Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an inspiring and intriguing human being. His path from aristocratic intellectualism through a conversion to radical discipleship under the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount and the Harlem Renaissance, and then becoming a pastor of pastors internationally known for his work to bring the Church to bear upon the dire political realities of Nazi Germany by the time he reached his 30s, and culminating in his imprisonment and execution for his part in a plot to rid the world of Hitler and rescue Germany and the Jews is the stuff of legends: saints and martyrs. His personal, political and theological transformations occurred so rapidly and in such internationally turbulent times, that he can be hard to pin down. The fact that he ever retained his aristocratic and intellectual breeding and died young, without the benefit of time (or marriage and family) to smooth and mature both mind and character leaves him liable to misunderstanding, and even occasional self-contradictions. And yet, the stories told by his fellow prisoners from his final days before being hanged leave history with the image of a 39 year old man wholly committed to his Master (Jesus) and his course of obedient action. Throughout two years of imprisonment, including the morning he confidently walked forward to a new life beyond this world, he was a man filled with peace, loving and serving his fellow prisoners and the soldiers who were his guards.
I’ve read a few of Bonhoeffer’s books over the past year and a half, am slowly working through Eberhard Bethge’s massive biography, and recently read Reggie Williams’ Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance. This reading inspires all kinds of thoughts, but today I focus on three aspects of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology that rise to the top of my thinking: 1) personal transformation against the flow of culture is possible and normal for the disciple of Jesus, 2) discipleship is obedience in action in the real world, and 3) the Gospel (the way of Jesus) is radically incarnational.
Bonhoeffer’s life is a moving portrait of personal transformation as he submitted his life to the Master, Jesus. His personal prides and prejudices were transformed as he learned from, followed and imitated Jesus. He encountered God alive in Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City and the living ethic of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7) in his early 20s, and he was never the same again. His theology and politics, as well as his priorities and ambitions took sharp turns from their previous trajectories. Where he had been comfortable with German Nationalism as a product of his Christianity, and had considered Christian dogma devoid of actual ethical content just a couple of years before visiting New York (see his Barcelona sermons and lectures), he became a man willing to die in his stand for humanity and the integrity of the Church against National Socialism out of obedience to the ethics of the Kingdom (alive through the Church). He deeply explored and expounded upon that Kingdom ethic in two of his better known books: The Cost of Discipleship, and Ethics. Bonhoeffer’s life is a case study of what it can look like when a rich young man does sell everything to follow Jesus. Faithful discipleship today can learn from and be inspired by his example of taking up his cross, forsaking his life in order to follow Jesus.
Discipleship: Obedience and Incarnation in the Real World
While there is much more to Bonhoeffer’s life and theology than these next two themes (including themes and developments I haven’t yet delved deeply into), I select them here because they carry much of the content that motivated and/or flowed out of the transformation explored above. Bonhoeffer, like many before and after him, learned to take the Sermon on the Mount as programmatic for the Kingdom of God and a life of following Jesus (aka discipleship), and he took the Beatitudes (Mt. 5:2-12) to be programmatic for the Sermon, as well as the whole Gospel Jesus proclaimed. Taking seriously Jesus’ pronouncement of blessing and kingdom presence upon and among the poor and the meek, those who mourn, long for justice (in other words, they’ve been wronged or have done wrong-righteousness), make peace, practice mercy, are not satisfied with the way of the world (pure in heart) and experience persecution for doing righ and/or for their allegiance to Jesus, called Bonhoeffer’s comfortable, intellectual, aristocratic German Christianity deeply into question. His experiences in New York opened his eyes to the plight of the poor and oppressed (primarily African Americans suffering under poverty and racism) in ways his intellectual criticisms of bourgeois faith could never equal. It was transformative, as can be seen by his aggressive intention to pastor in a poor, working class neighborhood after returning to Germany and receiving his ordination. Political realities, including the Reich’s intrusion upon the German churches with the Aryan Clause, shut this door to him. Also, his encounter with the living, active faith of the worshipers at Abyssinian Baptist Church (ABC) opened his eyes to the nearness and accessibility of God. He saw “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” actualized before his eyes. He began to know Jesus as he joined with ABC in serving the poor and needy.
The Sermon on the Mount has been read by some as a creative argument by Jesus to demonstrate a Reformed view of depravity, or to bolster a clear division between the ‘religious’ and the laity. Both of these interpretations idealize the Sermon as a kind of vision of what life in Heaven will look like, rather than a vision of practical discipleship. The problems with this view are legion, but most simply, there is no indication in the Sermon itself, or its parallel in Luke 6:17-49, that Jesus intended anything other than obedience to his teachings in the immediate context of his hearers. In fact, he calls ignoring his commands a direct path to destruction (5:19-20; 7:21-27). Factor in Jesus’ call to discipleship–taking up one’s cross to follow him (Lk. 9:23-26, et al), and the Great Commission’s insistence upon teaching obedience to Jesus (Mt. 28:18-20), and it becomes absurdist to argue that all of this is hyperbole to convince sinner that they can’t save themselves. The need for grace is made plain in the crucifixion of Jesus and in his ministry of healing, exorcising and forgiving.
This emphasis on practical discipleship, obedience to the teachings (modeling the way of Jesus) flowed directly into Bonhoeffer’s insistence upon action and incarnation. Even before his transformation, his ecclesiology (theology of the Church) was highly incarnational: the Church is Christ on earth, however he had little content to fill that ontology with, allowing nationalism to creep into that ethical vacuum. With his discovery of the Sermon on the Mount as programmatic for Christian discipleship, the purpose and mission of the Church became clear: to obey Jesus, to take up the Cross, to live out and stand up for the priorities of God (see the Beatitudes) on planet earth (Mt. 6:33). His personal journey of obedience led him into poverty/social justice work (blessing the poor; Mt. 5:3; Lk. 6:20; cf. Lk. 10:25-37), ecumenical peace work (Mt. 5:9; 6:43-48), making disciples (Mt. 28:18-20) and then, surprisingly, into actively opposing the Nazi regime all the way to the extent of working through with his international contacts to assist in a plan to assassinate and replace Hitler, a plan which would include the humiliation of the nation he loved.
This final move is, in my current knowledge, less capable of direct scriptural/Gospel backing from specific texts. Bonhoeffer’s reasoning followed his deep conviction (in a somewhat existentialist manner thank to Karl Barth) that faith must act in the real world. Bonhoeffer was no pietist or quietist; his discipleship was bold like Luther, whom he always built upon, even if he rejected some Lutheranism. He was practical, earthy, worldly (in the best sense of the word), believing God meets the faithful in the world. This is Kingdom living.
This is following Jesus down from the mount of Transfiguration (Mt. 17:1-8; et al) into the demon-possessed valley (Mt. 17:14-20); following Jesus into the religion the God our Father considers pure and faultless: caring for widows and orphans in their distress, rather than being drawn after the self-seeking pattern of the world (Jas. 1:28-30). The Word became flesh (incarnation) and moved into the neighborhood (Jn. 1:14, TM; cf. Phil. 2), and all who follow Jesus must imitate him, taking up residence in places where the sick need to be made well, the blind need to see, the oppressed need liberation, the weak need justice…
Bonhoeffer took up his cross to follow Jesus, and we see this in action on multiple fronts: opposition to the Nazis, boldly fighting for the truth the the Church as subject to Jesus alone, pursuing peace in a world obsessed with war, and then ultimately making the bold decision to actively participate in a plot for the violent removal of Hitler, a decision I look forward to more fully research and understand–to reconcile with his previously growing allegiance to nonviolence. But, let me end with one final lesson from Bonhoeffer, his path of incarnation, forsaking privileges to get into the lives and neighborhoods and experiences of the poor, the working classes, the less cultured and educated.
As previously mentioned, the community ministries Bonhoeffer encountered in New York led him to seek to do similar work in Berlin’s East Side before Hitler’s seizure of power closed his path to parish work. He valued children, even rowdy children of working class families, and welcomed them into his life, his home, and even his family’s elite, cultured, aristocratic home. He learned how to know, love and serve the weak and downtrodden by getting into their world. He looked into their faces, he listened to their stories, he visited their homes, he laid aside his academic pride (he completed his doctorate in theology by age 21, and completed two post-graduate courses of study by age 24) to simply tell Bible stories to children. He follwed his Master, Jesus, and all who might want to follow Jesus must do the same.
Many times, groups of people fail to understand each other. Misunderstanding breeds distrust, distance, prejudice and fear with the potential for hatred. If there is a group of people whose concerns are lost on you, whose complaints are obnoxious to you, whose customs are absurd to you, go! Get into their world. Explore their experiences. Hear their stories. Try to walk a moment in their shoes. Take the place of humble learning, even service. It is there where you will be living the life of Jesus, and you will find those previously mystifying concerns, complaints and customs to be less foreign or dangerous or ridiculous than you had assumed. You may still have disagreements and challenges to understanding and unity, but your capacity for empathy, patience and love will be, immeasurably, transformed.