By Bill Wylie-Kellermann
We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the power-less, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christmas letter to friends and co-conspirators (1942)
Seventy years ago today, just weeks before the fall of Berlin in 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was marched naked into the yard of Flossenberg Concentration Camp and hanged with piano wire for being an enemy of the Nazi state. He was 39.
Bonhoffer may be said to have literally written the book on radical discipleship. For several generations his Cost of Discipleship has provoked conversion, focused hearts, signified the way. It is perhaps most famous for its opening meditation contrasting “cheap grace” – grace as commodity, principle, doctrine – with “costly grace” which is grace to die for – the way of discipleship and the cross. “When Christ calls someone, he bids them come and die.”
A decade prior, when Bonhoeffer (along with Karl Barth and Martin Niemoller) signed the Barmen Declaration, he did so counting the cost. On the face of it the Barmen (May 31, 1934) was a simple confession of faith – one which may be found to this day in the Presbyterian hymnal as an historic affirmation. But it was politically loaded. Consider: every single signer was either exiled, imprisoned, or executed.
Adolph Hitler had been elected in 1933 preaching an authoritarian society based on traditional values of family, religion, and German nationalism. When he came to power, he had a good bit of church support and he carefully curried more. He threw the support of his own figure and voice behind the German Christians, a church unification movement, sympathetic to Nazi goals, including endorsement of the Aryan race and the building of a German Protestant church on this foundation. They prevailed in church elections and made sweeping changes including provisions which ousted pastors and church officials of Jewish descent. Moreover, with the help of the German Christians Hitler successfully installed his own Reich bishop over the unified national church. Meanwhile, under the guise of anti-communism, and in the wake of the Reichstag fire, he had arrogated dictatorial police-state powers to himself in the name of “national security.”
Bonhoeffer had seen it coming. In February of 1933, two days after Hitler’s succession to power he did a radio broadcast in which he spoke of the leader (fuhrer) who becomes the “misleader.”
Enter Barmen, the following year. It’s been called a “fighting action” of the church which brought the crisis then brewing to a head, but it was really more like a breath of fresh air in a suffocating time. It begins:
Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.
Note that Hitler’s name never comes up, but you don’t have to be a political genius to read between the lines. Note also the yes/no format, an affirmation followed by a renunciation. This rhythm is sustained throughout the document and it is a telling structure. Resistance and transformation giving way to one another. An arena of freedom was created by the declaration, a space in which to think and move. The making and publication of the document was more like a liturgical event than a political manifesto, but the political implications and consequences were enormous. Almost as one the document initiated a resistance movement and a resistance church.
In connection essentially with both, Bonhoeffer was asked to found and lead an underground seminary for the training of Confessing pastors: Finkenwalde. But therein lay a momentous decision. He had been preparing for a trip to India, an ashram stay and conversation with Mohandas Gandhi (“if I’m not in jail,” as the mahatma said). Intuition had turned to conviction that Gandhi could teach him some things urgent for the German scene and struggle. The way had opened and arrangements been made.
Bonhoeffer was motivated by the desire to witness the experiment along the lines of the Sermon on the Mount as exemplified by Gandhi – namely, the purposive exercises and Indian methods of resistance to a power that was regarded as tyrannous…What he was aiming at, therefore, was a means of combating Hitler that went beyond the aims of the church struggle while remaining legitimate from a Christian standpoint.
Pause here to imagine the German church struggle rearmed with the tactics of satygraha. The conventional western view is that, of course, it never would have worked against Nazism. But even imagining the cost, how the heart would love to see its try.
Bonhoeffer’s friends and mentors thought him nuts and sought to dissuade him. Barth was confused and mystified; Niebuhr more condescending and frank as he recalled, “Gandhi was an ethical liberal with philosophical footings far from the weltanschauung of a sophisticated German Lutheran”! (Rasmussen). But in the end it was not their arguments, but the press of events that prevented the journey. Alas. Truly.
He was required to organize and create the “ashram” himself in Pomerania. If Life Together describes the monastic form of community routine shared in the seminary, then Cost of Discipleship, much of which is his own articulation of the Sermon on the Mount, became part of the core curriculum for this underground school which was first irregular, then illegal. Discipleship was published just after the seminary was permanently closed by the Gestapo in 1937.
All told, it’s ironic that Bonhoeffer should be most remembered for his participation in the plot to kill Hitler and his name synonymous with theological justification of political violence. Before the war his call was for the church ecumenical to be the formation and agent of peace, in a world choked with weapons and the trumpet ready to blow (Fano, 1934). His international travel and communication served that call.
When war began, those very connections, along with the cover of family, made him useful to the Abwehr (German counterintelligence). By his appointment in 1940 he became, in effect, a double agent. In his meetings, he was always providing outsiders with news of the resistance and of Nazi moves. It was this period where official treason came to be understood by Bonhoeffer as true patriotism.
His most famous confidant was Bishop Bell of England. Bonhoeffer detailed to him a plan of assassination and revolt. Bonhoeffer’s own role with others involved readiness to move quickly in declaring and forming a new government. He was much disappointed that information which he passed through Bell to the Allies was not treated seriously. That would have involved making a fundamental distinction between the regime and the German people. The fire bombings of Dresden and elsewhere would massively demonstrate that refusal (and actually signal Hitler’s spiritual victory). To take it seriously would have required willingness to include representatives of the people in negotiating an end to the war, instead of pursuing nothing less than total and unconditional surrender – a deal breaker by design.
For the last decade of his life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s discipleship was radical and costly. And within it, his treason was simple: to imagine and prepare for a world without Nazism, a world without fascism. Oh that such treason were not so required this day, in discipleship such as our own.
Resources: Bonhoeffer’s legacy is not uncontested. Materials of his own and about him are voluminous and growing. Kelly and Burton’s anthology, A Testament to Freedom, is a good single volume. Eberhard Bethge’s biography, now 50 years old, remains the definitive source. The best new biography is Charles Marsh, Strange Glory. One good way to mark the day would be to watch Martin Doblmeier’s fine documentary, Bonhoeffer.]
Bill Wylie-Kellermann, community activist and writer, is a Methodist pastor serving St Peter’s Episcopal in Detroit. He studied Bonhoeffer with Paul Lehmann, Bonhoeffer’s friend and colleague at Union Seminary NYC.