Dietrich Bonhoeffer As We Understand Him at JPUSA by Chris L. Rice

There is now a wealth of important literature available by and about Dietrich Bonhoeffer which will make him and his writings better known for our times. In light of these new texts and studies I want to look at how our church Jesus People USA Covenant Church (JPUSA) understands Bonhoeffer in our own local communal context, and how the purpose for his own communal experiment at Finkenwalde can help us stay focused on the purpose and vision God has for us here in 2005 and beyond. Over the last thirty-eight years of life at JPUSA Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings have helped strengthen and focus our own vision for living together.

Before I look at our use of Bonhoeffer I want to point out the importance of never seeing a man’s work as completely parallel to our own. I say that because as Stephen Haynes illustrates in his bookThe Bonhoeffer Phenomenon, many people have co-opted Bonhoeffer over the years to endorse their own particular agendas. The interest found in Bonhoeffer after sixty years since his death is largely born of controversy. So I’ll say right out that I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer himself would have found our ten story building on Wilson avenue and the four-hundred plus inhabitants quite strange and maybe even unnerving. For our part we are not eager to assign him or anyone else for that matter the role of spiritual guide in all things. If after reading this paper you say “Oh you can best sum up those JPUSAs with the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” you will have missed my point entirely. And I think you will have missed the message in Bonhoeffer as well. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was obsessed with one theme: Jesus Christ. And as we are called Jesus People we can only hope that in his writings we can be guided into a deeper following of Jesus, which is what the title in German of The Cost of Discipleship, Nachfolge, means: To be a follower of Jesus.

In the text of the JPUSA pamphlet “Meet Our Family” there are very few appeals to authority. They include two quotes from Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship and the Bible. Obviously Meet Our Family does not embody everything JPUSA has written on its reason for existence or the way we do things, and so it would be wrong to suggest that Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Bible best express our spiritual vision as a community. But the appeal to Bonhoeffer is still notable. What is it about this man that could get our attention in this way? By around the mid 1970’s JPUSA had a “Required Reading List” for members to aid in discipleship. Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship was one of these books. Discipleship, as it is now known in a new translation is a book that on the one hand can seem quite harsh and legalistic and on the other almost mystical and too vague, but at all times it focuses unflinching on the teachings of Jesus.

It is a wonder that young Christians in the mid-seventies were reading and applying this sometimes very academic book in a simple and communal way. But seen in the context of the Jesus Movement of the late sixties and early seventies, this little community of Jesus People clung to Discipleship for two reasons: the very real lure of cults, and also out of a radical critique of the established church. In that way perhaps JPUSA was undergoing its own link to the Protestant Reformation in Europe that American churches had lost by that time.

Bonhoeffer said in Discipleship, “Like ravens we have gathered around the carcass of cheap grace. From it we have imbibed the poison that has killed the following of Jesus among us.” Nazi Germany had effectively integrated the spiritual life of the church into its own vision for humanity. Church goers had become so familiar with both their national identity and their church experience that the teachings of Jesus had come to mean something entirely different from their intention. This distortion of discipleship had made following Jesus into a palliative for trouble times. Geoffrey Kelley and F. Burton Nelson write in their book The Cost of Moral Leadership that “Discipleship is a book in which Bonhoeffer, using Jesus’ own words and the exhortations of the Apostle Paul, confronts readers with uncushioned challenges to all their distortions of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.”

As we understand it, Discipleship wrestles Christianity away the idolatry of Christian nationalism. But beyond that, it returns faith to its original allegiance—Jesus Christ himself. In Bonhoeffer’s unflinching reading of the Sermon on the Mount we find the Christ who means what He says. Kelley and Nelson again, “Bonhoeffer probes the seemingly “impossible demands” of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount against the economic materialism, patriotic militarism, and ruthless racism to which Christians and their churches had succumbed in Nazi Germany. What Jesus was commanding his followers thus became the guideline of every chapter of this book.” In our own day Discipleship still has fresh relevance. America’s own history is full of both religious liberalism and conservative piety, but in public both have compromised in the face of anti-Christian public policy. In his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Ron Sider points out that in some cases, like divorce and racism, Evangelicals are statistically more deviant than unbelievers. In our own twenty-first century context Discipleship calls us back to following Jesus.

Americans can live with a guilty conscience. The First and Second Great Awakenings in America not only awoke the nation to Christianity, it also made personal piety part of the national language. Over time the call to repentance has brought about assent without real change. Bonhoeffer wrote,

“To be conformed to the image of Christ is not an ideal to be striven after. It is not as though we had to imitate him as well as we could. We cannot transform ourselves into his image; it is rather the form of Christ which seeks to be formed in us (Gal. 4:19), and to be manifested in us. Christ’s work in us is not finished until he has perfected his own form in us. We must be assimilated to the form of Christ in its entirety, the form of Christ incarnate, crucified and glorified.” (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 301)

This is something very different from conservative religious piety and revivalism. It reveals that when Jesus calls us to follow him, he himself enables us to do so. In this context Christianity is not the perfect but impossible ideal, it is an encounter and a relationship with the Man himself.

“We pay no attention to our own lives or the new image which we bear, for then we should at once have forfeited it; since it is only to serve as a mirror for the image of Christ on whom our gaze is fixed. The disciple looks solely at his Master. But when a man follows Jesus Christ and bears the image of the incarnate, crucified and risen Lord, when he has become the image of God, we may at last say that he has been called to be the “imitator of God.” The follower of Jesus is the imitator of God. “Be ye therefore imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph.5.1). (p. 304)

We understand Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship as a fresh modern call to follow Jesus wherever he calls, from a man whose life finally involved literally obeying Jesus unto death. A recent scholarly book entitled Bonhoeffer As Martyr by Craig J. Slane explores his life and writings through the rubric of his obedience unto death. making very real and contemporary the reality of our lives lived unto death for Jesus.

There are other specific qualities about the man Dietrich Bonhoeffer with which JPUSA can identify. In reading about his upbringing it is perhaps more clear now that his desire to know God was born of a sense of estrangement from his dad. His family life had the outward appearance of strength, but the children were brought up to believe that emotions of any kind were not to be displayed. His father Karl was very detached from his kids. Suzanne, Dietrich’s sister remembered upon visiting her dad at the clinic that. . . . “she found a man who showed far more signs of affection to the sick children than to his own, and who even let them touch him: “When we parted, I felt very fond of my father and wanted to touch him and stroke him like the sick children, but I didn’t dare.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel by Renate Wind, pg. 7 ) Bonhoeffer learned to suppress his emotions from early on in order to please his father, but they found a way out through his interests in art and religion. At JPUSA many of us came to faith out of real brokenness as a result of our families of origin. In Bonhoeffer’s writing the language is often very detached emotionally. It would be safe to say this reflects his father’s influence. At the same time, his theological concerns are with a God who is very close to the broken, oppressed and poor. The impact of a detached and distant father reveals itself in his writing style, but his desire for the God of the Bible who pours himself on behalf of the church in the world is revealed in Bonhoeffer’s Christology and Ethics.

Bonhoeffer’s concept of the church formed apart from any real upbringing in the church. A minister visited the family for the traditional life passages but they did not attend church per se. It would seem his first keen interest in the idea of the church was awakened when he attended a mass in Rome. He studied theology in Tubingen with what were considered some of the keenest minds of his time and he graduated with honors, but just when his family thought he would settle into a comfortable academic career, he took exams to become a minister. In this way it would seem he always wanted more than what theory alone could provide. He had to see faith take shape in people.

At JPUSA we all come from a wide range of experiences with the church. Some were brought up Catholic, or Episcopalian and some Methodist, Mennonite or Baptist, and many others come with little or no religious experience whatsoever. For all of us discipleship is centered on Jesus Christ rather than on a form for which we are familiar. Classes, liturgies, songs and poems have come and gone over the years, but the same commitment to the Bible and to Christ remains the same. Our practical expressions of service and our shared life together serve to remind us of that commitment to Jesus. All of that being said, after years of being an independent church we sought out denominational accountability in 1989 with the Evangelical Covenant Church.

In 1931 Bonhoeffer visited America. He had many requests to speak and attend various meetings, but his friend and biographer Eberhard Bethge notes that:

The only real commitment he made was to the black neighborhood district of Harlem, not far from Union Theological Seminary. He spent nearly every Sunday and many evenings there. He participated in guided visits to the area including a “trip to Negro Centres of Life and Culture in Harlem,” which began with a flight over the district in which 170,000 African Americans lived per square mile. He collected the publications of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and began to collect gramaphone records of spirituals, which he used five years later to introduce his students to this world that was practically unknown at the time. . . . Albert F. Fisher, an African-American fellow student and friend, helped Bonhoeffer gain a detailed and intimate knowledge of the realities of Harlem life. Nearly every Sunday he accompanied him to Abyssinian Baptist Church at 128 West 138th Street, a bleak, squalid street. He became a regular worker in the Sunday school and the various church clubs, thus gaining entry into people’s homes. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography by Eberhard Bethge, p. 150-51)

We find in Dietrich Bonhoeffer an identification with people different than himself—a desire to understand cross culturally. JPUSA is located in a part of the city of Chicago that has a highly concentrated and ethnically diverse population. As a community we are interracial and intergenerational. Here in 2005 when there is a lot of talk about diversity, tolerance, and reconciliation we hope to live a Christ centered model of cross-cultural human interaction. As helpful as legislation and mandates are, they do not change hearts. Bonhoeffer’s friendship with Frank Fisher reflected his belief that Jesus was a man for others. This is very different than a naïve curiosity for an American political problem. He was not Frank’s friend to study him. If that had been the case there would have been no real friendship. He was drawn into the friendship from a sincere interest in Frank’s faith life in Jesus. We too exist as a community for others because that is who Jesus is.

Perhaps Bonhoeffer’s greatest contribution to the church was his little communal experiment at Finkenwalde. Even so this aspect of his life has not been fully appreciated within its communal context. Most people read Life Together as it relates in a regular church setting. For our part, we’ve had the joy of reading and appropriating within its original intentions. To be sure this book was written and released after the forced closure of the “Brother’s House” (or Bruderhaus) by the police. Bonhoeffer only had two years to experience and realize what he intended for this community. When it was shut down, and when he couldn’t start it again with other students, in the area he felt tremendous loss.

When you get the background on the Bruderhaus, you find that with Bonhoeffer’s students (like people today) being told to confess and repent, to have group meditation and readings, and to intercede for all the others, did not, at first, go over very well. Even German theology students in 1933 were not keen on forced ritual, they were Protestants! Here at JPUSA we have found confession and repentance to be a touchstone for discipleship. We can’t say that we do it as often as we should, and there is still the tremendous temptation to isolate, but a lengthy visit to JPUSA would allow you to witness the beautiful anomaly of two people aside in a corner of the dining room, or the kitchen, or even in an elevator asking for prayer for the purposes of either confession and repentance or intercession. These things have found their way into our daily life out of personal necessity. We find that living together in such concentration exaggerates and magnifies all of our sinful tendencies such as fear, pride, lust, anger, and even laziness. For this reason we will either spend our time hiding from each other in isolation or becoming more transparent and open in confession, repentance, and intercession.

Bonhoeffer writes that

Spiritual love. . . comes from Jesus Christ; it serves him alone. It knows that it has no direct access to other persons. Christ stands between me and others. I do not know in advance what love of others means on the basis of the general idea of love that grows out of my emotional desires. All this may instead be hatred and the worst kind of selfishness in the eyes of Christ. Only Christ in his World tells me what love is. Contrary to all my own opinions and convictions, Jesus Christ will tell me what love for my brothers and sisters really looks like. Therefore, spiritual love is bound to the word of Jesus Christ alone. ( Life Together, p. 30)

This is quite a profound truth that proves true in our everyday experience. Bonhoeffer points out that as humans we desire fellowship for natural reasons that often have hidden, darker intentions. This isn’t always evident at first in our mutual encounters. In another place Bonhoeffer points to other American traits that indicate a desire for acceptance at the expense of truth:

According to Bonhoeffer, to understand the American student, you need to experience life in a hostel, which produces a spirit of comradeship as well as a readiness to help one another. The unreservedness of life together, “the thousandfold ‘hullo,’” manifests the American desire before all else to maintain community. In America, in the tension between the attempt to say the truth and the will for the community, the latter always prevails. (from No Rusty Swords, cited in Performing the Faith, Stanley Hauerwas, p. 57-59)

If we are honest we will admit that in our community, (which often may function as a temporary hostel) many visitors (and even members) have never scratched the surface of truly spiritual community. When Christ is the mediator between all persons we are willing to allow another to speak truth into our lives. JPUSA can be a fun place to reside for surface relationships, but for those intent on living here long-term, Christ has to become the center for relationships and individuals must learn to speak the truth to one another in love and receive the truth even when it hurts.

So Bonhoeffer’s writings offer many pivotal ideas to help us spiritually, is there really any basis for comparing his little short-lived community to JPUSA? Obviously there are big differences: JPUSA is made up of families and single men and women, whereas the Brother’s House was single men. The Bruderhaus was an extension of the theological work done in the seminary, and at JPUSA, while we encourage education it is not the common reference point for all our activities. Bonhoeffer instituted a daily norm for life at the Brother’s House that involved a ritual of prayer and readings which most JPUSAs would no doubt find very difficult to live by. What’s more, Bonhoeffer’s work at Finkenwalde must be understood in the frame of his overall work for the Confessing Church. The community was one practical means for his goal in the overall struggle.

Its true that there are very few actual points of physical comparison between our two communal expressions. But when we look at Bonhoeffer’s founding purpose statements and what he reiterated to newcomers applying for membership, it becomes clear that the Bruderhaus offers us a working model for understanding JPUSA’s own mission. Let’s be clear: a community’s reason for being is based on the felt needs of the larger body of Christ and is revealed in its members. For that reason, as we understand it, communities can’t be formed from a mold—for each one will break its own mold. The only constant is Christ himself and his calling.
That being said, let’s look at the Bruderhaus’ founding purpose.

It was on September 6th in 1935 that Bonhoeffer submitted his proposal for a communal experiment to the Council of Brethren of the Old Prussian Union. In this letter he gave five points detailing the need for and characteristics of a new kind of community. The first was that experiment in community was the answer to the question of the Christian life in the current context. Shortly before becoming director of the seminary at Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer had been involved with other Confessing Church members in writing a personal memorandum to Hitler detailing their protest to his policies. This resulted in the arrest and killing of two of the pastors involved, the first of which was Jewish. When one of the students at Finkenwalde was beaten badly by SA guards Bonhoeffer brought him to the Bruderhaus to heal. The context for community in this case was the desire to realize the true Christian life in the face of the German Christian expression which advocated with Hitler eradication of the Jews. Instead of going underground their purpose was “not monastic segregation but innermost concentration for service outside.” (Wind, 116.)
A renouncing of traditional comforts and privileges would allow members greater concentration for service. A refuge for pastors without communal support and renewal of strength for their service. Commitment to daily order of prayer, brotherly exhortation, personal confession, shared theological work, and a very simple lifestyle. Further, it would be a voluntary community where anyone could leave as they wished. (Bonhoeffer As Martyr, Slane, p. 231)

In a letter to a mentor of young candidates who had requested permission for Eberhard Bethge to be admitted into the fellowship, Bonhoeffer explained that each member would be learning how to lead a community life in daily obedience to Jesus in the “practice of the humblest and noblest service one Christian brother can perform for another.” Secondly, they would need to recognize the “strength and liberation” found in brotherly service and life together. And finally, that they would learn to serve the truth alone in their Bible study, preaching and teaching. (DBW 5 Life Together and Prayer Book of the Bible, Introduction by Geffrey B. Kelley, pg. 19)
This founding proposal and purpose letter reveal a model for intentional community based on discipleship, service to the Word, and service to the world. At JPUSA we can bear witness to the effectiveness of this kind of community, and its need in the US in our day. While we may not be under a Nazi state, nationalism, consumerism, and militarism have won the hearts and minds of Americans and a lust for individualism and personal power controls us. These things are part of our context for following Jesus through this concrete expression of community. We too find that by renouncing many personal possessions and sharing all things in common we have better concentration for service.

Together we are able to accomplish far more than any of us on our own. JPUSA is a refuge for ministers in our day and age, and for us that includes music ministers, artists, writers, servants and tentmakers, all of whom would otherwise face isolation in their desire to follow Jesus. We have our own commitments to daily prayer, confession, exhortation, shared work and simple lifestyles. (Because of our size these things do not take on the same look in every case. ) Finally, but not at all the least important, ours is also a voluntary community where anyone may leave when they wish. This makes us distinct from other communities which baptize persons into their fellowship (rather than into the worldwide body of Christ) and function as a new society deemed the Kingdom of God here on earth.

With Christ as the basis for community and the mediator between all persons a Christian community is able to succeed and be salt and light in the world. Bethge notes the impact that the Bruderhaus had after the shut down:

Although short-lived, Finkenwalde had revealed a weak spot within Protestantism and, moreover, had sought practical solutions where others felt helpless. It seemed as though something had been restored to the church which had long been confined to conventicles or sects. . . (Bethge, p. 469-70 )

This is our hope for JPUSA as well. That in looking back on our legacy someone might say that maybe we revealed a weakness, sought practical solutions in the face of helplessness, and restored something missing. Of course we have had many more years to be tested than the Bruderhaus. We formed more out of organic necessity than with specific intentions. Over the years the question of our context and purpose has arisen in many different ways. Jean Vanier has offered us another living example of Christian community in his work with the poor and mentally ill. He writes of the changes between the times when JPUSA began and where young people are now:

Young people today are different from those of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies who were looking for alternative ways of living, alternative communities, an alternative society. They felt they could do something about things, throw away the old and take the risk of building the new. It was a time of economic expansion. Now in the late ‘eighties, young people cannot and do not want to take risks. They feel too insecure, too rootless, unclear as to what they want. They feel helpless and guilty in front of all the pain and the problems. They see no positive way of working towards a better world. (Community and Growth, Vanier, p. 4)

This is even more true now than in the late ‘eighties. America is embroiled in a War on Terror even as its become the center of Globalization. To be an American means for many to be patronizing, militant, and greedy. Our emphasis on young people has grown, not diminished in the face of these new realities. Cornerstone Festival, a music, teaching and arts ministry in southeastern Illinois is our attempt to work with the larger Body of Christ to introduce young people to the possibility of an authentic and informed faith. We attempt to take what we believe and try to live and pollinate a much larger group with it in a five day period.

In this article I have taken you through many of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life themes and demonstrated how we understand and use them here in our ministry at Jesus People USA. While Bonhoeffer lived uniquely as a man of his times, his example helps us focus on the context, purpose, and vision we have for our own times. We have remained an intentional community in Uptown Chicago with national and international preaching and missionary activities simply out of a practical expression of what we believe is the life of discipleship Jesus asks from us. We have no pulse on the future and no sense of perfection, all we know is that Christ enables us to follow his call and we want to keep moving in that direction.

Works Cited

The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon: Portraits of a Protestant Saint by Stephen Haynes, Fortress Press, 2004.
The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Kelly and Nelson, Eerdmans, 2003.
The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Touchstone, 1995.
The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? By Ronald J. Sider, Baker, 2005.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel by Renate Wind, Eerdmans, 2002.
Dietrich Bonhoffer: A Biography, Revised Edition by Eberhard Bethge, Fortress, 2000.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 5, Life Together/Prayerbook of the Bible, Fortress, 1996.
Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence by Stanley Hauerwas, Brazos, 2004.
Bonhoeffer as Martyr: Social Responsibility and Modern Christian Commitment by Craig J. Slane, Brazos, 2004.
Community and Growth, by Jean Vanier, Paulist, 1993.

See Also “Who is Christ for us today?”

2 responses to “Dietrich Bonhoeffer As We Understand Him at JPUSA by Chris L. Rice

  1. Jacob

    Where do you think the best place to start would be for a paper on Bonhoeffer and giving gifts of grace.

    It is an anomaly of modern life that many find giving to be a burden. Such persons have omitted a preliminary giving. If one first gives himself to the Lord, all other givi….

    I’m not quite sure where this quote came from do you know if this is from any of his works?

  2. Hmmm, ‘Bonhoeffer and gifts of grace’… I’ve never really seen a topical study related to Bonhoeffer on that before. I can’t say as I’ve ever seen this quote before. I don’t know. Maybe someone else who sees this will. Sorry I can’t be of more help. Thanks for stopping by.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s