Bonhoeffer met an early death 70 years ago today in a Nazi concentration camp. Already influential in his country and on the global ecumenical scene during his lifetime, Bonhoeffer’s status as a theologian and “martyr” of the church has only increased over the ensuing decades.
Of particular interest to theologians and ethicists was Bonhoeffer’s ability to maintain a faithful, confessional stance while so many other religious leaders in Germany were co-opted by the Nazi regime. What was it about Bonhoeffer as a person, Bonhoeffer as a pastor, Bonhoeffer as a theologian, that led to this self-differentiation?
So the biographies proliferate. Unfortunately, biographies are of varying qualities, some helpful, some harmful. The most popular at the moment is also probably the most harmful of all. Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, though incredibly popular, co-opts Bonhoeffer on so many points that I can do nothing but warn readers away from it.
Bonhoeffer offers surprises at every turn. Not everyone knows that he was immensely popular as a youth leader and pastor. During his time in Italy, and again in London, he successfully led the development of youth ministries in congregations where children’s ministries had been languishing. Andrew Root has written the definitive account of this aspect of Bonhoeffer’s ministry, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together.
I find myself going back to Bonhoeffer again and again as a lodestone for reflection on the inter-relationship between careful theological inquiry and pastoral ministry. Bonhoeffer frequently wrote for the academy, and has academic theology has had a continuing influence on theological discourse. His theological work also had legs, and walked a walk that led him around the world and back to his home in an effort to resist a regime that was slaughtering innocents and co-opting the church and faith he held dear.
On this anniversary of his death, I give thanks for the witness of Bonhoeffer, and for all those who now carry the torch of his legacy, both in their actions, and in the continuing theological reflection on his work. It is the two together that honors Bonhoeffer completely in his integrity.
Plenty of folks are quoting Bonhoeffer today, I’m sure. He was eminently quotable. I’ll end with this enigmatic dialectical statement of Bonhoeffer’s, which opens up a whole other aspect of his theology, the move to “religionless” Christianity:
….we have to live in the world esti deus non daretur (even if there were no God) and this is just what we do recognize-before God. God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as humans who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark. 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God.