Thursday, February 4, 2016

Honoring the Memory of Bonhoeffer


In spite of the fact that I have long admired him greatly, quoted him in sermons and chapel talks, and included him in university/seminary lectures, up until now I have not written about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in any of my previous blog articles (and this is my 499th one).

Today, though, on the 110th anniversary of his birth on February 4, 1906, I am happy to post this article in honor of Bonhoeffer’s memory.

As most of you probably know, Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis in a German prison in April 1945, just weeks before the end of WWII in Europe. He was 39 years old, the same age as Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated on an April evening 23 years later.

Bonhoeffer was born into an upper middle class family and could easily have become a medical doctor or a lawyer. Instead, he chose to become a pastor and a theologian. And then he chose to become one of the leaders among the small percentage of Christians in Germany who stood up in opposition to Hitler and the Nazis.

Before Hitler’s rise to power, though, Bonhoeffer spent the academic year of 1930-31 as a student and teaching fellow at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. For six months during that year he regularly attended the Abyssinian Baptist Church and sat under the preaching of Pastor Adam Clayton Powell (1865-1953).

Bonhoeffer, who turned 25 during the year he was in New York, was significantly influenced by his experience of attending that predominantly African-American church in Harlem.

In January 1933 Adolf Hitler, Führer (leader) of the National Socialist German Workers Party (or Nazi Party), was appointed Chancellor of Germany. Bonhoeffer, who was still just 26 at that time, soon began to oppose the fascism of Hitler and joined with Martin Niemöller, Karl Barth, and others to form what came to be known as the Confessing Church.

These anti-Nazi Christians in Germany drafted the Barmen Confession in 1934. They sought to make it clear that Jesus Christ was the Führer, their leader and the head of the Church, not Hitler.

Later that year, Bonhoeffer went to London to become pastor of a German-speaking church there. In 1935, though, he returned to Germany to become the head of the Confessing Church’s seminary.

In September 1937 that seminary in Finkenwalde was closed by the Gestapo and by November, 27 pastors and former students of Bonhoeffer were arrested.

That same November, Bonhoeffer published his most widely read book, Nachfolge (“following after”), which in 1949 was published in English as The Cost of Discipleship. In it Bonhoeffer sought to elucidate what following Jesus really means.
 
The first chapter of the book is titled “Costly Grace,” and there Bonhoeffer rejects what he terms “cheap grace.” That term was one he had heard in New York. Before Bonhoeffer was born, Rev. Powell had used the phrase “cheap grace” to refer to the dominant forms of religion that tolerated racism, sexism, and lynching in one form or another.

For Bonhoeffer, “cheap grace” was what he saw among the “German Christians” who accepted Hitler’s fascism. But he came to see that for him discipleship meant to stand up for the Jews and to oppose Hitler—and he even joined in plotting to kill Hitler in order to save Jewish lives.

Because of his anti-Nazi activities, Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned in April 1943. Two years later he was executed.

Bonhoeffer wrote in Nachfolge, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That, indeed, was the cost of discipleship for him.

21 comments:

  1. Thanks, Leroy, for the blog article. It makes me think of my former colleague, David Nelson Duke, who was also a Bonhoeffer scholar (among many other interests). But, I must confess, the notion of "cheap grace" is troublesome, largely because it goes so undefined by glib users (I am definitely not accusing you of this). I think St. Paul anticipates the idea though in Rom 6:1: "What shall we say, then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may abound? 2 By no means!" The logic of so-called cheap grace is revealed to be a metaphor for the failure of Christ's disciples to commit to the moral standards (the justice?) that, as St. Paul understands it, should be at the core of a society shaped by Christ. Recognizing this does not diminish Bonhoeffer, though; but it does help us to see his language as homiletic insight and even flourish rather than moral originality. What is more, he was martyred (for political reasons) and that adds the final weight of authority to his teachings.

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    1. Thanks, Milton, for your significant comments.

      I agree that "cheap grace" has often been bandied about too glibly. It embodies an important critique of oppressed Christians, though, such as the African-Americans Powell spoke to who too "graciously" accepted racism or the "German Christians" Bonhoeffer wrote about who too "graciously" accepted Nazi fascism and its attempted control of the Church in Germany.

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  2. Thanks, Leroy, for spotlighting Dietrich Bonhoeffer on this his 110th birthday anniversary. And congratulations on your impending 500th blog entry!

    Your point about Bonhoeffer and Powell seem to indicate that you know Reggie Williams' important book _Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance_. http://www.amazon.com/Bonhoeffers-Black-Jesus-Renaissance-Resistance/dp/1602588058/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1454592952&sr=8-1&keywords=bonhoeffer%27s+black+jesus

    Also, I think that the extent of Bonhoeffer's involvement the plot to kill Hitler is still a matter of dispute among Bonhoeffer scholars. See http://www.plough.com/en/topics/justice/nonviolence/was-bonhoeffer-willing-to-kill

    And thanks to Milton Horne for mentioning our former colleague David Nelson Duke, who not only studied but lived out Bonhoeffer's ethic. Milton also brings up Paul, whose ethic is discussed in a brand new book by a prominent Pauline scholar, _Walking in Love: Moral Progress and Spiritual Growth with the Apostle Paul_ by J. Paul Sampley.

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    1. Michael, thanks for your comments also--and for introducing two new, important books.

      I won't comment on your third paragraph at this time, except to say that Bonhoeffer's apparent sanction of violence is a problem for us pacifists--but I think it is likely he was involved in the plot against Hitler.

      I did not know of either of the books that you mentioned, but I appreciate you calling them to my (and this blog's readers')attention. I look forward to reading some of both books when I can get copies from a library. (I am not going to spend $37.95 for a Kindle version of the former or $79 for the latter.)

      I appreciate both you and Milton mentioning David Nelson Duke, whom I admired greatly and whose very premature passing I still grieve.

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  3. Leroy, Thanks for honoring Bonhoeffer. It does seem surprising you haven't blogged about him previously. I join Milton in this bringing a fond memory of David Nelson Duke and his teaching. This pushes me to read "The Cost of Discipleship" again. Congratulations on your next milestone blog.

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    1. David, I appreciate you taking the time to comment also--and for also mentioning Dr. Duke. (It is interesting that all three comments so far are from WJC-related people.)

      Yes, "The Cost of Discipleship" is worthy of repeated readings. I did not have space in my article (with my self-imposed 600 word limit) to say that there is a newer translation of "Nachfolge." Its title is just "Discipleship," and it is the fourth volume in the series "Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works." It has many notes that facilitate study of Bonhoeffer's book rather than just a reading of it.

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  4. You'll be interested to know that last Sunday at the "Faith and Freedom" forum, held at the Johnson County Library, sponsored by the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, where about 15 representatives of different religious traditions, and where I was the representative for Protestant Christianity, I quote from The Cost of Discipleship: "When the Bible speaks of following Jesus, it is proclaiming a discipleship which will liberate mankind from all man-made dogmas, from every burden and oppression, from every anxiety and torture which afflicts the conscience. If they follow Jesus, men escape from the hard yoke of their own laws, and submit to the kindly yoke of Jesus Christ."

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    1. Thanks for sharing this, Anton.

      That was appropriate for you to share at the Interfaith Council--and I am glad they use the name Interfaith rather than Interreligious.

      Some (or many) of the "man-made dogmas" that Bonhoeffer wanted to liberate people from were/are religious dogmas. Partly for that reason also, I think his emphasis on "religionless Christianity" was a valuable one.

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  5. As a layman, Bonhoeffer has been one of the more significant influentials of my sojourn. Like most others I have read, I have some variance with some of his theology. But he was a solid doer to the core, and even understood the concept of "The Preacher" with "a time for war, and a time for peace".

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  6. Thanks Leroy for an excellent article on a person who sets a Wonderful example for us All to follow.
    I have been asked to fill the pulpit for a Pastor I just met who somehow feels I can do an adequate job for his congregation.
    I ask for your Prayers and the Prayers of your followers for our Holy Spirit to Give me the right words to say and the proper way to say them.
    I may refer to this Wonderful man you write about in your Blog today.
    I am open to Any suggestions you may have.
    They have asked me to speak on the Sanctity of Marriage(55 years this month) and the Powerof Prayer.I also want to add a little about where us True Christians will spend Eternity with our Lord and Savior-Heaven!
    In Christ,
    John(Tim) Carr

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  7. Previous comments have mentioned David Nelson Duke, who died in 2000 at the age of 49. The follow comments are by local Thinking Friend David Nelson, and I appreciate him sharing these comments with me/us.

    "Thanks for the thoughts about our brother Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I wish all Lutheran pastors had the courage and the clarity of the gospel that he demonstrated. As a pacifist Lutheran, I am appreciative of the struggle he must have had to join the organization to assassinate Hitler. His message of "religionless Christianity" is worth pondering on today as our world becomes so wonderfully diverse in spiritual and religious paths.


    "My father, Eugene Nelson, was also a Lutheran Pastor. He traveled in Germany during the late 1930s and listened to radio speeches by Hitler. I am reading his journals from his travels. When he returned to his home in the US he supported the Lutheran Peace Fellowship and gave a portion of his small monthly salary to support consciences objectors in their alternative service. The church must continue to be a place of moral discourse where political and social issues are discussed and debated. We will not always agree on strategy even as we seek to remain faithful to the gospel."

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  8. A popular entree to his life is the documentary film, "Bonhoeffer:
    Agent of Grace", 2003. Martin Doblmeir was the director; Klaus Maria Brandaur was the actor. It focused on the conflict with the Nazi and his death. Trailer on Youtube; doc available on Netflix

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    1. Thanks for mentioning this, Larry. This something else I wanted to mention in my article but didn't have the space to do it. I think it is a very fine film about Bonhoeffer.

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  9. Thank you, Leroy, for the honoring of Bonhoeffer's memory. Regardless of one's theological alignment, no one can doubt his commitment to what he firmly believed. I was first introduced to him in my college years at Charleston Southern University, then called Baptist College at Charleston. He also figured prominently in my thought later when as a submarine navy nuclear operator I elected to become a conscientious objector. In short, this was an extremely difficult time in my life, being a navy brat with lots of family military tradition... But knowing firsthand the destructive capability of just 1 of the 16 missiles on board our vessel (1 mismile = 5 warheads = each 14xs more powerful than the Hiroshima/Nagasaki blasts) I knew I could no longer support the mission of our submarine and had to report this conscientious objection to the cammand. My integrity demanded this. What followed were psychological evaluations, legal proceedings, banterings by the XO, and even outright verbal abuse by navy chaplains, one in particular who was friends with the XO and fleet admiral. "Baptists can't be COs!" Again, a terribly difficult time for me and my family -i.e., emotionally, socially, financially, etc. My church family was also not supportive since it was a deviation from the accepted conservative Christian "script." Bonhoeffer's cost of discipleship, as well as the strong Baptist tradition of the priesthood of the believer and the centrality of the believer's conscience, figured prominently in my thinking and defense. In a nuclear war, especially in light of modern potential destruction, there are no "winners." In a nuclear war what's the point? Bonhoeffer's "costs" became real to me. His words became more than words to me. I share this personal account to highlight just how significantly Bonhoeffer's life and living figured in to my own. Yes, with little doubt, he was a part of the plot on Hitler's life. After studying his life I long came to the conclusion this was an act of situational ethics on his part. Consistent with his situational ethic, I felt my own consistency. One can try but never deny one's conscience. Of course, you also know it wad conscience that prevented my PhD in spite of being all but dissertation. The cost of discipleship is indeed real. Don't mean to paint myself a martyr or anything like that... But this is real stuff to me and I'm sure my struggles have made me the better person for it... The sobering thought to me in all this is that Bonhoeffer lost his life for what he believed... He is very formative to me for this reason... Thank you for shining the spotlight on him today...

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    1. Thank you, Unknown, for your sacrifice. You are Known to Christ, and to Followers of the Way even though your name is unknown to us. Thank you for the courage to follow your conscience. Thank you for calling others of us to that consistent witness.

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  10. I admit to thinking Bonhoeffer’s language of ‘cheap’ or ‘costly’ grace perturbs me. I wish he had used language of a ‘cheap’ (calculating) *response* to grace or a ‘costly’ (generous) *response* [like the ‘prodigal father’]. My sense of God’s grace is that it is an already (‘natural’, universal) given (unexpected, free-flowing gift) dimension of God’s creating. It is a giving beyond my comparative, moralistic ‘what will I/we get’ response to my actions and the actions of others.

    Bonhoeffer exhibits to me a real awareness that God’s ‘beyond’ is not far away, but as near as the next moment. The ‘world to come’ is the one into which we are living. He strikes me as uncomfortable, unhappy with the ‘grace’ so often ‘brokered’ by the church.

    For me it has been precisely the story (stories) of Jesus which has convinced me that God’s grace preceded Jesus and exceeds Jesus and my conceptions of God [etsi deus non daretur]. I still have a lot to learn!

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    1. Yes, Dick, I think you have a point. Grace itself is never "cheap" -- the problem is how grace is understood and sometimes misused. I am sure Bonhoeffer was not belittling grace at all but was criticizing the way grace was being responded to cheaply, as you suggest.

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    2. I have been very impressed with the life and death witness to Christ and his grace demonstrated by the Middle Eastern Christians. It makes one think of the seriousness of the life commitment Christ demanded - "Take up your cross and follow me" and St. Paul's proclamation "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me". As I make the sign of the cross the words and vision of our brethren in the Middle East haunt me. Nothing cheap about that commitment to reliance on Christ's eternal grace.

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  11. I forgot to add earlier that some years ago a student of mine did an independent study with me on Bonhoeffer's biblical hermeneutic. She toured many of the Bonhoeffer's sites in Europe. Pretty cool! (Indeed, the trip to Europe was planned, and she added the paper onto it. But the paper did not seem like an add-on. She did an excellent job!)

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    1. Michael, if you have a link to that paper, I would be interested in reading it.

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  12. I was happy to see these words that my friend Doyle Sager, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Jefferson City (Mo.), posted on Facebook:

    "Thanks so much for your piece honoring Dietrich Bonhoeffer on his 110th birthday anniversary. My life and ministry were forever changed when I had the privilege of spending three days with Bonhoeffer's biographer and best friend, Eberhard Bethge (and his wife Renate, Bonhoeffer's niece). It was William Jewell College's Walter Pope Binns lecture series."

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