Remembering Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

Remembering Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)




Materials Compiled


Jay B. Gaskill


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor, became one of the 20th century’s most important Christian theologians because his writings, teachings and thoughts were of one piece with a sturdy moral integrity that ultimately led him to suffer imprisonment and execution by the Nazis.



Sermon on 5 February 2006 at

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley


Rev. Melissa McCarthy

Have you not known?

Have you not heard?

Has it not been told to you from the beginning?

The Holy One has it all under control.

Take heart and find hope.

The Holy One will empower you and is empowering you.

And you already know this, so hang in there.[1]

This is Isaiah’s message to the Israelites in exile.

There is hope for them.

God is with them.

Isaiah wants the people of Israel to remember what God has done for them since the beginning.

Isaiah wants them to remember that the creator of everyone and everything has it under control and this creator loves them.

We hear this lesson today, the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, because it is a message of hope.

Epiphany is a season of hope and celebration – celebrating God’s incarnation in Jesus – and hoping in the power of God through Christ to reconcile all creation to God.

And while we hope and celebrate, some of us may also be asking a few questions.

Some of us may be wondering if the world is any different.

If we really are any better off than before.

Some of us may be of the more cynical sort, ready to poke holes in this season that hopes and celebrates. I suspect that we all may experience this doubt from time to time, and some of us may even doubt more often than we hope. In looking for a reason for hope and celebration, I turn your attention now to yesterday.

Yesterday, the 4th of February 2006, was the 100th birthday of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

You may have encountered any one of many conversations on the web and in the newspapers remembering this man.

It pleases me to see so much attention given to him these days.

That he is being brought into our awareness again, especially as we consider the long-term costs of this nation’s current war in Iraq.

There is much we have to learn from Bonhoeffer.

While I am not advocating the same kind of choices he made for any one of us, – I am drawing your attention to the kind of faith alive in Bonhoeffer that led him to make the choices he did.

Bonhoeffer was a listener.

He listened to the voices of the world, to the political and social voices, to his own voice of faith and integrity, and ultimately to the voice of God.

I offer you this selection on listening from Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together:

“On the ministry of listening: The first service that one owes to others in community consists in listening to them. Just as love for God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives His Word but also lends us His ear. …Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and, in the end, there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words.”

Bonhoeffer’s warning of spiritual death is an important one to heed. The listening that Bonhoeffer advocates is not simply just opening one’s ears. It is also opening one’s heart and mind. It is allowing the words of the world to enter into your soul. It is receptive listening. Listening without judgment, listening with compassion. Listening knowing that one might be changed in the encounter.

And listening to God.

Listening to the call of Christ to follow him, modeling one’s life on his ministry and principles.

In Jesus, we have another model of listening. In today’s gospel, Jesus rises early in the morning to pray. His friends finally hunt him down to let him know that people are looking for him and Jesus responds by saying, “Let’s go!” This scenario is common for the Jesus of Mark’s gospel. Jesus is often going off alone to pray and, then responding to that prayer with action.

It is a formula of listening and action.

A formula that Bonhoeffer employs in his own life, modeling himself after the example set by Jesus. And hopefully it is a formula that all of us can employ.

When we find ourselves questioning and doubting, – wondering and feeling hopeless in the face of all the injustices of this world, – we can return to listening, to deep, receptive listening.

There is nothing wrong with doubt in the hearts of the faithful. It is as much a part of our Christian experience as faith.

However, the model of deep, receptive listening modeled for us in Jesus, – and in the lives of other Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer – can provide us an anchor in the despair and doubt.

Listen receptively and then act. For both Bonhoeffer and Jesus this formula led to some serious consequences. Both Bonhoeffer and Jesus were ultimately alone in their last hours.

In the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion Jesus utters the words of the Psalmist “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” as well as saying “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”. In Jesus’ words on the cross we have an icon of the complexity of our Christian experience – despair and faith existing side by side.

Bonhoeffer also experiences this side by side relationship of despair and faith during his imprisonment prior to his death. In a poem called “Who Am I?” he questions the congruence between his external self and internal self. Others see him as warm, friendly, and encouraging.He knows himself as lonely, frightened, and despairing. After laying out all the questions and incongruities, Bonhoeffer ends his poem with these words:

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine

Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine

In the end, Bonhoeffer chooses to rest in his faith.

He rests n the same assurance of God’s love and care that is proclaimed by Isaiah –

that the Holy One, the creator, who has called him by name, will strengthen him for the task ahead. He rests in the assurance sung by the Psalmist – that this loving and good God of ours will free the captive and heal the brokenhearted.

It is my hope and prayer, that wherever our lives in Christ lead each one of us, – that we too may have open and receptive hearts, – and the courage to take action, like Bonhoeffer did.

That we may hold in tension the complexity of our Christian experience – the side by side relationship of despair and faith.

And that ultimately we can choose to rest in that faith and assurance of God’s love – Proclaimed in the scriptures and in the lives of other Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I conclude by offering this collect from his feast day. Let us pray:

Gracious God, the Beyond in the midst of our life, you gave grace to your servant Dietrich Bonhoeffer to know and to teach the truth as it is in Jesus Christ, and to bear the cost of following him; Grant that we, strengthened by his teaching and example, may receive your word and embrace its call with an undivided heart; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, on God, for ever and ever.


Copyright © 2006 by Rev. Melissa McCarthy & St. Mark’s Berkeley

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Nazis for his resistance and rescue activities, imprisoned in Berlin, then in Buchenwald. In 1945 he was moved to the Flossenbürg concentration camp.

He was executed by the Nazis on April 9, 1945.



February 3, 2006.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech given at the International Bonhoeffer Congress, University of Wroclaw, Poland

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in no way a theologian who wished to be defined by negations.

In his prison letters, he deplores the tendency of religious apologists to concentrate on the weaknesses of the secular world-view. The gospel must address people in their strength not only their weakness, he says, and the Word of God is too “aristocratic” to take advantage of weakness. Nor was he in other ways a man of negation or (in the traditional sense) asceticism. His watchword, even in his early theology, even in the intense atmosphere of Finkenwalde[2], was involvement.

Yet it may be that we best understand his challenges to us now by reflecting on some of what he did, after all, say no to.


Bonhoeffer was a typical upper bourgeois German of his generation, deeply cultivated, familiar with the repertoire of European civilization in art, music and literature. The prison letters display, quite casually, a ready knowledge of the mainstream of German culture: in a number of letters in March 1944, he discourses freely on this cultural

legacy, on iconography and music and theories of history. He is a resolute classicist in many ways, expressing his unease about Rilke to Maria von Wedemeyer when she shares her enthusiasm; Rilke is “unhealthy” a diagnostician of the darker, more flawed and ambiguous regions of the spirit (yet he admired at least some of Dostoevsky). It is still Mozart, Beethoven and Goethe who occupy the central territory of his imagination. But, while he may have no taste at all for any kind of modernism in the arts, he is someone whose mind is uncomplicatedly formed by a cultural environment which is not questioned, doubted or resented. If we allow ourselves to borrow the rather questionable typology of Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer is definitely not to be located in a “Christ against Culture” category.

Yet it was precisely such a powerful and deeply rooted cultural identity that complicated the whole question of resistance to National Socialism. The legacy of “high culture” of course, cannot in any way be linked with the neo-barbarism of the Third Reich; yet enough people steeped in that culture were able to tolerate the Reich, even to support it. And the sense of national destiny and national uniqueness had proved a good ally for the ideology of blood and soil. The cultural legacy either supported this ideology or else provided a private space into which the sensitive spirit could retreat from the necessary brutalities of political or military life.

Bonhoeffer has no theory of culture, but he does have a clear theological conviction that no cultural or historical pattern can uncover the will of God. No less than Barth, he believes that there is one story which contains all others; and the centre of that story is the perpetually displaced God who addresses us from the edge of human affairs, who has chosen the place of the excluded. Culture is not to be rejected or given theological legitimacy; it is a fact with which we have no choice but to engage.

However, our engagement as Christians must be determined by the question of who or what the culture is currently forgetting, since it is there that we are likely to find God waiting for us. This cannot therefore be a prescription for liberalism or for conservatism. The more fashionable a cause, the more likely that the crucified God has moved on; the more embedded a practice or trend, the more likely that God is elsewhere. There is nothing to be recommended except the daily development of the mind of the crucified, what some recent theologians like James Alison (following Rene Girard) have come to call “the intelligence of the victim”


Bonhoeffer’s critique of piety is probably what most people remember him for — those, at any rate, who encountered the prison letters at a certain age or in a certain cultural environment. Just as culture cannot be a private refuge, piety is a tempting but ultimately unreal hiding place. We have to look forward to a “non-religious” era in Christian language. It is a frequently misunderstood notion: Bonhoeffer is in fact saying at least two things here. The first is that he will not allow the language of the gospel to become the dialect of a minority “interest group”; it must be language that permeates all human discourse in one way or another. It cannot be only a set of conventional terminology that can be learned by the relatively small number of people who decide that they will take an interest in it. In a sense, what Bonheoffer is arguing is the exact opposite of what most people think of as liberal reductionism. We are to look for a non-religious language for the gospel not because the distinctive claims of the gospel must be muted and ultimately lost in the face of public secularism, but because the gospel makes so large a claim that it cannot be reduced to a “tribal” speech, understood only by an inner circle. The life of faith is in no way a leisure activity, a mere option.

The second point depends on this first. Religious language as a way of naming and discussing certain problems in theology, a language for cataloguing and analyzing, has no active effect. It observes and identifies, but leaves unchanged the situation in which it is spoken. Yet the language of Jesus, as Bonhoeffer says in his great baptism letter of May

1944, transforms what is possible. How are we to recover a language that makes a difference?

Piety, in Bonhoeffer’s eyes, is always something that tempts us to passivity unless it is anchored in a clear doctrine of the transforming word. Hence the spirituality which he sought to inculcate at Finkenwalde[3] was inseparable from the call to resistance. To read the Bible together and to practice confession and meditation are necessary for human beings who are free to say no to the culture around them; they are ways of learning and absorbing the “culture” of Christ’s Body not as a trivial alternative, an option alongside others, but as the resource out of which will come a humanity more fully equipped to be human alongside those whom the culture forgets or despises or terrorizes. So if the challenge in respect of culture is to seek always to find who is being forgotten or pushed to the edges, the challenge in respect of piety is so to absorb the reality of the new world of Scripture and of living prayer in Christ that this sort of discernment becomes more possible. If we are inhabitants of a larger world than any contemporary culture can define, we are more free to see what such a culture seeks to educate us to ignore.

So to live in the climate of authentic spiritual discipline is to be

“re-educated” To adore God for God’s own sake, to bring one’s sins daily before God and the neighbour, to make one’s own the language of Scripture, especially psalmody — all this apparently irrelevant activity is part of opening ourselves up to the transforming word. It is useless and worse than useless when it becomes a way of protecting believers or of denying the acuteness of the world’s pain; so, when the Confessing Church began, step by step, to “normalize” its relations with the Reich, Bonhoeffer spoke out against it as he had spoken out against the state church of the mid-thirties. But this does not mean that he thought the disciplines of Finkenwalde had been a mistake or a false start.

In a context where, as we are so often reminded, spirituality has become a major interest, Bonhoeffer obliges us to ask what the transforming potential is of any practice or tradition. Does it transform only the individual’s sense of well-being? Then it is merely “piety”.

But if it enables each believer to stand alongside other and alongside the forgotten, it is on the way to allowing the action of God to make itself manifest. And that is the entire point of spiritual discipline — not the cultivation of a private self, but the renewal of the world by God, a transformation of all the conditions of human speaking and relating.

The event of Whitsuntide thus does not consist primarily in a new religiousness, but in the proclamation of a new creative act of God—“It is not for a moment a matter of putting the religious before the profane, but of putting God’s act before both religious

and profane.” (The Way to Freedom, 47).


If this is what life in the Spirit demands of us, a number of questions arise to do with the unity of the Church. Bonhoeffer made a wide circle of friends in the ecumenical movement during the thirties, and several were of the greatest importance to him in the years of deepest crisis. But by the mid-thirties, he was already challenging the conventional wisdom of ecumenical dialogue; and the failure of the ecumenical structures to give the Confessing Church the support for which he begged was a deep wound.

For him the reality of a church whose horizons were wider than the local struggles of the Protestant communities of Germany was more and more a crucial element of his thinking. Yet the last thing he wants from such an international network is a bland fellowship extended to all those communities without discrimination, as if the international scene simply relativized the seriousness of the struggle against the Reich.

“Is church union and fellowship in the Word and Sacrament created by the

Holy Spirit, or is it the union of all well-disposed, honourable, pious

Christians whether their observances be German Christian, that of the church committees or that of the Confessing Church? Is church union founded only on the truth of the Gospel or on a love uncontrolled by the question of truth?” (The Way to Freedom, 112)

This is how Bonhoeffer phrases the challenge in 1936, in a paper in which he argues that the whole idea of “confession”, taking a stand for truth at the cost of visible unity, needs to be revisited by the Protestant churches in the context of a new threat to Christian integrity. The notion of a status confession is in the Reformation era is precisely about letting the Church be judged by Scripture, about the Church’s radical readiness for self-criticism; thus the historic confessions cannot just be turned into timeless deposits of truth independent of the Scriptures to which they point. And the Scriptures in a new situation may demand of us a new determination of the Church’s limits. The principle of confession both requires us to recognize that there may be occasions when visible unity matters less than fidelity — and that the point at which this becomes a question will not necessarily be the same from age to age.

It is an uncomfortable message for anyone committed to ecumenism. Just as culture and piety are put into perspective by the immediacy of a threat to the very integrity of the gospel, so is church unity. Yet it is a very difficult discernment that is called for here. It is not that division in the Church is imperative for the sake of some abstract truth; Bonhoeffer is cautious about whether the Reformation disputes over the Eucharist are now quite what the churches should be giving priority to.

The issue is whether the gospel of God’s action “and the reality of

God’s action” can be manifest and effective. As with the questions about culture and piety, this challenge too requires us to think very carefully about what might

constitute a “pseudo-church” — not just a church that teaches erroneous doctrine but one that in its actions and words denies the grace of God.

So that, as with our earlier categories, we have to recognize a question that unsettles both the liberal and the conservative, and which should prompt all engaged in interchurch dialogue to reflect on what it is that might make a pseudo-church. And to answer that, we need not a more exact calibration of the purity of other Christian groups but first a freedom for self-criticism in the presence of Scripture and secondly a keen eye for what is challenging the Church in the contemporary world and what menaces its integrity in this particular environment.

In sum: Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man immersed in a specific cultural heritage, and untroubled by the fact; he was a person of profound and rigorous (and very traditional) personal spirituality; he was someone committed to the ecumenical perspective from very early on in his adult life. But his witness involved him in raising some very stark questions about the value of a culture when it became part of a tyrannous and racist ideology; in challenging the ways in which traditional piety could be allowed to become a protected and private territory, absolving us from the need to act, or rather to let God to act in us; and in insisting that the search for visible unity as an ideal independent of truth and integrity could only produce a pseudo-church. He stands as an example of just that

“yes and no” to his environment which St Paul sketches in I Corinthians, and it is why his example is both so widely effective and so little bound to any one programme in the Church, why he does not easily let himself be claimed by any party.

The resolution of these tensions was, for him, not a theoretical matter, but the bare fact of witness. And this means that we who celebrate his memory cannot extract from it a “Bonhoefferian orthodoxy” that will tell us what policies we are to adopt now at a time when the churches face profound division. The temptation –as Alasdair Macintyre

pointed out many years ago, discussing Bishop John Robinson’s discussion of Bonhoeffer — is that we borrow Bonhoeffer’s languagee to give dignity and seriousness to some of our current controversies, when the truth is that it is only in the face of a real anti-church that these matters come fully into focus, when there is an active programme aimed at destroying the Church’s integrity and expelling or silencing those who hold to that integrity. And Bonhoeffer himself warns us about being too ready in advance to spell out what would constitute an anti-church. What is essential is the work that prepares us for discernment: the common life of adoration and confession, the struggle to bring acts and policies to the judgement of Scripture, the freedom, above all, to stand against what actively seeks, inside or outside the Church, to prohibit the proclamation of the Gospel, confident in what God has irrevocably given to the community of faith.

In October 1938, Bonhoeffer addressed a conference of younger pastors associated with the Confessing Church and serving in illegal pastorates; his subject was the question of what obedience to Scripture meant. He warns against using Scripture to demonstrate the rightness of an action or policy, making Scripture serve a programme of our own, a conception of our righteousness. It is not that we can solve the dramatic personal question, “What shall I do?” by a simple appeal to the Bible, so that we are relieved of the burden of human ambiguity and even human sinfulness and error. The

Bible, says Bonhoeffer, is not interested in resolving personal dramas of choice. What matters is that what we say or do or choose points to the truth of Christ. In itself it is always going to be in some degree in need of forgiveness; but it is “right” to the extent that it displays the truth of Christ. “It is our way to let Jesus Christ find us in this way. Christ is the truth. The sole truth of our way is that we should be found in this

Truth.” (The Way to Freedom, 176). As a programme, as a set of solutions, this is not going to be the answer to our divisions and quarrels as churches today. But if this is the language in which we are prepared to think about and pray about our struggles, we shall have learned from Bonhoeffer what above all he has to teach us: Christ equips us to say no to those falsehoods which allow us to ignore the places where he is to be found. Christ can lead us through culture and piety and ecumenism to a place where we must say no to any aspects of them that make falsehoods easier.

Christ will find us as and when we are ready to be found by him, and not when we are certain that we can make him speak for our party or our programme, left or right.

Inexorably, we are led to that twofold commendation of prayer and justice with which the Prison Letters leave us a commendation not of abstract spirituality and busy activism, but of immersion in Christ through Scripture and the struggle to act so that God’s act will be visible. It is a legacy that will not easily let us be satisfied with ourselves; which is why it is a gift from Bonhoeffer’s Lord and ours.

© Rowan Williams 2006

[1] From the reading: Isaiah 40.21-31 (JBG)

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer had temporarily moved to England following Hitler’s ascension in 1933 & the suppression of Bonhoeffer’s “Confessing Church”, an anti-Nazi version of the Lutheran church. He joined a London parish (associating with the Rt. Rev. George Bell, Bishop of Chinchester) that became a haven for Christian and Jewish refugees. But in 1935, he returned to Germany and began teaching at Finkenwalde, a Confessing Church seminary, becoming an increasingly outspoken opponent of the regime. [JBG]

[3] In 1937, the Finkenwalde Seminary was ordered closed by the Gestapo, and Bonhoeffer was placed under close surveillance by the Nazis. In 1938 he was banned from Berlin and by 1940 the Nazis had forbidden Bonhoeffer altogether from speaking out in public. He began covertly working in support of the resistance. [JBG]

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