When I first met Dietrich Bonhoeffer, through reading his books as a young seminarian, he explained the world of faith to me. This young German theologian who was executed by the Nazis for his opposition to Hitler helped me to understand the difficult religious experiences I had known in America.
I had just come back to Jesus after rejecting my childhood faith and joining the student movements of my generation when I discovered for the first time the Sermon on the Mount as the manifesto for a whole new order called the reign of God. I discovered Matthew 25: “As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.”
The evangelical Christian world I had grown up in talked incessantly about Christ but never paid any attention to the things that Jesus taught. Salvation became an intellectual assent to a concept. “Jesus died for your sins and if you accept that fact you will go to heaven,” said the evangelists of my childhood. When it came to the big issues that cropped up for me as a teenager - racism, poverty, and war - I was told explicitly that Christianity had nothing to do with them: they were political, and our faith was personal. On those great social issues, the Christians I knew believed and acted just like everybody else I knew - like white people on racism, like affluent people on poverty, and like patriotic Americans on war.
Then I read Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, which relied heavily on the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount and the idea that our treatment of the oppressed was a test of faith. Believing in Jesus was not enough, said Bonhoeffer. We were called to obey his words, to live by what Jesus said, to show our allegiance to the reign of God, which had broken into the world in Christ. Bonhoeffer warned of the “cheap grace” that promotes belief without obedience. He spoke of “costly discipleship” and asked how the grace that came at the tremendous cost of the cross could require so little of us. “Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship,” he said, “and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth.”
At the time, I had just experienced a secular student movement
that had lost its way. Without any spiritual or moral depth, protest often turned to bitterness, cynicism, or despair. Finding Jesus again, after years of alienation from the churches, reenergized my young social conscience and provided a basis for both my personal life and my activist vision. Here again Bonhoeffer showed the way, by providing the deep connection between spirituality and moral leadership, religion and public life, faith and politics. Here was a man of prayer who became a man of action - precisely because of his faith.
Bonhoeffer will appeal today to all those who are hungry for spirituality. But his was not the soft New-Age variety that only focuses on inner feelings and personal enlightenment. Rather, it was Bonhoeffer’s spirituality that made him so politically subversive. And it was always his deepening spiritual journey that animated his struggle for justice.
Bonhoeffer will appeal today to all who are drawn to Jesus Christ, because at the heart of everything Bonhoeffer believed and did was the centrality of Christ. The liberal habit of diminishing the divinity of Christ or dismissing his incarnation, cross, and resurrection had no appeal for Bonhoeffer. But his orthodoxy has demanding implications for the believer’s life in the world. He refused to sentimentalize Jesus, presenting him as the fully human Son of God who brings about a new order of things.
During a stint at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Bonhoeffer’s response to theological liberalism was tepid, but he became inspired by his involvement with the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Meeting the black church in America showed the young Bonhoeffer again that a real Christ was critical of the majority culture.
Bonhoeffer will appeal today to all those who love the church and long for its renewal. But they won’t find in Bonhoeffer somebody who was primarily concerned with new techniques for more contemporary worship, management models for effective church growth, or culturally relevant ways to appeal to the suburban seekers. Bonhoeffer could not imagine the life of solitary discipleship apart from the community of believers. But he would not tolerate the communal life of the church being more conformed to the world than being a prophetic witness to it.
And, of course, Bonhoeffer appeals today to all those who seek to join religion and public life, faith and politics. Because he doesn’t fit neatly into the categories of left and right, and liberal and conservative, Bonhoeffer can speak to Democrats trying to get religion, to Republicans who want a broader approach than hot-button social issues, and to people who are unhappy with our contemporary political options. He was drawn to the nonviolence of Jesus and, like Martin Luther King Jr., was planning to visit Gandhi in India to learn more about nonviolent resistance. Like King, he was killed before he could make the trip. But Bonhoeffer’s pacifism gave way to what he saw as the overriding need to confront the massive evil of Nazism by participating in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
Yet, according to F. Burton Nelson and Geffrey Kelly, in their book The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he believed that violence was “still a denial of the gospel teachings of Jesus,” and his decision to join the conspiracy against Hitler was accompanied by “ambiguity, sin, and guilt” that were only expiated by a reliance on Christ who “takes on the guilt of sinners, and extends the forgiveness of his Father God to those sinners.” That decision, which cost him his life, demonstrates Bonhoeffer’s profound wrestling with the always-difficult questions of how faith is to be applied to a world of often imperfect choices.