The Mormon Bonhoeffer

In the 1970s, Latter-day Saint leaders began to quote C.S. Lewis in the semi-annual General Conference talks.

20th-century Martyrs, Westminster Abbey
20th-century Martyrs, Westminster Abbey (Bonhoeffer is on the right; Martin Luther King, Jr. is second from the left)

Earlier this month, Mormon Apostle D. Todd Cristofferson made a rather striking reference to the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a discussion of marriage. Cristofferson quoted at length from a May 19, 1943 sermon that Bonhoeffer wrote while incarcerated in a high-security Gestapo prison:

Marriage is more than your love for each other. … In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory, and calls into his kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man. … So love comes from you, but marriage from above, from God.

What a beautiful message. One can readily see why Cristofferson appropriated it for his discussion of the significance of marriage for Latter-day Saints. For Mormons, marriage a divine institution, an ordinance connected with with the exaltation of men and women to become kings and queens unto God. Marriage is the crowning ordinance that exalts human beings back into the presence of a Father they had once known prior to their mortality. It binds together the generations.

As one would expect, there are many things in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of marriage that do not accord with Cristofferson’s. Most obviously, for Bonhoeffer, it is marriage until death, probably not eternity. Nor does Bonhoeffer connect marriage with salvation or exaltation.

Of course, Bonhoeffer is an interesting vehicle for this message. Cristofferson cites the document as a letter from Bonhoeffer to his niece (Renate Schleicher). More accurately, it a sermon that Bonhoeffer wrote for Eberhard Bethge and Renate Schleicher which he would have delivered while marrying them if not in prison.

Bethge und Bonhoeffer
Bethge und Bonhoeffer

More fully, it is worth noting that the marriage between Bethge and his niece was a bittersweet matter for Bonhoeffer. It was Bethge who was the love of Bonhoeffer’s life. As I wrote in a review of Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory: “Bonhoeffer and Bethge lived together for some time, shared a bank account, and sent joint Christmas gifts to family members and friends. Their relationship was unbalanced. Bonhoeffer consistently demanded more from Bethge than the latter gave: more attention, more letters, and more visits.” Two months after Bethge became engaged to his seventeen-year-old niece, Bonhoeffer proposed to eighteen-year-old Maria von Wedemeyer. The pastor and theologian had never previously had a girlfriend. Even so, he had trouble letting go of Bethge, whom he wrote letters speculating about future trips they might take together, without their wives. Marsh describes how with Bethge, Bonhoeffer “strained toward the achievement of a romantic love, one ever chaste but complete in its complex aspirations.”

None of this has all that much to do with the content of Bonhoeffer’s wedding sermon. Its words are beautiful. Bonhoeffer’s attachment to Bethge, though, coupled with the somewhat strange circumstances of his engagement to Wedemeyer, make him an unusual source of marital wisdom for Latter-day Saints.

Everyone wants a piece of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it seems. Evangelicals like Bonhoeffer in part because of his trenchant critiques of the regnant liberal Protestant theology of his time. Liberal Protestants like Bonhoeffer in part because of his searching questions and his ruthless demotion of national idols. Everyone appropriates Bonhoeffer as a brave martyr. Even if his role in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler was minor, Bonhoeffer from the start was a rare voice of clear opposition to the German Christian movement within what was now the “Reich Church.” Bonhoeffer insisted that those who refused to worship with Christians of Jewish descent by their actions separated themselves from the true church of Jesus Christ.

I very much like the fact that Mormon leaders are introducing their members to C.S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and I hope that Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Bethge will not give them pause. If Bonhoeffer’s sermon for his beloved friend is moving merely in its words, the context of their friendship makes it a far more poignant example of self-sacrificial love.

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  • JohnH2
  • John Turner

    Fascinating, John. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Kurt

    Very interesting article!

  • Kurt

    I agree with you — get the government out of marriage, let that be a religious thing, and have the government do its duty and perform contracts with legal obligations. Makes sense.

  • John Turner

    I think quite a few churches will end up accepting this position in the coming decades. It is probably most attractive to those churches that have a sacramental understanding of marriage (i.e., Catholics and Mormons).

  • Hukilau

    I fully agree with the conclusion that marriage should be a religious term, and domestic partner should be a legal term. I couldn’t disagree more though in the argument that churches got involved with legal contracts. Churches werre solemnizing marriages prior to the existence of any government on earth. It is exactly the opposite. Governments co-opted religious marriage and now virtually own it. While your solution is ideal, I believe the more pragmatic approach is for religions to walk away from the word they have used for thousands of years and just pick a new one.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    I don’t know why you say that “Mormons seem unable to wrap their brains around” this viewpoint, since this is exactly the compromise Mormons would have wanted to make. The Mormon political position is exactly that the term “marriage” should be reserved to, you know, marriages, but that it would be fine to enact into law and policy the relationship of domestic partners with equivalent rights and protections.

    And many Mormons are political libertarians who would be fine with leaving the government out of all of this entirely.

  • Hukilau

    Law has always been about semantics … who owns the word, and what it means. To deny that is ludicrous. Churches owned the word marriage. Governments stole it. I have no problem with governments giving interpersonal unions whatever rights they want. But your view of religion being the offending party is just so amazingly short-sighted from a historical perspective.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    The question is a reasonable one, but it should require both of us to be clear about who “Mormons” are and who “they” are, as you use those terms. I have told you, and I am confident of this, that LDS libertarians would be very willing to accept repealing all marriage laws in favor of simple enforcement of domestic contractual agreements, relationships or understandings. I think that for political and social reasons, many others would have trouble “wrapping their brains around” this idea, not at all limited to Mormons and not even limited to one end or another of the so-called political spectrum.

    Having written about “Mormons,” you now ask for “a quote from an authoritative Mormon leader.” OK, I understand. But that’s just different from a generalization about “Mormons” and what “they” can “wrap their brains around,” so please be more mindful of that in the future.

    I don’t think that any authoritative Mormon leader has taken a position, one way or another, on the libertarian idea that the legal regulation of marriage, per se, can be withdrawn in favor of simply regarding the issues as a species of contractual relations or the protection of men, women and children from abuse, and things like that. So that’s my answer. It follows that I am not aware of anyone in that category stating that they “want to keep marriage a legal contract,” in the sense of continuing the legal regulation of marriage as a special legal relationship, so I would challenge your basis for making that claim.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    You say “all couples,” but you don’t mean that. There are lots of “couples” to whom you would not extend that right. The reason you’re vague about that is because as soon as you try to be specific, the seeming elegance of the claim is lost.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    Oh gee. Where is the reference to back up yours, oh brilliant one?

  • trytoseeitmyway

    Did you see the words, “so I would challenge your basis for making that claim?”

  • trytoseeitmyway

    Read the sentence dude. I guess I have to walk you through it. Your claim to brilliance is suffering, but OK.

    Your claim, to which I expressly referred, was, “But they want to keep marriage a legal contract.” That claim. Sheesh.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    “All couples.” Brothers and sisters. High school friends. Men and boys. Cousins. Fathers and daughters. All couples.

  • Hukilau

    I think that is how it should have always been constructed. Yes, I think most Mormons would probably go for it, but I don’t believe for a second that the LGBT community would agree to it. I’m pretty sure some states had domestic partner options with comparable rights, and that was not viewed as sufficient. Everyone wants the word ‘marriage.’

  • trytoseeitmyway

    Interesting that you think something at the link supports your claim. It doesn’t.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    “All couples.” Brothers and sisters. High school friends. Men and boys. Cousins. Fathers and daughters. All couples.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    I am seriously suggesting that when you say, “‘Marriage’ give[s] specific legal rights, and those legal rights should be available to all couples,” you don’t mean that claim to be taken literally, which is what I wrote in reply to say. I also said that when you are more specific, the elegance of the argument begins to become muddy. As here you end up arguing about “compelling cause,” which is obviously subjective and almost certain to lead to differences of opinion in specific cases.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    Great. At one point I thought you were capable of having a reasonable conversation. *sigh* What happens when people provide links to “prove” something they’ve said, they think it relieves them of any obligation, you know, to prove the accuracy of what they said. You have still not shown – despite requests – that there is an authoritative statement that the LDS leadership would be opposed to removing all legal regulation of marriage, so that marriage per se could be understood as purely sacramental.

    That was your original point, and despite your abusive language I wrote to say that I agree it has merit. I think that there are many Mormons who agree that it has merit. I think that there is no authoritative leadership statement on that subject one way or another, which is why I challenged your statement – the one you can’t substantiate.

  • Hukilau

    What kind of nonsense is this? Mormons have been seeking equal protection under the law a lot longer than the LGBT community. It seems your hate for Mormons is stronger than your logic… I have never once heard or read an argument from the Mormon Church arguing to deny rights. I have heard the Mormon Church try to preserve the definition of marriage. I believe those are two completely different topics.

  • Hukilau

    You made my point … you are all about Mormon hate. I can find quotes from any group saying anything too. And find examples of all groups acting regrettably. Joseph Smith ordained African Americans to the priesthood and part of his platform in his run for US President was to abolish slavery. Unfortunately, on balance, Mormons were probably a lot like their non-Mormon historical counterparts in many respects – for good and bad. I’m happy to have a respectful debate, but alas, I’m afraid you are just a troll.

  • MormonForever

    I am not a bit ashamed of my church for standing up for what is right.In fact I am proud that they continue to stand up for what is right. It is better to stand up for what is right than to be a part of what is deemed popular.

  • MormonForever

    unfortunately this problem is effecting most families these days. It is a hard thing to deal with but I am sure that his family is handling it appropriately. They love him but do not like or condone the choices that he has made.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    So you don’t want to be civil in the conversation. Too bad. It reflects poorly on you, just so you know.

    Your original statement about all couples was not qualified by any reference to compelling [state] interest. So I pointed that out to you and you got huffy. But then I pointed out to you that when you add that concept into the assertion, you introduce a level of subjectivity on which reasonable people can differ. You don’t seem to want to address that.

    And you’re still not making an accurate legal assertion. For example your position is that the only reason that brothers and sisters can be denied the rights of “all couples” is that there is a compelling state interest on which to so so. That’s not even close to an accurate statement of the law in this country, just so you know.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    Sadly, lying (deliberately distorting or misrepresenting something that someone else has said is a species of lie) seems commonplace for you. It is really too bad. I’m sure the author/moderator of this blog would prefer civility.

  • David Tiffany

    “Most obviously, for Bonhoeffer, it is marriage until death, probably not eternity.”

    When we have questions such as this, it’s a good thing to go to the Scriptures to have them answered. Jesus tells us in Matthew 22:29-30, Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”
    It’s important to understand the context in which Jesus said this. The question was which of seven brothers would be married to a woman in eternity that had been her husbands on earth. The answer was than none of them would be.

    So many issues could be answered if we would only check out what we hear with the Word of God.

    http://downtownministries.blogspot.com/2015/03/progressive-revelation-or-making-god-of.html

  • Darren

    0-e^(i*pi)

    “It is the legal aspect of marriage that Mormons seem unable to wrap their brains around, and it is the legal aspect that is the center of the Gay marriage debate.

    If anything, the whole issue of Gay marriage should remind us of the pitfalls of allowing religion into our governmental affairs. A simple solution would be getting government out of the “marriage” business all together; the only thing government would do is to facilitate domestic partner contracts.

    Then, let religion manage “marriages” anyway they want, but do *not* allow churches to manage domestic partner contracts.”

    You make the claim that it is dangerous to “allow[] religion into our government” yet the gist of you whole argument is that government should stay out of religious affairs. Which is it? (I have not yet read through the responses and sub-responses)

    I fully support We the People using their religious norms and mores to decide on law. As I view it, making law is a moral endeavor. We the People say “yeah” or “nay” to laws we find “good” or “bad” precisely on our own view of morality and there is no more an influence on morality, individually and collectively than from religion. Leaving religion out of government would result in the formation of the type of government the United States’ Founding Fathers feared.

    Now, as for government staying out of religion, I completely agree with you. Government needs to be *extraordinarily* careful creating laws which goes against both individual and collective beliefs. I would love to return to a time when government did not license marriage at all and said matter was left to the churches. (I do support states’ regulating marriage but with the same cautions I mentioned regarding the federal government and also I say this recognizing that the US Constitution states that one state must honor the agreements made in other states such as driver’s licenses. this makes marriage a tricky issue).

    Now, despite what I want I realize that neither the federal government nor states may NEVER rescind themselves in issuing marriage licenses and regulating marriage. That being reality, I fully support the government (governments) in recognizing marriage as between one man and one woman. Going beyond that is not only, until our very modern times, historically unprecedented, but volatile. The state has a huge interest in recognizing this type of marriage and not same sex marriage.

    UPDATE: I paused typing to take my two year old outside and so in part I read the responses in this thread. As I supposed, you favor getting government out of religion and I agree. Like “seethingsmyway”, I agree many Mormons would agree to this as well though each Mormon is to vote his/her own conscience on this issue. Also, my past experience with you is that you are a prolific propagandist. “For Mormons, lying is pathological:
    ” is your calling card. I fail to understand why any blog owner who intends on maintaining integrity on his or her blog allows such tripe to be spread so I’ll just say that I am fully willing to engage your side of seeing things, at least for a little bit but keep it civil. I’d appreciate that.

  • Darren

    “but I don’t believe for a second that the LGBT community would agree to it”
    I completely agree.

  • Darren

    Everyone is treated equally under the law. All hetero and homo sexuals have been free to marry anyone (of legal age) of the opposite gender. Now, do you agree there should be some regulations by government on things such as polygamy or age of consent?

  • Darren

    “Well, then we agree. Now see if you can get the Mormon Church on board with the idea.”

    If I’m not mistaken, Hukilau’s main point was that the LDS church is already on board with seeking protecting gays from unequal treatment.

    http://www.sltrib.com/home/2362542-155/obama-touts-solar-initiative-thanks-Mormon

    Just to reiterate my call for civility, note here that I *could* include something along the lines of how, “you’re a pathological liar which is common among anti-Mormons” but note the absence of it. That’s called “being civil”.

  • rkt10

    There is a great deal of discussion among modern experts regarding of Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Bethge. And it certainly has not been proven that it was homosexual at all. Rather, Bonhoeffer was intellectual, deeply religious and somewhat naive (innocent), resulting in a more spiritual relationship with Bethge. There was a purity to their friendship and their deep interest in faith kept them in close proximity with one another. Add in the complexities of living with Nazism and you find a relationship that is utterly dissimilar with the experiences, expectations and conclusions of us in the 21st century.

  • John Turner

    rkt10, I think that’s a fair response. I agree with those historians who refuse to impose contemporary constructions of same-sex relationships on those who lived in earlier times.
    At the same time, Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Bethge raised some eyebrows at the time. Sharing a bank account, sending Christmas gifts together, etc. Charles Marsh, Bonhoeffer’s most recent biographer, essentially describes it as chaste but — from Bonhoeffer’s side — romantic.

  • rkt10

    John Turner, I believe it’s important to take into consideration Bonhoeffer’s personality and temperament. He was a scholarly individual from a family of elite scholars and high achievers. He was reading the works of substantial thinkers at age 9, and had already decided to become a theologian by age 12. This decision to focus on spiritual topics at so young an age, I believe, had a profound effect on his social interactions, and in some way, stunted them. He chose to live his life as if he were one of Christ’s disciples, where brotherly love was the model. Truly I think he barely thought about physical love. And I think he was highly attracted to Bethge’s similar intellectual spirituality, which explains the intensity of his feelings in great part (to me).
    I have to say, by the way, that the letters between him and his fiance were really odd. Really odd.