Category Archives: bonhoeffer

Finding the Sacred in the Middle of the Profane


Dear Friends,

All of you are welcome here. This is a sacred assembly. We are here to pray, to worship God, and to learn to see the sacred in the middle of the profane stuff of life. We want to learn to encounter the love of God and share it where it is most needed.
The Apostle Peter says, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

Dear Lord,
We come to you seeking light. We come asking to be able to experience your love right here, where we are, in a world that seems so dark, so profane, right where we become convinced that all we will know is great suffering. Show us your Self. Bring your holy Word to life before our very eyes. Do in us what we cannot do for ourselves.
In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

I don’t know about you, but I often get very uncomfortable with titles. People call me mister, sir, chief, boss, captain, pastor or even Reverend. I’d rather just be known by my first name. That’s not because I’m especially humble, but maybe rather because like a lot of you, I know that a title carries responsibility. I don’t want people to look over at me and say, “Ask him, he’s the guy. He knows what’s going on.” But some titles are really important, like Dad, for instance. I don’t want my kids calling me Chris, because we have an important relationship. I want them to know that I’m their only dad, and that their mother and I love them and are interested in everything they’re into.
One title that is very important to me as a Christian is that word, “Holy.” Because of Jesus Christ I belong to God and am called holy. I’m not any holier than you, I am holy together with you, and all others across time who are the Body of Christ. Now if you come up to me and yell out, “Hey, Holy Man of God!” I might just jump out of my skin. I am that, but I don’t often think of myself with that title.
You are sons and daughters of God. You were bought with the ultimate price, that God paid Himself because He loves you. That being the case, our speech, our conduct, and what we regard affectionately must all reflect the greatness of this gift God has given us.
The words sacred, or holy have many different meanings these days. What the Bible means with these words is simply that something or someone is set apart for the Lord’s use. The first of the Ten Commandments is “you shall have no other gods before me.” To be holy is to be devoted exclusively to one Lord.
We may not think that polytheism is really an issue to us, but in truth, this age is full of many little gods that vie for our affections. To be holy means to acknowledge only one Lord and to serve only one Lord. And there is only one way to serve the Lord: the way He says. God doesn’t bargain or negotiate. Either our sins have been washed clean by the blood of Jesus Christ or they have not.
So that is the sacred, what does profane mean? Profane things are unclean, unholy. In the case of worshiping God for instance, you just wouldn’t come in drunk and use a lot of cuss words to describe how much you love Jesus. That would be profane. It would not lead anyone else to respect you, the Lord, or the place of worship.
It seems like its getting harder to live a holy life in Christ these days. This world is full of a thousand and one things that cause us to question God or forget him. But the world was not a much more innocent or godly place when it crucified Jesus. The same words that were given to his first disciples, “if they persecute me they will persecute you also”, and “Be of courage, I have overcome the world” are meant for us today. We must not imagine that we are in any more control than they were. We must not expect any better reception for doing God’s will.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “We read Scripture in order that our hearts may be moved. It will lead us into prayer for the church, for brothers and sister in the faith, for our work, and for our own soul. Prayer leads us into the world in which we must keep the faith. Where Scripture, prayer, and keeping the faith exist, temptation will always find its way in. Temptation is the sign that our hearing, prayer, and faith have touched down in reality. There is no escape from temptation except by giving ourselves to renewed reading and meditation. So the circle is complete. We will not often be permitted to see the fruits of our labors; but through the joy of community with brothers and sisters who off us spiritual care, we become certain of the proclamation and the ministry.” (Spiritual Care, pg. 69.)
One of the things we might misunderstand about holiness is to think that in our service of God somehow we can keep ourselves sheltered from the temptation, suffering, and profane things of this world. To live in this world is to cry out to God in the midst of its real state, not to try to climb to some higher plane on which to hope God is looking. The Love of God places us right where it is needed the most.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “Today God loves the world so much that He gives you, He gives me, to love the world, to be His love, His compassion. It is such a beautiful thought for us—and a conviction—that you and I can be that love and compassion.
Do we know who our own poor are? Do we know our neighbor, the poor of our own area? It is so easy for us to talk and talk about the poor of other places. Very often we have the suffering, we have the lonely, we have the people—old, unwanted, feeling miserable—and they are near us and we don’t even know them. We have no time even to smile at them.
Tuberculosis and cancer are not the great diseases. I think a much greater disease is to be unwanted, unloved. The pain that these people suffer is very difficult to understand, to penetrate. I think this is what our people all over the world are going through, in every family, in every home.
This suffering is being repeated in every man, woman and child. I think Christ is undergoing his Passion again. And it is for you and for me to help them—to be Veronica, to be Simon to them.
Our poor people are great people, a very lovable people. They don’t need our pity and sympathy. They need our understanding love and they need our respect. We need to tell the poor that they are somebody to us, that they, too, have been created, by the same loving hand of God, to love and be loved.” (Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta”, pg. 296)
Here at New Life Evangelistic Center we share our resources, our time, our energy, our faith with thousands of other people on a monthly basis. Depending on your vantage point that is a very profane, even dangerous thing, or it is a very sacred thing that continues only by the grace of God.
Remember that NLEC’s theme verse comes from Paul’s words “And He died for all, so that all those who live might live no longer to and for themselves, but to and for Him Who died and was raised again for their sake. Consequently, from now on we estimate and regard no one from a [purely] human point of view [in terms of natural standards of value]. [No] even though we once did estimate Christ from a human viewpoint and as a man, yet now [we have such knowledge of Him that] we know Him no longer [in terms of the flesh]. Therefore if any person is [ingrafted] in Christ (the Messiah) he is a new creation (a new creature altogether); the old [previous moral and spiritual condition] has passed away. Behold, the fresh and new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:15-17, Amp.)
At one time Saul of Tarsus (later known as Paul) could not understand how Jesus of Nazareth was anything more than a blasphemous teacher who got what he deserved, whose followers were a dangerous, profane, unholy threat to the true worship of God. He believed that hunting them down and killing them was what he was called to do. He only knew Jesus by this world’s values. But then he got to know the resurrected Jesus and everything changed!
What Paul is saying is that every person we encounter has this same opportunity to get to know the resurrected Jesus, and that we can’t judge anyone by this world’s values. All people are worthy of the same attention that we received in leading us to the grace of God. In short, the Holy Spirit does not lead us to discard, hurt, write off, or call anyone fool or enemy who can be made into a new creation in Christ.
For the last several years developers in downtown St. Louis have been talking about our headquarters building at 1411 Locust Street. NLEC has owned its headquarters since 1975 and many changes have taken place in downtown since that time. The city’s parks have never moved. The city’s main branch of the library has been here all that time. The social security office branch has always been here. But in the last two years there’s been an increase in the number of people seeking shelter and basic services who cannot find them elsewhere in the region.
There are more homeless travelers, more people released from prison, more people unable to pay medical bills released from hospitals. The police move people from the parks and other areas of downtown after dark and they position them down the street right outside our building. There is one portable toilet available for them three blocks away. City hall does not allow us to keep portable toilets around our building. At one time we placed them there anyway until the city began telling the companies they would remove them as rubbish.
As you can imagine, with so many people using the same two block area to sleep in, it starts looking like images of the third world. On different mornings I’ll hear a man singing Sam Cooke’s version of “A Change is Gonna Come” on the front porch.
“It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die/ cuz I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky/it’s been a long, a long time coming/ but I know a change is gonna come/ oh yes it will.”
I know exactly what he’s singing about. Every morning that I come to work and I see a crowd of men, women, and children huddled under blankets on the concrete it wounds me. City hall says that it is our fault that these people lay here. They say first that we allow too many people to stay in our shelter, and then they say that we should not allow these people to congregate outside our shelter.
They know that when people call the Housing Resource Center they are told that no beds are available. We are wrong for the way we run our shelter. We are badly located, they say. It’s a “quality of life issue”.
The answer to all of downtown’s problems with the homeless is simple to the powers that be. Provide housing for those who can be easily placed, through the state department of mental health, or federal funds available through special programs. But for those who don’t qualify for a variety of reasons, well, don’t feed them, don’t give them bathrooms, don’t give them blankets, get them to move along.
This reasoning says, “Be grateful for all the people who do qualify for programs, but it’s got to be cut off somewhere. If we show too much hospitality then we’re enabling homelessness and encouraging vagrancy.”
It is amazing to me how reasonable this sounds to people who do not do any advocacy or casework with the homeless. It even seems reasonable to some people who work only with those who qualify for certain programs. But someone has to ask, “How bad does it need to get before our community actually opens more shelter and direct services (transportation, access to bathrooms, shower and laundry, hygiene products)?” Why is there never enough?
How can we be holy followers of Jesus in the midst of such a profane situation? People come to us desperate, tired, angry, suicidal, and in denial about the true extent of their problems. How can living a holy life make any difference?
Jesus spoke of a poverty of spirit in his Sermon on the Mount. Now if you work with poor people everyday you know that not everyone without money is what Jesus would describe as “poor in spirit”. Jesus was describing a humble person whose posture is not toward what they can get, but longs for their significance in the new kingdom.
The nine “Blesseds” of Matthew 5:3-12 all refer to sacred states that make no rational sense in a world without God. The poor, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, purity of heart, peacemaking, and righteous persecution all point to a status before God that is not assumed by the individual.
Jesus called his disciples “blessed” for being a people whose real worth was not determined by the figure in their bank accounts. It was not determined by how long the funeral procession would be to remember them. Neither was their state as truly blessed determined by how well they would be liked and praised for their good deeds. With them our true state of blessedness is in our long obedience to God in the same direction.
It is important to recognize that any attempt to appear holy without true communion with Christ is actually hypocrisy. Doing good things for people without real love from Jesus might look holy, but does not win us favor. The only way to BE holy is to be IN Christ.
Romans 14:7-12 says, “None of us lives to himself [but to the Lord], and none of us dies to himself [but to the Lord, for] If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or we die, we belong to the Lord. For Christ died and lived again for this very purpose, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
Why do you criticize and pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you look down upon or despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall confess to God [acknowledge Him to His honor and to His praise]. And so each of us shall give an account of himself [give an answer in reference to judgment] to God.”(Amplified Bible)
Doing the works of mercy shows us what we are really made of. Sometimes being a helper feels really good, but often it feels really exhausting, emotionally, physically, mentally. Genuine care is met with dishonesty, deceit, profanity, accusations, and resentment. This is where the sacred and profane meet. Can I overcome evil with good?
Thomas a Kempis offers this wisdom: “If all men were perfect, we should meet with nothing in the conduct of others to suffer for the sake of God. But in the present fallen state of human nature, it is his blessed will, that we should learn to “bear one another’s burdens:” and as no man is free from some burden of sin or sorrow; as none has strength and wisdom sufficient for all the purposes of life and duty, the necessity of mutual forbearance, mutual consolation, mutual support, instruction, and advice is founded upon our mutual imperfections, troubles, and wants. Besides, by outward occasions of suffering from the conduct of others, the nature and degree of every man’s inward strength is more plainly discovered; for outward occasions do not make him frail, but only show him what he is in himself.” (Thomas a’ Kempis, The Imitation of Christ)
To conclude, to find the holy in the midst of the profane is to agree with God that this world is worth loving. It is to find the image of God in all people. It is to have eyes open for beautiful spaces not as they could be if they were changed with money and labor, but as they are in the present. Redeemed lives are messy lives, because we are drawn back into the suffering spaces where God is about his work of redemption.
Let’s pray the Lord’s Prayer together now:
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.


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“Other people next to me who may be completely immersed in their affliction, who may be quite different from me, strangers—they too are evidently willed by God. The utter dissimilarity of the individuals pales into insignificance before the sovereign unity of the divine word. We become aware that one person cannot have anything in common with another, completely alien, unknown ‘You’, that they fundamentally differ even in the very core of their being. Yet this very insight makes it clear that divine action alone is able to intervene here, that what sustains the community can be nothing but the love given by God into our hearts. Thus one person reminds the other of the God who wants them both in the same church-community. Through the other concrete human being I recognize the glory and power of God’s kingship, and from the assembly thus springs adoration and confession of faith in God and God’s church-community.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio, pg. 229.

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Stringfellow on Bonhoeffer, martyrs, and church conscience

The church, anyway, needs no compulsion to gain persecution, in any circumstances at any time in this age, because the power of death, incarnate in the political principalities, as in other ways is truly incorrigible. Death is the aggressor and though the apparitions and forms which the power of death assumes are variegated, that does not imply that death can be quantified. It is no longer the custom to cast Christians into dens of beasts, but that does not mean the persecution has ended. And, whatever else may be attributed to the impress of the Constantinian arrangement, its comity did not abate the hostility which the church, where it is exemplar and advocate of life, endures for the time being in this world.


In quite the same vein, too much is made of the witness of particular Christian so that it is regarded as exceptional (rather than exemplary) and so some few are installed as martyrs, as heroic figures, as super-Christians. An instance is found in the lore which has accrued to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I do not hesitate at all to venture that Bonhoeffer would be deeply provoked by the way his witness has been construed as so unusual that it is unedifying to ordinary people of the church, so bold that it excuses inaction rather than inspiring it. . . .


The point is, of course, that there are no martyrs at all in the church because of the veracity of the sacrifice of the Word of God in Christ for the world. There is nothing to be added to Christ’s sacrifice. No Christian in witness to Christ’s sacrifice volunteers any sacrifice of his or her own. The whole idea of there being any martyrs for the gospel is an embellishment misleading the church and its members and furnishing pretext to simply cop-out.


This whole syndrome in the contemporary church sponsors the notion that, though there may be occasional poets, fools, or super-Christians, with the alleged ending of persecution, all that remains between the church and political authority are some few issues which may prompt intermittent incidents of individual civil disobedience. There are still some Quakers on the scene, plus scattered Anabaptists, but, in general, in the contemporary church, in America and places like America, the questions of obedience and conscience are usually deemed to affect individuals, not the church as an institution and society. And the decisions such persons make are thought to be idiosyncratic and, moreover, arrogant—that is, implicating a claim of superior insight in the will and judgment of God. 


William Stringfellow, Conscience & Obedience: The Politics of Romans 13 and Revelation 13 in Light of the Second Coming, Word, 1977, pgs. 99-101.



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Introducing theological german

Mark has a blog with introductory helps for learning theological german. He uses Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters in the exercises. This is wonderful! Maybe it’ll be impetus for lazy Anglo-only dilettantes like yours truly to get serious in my reading.

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Bonhoeffer and Recommended Reading

I went through and counted the number of times these titles from Dietrich Bonhoeffer were listed in the Recommended Reading Meme. Notably absent are Sanctorum Communio, Act and Being, Creation and Fall, Temptation, and Christ the Center.

Life Together, I,II,III, IV

Discipleship, I,II, III

Ethics, I,

Letters and Papers from Prison, I,

I often think of Discipleship as perhaps the most quoted and yet least read of the important books I know of. At one time the first words of the first chapter seemed to be catch-phrases. You know, the ones about “costly grace.” There are two noteworthy things about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. First, though he may be one of the twentieth centuries most notable authors, he was certainly no “stabled author” for his publishers. Unlike Karl Barth he didn’t care to clarify what he’d written or expand on it after it was published. He wrote no sequels or attempted to make himself understood.

Though Discipleship and Life Together are now seen as classics for the Church, the wisdom in these books should be tempered with the author’s lived experience. Bonhoeffer’s comments about Discipleship in later years, as well as his irritation with its success and misunderstanding with particular people visiting Finkenwalde are important to bear in mind. Life Together, a community Rule of sorts, was actually finished after Finkenwalde was shut down, when Bonhoeffer and Bethge were working in the Collective Pastorates.

I think Life Together is taken in the best light with the many newsletters and personal letters which Bonhoeffer sent to his former Finkenwalde students who were sent to the front lines of battle. (These can be found in The Way to Freedom and True Patriotism. The Rule for daily meditation, prayer, and confession, begun in Life Together stayed with Bonhoeffer and his students long after the physical community was no longer possible. What Dorothy Day said about saints is perhaps true about classic books, don’t write them off so easily! With Bonhoeffer, he strove to make his writing part of his action. He wished to preach and speak nothing he couldn’t embody. Maybe that’s the real lesson for us all.

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Blogging Bethge, Ch. 11, The Collective Pastorates

Blogging Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, Revised Edition, Fortress Press, 2000.

Chapter Eleven, The Collective Pastorates, 1938-1940, pg. 587-678

Other reading:

The Way to Freedom: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1935-1939, Edited by Edwin Robertson, Cleveland: Collins-World, 1977, pgs. 164-255.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Life in Pictures, Edited by Renate Bethge and Christian Gremmels, pgs. 108-117.

Friendship and Resistance: Essays on Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eberhard Bethge, WCC, Eerdmans, 1995., pgs. 58-71.


“His identification with the desperate and the God-forsaken in 1938, through his prayerful involvement with the victims of the pogroms of 2500 years earlier, remained the decisive impetus of his life.” (Bethge, Friendship and Resistance, 71.)


This chapter of Bethge covers the momentous period surrounding the second mandated loyalty oath to Hitler by confessing church pastors (April 20, 1938), Kristallnacht or the Reichspogromnacht (Nov. 9, 1938), his last year (approximately) in community in the Collective Pastorates, the second journey to America (June 2-July 8, 1939), and the stages leading up to Bonhoeffer’s decision to be involved as an accessory in the political resistance. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s situation becomes even yet more dangerous. We can’t help but see that he stands apart from both his students and other pastors having lost his academic appointment in 1936, having a father who made appeals on his behalf twice when his movement was restricted by the Gestapo in 1938, and having ties to the outside world that could have very well allowed him to escape into exile in London or the United States. Out of love for his twin sister Sabine and her Jewish husband, Bonhoeffer helped them move into exile. I wonder how this felt for Bonhoeffer, to want a normal family life for his twin and a different sort of life for himself. Did he ever wonder if it were unfair?


The Palestinian intellectual Edward W. Said titled his memoir Out of Place (Vintage, 1999). I can’t help but think that this title describes Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was born into a family that set him up for a life of nobility and esteem. But here in 1938 he finds himself embedded in a church acquiescing to legalization with the Nazis, where a public stand meant death along with all opposition. This chapter begins (pg. 587-88) with a general description of the situation as it was shaping Bonhoeffer’s decision to move from training illegal pastors in obscurity to working covertly as a political insurgent.

588-596 describes the way of life for ordinands in the Backwoods of Pomerania where Bonhoeffer spent his last months in community.

Bethge writes:

“Thus Bonhoeffer’s ordinands lived in two vicarages in eastern Pomerania almost as they had lived in Finkenwalde, only in smaller numbers and under more primitive conditions. Both collective pastorates included from seven to ten ordinands for each course. None of them could claim to be enrolled in a preaching seminary; they had to assert that their position was that of an apprentice vicar in a parsh whose name they hardly knew. This arrangement worked smoothly until strict military conscription brought all the ordinands of the Confessing church into the army. In March 1940 the police came on the scene to shut down the secluded retreat. In those two and a half years Bonhoeffer’s collective pastorate added five more courses in eastern Pomerania to the five in Finkenwalde.” (pg. 589)

The best way to get a full picture of Bonhoeffer’s heart for these ordinands at this time is by reading the Finkenwalde newsletters, which were marked as personal letters. These survived and are part of the Works. They can also be found in The Way to Freedom and True Patriotism. Bethge reminds of their importance:

“We owe not only Temptation and Life Together to the end of the House of Brethren, but also the collection of Finkenwalde newsletters, which provide a colorful picture of the life of the illegal pastors in the Confessing church during this long troubled period.” (pg. 594)

596-620 The Low Point of the Church Struggle and Legalization


“Bonhoeffer felt that the oath was quite impossible; but, like the illegal pastors who were supported only by the Confessing church, the peculiar terms of his employment meant that he had no official status as a pastor within the church. Thus he was in the fortunate position of not being on the list of those required to take the oath by Werner’s office.” (Pg. 600)

Bethge notes three ways in which the collective pastorates changed Bonhoeffer. First, the work changed in style, contact from the outside world was made difficult for the students. They could not conduct public ministry in a way that would attract the attention of the authorities. Secondly, Bonhoeffer’s way of life became very unsettled. He no longer had his library or a central place from which to work. He had to rely on his memory of the works he’d possessed, and he seemed to do alright. Finally, he grew to appreciate those people who offered the hospitality of their homes after the House of Brethren was shut down.

He wrote about his life and inner longings at this time to friends outside,

“The only strange thing is this existence in which there can be no anxieties, because each day is a gift. If one forgets that, one sometimes gets rather restive, and would prefer to choose a more settled existence with all the “rights” that normally go with one’s “rank” and age. But this would mean abandoning the work, and it will not do at the moment.”

“[Jean] Lasserre has married. That course is not yet open to people like ourselves; life is too nomadic. But we have a great deal of pleasure in our work instead.”

“My work goes on normally. Only one sometimes gets a bit fed up with the nomadic life, and would like to be more settled and domesticated. . . . But it will not do just now, and I am glad to be allowed to work here.” (Bethge, 594-595)


Bethge writes:

“The pastors’ meetings during those weeks were almost unendurable. Bonhoeffer went with his candidates from one meeting to another, but his arguments did not prevail. They were viewed as coming from someone who was not affected.” (Pg. 601)

“Bonhoeffer was ashamed of the Confessing church, the way one feels shame for a scandal in one’s own family. . . . The possibility of a gap between Bonhoeffer and the Confessing church was becoming real.” (pg. 603)

620-635 Lure of the political

Eberhard Bethge here carefully describes what led Dietrich Bonhoeffer into active political involvement against the Nazi state. In his meditation on sojourning in Psalm 119:19, Bethge finds a “qualifying phrase: “on earth.”

“The earth that nourishes me has a right to my work and my strength. It is not fitting that I should despise the earth on which I have my life; I owe it faithfulness and gratitude. I must not dream away my earthly life with thoughts of heaven and thereby evade my lot—that I must be a sojourner and a stranger—and with it God’s call into this world of strangers. There is a very godless homesickness for the other world, and it will certainly not produce any homecoming. I am to be a sojourner, with everything that entails. I should not close my heart indifferently to earth’s problems, sorrows and joys; and I am to wait patiently for the redemption of the divine promise—really wait, and not rob myself of it in advance by wishing and dreaming.” (pg. 620)

We can’t really understand this without remembering that Bonhoeffer was much more well informed politically than most people. Bethge here divides Bonhoeffer’s participation into five periods: Becoming an Accessory, Hans von Dohnanyi, The Fritsch Crisis, The Sudeten Crisis, The Leibholz Family’s Emigration, and The Call to Military Duty. Obviously I don’t have space to cover each of these. What emerges is that political information, family decisions, and the military draft all force Bonhoeffer into action.

Bethge lists the questions pressing Bonhoeffer at this time:

“Must he really wear himself out over church and national affairs in Germany? For what, really, were his life’s ambitions to be sacrificed? Couldn’t he pursue theology, the thing most important to him, in more conducive surroundings? Would not the universal church and its theology benefit more if he could develop his gifts freely elsewhere? Might there not be a call waiting for him outside, and wasn’t it necessary to leave in order to hear this clearly? Moreover, didn’t his own church view a refusal of military service as a destructive and isolated course?” (pg. 636)


635-662 England and America

Bonhoeffer headed to England for five weeks, then returned to Germany for only a month and a half before making his second trip to America in June of 1939. To really get to know this period I recommend reading his letters and journals from the trip in the book The Way to Freedom. Bonhoeffer only stayed in America for a fortnight, and though he maximized his time in study and connections around Union Seminary, it is clear that he was not happy separated from his Church and family back in Germany. The bonds that his calling brought about within him, his deep affection for Bethge and his students, literally drove him back to Germany from the academic safety of America. It should also be said that Bonhoeffer was terribly uncomfortable with the American theological milieu he experienced. He writes extensively about this in “Protestantism without Reformation,” an essay that no doubt helped form his thinking and writing into what later became Ethics. Paul Lehmann worked hard to secure a position for Bonhoeffer in America. He tried hard to change Bonhoeffer’s mind right up to when he boarded his ship home.


662-676 The War

His friends in the Confessing Church knew nothing of what had gone on with Bonhoeffer in America, his momentous decision, as far as they knew his contacts had gone as expected and the work would go on as before. This section deals with Bonhoeffer’s application for a military chaplaincy (denied), Martin Niemoller’s decision to volunteer in the Navy so as to avoid serious conflict, and renewed hopes for a coup. Bonhoeffer believed that the only hope for peace for Germany was to get Hitler out of power.


676-678 Christian and Man for His Times

These final few pages of this chapter are quite special. Bethge carefully reviews the changes in Bonhoeffer from 1932 to 1939 with a clear eye toward the way he was perceived by others versus what he was not making public. Here are a few excerpts:

“In 1932 he found his calling, in 1939 his destiny. In 1932 he found the unmistakable language in which he wrote his original contribution to theological history: the finished books, Discipleship and Life Together. His development after 1939 was also expressed in two books: Ethics and Letter and Papers from Prison.” (pg. 677)

“The year 1932 had placed Bonhoeffer in a world where things were comparatively clear-cut, where it was a matter of confessing and denying—in his case, of confessing the one church for the whole world and denying its betrayal to nationalist particularism. At the end of this road stood the fate of people like Paul Schneider. In 1939 he entered the difficult world of assessing what was expedient—of success and failure, tactics and camouflage. The certainty of his calling in 1932 now became an acceptance of the uncertain, the incomplete, and the provisional. The new turning point demanded an entirely different sacrifice: the sacrifice of his Christian reputation.” (pg. 677-678)

“After 1939 the old priorities could be fulfilled only by exchanging them. To want to be only a Christian, a timeless disciple—that now became a costly privilege. To become engaged for his times, where he stood, was far more open to misinterpretation, less glorious, more confined. yet this alone was what it now meant to be a Christian.” (pg. 678)

This explanation is unique in its scope. In a way Bonhoeffer is more comfortable to us left unexplained. (He’s more useful for every new situation when we ignore his actual biography.) In other places Bethge seems not to want to explain Bonhoeffer. Here he takes the liberty, but I for one am content to accept his analysis.



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Bonhoeffer in London

If you are interested in DBW 13 London, you may find my post on that period here, from my blog through Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer helpful. DBW 13 is part of the Gessamelte Schriften, parts of which were published in english years ago in No Rusty Swords. I relied on that book while reading this period.

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