You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Who is Dietrich Bonhoeffer?’ category.

How the murdered theologian came to be a symbol in American politics.

The Battle for Bonhoeffer
Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump
by Stephen R. Haynes
Eerdmans, 208 pp., $19.99

You can tell a lot about people by their heroes. After all, people model themselves after their heroes—and sometimes model their heroes after themselves.

That’s the basic premise of Stephen R. Haynes’s The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian executed in 1945 at the age of 39 for joining a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, lives on today as a hero for American Protestants across political and confessional boundaries. Different readers and biographers of Bonhoeffer have made different things of him—so strikingly different that in 1964 theologian Harvey Cox famously called Bonhoeffer “a veritable Rorschach test.”

Bonhoeffer wasn’t always a hero for American evangelicals. For two decades after his death, his legacy was the near-exclusive domain of liberal theologians attracted to the concept of “religionless Christianity” that Bonhoeffer developed while on death row. For those so-called “death-of-God” theologians, he was a prophet of a happy future in which Christianity would outgrow many of its traditional beliefs and practices. Needless to say, fundamentalist and evangelical Christians were unamused.

But as death-of-God theology started to, er, die out, the growing evangelical movement began to claim Bonhoeffer as one of its own. New interpretations of Bonhoeffer and his ideas emerged in the 1980s and ’90s. Haynes sorts these into four types: Bonhoeffer as a “Critical Patriot” showing liberal Protestants how best to critique their own government; Bonhoeffer as a “Righteous Gentile” whose advocacy for Jews models Jewish-Christian relations to this day; Bonhoeffer as a “Moral Hero” whose ecumenical battle for conscience transcended particular religious traditions; and the “Evangelical Bonhoeffer” whose Bible-believing Christianity can be weaponized in today’s cultural battles.

Each new Bonhoeffer has required more abstraction than the last—and because each has relied heavily on the broad outline of his life (and, more importantly, the story of his death) for symbolism of heroism and holiness, the actual details of his life and his writings have taken a back seat. It wasn’t Bonhoeffer’s theological ideas but the model of his self-sacrifice that demanded emulation, asking of every American, as Haynes puts it, “What are you doing to arrest this ongoing assault on innocent life?” As for which“ongoing assault,” well, that’s up to the reader. In recent decades, Bonhoeffer’s example has inspired right- and left-leaning Americans alike, all insisting that if Bonhoeffer lived today he would be on their side. Haynes documents Bonhoeffer’s postmortem crusades against abortion, the Iraq War, President Bush, President Obama, and finally, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

In this back-and-forth deployment of Bonhoeffer’s legacy, Eric Metaxas’s bestselling 2009 biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy has a special place. Metaxas’s book and his subsequent attempts to employ Bonhoeffer to critique the Obama administration are significant not so much for changing anyone’s view of its subject but for amplifying the “Evangelical Bonhoeffer” in its public role. Dismissing prior Bonhoeffer scholarship as “a terrific misunderstanding,” Metaxas made a Bonhoeffer from scratch, one who (as evangelical reviewer Andy Rowell put it) “looks a lot like an American evangelical—an extraordinarily courageous American evangelical.”

Thanks in large part to Metaxas, the phrase “Bonhoeffer moment” became a powerful call to arms, especially for politically conservative Protestants. And as Bonhoeffer’s symbolic importance grew, the need for facts, either about him or about present realities, diminished. In the battle over religious liberty, for example, Haynes notes that evangelical leaders used the phrase “Bonhoeffer moment” almost without context. “Elaboration was unnecessary,” he explains, “because these leaders shared with their audiences an intuitive understanding of the expression.” The fact that the real Bonhoeffer might have disagreed strenuously with any number of the uses to which his name was being put doesn’t matter in the least.

At this point in the book, it looks like Haynes is about to ask why: Why do we still tie our political disputes today to the (usually far more dramatic) struggles of the last century? Why do the real details of those times matter so little to those who invoke them today? Why do our causes need to piggyback on the credibility of older ones?

But Haynes doesn’t ask. Instead, his narrative and argument collapse into the very misuses of Bonhoeffer that he criticized in the first half of the book. His analysis of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision about same-sex marriage struggles to retain scholarly neutrality, and the closer the story gets to the 2016 election, the more it relies on personal views and anecdotes.

By the end, Haynes’s scholarly project is altogether abandoned.

For the rest of the review…

There is no doubt, then, Bonhoeffer’s open-minded interest in Rome. While fully conscious of his Protestant roots, he explored it without iconoclasm or dogmatic prejudice. His educational background and desire to expand his own horizons led him to seek out the different and detect the good in it. He did not set out to confirm that his own denomination right in all respects; from the beginning, he was positive toward the new. The result was critical affection and affectionate criticism. It can still be sensed in the advice from his prison cell in 1944 to his friend who was staying in Rome. 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter Two: Student Years: 1923-1927, 62.

Image result for rome st peter's square

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his brother Klaus visited Tripoli in 1924. His thoughts on Islam…

In Islam everyday life and religion are not kept separate, as they are in the whole of the church, including the Catholic Church. With us one goes to church and when one comes back an entirely different kind of life begins again…Islamic and Jewish piety must naturally be marked religions of law, when the national and ritual elements are so intermingled or actually identical. Only in this way can they achieve such a strict demarcation from other races and religions…  

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter Two: Student Years: 1923-1927, 58.

It was a family tradition that the Bonhoeffer children should first attend the University of Tübingen, their father’s alma mater. Their grandmother still lived there. After returning from the front, Karl-Fredrich had begun studying natural science there in 1919, and Klaus followed him for his first semester of law. During the summer semester of 1922 Sabine enjoyed staying with her grandmother. Christine was in Tübingen studying Dietrich began his theology studies. 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter Two: Student Years: 1923-1927, 47

When he went to the university at the age of seventeen, Bonhoeffer left home for the first time. The world of independent thought and action opened before him; he greedily absorbed what the philosophers and the theologians had to offer. His parents wholeheartedly supported his goals. 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter Two: Student Years: 1923-1927, 45.

Bonhoeffer’s path to theology began–despite the Christian foundation of his parent’s home–in a “secular” atmosphere. First came the “call,” in his youthful vanity, to do something special in life. Then he plunged with intellectual curiosity into theology as a branch of knowledge. Only later did the church enter his field of vision. Unlike theologians who came from families that were active in the church and theology, and discovered the existence of the “world” only later. Bonhoeffer embarked on his journey and eventually discovered the church.

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 44.

APRIL 9, 2019 BY DEACON GREG KANDRA

German Federal Archives/Wikipedia

The great preacher, writer, theologian and witness to the faith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was executed on April 9, 1945, just days before the Nazi camp where he was held, Flossenbürg, was liberated. He was 39.

Here’s what happened: 

On 4 April 1945, the diaries of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, were discovered, and in a rage upon reading them, Hitler ordered that the Abwehr conspirators [those who had plotted for Hitler’s assassination] be destroyed. Bonhoeffer was led away just as he concluded his final Sunday service and asked an English prisoner, Payne Best, to remember him to Bishop George Bell of Chichester if he should ever reach his home: “This is the end—for me the beginning of life.”

Bonhoeffer was condemned to death on 8 April 1945 by SS judge Otto Thorbeck at a drumhead court-martial without witnesses, records of proceedings or a defense in Flossenbürg concentration camp.  He was executed there by hanging at dawn on 9 April 1945, just two weeks before soldiers from the United States 90th and 97th Infantry Divisions liberated the camp,  three weeks before the Soviet capture of Berlin and a month before the surrender of Nazi Germany.

Bonhoeffer was stripped of his clothing and led naked into the execution yard where he was hanged, along with fellow conspirators Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Canaris’s deputy General Hans Oster, military jurist General Karl Sack, General Friedrich von Rabenau, businessman Theodor Strünck, and German resistance fighter Ludwig Gehre.

Eberhard Bethge, a student and friend of Bonhoeffer’s, writes of a man who saw the execution: “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer…In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

His legacy has been profound:

Bonhoeffer’s life as a pastor and theologian of great intellect and spirituality who lived as he preached—and his being killed because of his opposition to Nazism—exerted great influence and inspiration for Christians across broad denominations and ideologies, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the anti-communist democratic movement in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.

Bonhoeffer is commemorated in the liturgical calendars of several Christian denominations on the anniversary of his death, 9 April. This includes many parts of the Anglican Communion, where he is sometimes identified as a martyr.

In our own troubled time, Bonhoeffer’s courage in the face of evil, and his suffering in the face of persecution, stand as a testament to true Christian witness — the very essence of what it means to be a “martyr.”

His likeness is preserved in Westminster Abbey, alongside other martyrs, including St. Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King, Jr.

He continues to teach and inspire Christians today.

For the rest of the post…

During his last days in school his family noticed how much he was looking forward to the study of theology. If he had any doubts about his calling, he did not mention them. He was attracted by the prospect of grappling with the as yet unexplored subject. He was not yet driven by any love of the church or an articulated theological system of beliefs, and certainly by a discovery of the Scriptures and their exegesis. His interest in the discipline of theology was still much more philosophical than religious.

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 44.

At the beginning of his eighth school year, he casually announced that he had chosen Hebrew as his elective, and the die was cast. He was fifteen years old at the time. In March 1921, when he and Klaus were invited to a party at their friends the Gilberts, he declined because Lent had begun. This made did an impression on his friends, who had not previously come across such a reason for refusing an invitation. He now sometimes went to church, occasionally accompanied by his mother.

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 37.

Things to do during lent

 

Bonhoeffer decided to be a minister and theologian when he was a boy, and he never seems to have wavered in this ambition. At home he made no bones about it. Even when his brothers and sisters refused to take him seriously, he did not let it disconcert him. When he was about fourteen, for instance, they tried to convince him that he was taking the path of least resistance, and the church to which he proposed to devote himself was a poor, feeble, boring, petty, and bourgeois institution, but he confidently replied: “In that case I shall reform it!” 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 36.

Image result for bonhoeffer boy

July 2019
S M T W T F S
« Jun    
 123456
78910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031  

Archives

Twitter Updates

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.