My Bonhoeffer Story

The following is a reflection given by Alice Bond in San Antonio, Texas, at the Annual Bonhoeffer Dinner (2016).alicebond

I’m standing here because of a casual question from Mark Brocker, during lunch in Basel last July, asking how I got involved in the Bonhoeffer Society. After I told my story, he asked if I would consider sharing it with you tonight. I agreed, but said there are more like me, a Non, who have stories to tell too, and that I’d like to share them as well. I didn’t know what to title this little talk, but decided to co-opt the term Mark used when he asked me to be a part of the strategic planning event, because I have a Unique Perspective. So…We are the Nons…non academic theologians or pastors, the Non-Professional theologians.

But, I’m really here because I made a B in my Philosophy 101 course when I returned to college in my 40s, and was determined not to take my scheduled philosophy of medicine course from the same professor, since not only did I get that B, but didn’t get my money’s worth in knowledge. He didn’t seem to care for people in the healthcare professions in general, and my healthcare facility in particular. My faculty advisor said I could take Philosophy of Religion instead.  Problem solved.  My Philosophy of Religion professor just happens to be in this room. One of the first things Pat Kelley said was that he was a Bonhoeffer scholar, so there was the opportunity I’d been hoping for since I heard Bonhoeffer’s name from pastors at my church through the years. So we started down the alphabet toward Kierkegaard, starting with Acquinas, Anselm, Augustine, then we dipped into the Bs, and the paper I wrote for that class had the title: Is Christianity a Religion of Redemption?, based on Bonhoeffer’s letter to Eberhard on 27 June, 1944. We did get to Kierkegaard, and beyond, but my interest in Bonhoeffer had intensified.  

I had entered a world I knew not of, and kept a running list of questions for Dr. Kelley, such as “What’s a deus ex machina, what’s a Brown synod, what’s the confessing church, what does he mean by…”. Incidentally, I found one of those lists not too long ago when I was moving some books, and the list fell to the floor.  My guess is that your path with Bonhoeffer charted a similar course, wherever you encountered him, and wherever you landed in your own studies. I graduated from Lynchburg College two years later with a double major, one of which was Religious Studies. I joined the Bonhoeffer Society a couple of years later, and have rarely missed a gathering since then.

The one aspect of Bonhoeffer’s theology that has resonated with me the most over the years is The View from Below. My nursing practice has placed me with poverty stricken, poorly educated rural and urban residents, both black and white. Meeting them where they were was applied theology at a basic level.  I appreciate Reggie’s research about Bonhoeffer’s participation in African-American life in Harlem, and not only at Abyssinian Baptist Church. It was remarkable that the residents of Harlem accepted him. It had to have been because it was obvious that he cared about them. He hurt for what they had to contend with.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer left Harlem with more than a stack of records, precious though they were.  When he returned to Berlin and worked with teenagers in Wedding, he drew on that significant experience of seeing the world through the eyes of those far from the world of his upper class upbringing. An elderly German woman I met in Poland in 2006 challenged me with this question: “I know why I’m here, but why are you here?” I have no idea what I said to her, but I hope it was something about his clarity of vision, his authenticity, and his courage, all of which were evident in everything he said and wrote. When I looked back at her, there were tears in her eyes. For me, as one with no aspirations involving scholarship, encounters like that one are enough to keep me involved in the Bonhoeffer Society. And of course, meeting and getting to know the people whose stories follow.

Mary Glazener’s introduction to Bonhoeffer was similar to mine, taking place in the early ‘70s, when she returned to college in her mid-forties. She decided a novel needed to be written that would introduce the general public to Bonhoeffer. Mary had writing skills, so she figured she could do it. But she wanted to get the facts right, and to place them in the proper historical context, and to do that she knew she needed to interview Bonhoeffer’s family, friends, and colleagues. Some, but not all of them spoke English, so she would need to conduct the interviews in German. Problem was, Mary didn’t know any German. So she learned German. Over the next 5 years she spent weeks and even months at a time in Germany interviewing his former students and colleagues, all his living relatives, Maria von Wedemeyer in Boston, and her family in Germany. She tracked down and found everyone she wanted to interview, in their homes. Once she began the writing process, she sent chapters to Eberhard and Renate, and Franz Hildebrand for corrections. The writing and editing process took 17 years. The result was her book The Cup of Wrath, published in 1992. It is still available as a used book from, by the way, and would be a great addition to your church libraries. Mary died recently at the age of 94. Her obituary mentioned her “wonderful sense of adventure”, and her life bore that out. The Bethges were very helpful to her, because though she certainly had a sense of adventure, she needed considerable help with making necessary appointments and travel arrangements. Their support of her efforts never wavered.

Eleanor Neel returned to college a bit younger than Mary and I did. Her encounter with Bonhoeffer was not at McCormick Theological Seminary while she was a student there, but in 1970 while browsing in a bookstore on Wabash Avenue in Chicago. She noticed an intriguing book cover, with a large bird flying between prison bars, so she picked that book up, and saw the title “Letters and Papers from Prison”. That struck a chord because she had recently become involved with Amnesty International, which works to release prisoners of conscience. Bonhoeffer’s phrase Being There for Others was what she had found in Amnesty International, but had not found in organized religion. After reading Letters and Papers, she began her personal study of Bonhoeffer at the beginning with Sanctorum Communio, and went straight through everything available in English at the time. She has now read every page of the Bonhoeffer Works and most of the books written by the people in this room.  She learned about the Bonhoeffer Society through an article written by Ruth Zerner, and joined immediately, attending her first Bonhoeffer Congress in 1980, at Oxford, and presented a paper at the next Congress in the DDR. I’ve known Eleanor since 1996, when we roomed together in Capetown, and have long been amazed at her knowledge and critical reading and listening skills.  When she attends the AAR, she remembers everything she hears in Bonhoeffer sessions and analyses it all, comparing it to her vast repository of knowledge. In her own words, “My interest in Bonhoeffer has never waned, as I see how what he said grows ever more relevant to the times in which we live today.”

Pat Kelley said of Eleanor and Mary, that though neither of them are or were professional scholars, they have the same skills, honed over decades of serious study. In Mary’s case, Pat categorized her efforts as obsession. Perhaps he’s right, but if so, it was a magnificent obsession.  

I met two brothers in Waklau, Poland in 2006. Walter and Piet Klemeyer practice law together in Bremerhaven, Germany. While he was a law student, Walter picked up a copy of Letters and Papers From Prison, and dropped it on the hall table at home. His father, who had been a German soldier during WW11, picked it up and read it. When he finished it, he handed it to Walter with these words, “You need to read this. If we would have heard this voice then, things might have developed differently. But I knew nothing of Bonhoeffer then”.  Read it he did. That was 35 years ago. Walter’s father later gave him a copy of Eberhard’s biography, and a Bonhoeffer reader, both of which he credits with giving his interest a “huge boost”. His law practice focuses on mediation and conflict resolution. He is also a conflict and peace trainer and coach and gives workshops on conflict resolution. He says Bonhoeffer was not the only influence in his choice of concentration, but that the Fano address and writings on acting responsibly were very influential.

 Gary Blount was captivated during college 50 years ago, the mid sixties. He and 2000 of his peers listened to a series of lectures by a religious studies professor on Bonhoeffer. He told me that if he had heard more about the historical and political situation during Bonhoeffer’s life, he would have gone to grad school for history. His primary interest has been the historical setting, and the intersection of history and theology in Bonhoeffer’s life. He says his continuous search for the “back story approaches obsession”. Trips to Germany, the Czech Republic, conferring with Ferdinand Schlingensiepen in Europe and the US stirred his desire to produce a film about Bonhoeffer’s last days. Gary showed us the film in Basel in July. It is nearing distribution, is so very well done, and you will surely want a copy. Keith Clements helped with the script, and got an advance DVD to show at his church in Bristol, England, since that church and congregation is in the DVD. At the end, he said the congregation sat in stunned silence for several long seconds, then broke out in enthusiastic applause.

Then there’s David Krause. David encountered Bonhoeffer in his last year of college, also during the mid-sixties, studying Creation and Fall. That book, you will recall, is a compilation of sermons delivered in Berlin over the 1932-33 winter semester, and an interesting choice for the professor in an undergraduate course. Those sermons were delivered during fateful months in Germany, and especially in Berlin.  Imagine being a young college student in the mid-sixties in America, during the buildup of the war in Vietnam, studying those words spoken by a 26 year old man watching his beloved country succumb to the rhetoric of a demagogue. David would have been the same age as Bonhoeffer’s students hearing what John de Gruchy described in the introduction to the DBWE translation of Creation and Fall as “Listening to the Word of God in a Winter of Discontent. The mid-sixties in the U.S certainly met that description.  David went on to seminary at Seminex Lutheran Seminary, and in 1974 he participated in a protest with a number of other students, likening their situation to an underground seminary, but without the Nazis. Although David was eventually ordained as a Lutheran pastor, his life’s work has been in fund-raising for non-profit organizations. Because of his ordination, we would have to qualify David as a “semi-Non”.  

So here we are, “the Nons”, a motley crew of semi-theologians. Mary Glazener was a dramatist, who wrote and directed plays for her church, and even directed a musical for the Clemson drama department. I mentioned the Klemeyer brothers are lawyers. Gary Blount is a child psychiatrist, Eleanor Neel is an opera singer, David Krause a fund-raiser, and I’m a nurse.

I seriously doubt there are people like us in the Tillich Society, or the Schleirmacher Society, or even the Barth group.  I believe the total package of what Bonhoeffer represents is what attracts such a diverse group of enthusiasts, including the high drama of the Nazi era, the attraction of the Bonhoeffer family, their political involvement from the beginning of the Nazi era, their resistance, added to Bonhoeffer’s theology, his pacifism, his involvement in the ecumenical movement, all of which were heavily influenced by his times.  It was that total package that attracted me in 1987, and continues to this day.

There’s one Non I haven’t mentioned. When I asked Dean Skelley if I could tell his story, he very quickly sent me the following remarks, and I think you’ll know why I saved his story for last. Dean gave me permission to edit his remarks, but I decided to read you what he wrote straight from his heart, as though these words had long been waiting to be expressed.

I first became interested in Dietrich Bonhoeffer when Heinrich Eiler was hosting a discussion of The Cost of Discipleship at the local Presbyterian Church which I attended for a few years in this city (San Antonio). He pointed out to those in the group that one often had to reread the long sentences, because the translation from German was often convoluted and that the important verb was usually at the end of the sentence. But in any event, I found the writings of Bonhoeffer personal and very challenging, not only to comprehend, but to accept.

I became a subscriber to the Bonhoeffer newsletter and volunteered to edit the publication when the society was looking for a new editor. I felt that this would be one way for me to learn more about Bonhoeffer. In so doing, I found my experience editing the Newsletter extremely enriching, and for that experience I am truly grateful.

I spent quite some time on each issue, but I found it to be a joyful experience. The quality of each issue was very much improved with the help of John Matthews and Clifford Green. Before I sent the newsletter to the printer, I sent a draft copy to John and Cliff and they each made about a dozen corrections – and believe it or not, they never found the same corrections to be made. So a special thanks to both John and Clifford. I am also grateful to those who provided me book reviews, especially Geoff Kelly. I sometimes had to use a little pressure, but Geoff was always willing and able.

In the beginning, I tried to wrap my head around such terms as “hermeneutical” and “eschatological”, especially when used in the same sentence. But I soon gave up on trying to understand these terms. I kept reminding myself that I was a “non-academic”.

After my tenure as editor, I felt that I now had a better sense of the courage Bonhoeffer demonstrated in living according to the words he followed in the Sermon on the Mount, as well as the focus of his clear vision of where the thinking in Germany had gone wrong, and finally, his willingness to pay the true cost of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. For all of that, I am thankful to the Society for helping educate me as a student. And I am also personally grateful to the many friendships made with so many of you in the Society.”

(Alice)  And for all of that, Gaylon has something to say to Dean… A presentation of a commemorative plaque was made by Gaylon Barker to Dean, with appreciation of the Society for Dean’s long service as editor.

Addendum. In the service of brevity, my remarks at the annual dinner were cut, and a few things I really wanted to say weren’t shared, so I’ll take this opportunity.

There were seven people whose stories were told that evening, spanning more than 40 years of involvement in the IBS for some of us. Those of you in academic positions might come across another seven over your teaching careers. I hope you will encourage those whose interest is sparked as ours was, and encourage them to join and participate in the Bonhoeffer Society, as we have felt welcome to do all these years. Eleanor Neel tells the story of meeting Eberhard Bethge many years ago, when he asked her where she taught. When she replied she was a lay theologian, his reply was an enthusiastic “But that’s the best kind!”. Mary Glazener would not have been able to pursue her efforts to write her novel without the support and encouragement of Eberhard and Renate. They had no idea if she was capable of creating an accurate and readable novel when she began, but their support continued until the novel was finally complete and published, as well as their friendship well beyond.

It is my hope that the IBS-ELS will continue to welcome lay theologians, whether or not we are “the best kind”. Using some of Dean’s words, compiling these stories was an enriching experience, and I too am truly grateful for the opportunity, and for the many friendships with you that I have enjoyed since 1992.

Alice Bond, November, 2016

Searching for Bonhoeffer’s Voice Today

Dietrich Bonhoeffer presents readers today with a problem. It is a problem of true exegesis of an author who has left the world with a complex and incomplete library of literary works. While this problem is one that tends to arise in the generations that follow a particularly influential individual, the willingness to engage a writer without the bias of the reader influencing the author’s legacy is noticeable in both academia and in casual reading of Bonhoeffer. Too often the bias of the reader projects a Bonhoeffer who only partially depicts the true theologian and preacher. Appealing to specific books or sentences, one finds a Bonhoeffer who never rises above apparently contradictory statements rather than noting the circumstances under which statements were made or the truth behind particular phrases that have an entirely different meaning today. This has led to Bonhoeffer being a champion for opposing sides in debates ranging from abortion to orthodoxy, from doing away with religion in the name of Christianity to flat out atheistic claims of God’s demise, and from sanctioning violence and torture to staunch, unwavering pacifism. Bonhoeffer has been described as a right-wing Evangelical Christian in a U.S. North American context, a Lutheran theologian with a more liberal bend, and a closeted homosexual.

Who is to say who is the real, true, authentic Bonhoeffer? How do the different representations of Bonhoeffer shape current interpretations and theological studies? Should we today try to explain away the supposed contradictions that appear over the scope of Bonhoeffer’s writing? Or might we allow for Bonhoeffer to speak to us himself, even revealing to us something about ourselves—perhaps our own bias—especially when we might wish for another Bonhoeffer than the one who appears on the page? Can Bonhoeffer be rescued, not from himself, but from those who seek to revise Bonhoeffer in order that he better appeal to his followers and his critics?

What is needed is a true de dicto interpretation of Bonhoeffer. By this, I mean encouraging individuals who are willing to put diligent study into every facet of Bonhoeffer’s life and works. According to philosopher Robert Brandon, one must study the author and what he said so thoroughly so as to understand how his thoughts develop over a lifetime, the rhetorical strategies he employed, as well as how the author’s works fit into the entire body of study—not to mention his attitudes and experiences. All of this so that, “one can answer questions on his behalf in something like his own voice.” From the growing influence of Bonhoeffer on theological scholarship, it is clear that there is a desire to answer some of the questions of today in something like Bonhoeffer’s own voice.

It appears a primary source for most students of Bonhoeffer is one of the growing number of biographies. Each, complete with strengths and weaknesses, offer readers a depiction of Bonhoeffer in order to better read and interpret his theological works. In a posting earlier this year on this blog, I discussed the importance Bonhoeffer’s life plays in our understanding of his writing. In that post entitled “The Virtue of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics,” I mentioned the specific importance his life has in our understanding Ethics, but this is true for the entire cannon of his works. Today we have a privilege many before us did not have thanks to the completed volumes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works both in German and in English. In addition to reading the published works of Bonhoeffer, readers now have insights into his life via correspondence, unpublished lectures, and notes from his students.

In addition, those who engage Bonhoeffer should be encouraged to read most, if not all, of what he wrote, as well as who he read in order to better understand what lay behind his words. This means reading Heidegger in order to grasp his concept of “Dasein,” studying Søren Kierkegaard, and the theological teachings of Reinhold Seeberg, Karl Barth, Augustine, and of course, Martin Luther among many others. No less influential than these partners in theological dialogue were Bonhoeffer’s family and friends. By reading notes and correspondence once unknown one discovers the significance of those who surrounded Bonhoeffer. And while much focus has been on the men who influenced young Bonhoeffer, there is no discounting the significant effect the Bonhoeffer women had in his life. In addition, many newly shared and translated notes in the Bonhoeffer Works disclose the true depth of relationships once thought to be passing acquaintances.  

To further understand the setting surrounding Bonhoeffer, it is important to read materials that capture the time in which he lived, but also that which influenced his earlier years. Thus, while understanding the events of the 1930’s and 40’s of Germany is integral, no less so is an understanding of the ecumenical religious climate of the early 20th century. One should no doubt also study the events surrounding World War I and the toll the war took on the psyche of the German citizen and the impact the events had on the faith of the nation. Expanding our understanding beyond the borders of Germany to London, Spain, the United States, as well as globally can only give greater insight into the formation of such a profound thinker.

More than anything, such an undertaking requires diligent study of Scripture. In order to truly grasp what Bonhoeffer says in his writing, we today must be no less a student of the Bible than was Bonhoeffer himself. When reading Bonhoeffer in one hand—or those who write about Bonhoeffer—the Bible should be read in the other. Bonhoeffer’s love of Scripture pours from the pages of his works, inviting his readers to love Scripture as well.

We are now three generations removed from Bonhoeffer’s life, and most of his contemporaries have passed on. In addition, those who learned from Bonhoeffer’s peers in theology and ministry are passing the torch to what Victoria Barnett describes in a lecture given at the University of Virginia as an emerging generation of scholars in this, “a new era of Bonhoeffer interpretation.” Can this new generation of scholars overcome the degrees of separation and achieve the sort of de dicto interpretation necessary to ensure the true, authentic Bonhoeffer is not lost to revisionists thinking? Can readers today undertake such a massive project as to exegete Bonhoeffer in this way? Perhaps this is an audacious if not arrogant undertaking for a Presbyterian pastor in rural Colorado, but that is precisely what I hope to do.

While I do not wish to take away anything from the volumes that seek to share an author’s love of Bonhoeffer with the world, it is imperative, I feel, that the world receive nothing less than the true Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We who have learned from this man, who find something in his writing that appeals to our faith, who have been touched by his love for God owe him nothing less. Moreover, we owe the generations to follow an authentic, unbiased account of Bonhoeffer in order that they too might experience something similar to our own experiences. By no means should one lose focus on that which Bonhoeffer’s life was dedicated—the worship of God—nor must scholars simply seek to find Bonhoeffer’s answers to the questions of today. With clear understanding of Bonhoeffer, uninfluenced and unbiased by his readers, we are able to learn from him and stand upon the shoulders of this influential figure.

Taking Hold of the Real: An Interview with Barry Harvey

The following is an interview conducted by Diane Reynolds with Barry Harvey about his book Taking Hold of the Real. 

 1.     What motivated you to write this book?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been a constant companion of mine, both personally as a Christian and professionally as a theologian, for nearly
three decades. I often refer to him as a close friend I never had the chance to meet. I wanted others to see him as a friend as well.

 2.     What would you say is/are the one or two most important take-aways from your book?

 It’s important to recognize that Bonhoeffer cannot speak for us in our struggle to be faithful members of the body of Christ, nor should we want him to, for as he puts it in Ethics, we must give an account of our time and place. That said, he still has quite a bit to say to us on the topic of what it means to be the church in the modern world, particularly if we get beyond the most well-known of his writings (Discipleship, Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison), and look at the breadth of his life, short though it was. What we find when we take the time to do this is an amazing tale of both continuity and development that shows us the maturation of a Christian mind.

 3.     When and why did you first get interested in Bonhoeffer?

 I have written on some aspect or other of his life and work on several occasions, the fruits of which supply both the framework and some of the content for the present volume. Even when I have not written explicitly about him, something he said or did frequently acts as a catalyst for my reflections. I was introduced to him and his thought in seminary, but it was only after I finished graduate school and fell in with the characters in the International Bonhoeffer Society that he worked his way into the heart of my own work and faith.

 4. Are there characteristic ways you think people misunderstand Bonhoeffer?

 I would to caution people to be careful not to squeeze Bonhoeffer into categories that we in North America find convenient. Attempts to make Bonhoeffer fit neatly into categories such as evangelical or mainline, conservative or progressive, are bound to come up short. The complexities and nuances of ecclesial and political life in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century do not map cleanly onto the intellectual and social landscape of the United States, a fact he documents in his reflections on Protestantism in America, “Protestantism Without Reformation.”

 5.     Do young people today know about Bonhoeffer in your experience?

 There is a general recognition of Bonhoeffer among many young people, but much of that comes from secondary sources such as recent biographies. Whenever I encounter those, young or old, whose knowledge comes from such sources I try to tell them, “Great, now read Bonhoeffer for yourself! You’ll be rewarded in ways you can’t even imagine now.”

6.     Anything to add: any new projects on the horizon?

I’m working on a book project in which I hope to take up some of the threads on music that I describe in the book, and develop them into a more comprehensive imaginary of the Christian life in our post-Christendom world.

Bonhoeffer, Freedom for Others, and Preparing the Way for Grace


_41556822_bonhoeffergettyBonhoeffer, in the Ethics manuscript entitled, Ultimate and Penultimate Things, discusses what it means to prepare the way for Jesus in another’s life. This task, according to Bonhoeffer, is a responsibility with which all who know about the coming of Jesus Christ must come to terms. What Bonhoeffer says next is worth quoting at length:

The condition which grace meets us is not irrelevant, even though it is always only by grace that grace comes to us. We can make it hard for ourselves and others to come to faith. It is hard for those thrust into extreme disgrace, desolation, poverty, and helplessness to believe in God’s justice and goodness. It becomes hard for those whose lives have fallen into disorder and lack of discipline to hear the commandments of God in faith. It is hard for the well-fed and the powerful to comprehend God’s judgment and God’s grace. It is hard for those who are disappointed by a false faith and who have lost self-control to find the simplicity of surrendering their hearts to Jesus Christ. This is not to excuse or discourage those to whom this applies. Instead, they must learn all the more that in Jesus Christ God comes down into the very depths of the human fall, of guilt, and of need, that the justice and grace of God is especially close to the very people who are deprived of rights, humiliated, and exploited, that the help and strength of Jesus Christ are offered to the undisciplined, and that the truth will lead the erring and despairing onto firm ground again. 


None of this excludes the task of preparing the way. It is, instead, a commission of immeasurable responsibility given to all who know about the coming of Jesus Christ. The hungry person needs bread, the homeless person needs shelter, the one deprived of rights needs justice, the lonely person needs community, the undisciplined one needs order, and the slave needs freedom. It would be blasphemy against God and our neighbor to leave the hungry unfed while saying that God is closest to those in deepest need. We break bread with the hungry and share our home with them for the sake of Christ’s love, which belongs to the hungry as much as it does to us. If the hungry do not come to faith, the guilt falls on those who denied them bread. To bring bread to the hungry is preparing the way for the coming of grace (163, emphasis mine).

There are two particular points, in this passage, that I think Bonhoeffer gets right. These words were not only appropriate when Bonhoeffer penned them, they are words that we desperately need to hear today. First, Bonhoeffer speaks to the fact that Christians can, and often do, make the gospel message difficult–or nearly impossible–to hear and accept. Often, in our rejection of others (whether documented immigrants, undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ persons, transgender teens, the homeless, etc…) we alienate those we are called to love; effectively pushing them further and further away from Jesus Christ.

Yet, we must not forget that in pushing away those on the margins of society we push Jesus away as well (Matt 25). In Life Together, Bonhoeffer makes precisely this point.“The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community” Bonhoeffer argues, “may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in the poor brother Christ is knocking at the door. We must, therefore, be very careful at this point.” I am sad to say, this exclusion of the other (and of Christ) is far too common in our society.

Maybe, if we get down to the heart of the matter, the difference between embracing actions and rhetoric that alienate the other and embracing love of the other comes down to two very different understandings of freedom. A negative view of freedom supposes that each individual is free from all other individual selves. This is a particularly common understanding of freedom in the West. On this account of freedom we are free to pursue our own autonomous needs, wants, and desires regardless of, and in spite of, others (especially those who are unlike us). In contrast, Bonhoeffer posits a view of Christian freedom wherein one is only free if they are free for others. In speaking about responsible action for the other, Bonhoeffer notes that “a human being necessarily lives in encounter with other human beings and that this encounter entails being charged, in ever so many ways, with responsibility… To act out of concrete responsibility means to act in freedom”. As Bonhoeffer often does, he looks to Christ to ground this understanding of freedom. Christ was free for humanity. His freedom did not consist in autonomous concern for self, but rather, in freedom, he bore the weight of human sin and guilt. It seems to me that when the concern for personal freedom (whether that freedom is used to ensure personal safety, wealth, or happiness) trumps love for others, we ultimately reject the freedom for others that Christ exemplifies.

Now back to the opening quote of this post. The second point that I think Bonhoeffer gets right is his statement that “if the hungry do not come to faith, the guilt falls on those who denied them bread.” This is a particularly harsh statement and one that immediately challenges our assumptions of individual responsibility for one’s own action. “How”, we might ask, “am I guilty if another person willingly chooses to reject the gospel?” I think Bonhoeffer would respond by saying that if we have failed in our calling to prepare the way for the coming of grace in another’s life (or have actively hindered the coming of grace), then we bear guilt for that individual’s subsequent rejection of the gospel. If I was going to take Bonhoeffer’s statement and apply it to today, I would think it would go something like this:

If LGBTQ persons do not come to faith, guilt falls on Christians who denied them community.

If the homeless do not come to faith, guilt falls on Christians who denied them dignity.

If the refugee does not come to faith, guilt falls on Christians who denied them safety.

If the emotionally wounded do not come to faith, guilt falls on Christians who denied them stability

… and the list could go on.

All this is to say, we are called to be a people who live responsibly, in freedom for others, and who prepare the way for the coming of grace in other’s lives. If our rhetoric and/or our actions are contrary to this way of life, then Bonhoeffer reminds us that we may be guilty of far more than it might seem at first glance. This is true for me… it is true for you… and it is true for those in leadership (of churches and nations). As we listen to the rhetoric during this election season, may we be ever conscious of how what we say and what we do can affect how others may or may not receive the gospel of Jesus Christ; especially if the title “Christian” is one which we openly embrace and proclaim.

The Virtue of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics

Prior to Christmas, a copy of Jennifer Moberly’s book The Virtue of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics arrived in the mail. In the first chapter, Moberly makes a claim that will inform her study of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and, in doing so, set her apart from many others who have endeavored to do the same. Moberly states in her study she “shall not attempt to give a detailed exegesis and interpretation of the manuscripts of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics,” which up to this point, given her examination of Bonhoeffer’s work with regard to the specific understanding of “virtue ethics,” is to be expected. She continues her statement by saying, “nor will I seek to demonstrate my interpretation by appeals to his biography.” It is this second part of the sentence on which I wish to focus.

Upon first reading, I found myself nodding along in agreement as I read her justification for such a stance, as such an appeal to a biography “must rely on a degree of speculation that is dangerous if not unwarranted.” How many times have Bonhoeffer’s various claims, ranging from his earlier works to those written in Ethics, been brought into question due to Bonhoeffer’s practical response to particular situations? In addition, how many have sought to explain what they perceive to be contradictions in Bonhoeffer’s works by citing, not his works themselves, but various biographies?

Granted, the ease by which one may bring Bonhoeffer into one’s camp on a specific issue by appeal to his life eliminates the need for thorough examination of his writings or the perceived contradictions or changes over time. This in turn allows for nearly any ideology to claim the theological authority of having Bonhoeffer on one’s side. Of course, this will not necessarily offer the world a true glimpse of Bonhoeffer or his theology, but rather a caricature that, by virtue of the false claims made in his name, negates the authority originally desired.

Having read for myself several accounts where just such a claim has been made, I express my admiration for Moberly and her ability to avoid the temptation to let Bonhoeffer’s life and the specific time in which he lived dictate her interpretation of his work. How many individuals have argued for their own stance (e.g. regarding pacifism or retributive violence), citing a section in Ethics (e.g. “Natural Life” (p171-218)) in which Bonhoeffer appears to claim an opposing position, only to justify the reader’s interpretation by recalling Bonhoeffer’s biography? Rather than letting Bonhoeffer’s work speak in conversation with his biography, the side that agrees with the reader is victorious, especially where Bonhoeffer apparently behaved, to some extent, to the contrary of his writings. The insights and the challenges of being faithful in a fallen world are lost when Bonhoeffer is used to support one’s preconceived arguments, bordering on “hero-worship” rather than recognizing the struggle he endured wrestling with Scripture, theology, and the world around him.

For those outside the academy, the appeal of Bonhoeffer is that he was a man who acted according to his faith. I would argue that Bonhoeffer’s biography brings more people to know him than his theology (which, if this is where one stops, is a shame). If this is the case—especially if Bonhoeffer’s biography does not truly represent the man—how might this influence those who later read his writing? Do the man’s actions negate or compromise the ethic espoused? Does one bear more weight than the other, thus enabling the reader to draw conclusions on Bonhoeffer’s character contrary to what he himself may have written? In short, Moberly seeks to avoid the problematic slippery slope that has led some in the past decades to claim Bonhoeffer’s name and authority belong to their interpretation of a given situation or espoused ideology.

It is, however, upon greater reflection I arrived at the rub. With regard to ethics in general, is an author above his or her own prescribed ethic? I yield to Jennifer Moberly’s expertise in virtue ethics, and her argument for reading Bonhoeffer’s ethic as virtue ethics versus situational ethics appears solid. Yet, as Moberly points out, Bonhoeffer’s is not a universal ethic so much as a Christ-centered ethic. Thus, there is a call to action for those who take not only Bonhoeffer’s writing seriously and not as mere theoretical pondering, but also the teachings of Scripture. In addition, I ask, how can one take seriously the espoused ethic if the author himself is unable to live up to that which he asks of others?

This is, perhaps, the most difficult aspect of ethics, that one must adhere to that which is prescribed. Yet, it is this very prescribed behavior that emerges from ethics that is of such great importance. This is why so many philosophers and theologians have sought to address the practical aspects of humanity via ethics. How fitting that Bonhoeffer’s Ethics be built upon a similar foundation. In essence, Bonhoeffer’s entire life, not simply his writing, become the extended finger of John the Baptist in Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, pointing toward the crucified Christ. If this is the case, how much more important is it for Bonhoeffer scholars to ensure that the ethic represented is one based not simply on Bonhoeffer’s writing alone, but his embodiment of said ethic as well as its adherence to Scripture? Similarly, if those outside the academy are primarily exposed to Bonhoeffer’s biography, the importance of incorporating his writings and offering a true representation of the theologian and pastor—opposed to a spokesman for particular ideals—becomes paramount.

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (closed, detail of Crucifixion)
Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (closed, detail of Crucifixion)

I admire Moberly’s attempt to convey a study of Bonhoeffer’s ethic void of the misinterpretations of Bonhoeffer’s activities that might compromise the true message of his writings. The near “hero-worship” of some who wish to elevate particular events in Bonhoeffer’s life cannot outweigh these important ethical teachings directed toward believers. I do, however, wonder if this approach neglects an important aspect of Bonhoeffer’s ethical writings, which is his own ability to adhere to behavioral expectations he addresses—those rooted in Scripture and a world at war. Is there a way to bring both together and convey a true representation of that which Bonhoeffer wrote? Surely Bonhoeffer’s biography plays a part in our understanding of how practical his ethical writings appear. Bonhoeffer’s writing read in the context of his life allows a reader a greater understanding of his theology—as long as the Bonhoeffer being represented is true to the source.

Misreading Bonhoeffer: A Response

BonhoefferI was recently alerted (via Facebook) to an article by Richard Weikart, “The Troubling Truth about Bonhoeffer’s Theology,” Christian Research Journal 35.6 (2012) which can be read HERE.

It seems Weikart initially felt quite happy with Bonhoeffer while he thought him an “Evangelical,” but quickly dismissed him once he came to see him as “Neo-Orthodox” (pp.1-2). What makes this so troubling is that neither category is fitting for this early twentieth century German Lutheran minister theologian, but seem more concerned with categories of Americans intent on dismissing folks by use of labels. That being said, Weikart expresses numerous points at which he finds trouble with Bonhoeffer.

Under the heading of Scripture, Weikart quotes Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, “Scripture belongs essentially to the preaching office, but preaching belongs to the congregation. Scripture must be interpreted and preached. In its essence it is not a book of edification for the congregation.” He then proceeds to argue this is not true to Luther (on the “priesthood of all believers) or Lutherans. But this type of belief about the place of the proclaimed word and its potency is precisely Lutheran. Weikart seems to not realize the place of the preached word in Lutheran theology proper or in the theology of Luther. For Luther (and thus Lutherans in his wake), it is the proclaimed word of God where one hears the voice of Christ. Such is the case with Bonhoeffer.

Where Weikart accuses Bonhoeffer of moving from his earlier reading of Scripture with regularity, he seems oblivious to Bonhoeffer’s opposition to the spiritualizations of the pietistic Lutheran practices with which he had at first been fostered into and only later came to see the pietism often did not result in greater faithfulness, but only a higher sense of spiritualized success all the while avoiding taking responsibility in the life of the world (see his many such comments on this in Ethics). There is in fact nothing wrong with not reading Scripture daily. Jesus didn’t. He couldn’t. What is imperative is that we meditate upon Scripture, hear it and obey it. The Scriptures nowhere demand daily Bible reading. That is a matter of pietistic Evangelicalism that has learned to think such a practice is a requirement of genuine spirituality. Bonhoeffer seems to have understood this at deeply sustained levels.

While many (in the U.S.) regard Barth as “neo-orthodox” this is not owing to Barth himself, but to early American interpreters of Barth who either failed to understand him or misrepresented him. It is easier to just lump him in with others who are also rejected without wrestling with what he has actually written.

Under his attack on Bonhoeffer’s (and Barth’s) view of Scripture, Weikart misses that the Scriptures are recorded not as transcripts, but as careful theological reflections of the revelation of God concerning the stories of Israel, Jesus, the Church and the world. The Scriptures are not attempting to document empirically verifiable history, but instead that which must be believed by faith which is offered sufficient witness to believe. Weikart’s view seems to be more intent on historicality (even when the text itself does not warrant it, nor the preservation of the text) rather than the realities to which the text points in the manner in which the writers were inspired to record them.

Further, what Bonhoeffer rejects of the emphasis upon trying to speak of the “historical” with regard to Jesus is that 19th-20th century German obsession with doing just that. This led to a number of notions such as a bifurcation of the Jesus between that of history and that of faith, or worse yet, an eradication of the historical Jesus altogether. Bonhoeffer was responding in just that sort of milieu. And he responded by pointing to faith in the preserved stories of Jesus regardless of the ability to historically verify details beyond the witnesses of the texts themselves.

Weikart’s use of Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison shows an utter disregard for the writings of one in a personal letter to another that was NOT intended for public consumption. If any of us had things we said privately preserved by others after our death and disseminated globally we would find ourselves having stated things which we were wrestling with and/or were not offered with the context of explanation (because it is assumed the person spoken to knows this sufficiently to understand). Judgment of all of us would ensue.

Under the title “The Good Book,” Weikart fails to grasp Bonhoeffer’s rejection of Scripture as offering “universal, timeless truths”. Bonhoeffer is convinced that to treat Scripture as offering such, is to pre-determine what God would have us to do in any and every situation. But this (for Bonhoeffer and for myself) ignores the living word of the living God who speaks today through that word to us. It makes a binding law of the word of Jesus. It means one is no longer required to attune their ears to the Spirit, but only to reread words written. It is on this very idea, that I have personally found life and joy in Christ and proclaim that we are not through listening as if we have heard all there is to hear…NO! We must go on listening anew today!

On Weikart’s claim of universalism, he fails to engage the very “this-worldly” notion of redemption at work in Scripture and the theology of Bonhoeffer. Instead, he seems to think more of spiritualized heavenly individualistic salvation. Bonhoeffer, however, was concerned with the redemption of the cosmos that was enacted in Christ Jesus. Bonhoeffer was concerned with “people” and not simply individuals and he was concerned with this precisely because of the election of Jesus wherein all of humanity finds redemption. This is not to say all are saved, but to say that in Christ salvation is sufficient for all and is extended to all and must be declared to all. The pastoral and missiological implications of this are profound.

I for one find little to judge negatively of Bonhoeffer’s reflections stated by Weikart, but maybe, just maybe, I’ve become one of Weikart’s “liberal” “neo-orthodox” folks he seems so adamant are to be despised and rejected. Or maybe Weikart is simply judging Bonhoeffer by means of his own skewed theological and ideological agenda rather than on grounds of truthful discourse that hears Bonhoeffer in Bonhoeffer’s own context. To those who have ears to hear…


My apologies for not citing Bonhoeffer’s works throughout. This is more of an overall response (without direct access to Bonhoeffer’s works from my home). For those interested in reading Bonhoeffer in context, they can read the pages cited by Weikart as well as reflecting particularly on Bonhoeffer’s Ethics which answers (for myself) the misreading of Bonhoeffer contra much of American Evangelicalism and its inherited pieties.

This was originally blogged on my personal blog at

Bonhoeffer in Pittsburgh

Charles Marsh

Conference facilitator Charles Marsh

Yesterday’s Bonhoeffer conference at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary was a rich experience.  The conference, called “Bonhoeffer’s Journey to Reality,” consisted of a keynote speech by Charles Marsh, author of Strange Glory, a breakout session in which we discussed Bonhoeffer in the context of possibilities for transformation and community building, a dinner, a Jewish Shabbat service and an interfaith panel discussion.

The PTS staff did an admirable job organizing the conference, and I found it  just the right length to be engaging without becoming exhausting. I was also delighted with the mix of activities and the warmth of the atmosphere.

In his keynote address, Marsh focused on Bonhoeffer’s spiritual transformation during his Manhattan year, 1930-1931, a period when Bonhoeffer moved from what he called “the phraseological to the real.” Marsh located Bonhoeffer’s transformation in three “streams” he encountered in the United States:

  1. The theological social progressive stream he experienced at Union Theological Seminary, represented by the Reinhold Niebuhr.
  2. The American organizing tradition of social reform and community building.
  3. The Harlem faith community, centered around Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Bonhoeffer also developed a deeper understanding of the “church of the outcast,” Marsh said, while journeying to and from a Quaker world peace conference in Mexico City, during which he traversed the Deep South. When he returned to Berlin, his family and friends noted Bonhoeffer’s new spiritual zeal. Bonhoeffer himself now turned more frequently to the Sermon on the Mount. Much later, he would famously write about the Manhattan year as a point of genuine transformation in his life.

After listening to Marsh, who is an excellent speaker, the hundred or so of us at the conference broke into small groups to discuss Bonhoeffer’s social justice transformation and our own. The conversation in my group was rich, heartfelt and fruitful. We emphasized Bonhoeffer’s faith in the transformational power of small groups and one-on-one relationships.

The Shabbat service after dinner, led by Rabbi Doris (I don’t have her last name), was also a rich experience. With its emphasis on embodiment–the scent of spice leaves and the flame of braided candles with four wicks–it enacted Bonhoeffer’s “this-worldly” theology and offered a tribute to his belief in the importance of the Old Testament, a document roundly vilified by the Nazis.

The interfaith panel discussed avenues and methods for building communities that can help transform our world, with a focus on fighting institutional racism and xenophobia.

I enjoyed the conference very much, as well as  the chance to meet new people. But more than that, I came away highly encouraged. With so many individuals caring about issues of faith and social justice and  raising deep questions about how we can live more authentically into the Christ experience, I am hopeful that we can help create a juster, more Christ-centered future, a goal dear to Bonhoeffer’s heart.

I also came with the wish that more of these short conferences could be organized. This seems to me an especially important resource for maintaining Bonhoeffer’s legacy. He did not want to become a pillar saint (although he did), but he did hope to inspire community building and active engagement in the messy business of living in the “center of the village.”


On Being Human

ethicsWhat does it mean to “be human”? Have we given sufficiently careful consideration to this topic? Or have we simply made the assumption that it is whatever we are doing? Is it to be rooted only in description of how “we” are or prescriptive of how “we” ought to be? Or is it yet some other thing?

I taught an adult Sunday school class a few years ago where I was asked to address the subject of “being human.” In the course of the conversations, a discussion of holiness was brought up. Someone mentioned that “we know we will sin, because we are all humans after all”. This struck me in light of Bonhoeffer’s statement that popped into my mind at that moment: “While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human and we must recognize that God wills that we be human, real human beings” (D. Bonhoeffer, Ethics [Vol. 6; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2005], p. 84, emphasis added). While this statement assumes that we strive to be more than human (because we believe our being human is something to be overcome), I wonder if this is not the basis for the excuse echoed in my Sunday school that day.

We blame our humanity for our sinfulness. It struck me that Paul never does this, John never does this, and Peter never does this. The Scriptures blame our sinful or “fleshly” nature (the language of Paul). And, perhaps surprisingly for many, I don’t believe this should be confused with “being human”, truly human. The reason being that Jesus is True Man and all else is but a pale image of the true, being marred by sin. I would actually contend that our sinfulness deprives us of our humanity, because it is only in obedience to the Father that one is truly human in the fullest sense. And this can only come about by the regenerating work of God’s Spirit (the spirit of adoption crying “Abba, Father!”) conforming us into the image of the Son, who Himself is the true image of God.

So what are some potential outcomes of this change of perspective which seems to follow the trajectory proposed by Bonhoeffer?

(1) To be human is to be taken up into Christ. It is to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God which is acceptable and pleasing. It is the humanity of God in Christ taking up our sinful humanity and glorifying God through the obedience of redemption. To be truly human is to be counted as those who are in Christ: the righteousness of God and the First Adam.

(2) To be human is to set aside excuses for sinning. We can no longer say that we will continue to sin because “we are just human after all”. NO! We have been delivered from death to life. The Spirit of Christ Jesus now lives in us. We have been baptized with Christ and our sins have been once for all dealt with. We are not the children of the devil, but the children of God who no longer are slaves to sin and death. We are slaves of Christ Jesus our Lord and have been delivered from death to life! Therefore, to be “real human beings” is to live by the power of the Spirit! To live free! Free of the bonds of sin.

(3) To be human is to live free for the other and free for God. There is no constraint, but the one to love. This is the greatest commandment and all it entails: humanity unleashed from the bonds of self-serving, self-loving rebellion against God and God’s will for creation. The true human is the one who lives for the other because of being made in God’s image. Therefore, the other who is made in God’s image becomes the one by which we grow into the image of God in communion as those created and purchased by God.  As those bearing God’s image, by God’s Spirit we reflect the ineffable God in Christ. Unbounded love for God and for the other: this is being truly human…to be in Christ Jesus.

So I would charge you fully to embrace your humanity; God did!

Bonhoeffer and Reality on the Edges

Thousands of religious scholars descended upon Atlanta, Georgia this weekend for the American Academy of Religions/Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting. To say that the joint meeting is large would be an understatement. In the midst of the hundreds of possible paper sessions, the Bonhoeffer and Social Analysis group put forward a series of thoughtful and fruitful paper panels.

Many of these papers responded to or touched upon current areas of social engagement (as would be keeping with the name of the group). Over the meeting hung the cloud of current events, and as I left the final panel this morning, my mind could not help but reflect on the larger, cohesive question permeating through the sessions with our current reality.

The recurrence of the intersection of Bonhoeffer and the reality of experience of those on the edge of a fully integrated society is something that ought to cause us pause. Where do we consider ourselves to be in the world? Are we on the edges or in the center? My guess (and I speculate based on the demographics of those I saw at the conference and have met doing Bonhoeffer research) is that most individuals reading this blog are white and of European descent. A plurality are men. A large number are American, my own residential context, and likely to be Protestant or Evangelical Christians.

At least in the American context, we are scholars of Bonhoeffer in a very privileged center of society. Yet, Bonhoeffer beckons us away from the center. In their responses to Reggie Williams’ Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus (Baylor, 2015) both James Cameron Carter and Jenny McBride offered challenges to the audience to repent of their whiteness. While Carter and McBride approached this in very distinct and rich ways, their papers highlighted that Bonhoeffer’s works offer critiques of our own appropriation of identity and theology. But there are two other papers I wish to highlight as well. The first is Joe McGarry’s piece on Bonhoeffer and Don Quixote. McGarry proposed that Cervantes’ novel is key to understanding Bonhoeffer’s transition from Sanctorum Communio’s description of the “real” to a deeper ethic of reality as that which inhabits our world, demands our attention, and locates Christ in our midst. The second paper was by Ryan Tafilowski at the Global Luther and Genocide co-sponsored section. Tafilowski drew upon Paul Althaus (a Lutheran contemporary of Bonhoeffer in the Erlangen school) and Althaus’s construction of the “volk” as a category in Lutheran theology. This volkish theology posits that my existence and creation by God is inseparable from the blood of my people/nation.

While in Barcelona, Bonhoeffer gave a now, rather infamous sermon that expounded the virtues of nationalism and dying for his country. By many regards, in this sermon Bonhoeffer and Althaus appear eerily similar. It is a volkish reality interposed on Christianity. Yet, after Barcelona (and Don Quixote) and his experience in both Harlem and Latin America, Bonhoeffer’s devotion to the volk has notably shifted a greater call to see the world as it is and see Christ in the midst, suffering. Christ calls the Christian to bear responsibility for his neighbor. This remains a speculative exercise unless we are willing to move to the margins with our neighbor.

Alongside these papers are the news reports, particularly in America, where Christians (although by no means all Christians) have thrown support behind laws and politicians banning Syrian refugees from states, requiring Muslims to register (because that obviously didn’t have terrible consequences in Nazi Germany), and what can only be described as a rise of volkish theology. The Bible rather explicitly states that Christians are called to welcome and care for the widow, the orphan, and the alien,

This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3, among many others)

I have heard the rhetoric that those welcoming refugees are naïve, but I want to argue that the greater fear isn’t of the other but rather that in welcoming the other we strip our Christianity of its volkish veneer. We risk being in the margins with the other. We risk no longer identifying the other as “other” but as “brother.” We repent of our sins of placing security over the command of Christ.

Bonhoeffer tells us that to follow Christ means choosing to see our former identity fall away. In 1941 he writes,

I pray for the defeat of my Fatherland. Only through a defeat can we atone for the terrible crimes which we committed against Europe and the world.

This is not the language of Barcelona. It is of one that has realized that reality for Christians is radically different and much harder than we believe it to be. It is from one that was arrested for trying to help Jews escape. Bonhoeffer’s legacy continually calls us to question what we have put upon our Gospel- whether our race, our national identity, or our fear of the “other.” It is the uncomfortable call to Christ on the edge and in the margins.