Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Remembering Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Patrick Comerford

The Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, the Very Revd Dr Robert MacCarthy, has edited a selection of sermons recently preached in the cathedral and published them in a new book, A Year of Sermons at Saint Patrick’s, Dublin.

The book was first suggested by Canon Maureen Ryan, who was impressed by the sermons preached Sunday-by-Sunday at the Sung Eucharist and Choral Evensong each week. As the National Cathedral of the Church of Ireland and as the venue for special services of thanksgiving, remembrance and celebration, Saint Patrick’s has attracted an unusual breadth of sermons and addresses, reflected in this collection.

Dr MacCarthy’s book, published this autumn, includes sermons by the dean, the cathedral dignitaries and canons and the Dean’s Vicar. There are sermons too from visiting Anglicans, including the Archbishop of Armagh, the Bishop of Manicaland in Zimbabwe, the late Dean of Christ Church, the Very Revd Desmond Harman, and Dr Hueston Finlay, a Canon of Saint George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.

The ecumenical dimension is provided by sermons preached by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin Bishop Anthony Farquhar, Father Martin Clarke and the Revd Terence McCaughey, while from the world of politics there are addresses by Councillor Mary Freehill and Senator David Norris.

The book also includes an address by the former British Ambassador, Sir Ivor Roberts, marking the 25th anniversary of the murder of his predecessor, Sir Christopher Ewart-Biggs.

The book includes (pp 19-22) the following sermon I preached on 5 February 2006:

The Fifth Sunday of Epiphany, 3 February 2006: 100th anniversary of the birth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Although he went to his death in a German concentration camp before even reaching the age of 40, this youthful pastor was one of the most important theologians of the 20th century, and is widely regarded as a modern saint and martyr.

For my generation, Bonhoeffer was one of the most influential theologians on our reading lists. We drew endlessly on such books as the Cost of Discipleship, No Rusty Swords and Ethics. We bandied around phrases such as “religionless Christianity” and the “man for others”, perhaps without fully understanding its meaning. We were quick to dismiss any church activity we deemed unfashionable as purveying “cheap grace”. And we saw Bonhoeffer as a role model for our resistance to racism and apartheid, nuclear weapons and modern warfare, and even the very political and economic foundations of society.

Like all great theologians, like all great thinkers, philosophers and writers who are now dead, it was easy to quote him and to use him for our own ends: he could hardly answer back and say “I have been misunderstood” or “you have quoted me out of context.” Bonhoeffer has been claimed in recent years, on the one hand, by conservative evangelicals who are happy with his theological method but unwilling to take his radical discipleship to the point of challenging social and corporate sin in our society; and on the other hand by radical reformers who would tear down all our received wisdom and traditions in their vain attempts to construct their own brand of “religionless Christianity.”

Unhappily, in recent years, theological rigour has gone out of fashion in many centres of learning. Where once students were happy to explore how faith could find understanding, many have slipped into the cold comfort of position-taking, relying on their own protestations of faith instead of warming to the challenge of new thinking and exploration. Theologians are no longer great names; even among the general public today, people are less likely to take their questions about faith and belief from the theological giants of the last century, such as Bultmann, Barth and Bonhoeffer, and more likely to be detracted by the silly, peripheral questions about truth and religion raised by Dan Browne in his Da Vinci Code.

So, 100 years after his birth, we might ask this afternoon, who was Bonhoeffer, and why do his writings and thoughts continue to have relevance for us in our society today?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, born on 4 February 1906, had the potential to become a great musician or poet and playwright. Instead, he studied theology in Tubingen, Rome and Berlin, travelled through Rome and North Africa, and later spent time in Barcelona, New York, Cuba, Mexico and London, giving him an experience of the world church that would make a leading contributor to the foundation of the modern ecumenical movement.

He was still in his 20s when Hitler came to power. In a radio address two days after Hitler assumed office in 1933, Bonhoeffer warned against the idolatry of the “Fuhrer” principle. He went on to become involved in the Pastors’ Emergency League, was closely associated with those who signed the Barmen Declaration, helped to form the Confessing Church, and, outside Germany, became a close friend of the saintly Anglican bishop, George Bell.

The Barmen Declaration declared that the Church must not be allowed to become an instrument of political ideology, and rejected “the false doctrine that the Church should acknowledge, as the source of its message over and above God’s word, any other events, powers, figures and truths as divine revelation.”

Bonhoeffer paid the price for speaking out. His licence to teach was withdrawn, he was dismissed from his university, and eventually the Confessing Church seminary at Finkenwalde was closed. However, at Finkenwalde, he produced his two best-known books, The Cost of Discipleship (1937) and Life Together (1939). In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer argues that cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the Church. The sacraments and forgiveness are thrown away at cut price. We offer grace without price and grace without cost, instead of offering costly grace, which calls us to follow Jesus Christ.

When synagogues throughout Germany were set on fire in 1938, Bonhoeffer told the Church: “Only those who cry out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.” In his Bible, he underlined two passages in the Psalms that read: “They are burning the houses of God in the land and: No prophet speaks any longer.” He marked the date in his Bible and wrote later: “The church was silent when she should have cried out.”

When World War II broke out, he became involved in the resistance, making contacts in Switzerland, Norway and Sweden. And yet he found time to write his book Ethics. His contacts with George Bell failed to stop Britain’s policy of obliteration bombing and demanding “unconditional surrender.” The German opposition was left without hope, and a disappointed Bell wrote his hymn Christ is the King (Hymn 86 in the Irish Church Hymnal):

Let Love’s unconquerable might
God’s people everywhere unite
In service to the Lord of Light. Alleluia.


In prison, Bonhoeffer worked on his Letters and Papers from Prison and wrote: “What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed, who Christ really is, for us today ... We are moving to a completely religionless time ... if therefore man becomes radically religionless – and I think that is already more or less the case .... what does that mean for Christianity? How can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well?”

The final chapter of his last, unfinished book begins: “The Church is only her true self when she exists for humanity .... She must take her part in the social life of the world, not lording it over men, but helping and serving them. She must tell men, whatever their calling, what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.”

He was hanged at Flossenburg at dawn on 9 April 1945. An oft-quoted line from The Cost of Discipleship foreshadowed his death: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” His last recorded words as he was led to the scaffold were a message for George Bell: “Tell him that for me this is the end, but also the beginning.”

It was not the end it was only the beginning. By the 1950s and the 1960s, he was the theologians’ theologian, and his influence was immeasurable. More recently he was “canonised” by having his statue placed on the west end of Westminster Abbey. In the past year he has been the subject of a new made-for-television movie in America. But what is his relevance today?

“Bonhoeffer is one of the great examples of moral courage in the face of conflict,” says Martin Doblmeier, director of Bonhoeffer, that new 90-minute film. “Many of the issues Bonhoeffer faced – the role of the church in the modern world, national loyalty and personal conscience, what the call to being a ‘peacemaker’ really means – are issues we continue to struggle with today.”

Firstly, I want to claim that Bonhoeffer reminds us that faith assumptions and presumptions are no substitute in the seminary and the theological college for intellectual rigour and questioning. Indeed, he shows us that this is a more effective way of building faith than by trying to impose our individual views on others, and impose them judgmentally.

Secondly, in this post-modern world, Bonhoeffer continues to challenge us when we find new ways to make our Christian faith subject to, and relevant to, the overarching fashionable political and social ideologies of our day. It may not be the so-called Fuhrer principle, but how often have the different brands of Christianity been called on in recent decades to justify the nation-state as it embarked on disastrous wars of pride, one after another, whether it was the Falklands War, or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or indeed whether it was Catholic Croats or Orthodox Serbs indulging in ethnic cleansing to create nation states with a single religious identity.

Thirdly, Bonhoeffer’s story of the church remaining silent when she should have spoken out as the synagogues were burned down in 1938 is a challenge to us today. The synagogues are not being burned down. But the stranger is not being welcomed, the refugee is being turned back, and many of our new immigrants are the victims of pernicious racism. The prisoners who are being tortured are being transported through Shannon Airport. Are we speaking out, speaking out now, before our silence becomes complicity in something even worse?

Fourthly, in his concern with growing secularisation, a concern so well articulated in his Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer tells us we need to face up to the growing secularisation of society and of humanity. If he could see in the 1940s our need to speak about God in a secular way, how much more pressing is that need today? We are so obsessed with maintaining not so much our Church structures but our Church pomp and sense of self-importance, leaving us unable to reach out to a secular world with a “religionless Christianity”. We often use Christianity as a garment to cloak and protect us, rather than accepting Christ’s charge to go out into the world. How can we find the language that enables us to speak in a secular way about God, and how can we live up to our missionary charge in the world today by being able to present to postmodern humanity Jesus who is “the man for others”?

Fifth and finally, how as a Church can we resist the temptation to continue dispensing cheap grace? So often, success in the Church is measured by how well we fill the pews, and whether we send them out happy. But sometimes prophetic voices can be isolated and left speaking to empty pews. A congregation that goes out into the world feeling uncomfortable but challenged may be better prepared to take the light of Christ into the world of darkness. Dispensing cheap grace should never be the task of the truly prophetic priest.

It is not easy to rejoice in these challenges. But we can accept them as blessings, and must give thanks for prophetic life and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyr priest and prophet, born 100 years ago this weekend.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral Dublin. A Year of Sermons in Saint Patrick’s, Dublin, is available from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral Shop at €10.