Tag Archives: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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.



Filed under bonhoeffer, books, quote

Karl Barth Texts for free

If you’re like me, nothing is more exciting, more liberating, than theology texts without cost. Oh yes, I know, those who can afford to pay should, but on a sliding scale, free is about right for me. This is why I love websites like religion-online.org and archive.org. I was delighted to learn that there are quite a few Karl Barth texts, such as Church Dogmatics: A Selection on archive.org for free download right now! Here’s a link index of what’s there now. Let others quibble about intellectual property and ethics. The rest of us on a budget will get what we can when the copyright expires!

Wow. Just noticed two Bonhoeffer titles as well! Act and Being!


Filed under Personal

On Sin, Confession, and Forgiveness

“If Christians seriously deal on a daily basis with the cross of Christ, they will lose the spirit of human judgmentalism, as well as weak indulgence, receiving instead the spirit of divine firmness and divine love. The death of the sinner before God, and the life that comes out of death through grace, becomes a daily reality for them. So they love the other believers with the merciful love of God that leads through the death of the sinner to the life of the child of God. Who can hear our confession? Those who themselves live beneath the cross. Wherever the Word of the Crucified is a living reality, there will be confession to one another.”

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, DBW 5, Life Together, pg. 116.

Here are some of the points I brought up in class yesterday on sin, confession, forgiveness and grace.

  • We cannot know what sin is apart from faith.
  • Faith is always in reference to God, it is nothing on it’s own.
  • We should freely thank God for revealing our sins. He has revealed them in order to free us.
  • If I cannot thank God for shining a light on my sins, maybe I would really rather not be rid of them! God’s light forces me to run and hide or give the sin up.
  • Grace and forgiveness are the kind of gifts that create in us our need for them.
  • Confessing sin to another and receiving assurance of God’s forgiveness is a skill that must be learned—by observation of others and the witness of the church. I cannot know on my own just how destructive my sin is. I need the Christ in my brothers and sisters as a witness, and to offer forgiveness.
  • Sin makes us stupid, self-centered, and leaves us alone. It causes us to forget our place in the family of God. We Christians are not meant to be slaves to sin, but free children of God.
  • By practicing the confession of sins and absolution we are rejecting that false doctrine of sin propagated by our culture that equates it with only the most reprehensible acts for which bad people get caught. Getting caught is certainly not like confession of sin.


Filed under Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Pastoral Ministry

The Church-community gains space for Christ

“The church-community has, therefore, a very real impact on the life of the world. It gains space for Christ. For whatever is “in Christ” is no longer under the dominion of the world, of sin, or of the law. Within this newly created community, all the laws of this world have lost their binding force. This sphere in which brothers and sisters are loved with Christian love is subject to Christ; it is no longer subject to the world. The church-community can never consent to any restrictions of its service of love and compassion toward other human beings. For wherever there is a brother or sister, there Christ’s own body is present; and wherever Christ’s body is present, his church-community is also always present, which means I must also be present there.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, DBW 4, Discipleship, pg. 236., Fortress Press, 2001

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Bonhoeffer and Peace

The question has popped up repeatedly lately about how Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have responded to the War on Terror. I just posted some comments in the Facebook group, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, under the discussion question “Current Situation.” I’m reposting them here because it’s my attempt to think out loud on some stuff. What do y’all think?

Bonhoeffer did strive for peace. He visited America the second time, in part, to avoid being conscripted along with his fellow students (and Eberhard Bethge eventually) to fight on the front lines. He publicly opposed war in his ecumenical papers and in his London sermons. But he opposed it theologically, and there is an important difference there. We could call him a theological pacifist but not a political pacifist. Political pacifism meant immediate imprisonment in his day, so public political pacifists generally fled the country. The Bruderhof did this. I think that it would be fair to see his part in the Resistance as two things.
1. A desire to end the war quickly.
2. A sinful human act (tyrranicide) that was nevertheless redemptive in nature. Bonhoeffer considered himself part of a group acting on behalf of Germany. The act was saying “We are Germans who understand that the only way to act in behalf of our people at this point is to remove this leader who has become a Misleader. He has succeeded in destroying our nation. The only way forward is to remove him from power.”

Bonhoeffer did not view his participation as special, holy, or somehow not sinful. Neither did he see himself as setting a precedent to be used as justification for future circumstances. This is what makes using him as an example difficult. He wrote to friends and family from Prison who did not share his same Calling, with all the same love and eagerness to share in their lives, as the time before he got involved in the Conspiracy.

He helped his twin sister escape to England. There were other ministers whom he respected who were imprisoned and killed following very different paths. That was fine for them. He respected them for it, but neither did he doubt for a moment his own Call. When the plot failed, he accepted the situation.

It is important to see the nuance in Dietrich’s particular circumstance. There are no easy corollaries to our own.

But what we can say for Bonhoeffer is that he was awake during his times. He did not see his faith as otherworldly. Nazism came to power for theologians who we would consider both Conservative and Liberal. Neither theological programs seemed to possess what was needed to counter this political system. The system seemed to be just what everyone needed.

This is where I think we find our real basis for our times. Late Capitalism and Liberal Democracy are both systems that no political party and no church in America seems to publicly see as being threats to the gospel. For this reason, consumerism is something we cry about, but can’t see as largely infecting us without immunity. War is something we complain about and even protest, but we largely accept that it’s something we have to live with.

In our liberal Democracy we run this Iraq War as though it were just an extension of our business capabilities. The Corporate world has so infected everything else that what we use to see as Sovereign rights of State (like Iraq’s right to revoke Blackwater’s license) matters very little. The FBI can collect a crime scene in Iraq, fly it all back to America to reconstruct it, and analyze the data without fear of acting outside jurisdiction. This is War in the twenty first century. We don’t even have to feel we’re at War at all.


Filed under Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eberhard Bethge, Politics, religion and politics

sacrifice and identity in the local church

I’ve been thinking about how I belong to my local church, my personal history with it, and how my own experience is different from other Christians outside of the United States. I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer of Germany, Rami Ayyad of Gaza, and Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. It is hard to call myself part of the Church when I think of these three men. Compared with them, my connection to the Church is frail, for it has never truly been tried by fire.

I cannot identify with Bonhoeffer’s choice of fleeing to America or being placed on the frontlines of battle for a State headed by a powermad criminal. I’ve never known the harrowing life of living in a religious minority under military occupation like Rami Ayyad, working against all odds to spread the Word of God, only to face a violent and mysterious end. Finally, I cannot imagine leading a historic Church that is barred from the State from opening a place where it can teach and ordain and pass on its traditions. This is the daily reality for Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. The number of Orthodox in Turkey in the early part of the twentieth century was at 400,000, by 1960 it was at 150,000, and by 2004 it was at 2,000.

There are many others throughout the world, some of whom I’ve met most of which I have not, in places like China, Haiti, India, each with their own stories of sacrifice, of identity that binds them to the Church. And I ask, what is my sacrifice? I guess the question behind this is “How does freedom of religion effect sacrifice?” Sacrifice, for whatever reason, binds us to our Church, gives us a cause, asks us “Is this faith thing worth dying for?” In countries where that sacrifice is successfully altered, muted, blurred, or displaced,  something else takes the place of identity with the local church. Rootedness is related to domesticity, the status quo, being productive. It is this church, which poses no threat to the world, which knows no need for sacrifice, that ceases to truly identify with Jesus Christ and the scandal of the cross.

The true Church of Jesus Christ is called to suffering and sacrifice. It does not rely on the State for its freedom of religion. The proclaimed Word of Christ confronts the State for its claim on the human body. The current form of accepted nation state the world over knows money as its god. It knows no power greater than money and it enslaves each of its populations to this power. In so far as the true Church calls money a power and decries its worship, that Church can be sure to suffer–beginning with its membership! The Church that prays “give us this day our daily bread” confronts money and its State over what it means to be humans who rely on God.

Where can I locate myself locally in the true Church? I find it in a Church that voluntarily sacrifices through economic redistribution modeled after the early Christians in the book of Acts. The fear of the Lord causes us to realize that we are not defined by what we possess, but rather in Christ who possesses us.  I do this personally by living and working without a salary, within a nonprofit ministry in economic trouble, knowing that the true wealth of our particular Church community is invested not in words but in the hands that prepare our food, and make beds for our homeless guests. These outward acts must be rooted in prayer or they lose their meaning. I often say that Jesus can be the only reason why I live in this crazy manner.

Money is the default power that always claims its influence. “Move away from that crazy life,” it calls “to one where you’re more protected, more at ease, more sensible.” But money has never saved me, or anyone else for that matter. It has never loved me. If anything, all around I see the destructive effects of its power. The casino buses that escort our senior residents to and from Indiana at the end of every month. The blank stares from intoxicated or high neighbors finding their momentary escapes. The decked out Escalade, dwarfing our street, that we all know our neighbor can’t really afford. These are little symbols of money’s power, giving nothing to its users but heartache.

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Filed under Dietrich Bonhoeffer, money, Pastoral Ministry, theology