I woke in the middle of the night recently and all I could see was the face of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As I wrestled with my pillow and tried to go back to sleep, I began to connect once more with the uncompromising commitment this man had to the Gospel and the mission of Christ. Throughout the next day I reflected on Bonhoeffer’s life and his teaching again and realised how desperately we need this kind of prophetic voice in the Church today. So come with me as we are reminded of the life, ministry, teaching and example of this man. It’s confronting to see the similarities in the battle he faced within the Church to where we find ourselves today.
Bonhoeffer was born in February 1906 in Breslau (Germany) to Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer. His father, Karl, who has been described as a deeply sensitive man, but nevertheless quite detached from his children, was a famous German psychiatrist and a contemporary of Sigmund Freud. His mother, Paula, the daughter of German aristocracy whose father was a theologian, played a dominant role in the lives of her eight children, particularly as concerned their education and cultural development. Dietrich was the sixth of eight children and had a twin sister, Sabine. He was the youngest son in the family who differed significantly, in looks and personality, from his father and his three older brothers. Dietrich was an attractive small boy with long blonde hair and a pale, girlish face. He looked different from the other males in his family. His older brothers took after their father; they were youthful and slim and had a watchful, sceptical look on their faces. They shared their father’s scientific interests. He could do something with them. Dietrich, the somewhat dreamy little one, did not find it easy to assert himself against his brothers. Above all he had to fight for recognition from his father, who identified far more with his older sons.
Of all the boys, Dietrich was most like his mother: musical, sensitive, interested in people and their stories. By the time Dietrich was eight years old, the certainties and naiveties of his childhood were brought to a sudden halt with the outbreak of the WW1. Although a dedicated German nationalist throughout childhood and early adulthood, Dietrich was never one to take anything at face value, and even as a child he was known to question almost everything and to probe the perplexities of life with a depth of scrutiny unsurpassed by most human beings.
When his older cousins were killed in the war, Dietrich and his twin sister, at the age of ten are reported to have stayed up late into the wee hours of the morning contemplating the meaning of death and the potentiality of eternal life. Documented in a book by Gunter Brakelmann, Dietrich and Sabine write: “We lay awake a long time and tried to imagine what eternal life and being dead were like. We endeavoured every evening to get a little nearer to eternity by concentrating on the word ‘eternity’ and excluding any other thought.”
This constant inquiry and examination into the pressing issues of life and death and meaning; the pressing determination to seek understanding and clarity, were so characteristic of Dietrich throughout his life, that it speaks almost to the essence of who he was. Dietrich questioned everything, searching, struggling to discern that truth which transcends the limitations of human construct and definition. As such, no one should have been surprised by Dietrich’s decision at the end of high school to study theology.
At the age of seventeen, he began his study of theology at Tubingen, much to his father’s disappointment. Karl Bonhoeffer had more or less completely given up on the Church. “I don’t understand any of it,” he is said to have remarked often, with unmistakable irony. This negative response of Dietrich’s father to his decision to study theology extended to his older brothers as well who claimed that “for them the Church was a petty-minded, backward-looking organization” to which Dietrich is reported to have replied, “In that case I shall reform the Church.” In many ways there is an element of humour to be found in Dietrich’s reply to his brothers because he was so un-Churched. Nevertheless, Dietrich would indeed come to make strident efforts to do just what he had claimed – reform the Church, particularly as the Church in Germany came more and more to be defined by political allegiance and alliance in contrast to Biblical adherence.
Central to Dietrich’s personal and theological struggles was the probing question: What makes the Church the Church? – to which he was radically influenced by theologian Karl Barth. According to Barth, the Church had made too many false compromises. And in order to become presentable in terms of the latest fashion, it had uncritically accepted the prevailing culture and social order, giving it a religious dimension. The Church had put so little critical distance between itself and the powerful elites of the Reich that it had lost a good deal of its legitimacy. The only chance of a new beginning lay in reflection on the will of God attested in Scripture, which stood over against human ideas of power and order. Dietrich was among the first to claim that the Church of his day was no longer His Church, preaching to others in Germany, “Come, you who have been left alone, you who have lost the Church, let us return to Holy Scripture, let us go forth and seek the Church together. Church, remain a Church … confess, confess, confess!”
Bonhoeffer was instrumental in the establishment of the counter-cultural Confessing Church which quickly came to be called the ‘Protestant Church in resistance.’ Church historians have long recognized and asserted that the Confessing Church was in no way opposed to government policy but primarily and exclusively opposed to the heresies and practices of the German Christians within the Church. The Confessing Church would soon become a counter-program to the German Christian Reich Church. The Confessing Church in many ways served as a principle facilitator in the opposition of Hitler, anti-Semitism and the organized repudiation of the Nazis. It was precisely within the context of this ‘communion of saints’ that Bonhoeffer linked to a group of conspirators whose assassination attempt on Hitler failed. Nevertheless, Dietrich would eventually abandon even the Confessing Church that he had been instrumental in establishing when this Church elected to remain silent about the devastation which the Nazis called ‘Crystal Night,’ the night when every synagogue in Germany was set on fire.
The Third Reich had defined Dietrich as the rebellious enemy. History would reveal he had become a man of uncompromising principles sustained by an unyielding faith in Jesus Christ. Dietrich knew that his life was on the line. But it was not the preservation of his own life that had become the driving force within him, but rather his unbending adherence to Jesus Christ and solidarity with the oppressed.
In 1939, Bonhoeffer was extended an invitation to remain in New York, thereby avoiding possible arrest, persecution and death back in Germany. Many pleaded with him to stay. But on June 20th, he decided he had to return to Germany. Bonhoeffer did not believe that it was un-Christian to want to avoid persecution. He simply realized that he could not do so. What Dietrich believed is well summed up in his own words: “We ought to be found only where He is. We can no longer, in fact, be anywhere else than where He is. He takes us with Him.”
On 7th July 1939, Bonhoeffer set sail from New York for Germany. Four years later, Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned for his resistance to the Nazi regime. Two years after that he was sentenced to death. Leibholz wrote: “The guiding force in Bonhoeffer’s life, underlying all that he did, worked and suffered for, was his faith and love of God in whom he found peace and happiness. From it came the constancy of mind, persistency of purpose, love of suffering humanity and of truth, justice and goodness.”
But it was not enough for him to seek justice, truth, honesty and goodness for their own sake and patiently to suffer for them. No, according to Bonhoeffer, we have to do so in loyal obedience to Him who is the source and spring of all goodness, justice and truth and on whom he felt totally dependent. Writing in the Foreword of The Cost of Discipleship, the late Bishop Bell says of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “He was crystal clear in his convictions; and young as he was, and humble-minded as he was, he saw the truth, and spoke it with a complete absence of fear.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man who knew first hand what it was to take up the cross and follow Jesus Christ and he carried that cross all the way to the end. And from him, we have much to learn about being called as disciples of Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer observed in his own native Germany and throughout the Church of his day; and as has been cited against modern Christianity and the 21st Century western Church; the Church and many an individual Christian have embraced an understanding of the Christian faith and the meaning of discipleship which absents any recognition of personal cost or sacrifice. Perfectly prepared to embrace the gracious love of God and His promises of eternity, there remains a reluctance, if not in fact refusal, to accept any sacrifice for those blessed gifts and promises. While on one level the Christian seems prepared, in his profession of faith, to take up the cross of Jesus, he is, nevertheless, ill-prepared and, in the end, unwilling to sacrifice much of anything, and certainly not his life, for that faith.
Bonhoeffer found articulation for his concern over this dynamic within the Church and amongst Christians who proclaimed to be disciples of Jesus, in his discussion of what he referred to as ‘cheap grace’ which he believed was ‘the deadly enemy of the Church.’ Bonhoeffer was deeply troubled by what he perceived and believed to be the secularization of the Church and a willingness, on the part of the Church and individual Christians, to sacrifice Gospel truths for nationalistic loyalty, particularly as the Church in Nazi Germany strove to accommodate and turn a blind eye on the evils of the Third Reich.
According to Bonhoeffer, the call to follow Jesus, the call to discipleship, implied, by definition, a call to abandon all attachments to the world which the disciple did in an act of obedience to Christ’s call to follow him. So Bonhoeffer wrote: “The call to follow Jesus implies that there is only one way of believing on Jesus Christ, and that is by leaving all and going with the incarnate Son of God.” And so reflecting upon two of Jesus’ earliest disciples, Bonhoeffer notices that “so long as Levi sits at the receipt of custom, and Peter at his nets, they could both pursue their trade honestly and dutifully and they might both enjoy religious experiences, old and new. But, if they want to believe in God, the only way is to follow His incarnate Son.”
Bonhoeffer was adamant in asserting that man cannot stand with his feet straddled between two different lives; two different worlds. And yet, cheap grace was aiming to do just that – to create a Christianity and a Church that would somehow legitimize an individual Christian’s conviction that he could both follow Jesus and accommodate the sins of the world at the same time – to which Bonhoeffer said, “No.” You cannot follow Christ and at the same time live your life as though Jesus’ call had no impact upon your life. To the contrary, it is imperative that the Christian be careful to distinguish his life from the life of the world. Bonhoeffer wrote, “Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God.”
Cheap grace implies that we can follow Jesus without any inward change of heart or outward change in loyalties. Cheap grace implied, at least in Nazi Germany, that one could be impervious to the persecution and slaughter of one’s fellow man in the concentration and death camps of Hitler, while at the same time professing to be a follower of Jesus Christ – to which Bonhoeffer said “No.” Cheap grace, according to Bonhoeffer, is grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. No contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. So let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the worlds standards in every sphere of life, and not aspire to live a different life – to which Bonhoeffer replied again, “No.” Cheap grace is the preaching forgiveness without repentance, baptism without Church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, grace without truth, which is not the grace of God of God at all.
In contrast to this ‘cheap grace’ which Bonhoeffer believed was being used to justify a multitude of sins and all under the cloak of faith, was Bonhoeffer’s notion of costly grace. Of this he wrote:
“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His Son … and what has cost God much should not be cheapened by us. Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs.”
The concerns which Bonhoeffer resolved to address in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, were by no means new to the Church, and regrettably were not resolved upon the books completion. How often, even today, we as Christians are reluctant to stand up for and hold firm the truths of Jesus Christ if and when there is risk in so doing or some personal sacrifice that might be implied? Goethe once made a powerful remark about how Christians had adorned the cross of Golgotha with roses, stripping the cross of God’s response to sin and evil, and perceiving in that cross only some saccharine sweet message of love and mercy which defies and ignores the travesty of human sin and wickedness. How often, as individuals and as a Church, we are better prepared to find some way in which to accommodate sin and evil than to take up the cross of Jesus Christ, prepared to give up our lives for the sake of the Lord’s truth and goodness?
As we look out upon the world today, the problems of sin and evil have not ceased to exist. Nazi Germany may have faded into the pages of history, but there are concentration and death camps still in existence. They just look different and we call them by different names. There is still sin and corruption within the power structures of secular society and the Church. Churches are often the quickest to dispense a message of unconditional pardon girded by some flimsy notion of love that cannot or will not recognise sin for what it is. We tend to spend more time and energy striving to find deceptive ways in which to incorporate sin into our notions of truth, than calling sinners to repentance and new life. We are too often more concerned with trying to reconcile the Gospel with the prevailing norms of secular society, than with confronting that same society with God’s revealed truth. Perhaps this is so because it isn’t easy and it may cost us. Discipleship does not come cheap, Bonhoeffer says. Discipleship is costly. If may cost you your life. It will certainly cost you friends, colleagues and even your reputation.
In recent years I have responded once again to Bonhoeffer’s call to speak up and speak out when the Gospel of Christ and the truth of the Scriptures are being diluted, corrupted or just ignored within the Body which bears His name. This has already come at a cost for me. I don’t expect that I will pay the price Bonhoeffer did because I live in Australia in more ‘civilised’ times. However, there are worse things than death, trust me. It would seem that reminding people of the foundations upon which the Church is built, is appreciated as much today by some Church leaders as it was in Bonhoeffer’s day!
So as I declared in the title of this post – we need more Bonhoeffers! The prophetic preaching and cutting edge theological reflection of Bonhoeffer and many of the great reformers in the Church is largely absent today. I have had a number of people in the Uniting Church respond to things I have said and written recently and described it as the ‘prophetic voice’ we have been missing. It seems that our Church has truly become a ‘non-prophet’ organisation. Worse still, when that prophetic voice is heard again, it is so unfamiliar that it’s treated as the enemy! At every point it is attacked, undermined, resisted, discredited or just ignored all together. However, it is the voice we must hear. I truly believe I would honour God more by leaving the Uniting Church right now, than by staying and remaining silent. I am praying that more of my UCA brothers and sisters will feel the same.
Bonhoeffer put it more clearly than I ever could when he said,
“If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”
May God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done across the Church at this challenging time.
“Not to speak, is to speak. Not to act, is to act.” ( Dietrich Bonhoeffer )