written by Dr. Joe Thomas, Assistant Professor of History of Christianity
A local church recently invited me to speak on the topic of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at a Sunday scholarly luncheon they hold each year. Bonhoeffer has entered into the 20th century popular Christian lexicon as an inspiring theologian, ethicist and martyr. His books on the “Cost of Discipleship” and “Life Together” are Christian classics read by many people each year. Currently an excellent biography by Eric Metaxes entitled, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” has become a New York Times bestseller. As a result, the rich texture of Bonhoeffer’s life and thinking is in the midst of a mini-revival. I will spend the next two weeks sharing some of my thoughts on the life and work of this inspirational Christian. This week I will give a brief outline of his life. Next week I will focus on his responses to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was reared in an exceptional German family during the first half of the 20th century. His father was the chair of psychiatry and neurology at Berlin University and one of his older brothers worked closely with Albert Einstein. His mother, educated by Moravian Christians, brought a strong Christian influence into the home.
A fine pianist, a natural leader and a gifted student, Bonhoeffer completed his doctorate in his early twenties. The title of his dissertation was Sanctorum Communio. Already Bonhoeffer’s thinking was marked by the significance of Christian community in the life of the believer. The Christian life must be marked by a “love for others” since that was the core of Christ’s life and teachings. Bonhoeffer arrived in the United States for a year of study at the beginning of the Great Depression. Spending a year at Union Theological Seminary – a liberal seminary caught up in the Modernist-Fundamentalist feud of the early 20th century – sharpened Bonhoeffer’s appreciation for the centrality of the Scriptures in Christian life. While in New York City he also became a regular attendee at an African-American church. His experience of the Black Spirituals would stay with him for the rest of his life – he brought back record albums from the U.S. and played them for his seminary students at Finkenwalde, an experience they failed to appreciate. But more importantly, I believe, his experience of a highly segregated culture gave him a unique capacity to see the early Nazi treatment of the Jews that almost every other pastor and churchman missed in Germany. Indeed, his older brother Karl-Friedrich, who had spent time living in the U.S., wrote Dietrich that he didn’t see an analogous situation in Germany at that time (before Hitler took power), and he even ventured that “our Jewish question is a joke by comparison; there won’t be many people who claim they are oppressed here [in Germany].” How things would change.
Bonhoeffer returned back to Germany with one more lesson, one he had been thinking about for a long time. How should a Christian respond to war or social and political oppression? He was deeply moved by the reports he heard about Gandhi, his Indian contemporary, who was using a new non-violent technique to try and convince the British to leave India peaceably. Bonhoeffer even went so far as to secure an invitation from Gandhi to come and visit him. This meeting never happened because of the rapid pace of events taking place in Germany. But while at Union Theological Seminary, he met a French pacifist by the name of Jean Lasserre. Lasserre made the simple but profound argument that on the battlefields of Europe – and remember the First World War was still a fresh memory – Christians could not take up arms against other Christians. Both Lasserre’s pacifistic arguments and Gandhi’s example would play a significant role in Bonhoeffer’s initial response to the rule of Adolf Hitler.
The world changed for Germany and Bonhoeffer in 1933 when Adolf Hitler became the leader of the German people. From the beginning, Bonhoeffer had a clear sense of the direction Hitler and the Nazis wanted to take the nation and the German people in. In this he was almost completely alone.
Next week I will explore the two different approaches, nonviolent direct action and an assassination plot, that Bonhoeffer will take in combating the Hitler regime. I will also share a few comments on how Bonhoeffer understood his proper role as a Christian trying to confront a diabolical regime.