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I came across this photo of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I do not think I have ever seen this one…

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Kevin Rudd
Cover: October 2006

Above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey are arrayed ten great statues of the martyrs of the Church. Not Peter, Stephen, James or the familiar names of the saints sacrificed during the great Roman persecution before Constantine’s conversion. No: these are martyrs of the twentieth century, when the age of faith was, in the minds of many in the West, already tottering towards its collapse.

One of those honoured above the Great West Door is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, pastor and peace activist. Bonhoeffer is, without doubt, the man I admire most in the history of the twentieth century. He was a man of faith. He was a man of reason. He was a man of letters who was as well read in history and literature as he was in the intensely academic Lutheran theology of the German university tradition. He was never a nationalist, always an internationalist. And above all, he was a man of action who wrote prophetically in 1937 that “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” For Bonhoeffer, whatever the personal cost, there was no moral alternative other than to fight the Nazi state with whatever weapons were at his disposal.

Three weeks before the end of World War II, Bonhoeffer was hanged by the SS because of his complicity in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. This year marks the centenary of his birth. This essay seeks both to honour Bonhoeffer and to examine what his life, example and writings might have to say to us, 60 years after his death, on the proper relationship between Christianity and politics in the modern world.

In both George Bush’s America and John Howard’s Australia, we see today the political orchestration of various forms of organised Christianity in support of the conservative incumbency. In the US, the book God’s Politics, by Reverend Jim Wallis, has dragged this phenomenon out of the shadows (where it is so effectively manipulated by the pollsters and spin-doctors) and into the searching light of proper public debate. US Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians are now engaged in a national discussion on the role of the religious Right. The same debate must now occur here in Australia. As Wallis notes in his introduction:

God is not partisan: God is not a Republican or a Democrat. When either party tries to politicize God, or co-opt religious communities for their political agendas, they make a terrible mistake. The best contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable nor loyally partisan. Both parties, and the nation, must let the prophetic voice of religion be heard. Faith must be free to challenge both right and left from a consistent moral ground.


Had Dietrich Bonhoeffer been at Oxford, he would have been one of the gods. He was at 21 a doctoral graduate and at 23 the youngest person ever appointed to a lectureship in systematic theology at the University of Berlin, in 1929. His contemporaries saw his career as made in heaven. Along Unter den Linden, just beyond the faculty walls, however, the living hell of the Nazi storm-troopers was being born.

At the core of Bonhoeffer’s theological and therefore political life was a repudiation of the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. As James Woelfel has noted:

According to this doctrine, the proper concern of the gospel is the inner person, the sphere where the Kingdom of God reigns; the Kingdom of the State, on the other hand, lies in the outer sphere, the realm of law, and is not subject to the gospel’s message. German Christians used this argument to justify devotion to race and fatherland as ‘orders of creation’ to be obeyed until the final consummation.

These debates may seem arcane in twenty-first-century secular Australia, but in the Germany of the 1930s they were central to the decision of the majority of German Lutheran ministers to submit to the Reichskirche (resplendent with swastikas on their ecclesiastical stoles) and to retreat into a politically non-threatening quietism as the political repression of Hitler’s post-1933 chancellorship unfolded. Equally, it was Bonhoeffer’s theological dissent from the perversion of this Two Kingdoms doctrine that led him, at the tender age of 29, to establish in 1935 the German Confessing Church, with its underground seminary.

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“Here one soul operates directly upon another soul. The weak have been overcome by the strong, the resistance of  the weak has been broken down under the influence of another person. He has been overpowered, but not won over by the thing itself…Here is where the humanly converted person breaks down and thus makes it evident that his conversion was effected, not by the Holy Spirit, but by a man, and therefore has no stability.”

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together33.

“The community of the Spirit is the fellowship of those who are called by Christ; human community of the spirit is the fellowship of devout souls. In the community of brotherly service, “agape”; in the human community of spirit there glows the dark love of good and evil desire, “eros”. In the former there is orderly, brotherly service, in the latter disordered desire for pleasure; in the former humble subjection to the brethren, in the latter humble yet haughty subjection of a bother’s to one’s own desires.”

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together31-32.

“The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.”

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together30

“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will 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.”

~ Dietrich BonhoefferThe Cost of Discipleship

Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1987-074-16, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.jpg

Jim Gray: The Best Book I Read Last Year

I have just finished reading “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” by Eric Metaxas. The book is superb. It is about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a pastor of the “Church of Luther” during the rise and reign of Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

This man of Christ conducted a principled fight against what Hitler and the corrupted Church of Germany were doing, and eventually was imprisoned and executed for his efforts and beliefs. But he was unafraid, because he was doing what knew his God wanted him to do. Regardless of our religious faith or beliefs, how many of us can genuinely say that we are standing up for our principles and Liberty for ourselves and others anywhere near to this degree? This is an inspirational book, and I strongly recommend it to anyone.

There are many lessons from the book for liberty lovers

Many insightful comments permeate the book, which all people who treasure Liberty should be aware of – today and every day. Here are some of them:

  • For Hitler, ruthlessness was a great virtue, and mercy, a great sin. This was Christianity’s chief difficulty, that it advocated meekness. (Meekness has its place but, as stated in the musical Camelot: “I find humility means to be hurt.  It’s not the earth the meek inherit, it’s the dirt.”)
  • Bonhoeffer believed it was the role of the church to “speak for those who could not speak.” (Thus he saw Jesus Christ as a “man for others.”)
  • One of Bonhoeffer’s thoughts was “Absolute seriousness is never without a dash of humor.“ (We should never lose the ability to laugh at ourselves.)
  • The Nazi regime always cast their aggressions as defensive responses to actions against them and the German people. (Virtually always the justification for war.)
  • Bonhoeffer was the principal point of connection between his new “Confessing Church” and the Ecumenical movement, seeing the best and the worst in both. But each saw the best in itself and the worst in the other.  (Is this not how the various politically “warring groups” see themselves and others in our country today?)

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“When a person becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into this predicament. But if not, let him nevertheless guard against ever becoming an accuser of the congregation before God.” 

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together29-30

“A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men” 

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together29.

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