long ago, a “Christian” nation; now men and women continued to attend church services, but the real spirit of Christianity had dimmed to a darkness.

At this time Bonhoeffer wrote his strongest book, a challenge to Christian discipleship, because he believed that only a real return to the Christian faith could save Germany.[11]

Biblical Foundation:

Jesus said in Luke 9:23-25: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?”

Robert H. Stein comments that three conditions for following Jesus are laid out in this passage:

The first involves a need to deny oneself. This is much more radical than simply a denial of certain things. This mandates a rejection of a life based on self-interest and self fulfillment. Instead a disciple is to be one who seeks to fulfill the will and the teachings of Christ.

The second condition involves the need to take up one’s cross…Jesus’ own crucifixion reveals more fully to Luke’s readers that this call is a commitment unto death. There needs to be a willingness to suffer martyrdom if need be.

The final condition is the need to follow Jesus. In contrast to the other two conditions, indicating that following Jesus must be continual[12]

Jesus made it clear later in Luke chapter 9 that following him could actually mean sacrifice to the point of homelessness. In verse 57, a man came to Jesus and boldly declared: “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Most people have a home to go to, but Jesus made it clear that some of his followers will be kicked out of their homes because of their commitment to him.

It was this commitment that Bonhoeffer wrote about. He wrote that “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church.”[13] To Bonhoeffer, grace should be “costly” because it cost Jesus Christ his very life. Grace is also costly because it costs people their very lives if they follow Jesus. Yet cheap grace had reduced discipleship to mere doctrine. Following Jesus has been cheapened by deemphasizing repentance, baptism, church discipline and the Lord’s Supper.

It is grace without biblical discipleship, that is, without the renouncing of personal ambition in order to follow and obey Jesus. The way of the cross means that we give up everything to be a Christ follower (Luke 14:25-35).

The Apostle Paul described it this way: But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that, I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:7-8). It was Paul’s desire to discard everything that was once important and meaningful so he could be a better follower of Jesus.

Gerald F. Hawthorne interprets Paul’s words: “…were Paul to place the whole world with its wealth and power and advantages, its prestige and accolades and rewards in one scalepan of the balance and Christ in the other, Christ alone would overwhelmingly outweigh everything else in terms of real worth. Hence, from the standpoint of simple logic Paul cannot afford to gain the whole world if it means losing Jesus.”[14]

Bonhoeffer saw discipleship much like the Apostle Paul did. His own commitment to Jesus was tested in 1939, when professors Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Lehmann asked Bonhoeffer to come to New York City to assume a teaching position at Union Seminary and thus, escape the perilous situation in Germany. This would certainly keep Bonhoeffer out of harm’s way. With great hesitation, Bonhoeffer accepted the position. So in June of 1939, Bonhoeffer and his brother Karl-Friedrich made the voyage to the United States.

However, he quickly realized that it was a mistake. His time in America was short-lived. He explained his decision to return to Niebuhr:

It was a mistake for me to come to America…I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Germany after the war if I do not share the tribulation of this time with my people…Christians in Germany are faced with the alternatives either of willing their country’s defeat so that Christian civilization may survive, or of willing its victory and destroying our civilization. I know which of the alternatives I have chosen but I cannot make the choice from a position of safety[15]

To Bonhoeffer, true and biblical discipleship had to be costly and self-sacrificing. There really was no other way to follow Jesus. He returned to Germany because he was a “German and a Christian.”[16] As a Christian, he had to follow Jesus regardless of the cost to his own safety and position. If he had to suffer, then so be it in order to follow Jesus.

In the Cost of Discipleship, he wrote: “Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his Master…If we refuse to take up our cross and submit to suffering and rejection at the hands of men, we forfeit our fellowship with Christ and have ceased to follow him.”[17]

Application:

While twenty-first century followers of Jesus are not threatened by Hitler and Nazism, they do face the possible threats of materialism, pride and cheap grace. Thus, preachers must make doubly sure that their own commitment to Jesus is non-compromising and that their preaching and teaching does not side-step the costly demands of Jesus.

Further, the New Testament is clear that suffering will be experienced by the followers of Jesus. James 1:2-4 assumes that Christians will suffer: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

J.A. Motyer writes that “trials of many kinds” is a “true picture of life!”[18] Trials often bring distress and discouragement. Yet, according to James, since they are interwoven into the very fabric of our lives, they should be seen as a reality of life. Motyer continues: (James) “appeals, therefore, not for the adoption of a superficial gaiety in the face of life’s adversities, but for a candid awareness of truth already known.”[19]

Life’s adversities will result in the development of a perseverance that can lead to mature Christian character. That is, the faith of the Christian will be refined through the “slow and painful” process of testing. This refining through testing will lead to a “new facet of the believer’s character that could not exist without testing.”[20]

Suffering, to James, can result in true joy when trials are seen as essential tests for our faith. Joy can be experienced even at the onset of “various trials” because they can lead to positive results. The trials will vary from believer to believer depending on one’s circumstances. Yet, there will always be a cost in following Jesus.

***************************************************************************************************************

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 89.

[2] De Gruchy, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ, 13.

[3] Ibid., 13-14.

[4] http://www.probe.org/history/history/dietrich-bonhoeffer.html#text2

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 43.

[6] Ibid., 55.

[7] Ibid., 44-45.

[8] Ibid., 45.

[9] Kuhns, In Pursuit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 81.

[10] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 53.

[11] Kuhns, In Pursuit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 81-82.

[12] Robert H. Stein, The New American Commentary: Luke, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 279.

[13] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 43.

[14] Gerald H. Hawthorne, Word Biblical Commentary: Philippians (Waco: Word Books, 1983), 139.

[15] Quoted in Mark Devine, Bonhoeffer Speaks Today (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2005) 19-20.

[16] Ibid., 20.

[17] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 91

[18] J.A. Motyer, The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of James (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985), 30.

[19] Ibid., 30.

[20] Peter Davids, New International Greek Testament Commentary: Commentary of James (Grand Rapids, 1982), 68, 69.

The Rhythm of the Christian Life

Abilene: Leafwood Publishers, 2019.
Available at Amazon.com.

This book by my former PhD student Dr. Brian Wright resources Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together for a pattern of modern discipleship.

The foreword is by Timothy George!

Blurb: Most of us think that if we could simply balance our lives better, we would be happier. But what we actually need is to rediscover the rhythm. As Christians, our whole life consists of loving God and loving others, just like Jesus did. In this book, Wright invites us to find true joy as we embrace these two core realities and discover how they are meant to work in tandem. Explore The Rhythm of Christian Life and recapture the joy of life together as God always intended.

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How Would Bonhoeffer Vote?

LESS THAN A MONTH before the 2016 presidential election, evangelical journalist and biographer Eric Metaxas made the case in The Wall Street Journal that, though they might find his morals odious and his behavior unconscionable, American evangelicals had no choice but to vote for Donald Trump. Metaxas admitted that Trump’s lecherous Access Hollywood hot-mic audio comments, which the Washington Post had made public five days before, might be a deal-breaker for some religious voters. But Trump’s opponent, he argued, had “a whole deplorable basketful” of deal-breakers, and, purity be damned, Christians were obligated to stop her from reaching the Oval Office.

To make his point, Metaxas needed a weighty moral example, a name that had currency among churchgoers. Attentive observers of American Christianity could almost have predicted his choice. “The anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer also did things most Christians of his day were disgusted by,” Metaxas wrote, implying that pulling the lever for Trump was analogous to conspiring against Hitler’s regime, while voting for Hillary Clinton was roughly equivalent to joining the brownshirts. As everyone knows, evangelicals bought what Metaxas was selling.

This was far from the first time the Berlin theologian and pastor’s name was used to gain leverage in American politics. The Bonhoeffer of Metaxas’s 2010 best seller, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, had all the theological orthodoxy and manly grit an evangelical could want. Conversely, though Charles Marsh’s 2014 biography, Strange Glory, was exquisitely crafted and meticulously researched, his Bonhoeffer looked suspiciously like an American liberal Protestant with some inclination toward activism and progressive politics. He even spent the years he was incarcerated in the Nazi military prison at Tegel (1943–1945) suffering from unrequited love toward his best (male) friend, Eberhard Bethge, rather than pining for his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer.

More recently, both conservative and progressive journalists, pastors, and academics have entered the fray, claiming that either the Obergefell v. Hodges decision to legalize gay marriage (the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ronnie Floyd) or the election of Donald Trump (Sojourners magazine) constitutes a “Bonhoeffer moment,” one in which Christians must resist cultural or governmental authority in order to obey God. The debate about who has the right to claim Germany’s most famous resistance figure has become so fierce that last year Rhodes College professor Stephen Haynes penned The Battle for Bonhoeffer to address the United States’s recent reception of his theology.

With so many American Christians wielding his name in this cultural proxy war, one might assume Bonhoeffer’s political commitments were common knowledge among college-educated believers. One would be wrong. Books on Operation Valkyrie and Bonhoeffer’s association with the July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler are a dime a dozen. English-language studies that touch on Bonhoeffer’s work on behalf of the Jews or his interest in the American Black church appear frequently enough. But if one sets out to peg Bonhoeffer as an ally of either American Democrats or Republicans, only a deep dive into current scholarship will offer any clarity.

That, of course, is because Bonhoeffer lived in a very different time and culture. He grew up among the Berlin Bildungsbürgertum — the city’s cultural elite — in the western suburb of Grunewald. Many academics lived in this upscale neighborhood. Dietrich’s childhood ambition to pursue a doctorate would not have seemed entirely abnormal in that environment. By his teenage years, his father, Karl Bonhoeffer, had become one of Germany’s most famous psychiatrists; the eminent church historians Ernst Troeltsch and Adolf von Harnack were regulars at neighborhood gatherings. However, these were hardly liberal, American-style academic circles. Most found themselves in agreement with their government’s bellicosity when war broke out in 1914. In fact, many were passionate advocates of imperialism; Harnack even acted as a speechwriter for Kaiser Wilhelm II.

A different political mood prevailed in the Bonhoeffer family. Dietrich’s older brother, Karl-Friedrich, joined the Social Democrats after a conversion to socialism during the war. The other siblings drifted toward the German People’s Party and similar parties. Theirs was a bourgeois politics sympathetic with the more open and liberal atmosphere of the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, a stance that may help explain why so many in the Bonhoeffer family would later play active roles in the resistance.

Dietrich, however, stood mostly aloof from wranglings over political ideology. His friend Eberhard Bethge has written that in the 1932 elections Dietrich supported the moderate, lay Catholic Center Party because he thought their international ties — that is, partly ties to the Vatican — could provide “stability and independence” in a rather unstable time. This was an extraordinary step for a German Protestant minister, yet in one sense it fits Bonhoeffer perfectly. His foremost political concerns were never about economics, war and peace, or even the treatment of minorities, though obviously these things were not unimportant to him. Above all else, Bonhoeffer cared about the preservation of the gospel message and the freedom of the Christian church from political and cultural entanglements that might obscure its message. The intricacies of politics, he firmly believed, were not the business of the Protestant pastor or theologian.

“There is no doubt that the church of the Reformation is not encouraged to get involved directly in specific political actions of the state,” Bonhoeffer wrote in his 1933 essay “The Church and the Jewish Question.” “The church has neither to praise nor to censure the laws of the state. Instead, it has to affirm the state as God’s order of preservation in this godless world.” There were rare exceptions to this rule of nonintervention, of course, and the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany was clearly one of them. That was not, however, simply because the Nazi government was engaging in morally repugnant deeds and implementing unjust laws, but because those deeds and laws had driven the church into a status confessionis, a situation where the very truth of the gospel was at stake.

Republicans more anxious about safeguarding religious freedom than President Trump’s peccadillos may read these lines and believe they have found a kindred spirit. When they encounter Bonhoeffer’s conclusion in his Ethics that abortion is “nothing but murder” and discover his intense impatience with American liberal theology, they might feel themselves justified in christening the Obergefell decision a status confessionis — roughly what today might be called a “Bonhoeffer moment.” Perhaps those who are potential targets of an anti-discrimination lawsuit feel especially justified in doing so.

Yet when Bonhoeffer came to Union Theological Seminary in New York for the 1930–’31 academic year and, again, for the summer of 1939, he had some harsh words for those obsessed with religious liberty. “The American praise of freedom is more a tribute to the world, the state, and society than it is a statement concerning the church,” he wrote. “But where the gratitude for institutional freedom must be paid for through the sacrifice of the freedom of [gospel] proclamation, there the church is in chains, even if it believes itself to be free.”

Bonhoeffer, it would seem, may have found the conservative panic over Obergefell more faithless than politically feckless. He may have thought their “Bonhoeffer moment” more about self-preservation and power politics than gospel proclamation.

American progressives might feel even more justified in appropriating Bonhoeffer’s legacy. After all, the first thing most people learn about the Lutheran theologian is that he resisted a tyrannical government that systematically oppressed minorities. And, as many on the American left argue, the Trump administration has at least tried to do just that. These progressive believers might buttress their case by lauding Bonhoeffer’s courageous philosemitic efforts or citing the Sundays in 1931 he spent with the Black community at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. And when they read the blistering criticisms of “otherworldly” faith in his essay “Thy Kingdom Come!” or discover his hope for the future development of a “religionless Christianity” in his final letters, enthused Democrats might be ready to enlist Bonhoeffer’s help in the 2020 election. Those “Bonhoeffer moments,” after all, will come in handy on the campaign trail.

Yet letters and documents from his year in the United States reveal a Bonhoeffer at odds with the progressive American version as well. The historical Bonhoeffer was sometimes appalled by the oppression of African Americans, but he spent much more of his time filling letters and essays with criticisms and even contempt for American liberal Protestantism and progressive politics.

“God is not the immanent progressive ethical principle of history; God is the Lord who judges the human being and his work, he is the absolute sovereign (God’s kingdom is not a democracy!),” Bonhoeffer fumed in a memo about American Christianity. “The ideal of international, democratic, collectivist life together on the basis of the value of individuals (notice the inner contradiction!) is not identical with the kingdom of God.”

For Bonhoeffer, American liberals had misunderstood an essential part of Christianity: no matter how hard we try, human beings cannot inaugurate the kingdom of God. The best believers can do before that bright day in which Christ returns is preserve human rights, political stability, and a modicum of justice and proclaim the gospel message whether or not they find it politically expedient.

So how would Dietrich Bonhoeffer vote in 2020? Which side would he back in the United States’s vituperative, divided political landscape, and which would he think has the right to claim their political program as a righteous reaction to a “Bonhoeffer moment”?

For the rest of the article…

A student writing on a notepad in Turkish with copies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's works next to her.

As a young girl growing up in Turkey, Debora Haede had heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. She’d seen a documentary about the theologian and German pastor’s life, and had become fascinated by how people, like him, remained faithful, even to the point of death.

But her admiration was personalized, when, in 2007, her uncle and two other men were martyred for their Christian faith inside the publishing house where they worked.

“Having an uncle who did that made Bonhoeffer’s life a reality in a way,” said Haede, a junior studying international relations at Calvin College.

Writing justly

A decade later, Haede is honoring her uncle by doing something for her home country of Turkey that has never been done before: translating Bonhoeffer’s works into their language.

The publishing house where Haede’s uncle worked had approached her dad, who is German, asking if he knew of anyone who could translate Bonhoeffer’s work “Life Together.” Knowing his daughter knew both Turkish and German, he suggested she give it a try, and so with no prior translation experience, Haede took on the challenge.

Discerning meaning in every word

“First time I read the book before I knew I was going to translate it—it was hard to understand. I know I skipped parts that were too complicated.”

She knew the next time through, she couldn’t skip a word. She re-read the book, cover-to-cover, sentence-by-sentence.

“Bonhoeffer has such a strong language, the words he uses. The German he uses isn’t everyday German from today, so as I’m translating I want the Turkish words to be as detailed as the German, which is hard to do,” said Haede. “There were times where I compared it with the English translation as well, because I didn’t know what he meant in the German one. But even there it was interesting to see the changes they made while translating into English … I personally got to understand way more because I had to focus on one sentence for so long.”

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The ministry of listening…

The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them… Listening can be a greater service than speaking…

One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others… Anyone who thinks his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies…

We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 97-99.

“He who would learn to serve must first learn to think little of himself…

Only he who lives by the forgiveness of his sin in Jesus Christ will rightly think little of himself. He will know that his own wisdom reached the end of its tether when Jesus forgave him… He will know that it is good for his own will to be broken in the encounter with his neighbour…

But not only my neighbour’s will, but also his honor is more important than mine… The desire for one’s own honor hinders faith. One who seeks his own honor is no longer seeking God and his neighbour. What does it matter if I suffer injustice? Would I not have deserved even worse punishment from God, if He had not dealt with me according to His mercy?”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

Dietrich was eight and a half when the First World War broke out…For the younger (Bonhoeffer) children the outbreak of was was a time of great excitement. At the end of July (1914) they were hurriedly brought home after a month’s holiday in glorious weather in Friedrichsbrunn. When one of the girl’s dashed into the house shouting: “Hurrah, there’s a war,” her face was slapped. The first German successes filled Dietrich with boyish enthusiasm. When he was nine he wrote his parents from Friedrichsbrunn asking them to send him all the newspaper cuttings with news from the front; he had learned from his big brothers and at school how to stick colored pins into a map showing the advance of the front line. 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 25-26.

Related image

As a small boy he (Dietrich) once a attacked a weaker classmate, whose mother expressed the grace suspicion that perhaps the Bonhoeffer children had been raised to be anti-Semitic. Dietrich’s mother replied that that her son could not have heard of such a thing in her house. As someone capable of such violence, he was later particularly and carefully concerned about treating those in weaker positions considerately, and instilling self-confidence in them.    

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 19.

Let’s Quit the Tug-of-War over Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Legacy

How the German martyr’s example has been used—and abused—in American public discourse.
Let’s Quit the Tug-of-War over Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Legacy

Image: CT Illustration
The Battle for Bonhoeffer

We Americans have fashioned many Dietrich Bonhoeffers for ourselves in the decades since the German theologian was put to death at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in 1945. In The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump, Rhodes College professor Stephen R. Haynes offers a survey of the varied interpretations of that remarkable man, excavating the ways his name and legacy have been used—and too often misused—in American public discourse. Haynes holds up a mirror and asks, “Who do we need Bonhoeffer to be? And how is this need affected by the way ‘we’ define ourselves and the threats we face?” In other words, the battle is not really for Bonhoeffer, and the image in the mirror is our own.

Of course, with words like “battle” and “age of Trump” right there on the cover, this book crosses territory rich in minefields. Like an embedded journalist feverishly filing stories from the front, Haynes writes knowing that he cannot fully account for all the Bonhoeffer-ing happening around him, especially in our undulating political times. But because Bonhoeffer is employed for all kinds of ends in American political discourse, and his legacy used to burnish others’ public profiles, Haynes balances a commitment to the protocols of the academy with a burden of responsibility to speak directly to our current political moment.

History and Hagiography

In the first part of the book, Haynes recounts the history of Bonhoeffer’s reception by the American public through sketches he amassed in his 2004 volume The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon. He revisits and updates those earlier types, including the liberal, the radical, the evangelical, and the universal Bonhoeffer. To these Haynes adds a new sketch—the “populist Bonhoeffer.” (More on this later.) Most illuminating for me was Haynes’s discussion about Jewish evaluations of Bonhoeffer’s legacy, especially that he has been reviewed by Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust memorial) and refused recognition as a “righteous Gentile,” a term reserved for those who took extraordinary personal risk to save Jews.

Haynes devotes a full chapter to the history of how American evangelicals have received Bonhoeffer. While they tend to be familiar with the pastor’s devotional writings (like The Cost of Discipleship or Life Together), Bonhoeffer’s university lectures, sermons, and his later prison letters (where, for instance, he mulls over his idea of “religionless Christianity”) presented real obstacles for evangelicals in the late 20th century. These theological concerns faded, however, as his life story became more widely known, feeding a steadily growing focus on his resistance work against the Nazis. Evangelicals creatively engaged his story in documentary films, an award-winning radio drama, and even a Christian romance novel in which, writes Haynes, “Bonhoeffer serves as the main character’s spiritual inspiration.”

Having sought himself to make Bonhoeffer’s life and thought accessible to general readers—with Lori Brandt Hale, he co-authored the Bonhoeffer edition of the Armchair Theologian series—Haynes acknowledges value in some of the quirky ways Bonhoeffer’s life has been interpreted for American evangelical audiences. Although he prefers history to hagiography, naming certain popular treatments with that derisive term, his posture is not one of an arrogant academic trying to raise the guild’s drawbridge from storming peasants.

Bonhoeffer’s name gained an even wider dissemination in American political discourse, Haynes notes, following the terror attacks of 9/11 and the growth of the internet as a means of communication. Politicians, public theologians, and other cultural leaders drew on Bonhoeffer with greater frequency, and urgency, in the post-9/11 national debate. Bonhoeffer was invoked both in support of and in opposition to the 2003 war with Iraq. Critics of the war referred to him again as the war continued far longer than the Bush administration anticipated. Online media elevated Bonhoeffer to a wider range of Americans. (And now, in the age of social media, misattributed quotes are often superimposed on photographs of his face, which are then traded as virtue-signaling currency.) For wherever Bonhoeffer stands as an imagined brother-in-arms for one’s side, the other side is, well, Hitler.

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