09 April 2020

Remembering Dietrich
Bonhoeffer, 75 years
after his murder in 1945

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (seventh from left) among the ten martyrs of the 20th century above the West Door of Westminster Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a German concentration camp, before even reaching the age of 40, and just weeks before the end of World War II.

This youthful pastor was one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, and he is widely regarded as a modern saint and martyr. His statue by the sculptor Tim Crawley above the West Door of Westminster Abbey places him among the 10 martyrs of the 20th century.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born on 4 February 1906 in Wroclaw (formerly Breslau), and grew up in a comfortable professional home, where his family was nominally Lutheran. At the age of 13, he decided to study for ordination.

He studied at the University of Berlin, at the age of 18 visited Rome, and studied at Union Theological Seminary, New York (1930-1931).

Following the rise of the Nazis in 1933, Bonhoeffer saw Nazism as a counter-religion and a danger to Christianity. In October 1933, he became the pastor of two German-speaking parishes in the London area, and began his friendship with Bishop George Bell of Chichester.

On his return to Germany, Bonhoeffer ran the seminary of the Confessing Church at Finkenwalde, which was shut down by the police in 1937. He went to New York in 1939 but chose to return to Germany, aware of the costs that lay before him and fearing a Nazi victory would destroy Christian civilisation. For Bonhoeffer, true discipleship now demanded political resistance against the criminal state.

He was arrested in March 1943 and survived as a prisoner until 9 April 1945. He was executed on 9 April 2020, only a few days before the end of World War II.

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 grasping their meaning and implications.

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 so-called ‘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, 75 years after his death, we might ask reflect today on who Bonhoeffer was, and why 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).

The New Synagogue in Berlin … when synagogues throughout Germany were set on fire in 1938, Bonhoeffer declared: ‘Only those who cry out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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 front of Westminster Abbey. In recent years, 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 recent 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. Is the ‘Fuhrer principle’ reflected in the calls and slogans at Trump’s rallies or in the campaigns of far-right leaders rising across Central Europe today? 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. Once again synagogues are being attacked and burned down, this time in America, and being daubed and attacked across Europe. The stranger is not being welcomed, the refugee is being turned back, many of our new immigrants are the victims of pernicious racism, migrants are left isolated and in cramped, dehumanising conditions on Mediterranean islands. Prisoners who tortured were 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 and clapping. 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, who was murdered on this day 75 years ago.

Canon Patrick Comerford’s sermon in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, on 5 February 2006, marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was published in ‘A Year of Sermons at Saint Patrick’s, Dublin’ (pp 19-22).

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