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The Cost of His Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45)

On July 20, 1944, the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler failed. The very next day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to Eberhard Bethge, his former student and future biographer. Bonhoeffer had been in prison since April 5, 1943. In the wake of the failure of the Valkyrie plot, Hitler led a crackdown on the resistance movement. Hundreds were immediately arrested; many in the movement already held in prison were moved to higher security prisons. Many were put on expedited paths to their execution. Bonhoeffer was one of them.

But on July 21, 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote about a conversation he had in America in 1930. He was in the United States to learn of theological developments. He was to spend the year at the patently theological liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He found it wanting. “No theology here,” he reported back to Germany. But he did find dear friends, and he found adventure on a road trip from New York to Mexico City.

Somewhere along the way, as they camped in pup tents and sat around a fire, they asked each other what they wanted to do with their lives. One of them, a Frenchman named Lasserre, said he wanted to be a saint. Bonhoeffer picks up the story from there in his letter to Bethge the day after the failed plot:

At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. . . . I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous or an unrighteous man, a sick man or a healthy man. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.

As we reflect on that list in that last sentence, there’s only one word we really like, “successes.” We tend to avoid the other things mentioned by Bonhoeffer, but those things are part of life, of “this-worldliness.” Bonhoeffer then adds that by living life in this way, “We throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of the God-man in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith.”

Bonhoeffer learned this in a very short time in a very short life. He died in his thirty-ninth year. While most people are only beginning to make their mark and offer their mature thought as they turn forty, Bonhoeffer never made it to that milestone.

Young Professor in Berlin

He was born into an academic family. His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a renowned psychiatrist at the University of Berlin. One of his brothers, a chemist, would go on to discover the spin isomers of hydrogen. The family home had a large library, a conservatory, and walls lined with very impressive looking oil portraits of his predecessors. Dietrich excelled as a student. He took his first doctorate as he turned twenty-one and a second doctorate three years later. He served in the academy, initially. But he loved the church.

As a young professor at the University of Berlin, he noticed an appeal for a teacher of a confirmation class at a Lutheran church in Berlin, on the other side of the tracks from where the Bonhoeffer family home stood. These were rough kids, who had already chewed through a few prospective teachers. The pastor was hoping to get an idealistic seminary student who didn’t have the better sense to not do this. Instead, the pastor and this band of prepubescent ruffians got a theology professor in wire-rimmed glasses and tailored suits.

Within minutes, Bonhoeffer had won them over. When the day came for their confirmation — a day the pastor was almost sure would never come — Bonhoeffer took them all to his tailor and got them all suits. He was the kind of professor who would just as soon pull out a “football” and hit the soccer pitch with his students as he lectured to them. During the time he spent in America, he got an armload of 78s of blues and negro spirituals. After the soccer games, he would spin records with his students and talk theology. For Bonhoeffer, education was discipleship.

Life Together

When the German Lutheran Church endorsed the Nazi party and became the Reich Kirche, Bonhoeffer quickly became a leader among the Confessing Church, despite his very young age. He lost his license to teach at the University of Berlin, and his books were placed on the banned book list. He was appointed the director of one of the five seminaries for the Confessing Church. At this seminary in Finkenwalde, he taught his students the Bible and theology, and he also taught them how to pray. Bonhoeffer saw these three things — biblical studies, theology, and prayer — as the essential elements of the pastoral office.

Eberhard Bethge, one of his students at Finkenwalde, exemplifies what he was taught by Bonhoeffer. Bethge wrote, “Because I am a preacher of the word, I cannot expound Scripture unless I let it speak to me every day. I will misuse the word in my office if I do not keep meditating on it in prayer.”

The Gestapo found out about the seminary at Finkenwalde and shut it down. Bonheffer spent the next year in his parents’ home. He wrote Life Together, memorializing what he practiced and what he had learned at Finkenwaldeab, and he visited his students and kept them on task with their studies and ministry.

Letters from Prison

The next years of Bonhoeffer’s life, 1940–1943, are debated. He joined the Abwehr at the urging of his brother-in-law. But it does not appear that he is actually much of a spy at all. He used his position to travel freely around the country — a way to keep up with his students and keep up with the churches they were pastoring. Then comes the contested episode of his life as he became part of a group seeking to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s role was not one of providing strategy — that was supplied by the other highly placed military and intelligence agency officials.

Bonhoeffer appears to be the pastor in the room, the one who gives the blessing on the undertaking they were about to embark on. Bonhoeffer wrestled with it, wondering if what they were doing was right and not at all presuming it was right and righteous. It was war, and these Germans were convinced that Hitler was an enemy to the German state and the German people, as well as to the other nations plunged into war. Whatever Bonhoeffer’s contribution was to this group, he did not make it presumptively or rashly.

The plots, like the Valkyrie plot, all failed. On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and sent to Tegel Prison. For the next two years, he would live in a 6’ x 9’ prison cell. He spoke of missing listening to birds. He missed seeing colors. Early in his time at Tegel, he despaired for his life. It was also in Tegel that Bonhoeffer wrote about living a “this-worldly” life. It was at Tegel that he spoke of learning to have faith in life’s failures, difficulties, and perplexities. At Tegel, he wrote poetry. He wrote a novel. He wrote sermons for weddings and baptisms — they were smuggled out and read by others at these occasions. Bonhoeffer’s time at Tegel yielded his classic text Letters and Papers from Prison.

In one of those letters, on June 27, 1944, he wrote, “This world must not be prematurely written off.” He was in a Nazi prison cell while Hitler was unleashing madness upon the world, and Bonhoeffer wrote about being a Christian in the world, in the time and place in which God had put him.

Cost of Discipleship

In 1936, Bonhoeffer published Nachfolge. It would be later published in English as The Cost of Discipleship. In it he declares, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

In Christ, we are dead. The old self and the old way is dead. And, in Christ, we are alive. After the Valkyrie plot, Bonhoeffer could write simply, “Jesus is alive. I have hope.”

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What Bonhoeffer knew

After I’d given a talk to mark the 70th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s execution, I got a letter complaining that Bonhoeffer had been drained dry of meaning and was of no more use to the church. Here’s what I replied.

Bonhoeffer was theological. We don’t all have to write two doctoral theses by the age of 24. But we do have to approach every challenge as fundamentally a question about God. The German Christians were seduced into treating the führer as God. Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church saw that the problem with the Nazis was first a theological problem.

Bonhoeffer was about Jesus. The Bonhoeffer of popular theology is the one who talks from prison about the “world come of age” and “religionless Christianity.” But what put him in prison was Jesus. The church fears that when it says the word Jesus it’s assuming an imperialistic oppressive voice that dominates, excludes, or devalues other voices. The church has too often assumed such a voice. But Jesus doesn’t assume such a voice. Bonhoeffer knew that when the church stops talking about Jesus, it has nothing to say. And when it assumes dominance, it’s not talking about Jesus.

Bonhoeffer was ecumenical. The vital conversation that convinced Bonhoeffer to return to Germany in 1939 was with George Bell, Anglican bishop of Chichester. They became friends in the 1920s ecumenical movement, when denominations really mattered. They matter less now. The days when we could forget about the world and concentrate on our arguments with other Christians are passing. Ecumenical discord is a luxury of the complacent church. We need each other. If we feel the church is weak, it’s because we’ve limited what we’re looking at when we use the word church.

Bonhoeffer was international. He understood that Germany and the church weren’t the same thing. Western Christians are slowly realizing that they aren’t the majority of the church or the part that matters most. Christianity doesn’t fundamentally belong to them. Bonhoeffer may be a dead white Western male, but his legacy points us in global directions. When people say Christianity is in decline, you have to ask which map they’re looking at.

Bonhoeffer was politically engaged. There were Christians in 1930s Germany who thought salvation was about saving souls and it wasn’t their business to get involved in politics. That reasoning left 6 million Jews dead and ten times that number dead globally. Politics is the name we give to resolving differences short of violence. If you don’t do politics, you end up doing violence.

Bonhoeffer was rooted in an accountable community. He saw that for his Confessing Church to have any backbone, it needed to be led by pastors who took for granted the simple, straightforward practices of daily prayer, the confession of sin, the studying of scripture, and the sharing of communion. His book Life Together describes that uncompromising, uncluttered set of priorities. Community is easier to theorize about than to practice, but it’s still the center of the church’s renewal.

Bonhoeffer was prepared to face danger. One of the assumptions I find bewildering yet widespread in the church is that if one is a good Christian, one’s days will be long and one shall multiply and one’s valleys will grow rich with corn. Most of the people in the Bible face danger, hardship, crisis, tragedy, and fear. Those are the places God most often shows up. God is close to the poor, not because there’s anything holy about poverty, but because those in poverty face such things all the time, and that’s what brings them face to face with God. Bonhoeffer wrestled with this in 1939. He could do so much good from the safe distance of America, but he was called to be in the place of danger. We face the same choices.

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There’s a good piece by Andrew Walker in First Things on a popular international church network called Hillsong’s apparent equivocation on marriage. At a recent New York press conference, the ministry’s leader, Brian Houston, declined to answer whether the ministry affirms the biblical position. Instead, he stresses the church’s need to stay “relevant.”

Earlier this year the pastor of Hillsong’s New York’s congregation, the ultra hip Carl Lentz, shared similar views with CNN. His wife added: “It’s not our place to tell anyone how they should live. That’s their journey.”

Hmmm. If it’s not the church’s place to tell anyone how to live, then what is the church’s purpose? Entertainment? Affirmation? Socialization? And if it’s not the church’s role to counsel how to live, then who or what should? Perhaps it’s the central message of our age that each autonomous individual chooses his/her own path without reference to others.

But of course, absent transcendent authority, individuals, no matter how independent, hearken to temporal influences in their life choices, often the passing fads of their culture and age. Typically transient fads are not helpful, reliable guideposts for life fulfillment. So most of humanity does and has looked to religion, at least at times, for more permanent guidance.

All religion, even its most permissive forms, aims on some level to tell its adherents how to live. Otherwise it has no purpose. Certainly Hillsong preachers must fill their sermons with admonitions. A sermon from Lentz in 2013 spoke of complete surrender to Christ: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” He added: “When you take a bite of me, when you really follow me, everything in me goes in you—you can’t pick and choose.”

Indeed, but the more recent Hillsong comments imply there can be some picking and choosing, at least on sexual ethics. Perhaps the Hillsong preachers still privately adhere to Christian teaching on marriage but don’t want to risk public controversy. At his New York press conference, Pastor Houston explained:

“And to me, the world we live in, whether we like it or not is changing around and about us. Homosexual marriage is legal in [New York City] and will be probably in most Western world countries within a short time. So the world’s changing and we want to stay relevant as a church. So that’s a vexing thing. You think, ‘How do we not become a pariah?’ So that’s the world we live in.”

The challenge is that the Cornerstone, Founder and Lord of the Church was crucified as the ultimate despised pariah, and He warned that His followers would often be pariahs. Yet somehow this collection of pariahs, across the centuries, in every culture, preaching the Gospel of an executed but risen pariah, has made His message the most “relevant” message of all time, everywhere.

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When Karl Barth finally finished his formal education in the first decade of the 20th century, he, like many other rookie theologians, had trouble finding an academic post (some things never change). Unsurprisingly, Barth was in the upper echelon of the Western European liberal theological community, yet still struggled to find a teaching gig. Although he was Swiss, Barth was trained in German Protestant liberalism and was positioned to be the next big thing in the scholastic movement. That is, until he graduated.

As Barth backed away from high philosophies and high theorizing, he let the Word loose, changing him and his congregation forever.

Upon completing his training, Barth took his academic achievements into a job that was available: he became a pastor at a rural Reformed church in the village of Safenwil, in Switzerland. He began the regular pastoral duties of preaching and teaching in this small, simple congregation. He philosophized and theologized with grandiose word pictures and complicated strands of thought each Sunday only to watch his congregation’s eyes glaze over. All of the theology that seemed to work in the academic world of Germany seemed to fall flat in rural Switzerland. He could not connect the word of God to the villagers. What was he doing wrong?

It was only in Barth’s preaching through the book of Romans that he began to discover just how far he had been led astray while in school. Barth became somewhat famous for disagreeing with most of his academic mentors back in Germany as he began to watch the simplicity and power of the gospel take hold of his congregation through Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. As Barth backed away from high philosophies and high theorizing, he let the Word loose, changing him and his congregation forever.

About 15-20 years later, as Barth moved on and became a professor, he also turned into an academic idol for a young Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had just accepted a Sloan Fellowship to study theology at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. In New York, Bonhoeffer would encounter a similar struggle as Barth in American pastors. Much like Barth, they couldn’t seem to get the power of the gospel on the ground to their congregations. Bonhoeffer became bitterly disappointed in the churches in New York for their theological gymnastics that ended far outside of gospel of Jesus. “In New York,” Bonhoeffer famously said, “they preach about virtually everything except … the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

As highlighted in Charles Marsh’s excellent new biography on the man, it wasn’t until Bonhoeffer joined Abyssinian Baptist Church in the ghetto of Harlem that he would say he “heard the gospel preached” for the first time. All through the large, well-known churches of New York City, there was little good news being proclaimed. From Bonhoeffer’s view, it was in the “Negro churches” of the ghettos and the poor rural landscapes in the great American South that the gospel was alive and well. He was transfixed by the preaching in the black churches during the struggle for civil rights and often wrote about the “ecstatic joy ‘in the soul of the Negro.'” Bonhoeffer found the joy of the gospel of Jesus, but only in what he called, “the church of the outcasts in America.”

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