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Thank you to the people at Plough Quarterly Magazine, who gave permission for us to reprint a portion of this article. 

Bonhoeffer in China

Yu Jie: On October 8, 2010, it was announced that Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident writer, had been chosen to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. At the time, he was in prison serving an eleven-year sentence for inciting subversion (he remains a prisoner today). The authorities knew that Liu and I were good friends – we had known each other for twelve years and I was writing his biography. Immediately after the announcement, my wife Liu Min and I were placed under house arrest.

The ceremony to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu in absentia was on December 10. The day before this was the darkest of my life. Plainclothes agents of the secret police kidnapped me from my home, pulled a black hood over my head, and brought me to a detention room. For six hours they tortured me almost to death. They told me: “If our supervisor gives the order, we will dig a hole and bury you alive.” I was stripped of all my clothes and beaten badly as they took pictures. Then they forced my fingers backward one by one, saying that they would break the fingers I had used to write against the Communist Party. Eventually I lost consciousness.

The first hospital they brought me to refused to treat me. So they brought me to a more advanced hospital, where physicians told me that if the torture had continued another half hour I would not have survived.

Do you remember what you were thinking during the interrogation?

Before I lost consciousness I prayed to God in my heart. I clearly sensed his presence and felt the assurance: without the permission of God, not one hair of my head will fall. These words came to me as well: “Do not fear those who can kill the body, because they cannot kill the soul.” Those two promises of Jesus were my prayer.

After my kidnapping, my wife was still under house arrest. All phone lines and the internet were cut off, and for five days she had no way of finding out where I was. She was under such stress that she lost half her hair. Fortunately, by divine providence, we had sent our two-year-old son for a visit to his grandparents shortly before, so he was spared this experience.

After my arrest and torture, they tried to bribe me – they promised that if I would stop criticizing the regime they would provide a platform for me to write popular literature, and I would get rich.

Even after my release, the harassment and periods of house arrest continued. I could not go to church or attend Bible study; I was cut off from my Christian brothers and sisters. I looked in my son’s eyes and asked myself what kind of father I could be to him if we remained in China in this impossible situation. And so in January 2012 we came to the United States.


You weren’t raised as a Christian. Were there influences in your childhood and youth that laid the groundwork for your conversion later?

I was born in the city of Chengdu in the province of Sichuan, a beautiful, mountainous region with a long history of resisting the imperial power in Beijing. So from the beginning of my life I drank in a dislike for centralized power.

My father is an engineer. His thinking and lifestyle were quite westernized, and even as a young boy he treated me as an equal. In a Confucian culture that emphasizes hierarchy, this was rare.

The moment of my political awakening came when I was sixteen and attending high school. I still remember hearing the news of the mass murder of students protesting on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. That day, June 4, 1989, marked a turning point for me – I began to realize the true nature of the Communist regime. I would never believe their lies again.

Three years later, I arrived in Beijing myself, as a student at Peking University, China’s oldest and most selective institute of higher learning. I studied there for eight years, earning a master’s degree. But far more important to me than my formal coursework were my independent studies in the library. Thanks to a friendly librarian who bent the rules, I had access to restricted books published in Taiwan. I read accounts of the campaign of civil disobedience against Taiwan’s authoritarian government in the 1970s and 80s, and learned how a pro-democracy movement can be successful. What especially impressed me was the prominent role that Taiwan’s churches played in this movement.

But you were still just a secular observer.

That’s right. In 1998, while still a graduate student, I published my first book, Fire and Ice, a collection of satirical essays criticizing Chinese society. Looking back, it amazes me that the book ever made it past the censors. But that was the year Bill Clinton visited China – the first US president to do so since the Tiananmen Square massacre. The Chinese leadership wanted Western media to portray China as a free society. What better way than to allow publication of a book critical of the regime?



Filmed on location in Europe and the United States, Come Before Winter is a docudrama that lifts the curtain on cruel ironies of the final weeks of World War II in Europe and tracks two longtime foes of Adolf Hitler: iconic German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and virtuoso propagandist, Sefton Delmer.

Buy or Rent this film: http://comebeforewintermovie.com/order-dvd/

Access Facebook Page: http://facebook.com/bonhoeffermovie


Title: Come Before Winter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer And His Companions In The Dying Gasps Of The Third Reich

Director: Kevin Ekvall

Producer: Gary Blount

Production Company: Stories That Glow Collectors

Year of Completion: 2016

Length: 75 minutes

Language: English

Genre: Docudrama

Website:  www.comebeforewintermovie.com


Filmed on location in Europe and the United States, Come Before Winter is a docudrama that lifts the curtain on cruel ironies of the final weeks of World War II in Europe and tracks two longtime foes of Adolf Hitler: iconic German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and virtuoso propagandist, Sefton Delmer.



Filmed on location in Europe and the United States, Come Before Winter is a docudrama that lifts the curtain on cruel ironies of the final weeks of World War II in Europe and tracks two longtime foes of Adolf Hitler: iconic German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and virtuoso propagandist, Sefton Delmer.

For years Bonhoeffer has been speaking out against Hitler and the Nazis.  Such boldness has landed him in prison where he is left to consider the moral dilemma of the resistance in the company of his fellow prisoners.  Crushed by the failure of operation Valkyrie, Bonhoeffer discovers that “it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith.”

Meanwhile, in a secret location outside London, a team of propagandists gather daily to transmit a fake news radio program into German-occupied Europe, spreading confusion and fooling the enemy into thinking that they are listening to a real German radio station. Leading this team is Sefton Delmer and by his side is Bonhoeffer’s friend Otto John, eventual head of West Germany’s domestic intelligence service and Ian Fleming, British naval intelligence officer and creator of the iconic James Bond spy novels. 

Did fearless German resistance plotters and shrewd Allied propagandists make a difference? And how does Dietrich Bonhoeffer bring into focus ethical challenges during his final days in the dying gasps of the Third Reich?



Come Before Winteris a passion project of Minnesota psychiatrist Gary Blount.  Inspired by Bonhoeffer’s exemplary faith and courage, Blount began researching Bonhoeffer during his college years and has been fascinated with the story ever since.

Over the last few decades Blount researched this beloved theologian, making several trips to Europe to visit Bonhoeffer’s family, interview scholars and experience the places where Bonhoeffer’s life unfolded.



“Our story is about the final chapter in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and what must have been the aching for deliverance by the Allies who were rapidly closing in.  We felt our time frame would extract something of the essence of his life and the perspective which he seemed to seek—’the view from below’.  This view now includes more uncertainty, wartime cruelty, and vengeance.  Bonhoeffer had traded collegiality with thought leaders like Barth and Niebuhr for companionship with an amazing collection of characters, not all ‘pure in heart.’ Sefton Delmer, our story teller, was proud of his frolicking and perverse propaganda.  Delmer’s admiration of Bonhoeffer was overshadowed by his cynicism toward the ‘opportunistic’ German Resistance. His broadcast had not only been heard extensively but had, he believed, contributed to the war effort.”



“I was asked by Gary Blount to direct this film back in 2013.  We didn’t begin serious work on the film until January of 2014 but during that time I read as much as I could by and about Bonhoeffer.  In addition to doing a tremendous amount of research, Gary had written a treatment of the film and come up with the film’s title.  He wanted to include interviews with Bonhoeffer experts but also start the story from the perspective of a British Intelligence Propaganda team, a daring but intriguing idea.  We decided the movie would be a sort of docudrama.”

“It’s a humbling experience to witness both the passion and effort of those who have been caretakers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s story.  When Gary Blount first approached me with this project, I knew Bonhoeffer was a gifted writer but had assumed his story rather bland.  I was wrong.  His life spun a fascinating tale that adds veracity to his words.”



“A new documentary rediscovers a World War II campaign that was stranger than nonfiction.”

– Smithsonian Magazine,  April 2017

“Many portrayals of Dietrich Bonhoeffer present him as a heroic Christian martyr who single handedly resisted the Nazis during the 1930s.  Come Before Winter manages to avoid this kind of hagiography and shows us the final days of Bonhoeffer’s life within the context of his family and friends in the resistance—essentially his Sanctorum Communio.  The film remains faithful to the Bonhoeffer of history and current research on the final days of the German resistance.  A must see film!”

– Dr. Jeffrey Gang, Loma Linda University,  School of Religion

“…a touching blend of documentation and life stories…a remarkable monument to the German Resistance!”

– Dr. Christian Weber, Study Secretary, Mission 21, Basel, Switzerland

“Masterfully explores the tragic last chapter of the young theologian’s life.”

– Martin Doblmeier, documentary filmmaker

“Great story! Not preachy.”

– Kelley Carlson, teenaged movie critic

“Living in an age where our own comfort and security seem paramount in the values of so many in our society, Come Before Winter is a powerful affirmation of the eternal values of putting our lives at risk rather than seeking our own.  Rather than choosing the comfort of living in the United States, Bonhoeffer chose to return to Germany.  The example of his life speaks to us today through this evocative documentary.”

– Richard Osborn,  Vice President,  WASC Senior College and University Commission




Gus Lynch was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina and was raised in New York City. His first language was Spanish. He currently resides in Los Angeles while pursuing his acting career.


Aubrey Wakeling (SEFTON DELMER)

Aubrey Wakeling was born in St Albans, England. Classically trained, he has numerous film and TV credits to his name, including the lead in the Emmy winning Power of Art (BBC). He has lived in Los Angeles, California since 2010.



Rebecca Summers was born in Hampshire, England. She studied theater at Queen Mary's College and screen acting at the International School of Screen Acting in London, UK. She has appeared in many feature films, award winning shorts and international commercials. She made her theatrical debut playing the lead role in the psychological thriller The Spell; followed by The Gridiron, Silent Retreat, The Lovaganza Convoy, Black Hearts and Advantageous. She is currently living in LA.


Scotty Ray (IAN FLEMING)

Scotty Ray is an adjunct Professor in Drama at La Sierra University. Scotty holds an MFA in Acting from the American Repertory Theater/Moscow Art Theater School at Harvard University and a BA in Mass Communication with minors in drama and religion from Walla Walla University. Improv Training from The Groundlings Theater in Hollywood.


Kelly Reed (OTTO JOHN)

L. Kelly Reed is a professor of English at La Sierra University in Riverside, CA. He has been teaching there since 2002 and has been acting on stages for even longer. Come Before Winter is his first feature film. Kelly also edits fiction for Red Adept Publishing.

Statement Issued by the Board of Directors of the International Bonhoeffer Society – English Language Section, February 1, 2017

Comprising scholars and religious leaders from the United States, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, the purpose of the English Language Section of the International Bonhoeffer Society is to encourage critical scholarship in conversation with the theology, life, and legacy of the German pastor-theologian and Nazi resistor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While initiated in the United States, this statement expresses the concern, input, and support of our members in many countries that are demonstrating and protesting around the world.We speak noting that Dietrich Bonhoeffer himself taught the profound relatedness of all human persons and, indeed, of peoples and nations. We therefore feel called to raise our voices in support of justice and peace, and in resistance to every form of unjust discrimination and aggressive nationalism.

The United States has undergone an unusually contentious, bitter, and ugly election that has brought us to an equally contentious, bitter, and ugly beginning of the presidency of Donald J. Trump. While it is impossible to predict what lies ahead, we are gravely concerned by the rise in hateful rhetoric and violence, the deep divisions and distrust in our country, and the weakening in respectful public discourse. Some of the institutions that have traditionally protected our freedoms are under threat. In particular, this election has made the most vulnerable members of our society, including people of color, members of the LGBTQ communities, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, the poor, and the marginally employed and the unemployed, feel even more vulnerable and disempowered.

The German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer is quoted often in such times, for he spoke eloquently to such issues. His entire theological and political journey was shaped by his conviction that the church is only truly church when it lives for all God’s children in the world, and that Christians fulfill their faith as Christians only when we live for others. Members of the Bonhoeffer Society hope to make a faithful contribution to our society in this ominous time.

The best way to understand Bonhoeffer’s possible message for our times is not to draw direct political analogies between his time and ours, but to understand the meaning of how he understood his faith and his responsibilities as a citizen in his own times and discern where these words might resonate for us today:

In the coming time, we will seek to live such a life of witness, not only for the sake of our country, but because our Christian faith calls us to do so.

  • He warned that leaders become “misleaders” when they are interested only in their own power and neglect their responsibilities to serve those whom they govern. (1933)
  • He warned that when a government persecutes its minorities, it has ceased to govern legitimately. (1933)
  • He admonished Christians to “speak out for those who cannot speak” (1934) and reminded that the church has an “unconditional obligation toward the victims of any societal order, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.” (1933)
  • In his book Discipleship, he wrote: “From the human point of view there are countless possibilities of understanding and interpreting the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus knows only one possibility: simply go and obey. Do not interpret or apply, but do it and obey. That is the only way Jesus’ word is really heard. But again, doing something is not to be understood as an ideal possibility; instead, we are simply to begin acting.”(1936)
  • He wrote: “I believe that in every moment of distress God will give us as much strength to resist as we need…I believe that even our mistakes and shortcomings are not in vain and that is not more difficult for God to deal with them than with our supposedly good deeds. I believe that God is no timeless fate but waits for and responds to sincere prayer and responsible actions.” (1942)
  • He wrote: “Is there a political responsibility of the individual Christian? Individual Christians can certainly not be held responsible for the government’s actions, nor dare they make themselves responsible for them. But on the basis of their faith and love of neighbor, they are responsible for their own vocation and personal sphere of living, however large or small it is. Wherever this responsibility is faithfully exercised, it has efficacy for the polis as a whole.”(1941)
  • He wrote: “… one only learns to have faith by living in the full this-worldliness of life….then one takes seriously no longer one’s own sufferings but rather the suffering of God in the world. Then one stays awake with Christ in Gethsemane…. How should one become arrogant over successes or shaken by one’s failures when one shares in God’s suffering in the life of this world?” (1944)

In the coming time, we will seek to live such a life of witness, not only for the sake of our country, but because our Christian faith calls us to do so. 

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Christoph Von Dohnanyi, is director emeritus of the Cleveland Orchestra and son of Hans Von Dohnanyi, one of Bonhoeffer's fellow conspirators killed by the Nazis.  

Four men in my family were executed by the Nazis. Hans von Dohnanyi, my father, honored in Yad Vashem, was killed in the Nazi concentration camp Sachsenhausen short before the Second World War ended. At the same time the world-renowned theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, brother of my mother, my godfather, was executed in the concentration camp Flossenbürg. In 1930 Bonhoeffer began his studies in New York City at the Union Theological Seminary and learned to love and admire the United States of America.

I know today he would be extremely unhappy observing a tendency of religious intolerance in the country he once admired so much for its freedom and acceptance. He never could have imagined that this strong, great nation would find itself in the political and ethical crisis it now faces. A nation’s heart may race when it feels threatened, fearful, or even terrified. But this heart, no matter how “devout”, should never tolerate walls nor turn away those seeking help. People died at the Berlin Wall. Many people died in Hitler’s concentration camps for their unwavering beliefs in the value of their ethics and in their fellow man. These beliefs are now endangered in many Western nations including, sadly enough, the USA. This is unimaginable.

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Bonhoeffer and the Breslau Effect: Influences and Upbringing

One impact a theologian or historian considers when writing biography are the early influences that made his subject the person we have come to know. These influences not only pertain to family life, but also environmental factors such as the city where one was born and culture in which one developed a worldview. So as we approach the 111th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s birthday (4 February 1906), I wanted to briefly explore the cultural and social climate of his birth city during the days before World War II.  

Bonhoeffer was borne in Breslau, Germany on February 4, 1906, which today resides in Poland and was renamed to Wrocław following the Potsdam Conference in July-August 1945. Characteristic of Breslau in Bonhoeffer’s time was its liberal environment, university, and significant Jewish population with respect to other German cities. Breslau featured one of the oldest and most renowned synagogues in Europe, the White Stork synagogue, which was home to the Orthodox Jewish community and the New Synagogue, which became a center for Liberal Judaism, forming after a schism within the Orthodox community.  Subsequently, Zecharias Frankel, one of the founders of Conservative Judaism formed his movement here. His theology of positive-historical Judaism borrows from trends in German Protestantism at large. More specifically, Bonhoeffer maintained a proximity to the relationship of history and revelation through his association with his dissertation advisor Reinhold Seeberg, a leading systematic theology in Germany working in this method. Thus, the historical-critical method becomes identified with Frankel’s movement as the cutting edge of progressive Jewish thought in his day, challenging both the Reform and progressive Orthodox views. Abraham Geiger, the leading figure in the Jewish Reform movement was also a resident of Breslau. And with regard to the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah), only Berlin and Konigsberg rivaled Breslau in terms of Jewish scholarship. 

White Stork Synagogue, BreslauBreslau was home to the famous Jewish Theology Seminary built to educate Jewish seminary students in 1854.  None of these facts should be recognized as a small matter. And the fact that two movements, progressive in character, can trace their origins to this city is remarkable given the dominance of Orthodox Judaism as the premiere Jewish chain of tradition (Shashelet ha-quaddah).

While scholars have noted that Bonhoeffer inserts himself into the Jewish crisis only briefly in his writings in the early 1930s because of the laws passed by the Germany government restricting Jews from serving in civil service jobs and later preventing converted Jews from serving in the churches, we can imagine that Breslau provided ample opportunity for the Bonhoeffer family to encounter the Jewish population, which, despite their bourgeois sensibilities, was reported to take special interest in the downtrodden, less fortunate, and outsider.

An interesting book I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer emerged in 1966 as a compilation of memoirs by friends who knew Bonhoeffer directly. In those reflections describing his early life, there is a significant emphasis on the themes of justice and social intercourse with people that went beyond his social circles. It is regularly reported that the Christian gospel was only a nominal part of his life at the time and did not play a role in his early interactions. When Bonhoeffer revealed that he wanted to pursue theological studies, he was met with less-than-enthusiastic responses from his family.  Perhaps what the Christian gospel did do, however, was work to reinforce what he was already burgeoning in his life and give his concerns divine sanction. Dietrich could then see his own interest in social justice and care for the outsider as a work mirrored by gospel virtues.  These anecdotal stories nonetheless prove valuable as we examine the circumstantial evidence for interactions with competing communities.

Life in Breslau for Jews and Christian dialogue during the 19th century and 20th century remains difficult to cohere entirely, as Till van Rahden has noted, since interest in Breslau has been marginal and source material for the past 200 years has produced nothing of noteworthiness. What we do know is that Breslau benefitted significantly from being in the Silesia region where rich mines and trade routes established the city’s prosperity, and where, as early as the 18th century, Frederick II reluctantly allowed Jews to return and trade in the area with limited resettlement opportunities due to their mercantile acumen.  By 1840, the Jewish community grew exponentially, an event that instigated conflict with its German Christian neighbors, especially as the former found their way into the more attractive social circles in the city. With this economic growth came expansions in social and religious growth. Records from the city show a rise in intermarriages, especially among Jewish women to Christian men, and this fact remains a way for historians to gauge social interactions, as van Rahden writes that private contact between the two religious communities became “a matter of course.”[1] This observation suggests that “the city’s social life offered people manifold opportunities to get to know, to befriend, and possibly to marry one another across denominational boundaries.”[2] Likewise, many social institutions and associations were open to Jews, even going so far as to allowing Jews to maintain their ethnic identities without fear of public shame. 

By 1910, when Dietrich was four years old, the population was about 500,000, the size of modern-day Baltimore city, with about 60% Protestant, 35% Roman Catholic, and 5% Jewish. Abraham Ascher notes that Breslau’s Jewish population remained a good deal higher than the rest of Germany.[3] Jews on the whole did much better economically than their Protestant counterparts, averaging about three times more the average salary, and represented about 20% of the total income in the city.

While it is common to assume that Jews were reproached for their disproportionate wealth in the political rhetoric of Hitler, as early as 1918, Jews, and those in Breslau as well, were dealing with the effects of hyperinflation following the first World War. Many had their economic status threatened and in losing their wealth found their social status threatened as well. Van Rahden remarks that the geopolitics of Breslau made it more difficult for Jews where the Upper Silesian frontier town had been threatened by Polish-German tensions for years. Jews, who had lost their social and economic statuses, no longer had the benefit of asserting their “Germanness” as if to suggest that their national identities were on loan provided they maintain the economic health of the city. They were now under suspicion—as toxic to German stability as the Silesian Poles—and disdained as interlopers, even as national sentiment and anti-Semitism combined to aggravate the situation.

One cannot point to a specific event in these early years that might have shaped the Bonhoeffers’ resolve and produced such a family which actively resisted Nazism. But it is hard to imagine living decades in a city and not being affected by its social and intellectual climate. The family finally moved from Breslau in 1912, when Karl Bonhoeffer 44, accepted a post in Berlin. Paula Bonhoeffer was 38, and her son Dietrich was just six.  If we are to believe anecdotal accounts about the family from this time, saturation in Breslau might had an extended effect on their near-future interactions. Even if it is highly unlikely to have had any direct effect on young Dietrich personally, these values must have been passed on by his parents. Every indication was that Karl was a man of unflinching character. In one instance, he reportedly told his assistant Fred Quadfasel that going to jail was nothing to be ashamed of, that his family had a history of spending time in jail, and, in particular, during the 1848 revolution.  Norman Geschwind also reported that Bonhoeffer never hung a picture of Hitler on his wall and maintain a “classic Greek quality of measure in all things.”[4]

Events like the Judenzählung (Jewish census) of 1916, no doubt increased public consumption of anti-Semitism, despite the alleged suppression of factual information about Jews serving in the military.  By the early ‘20s, when Bonhoeffer was himself a schoolboy, anti-Semitic antagonism reached a tipping point, and, in Breslau, that energy seemed to be intensified by its youth. “Young people, who had been spared any experience of the front”[5] were the main provocateurs of violence. Van Rahden asserts that the students defaced “school buildings with swastikas, handed out thousands of anti-Semitic leaflets, and sought to undermine Jewish teachers’ authority by bringing their hatred of Jews with them into the classroom.”[6] Perhaps it was Bonhoeffer’s strong family structure and upper middle-class accommodations that saved him. But others could also point to similar upbringings, and those who grew up in “religious settings,” like Martin Heidegger and Paul Althaus, went on to support the Nazis for a time. Rather, it was the character of that upbringing, the intellectual climate, and the combination of early experiences, not least of all in Breslau, which appears to have set the stage. The Bonhoeffers had left Breslau two years prior to the outbreak of open hostilities towards Jews, and so perhaps the sensibilities they carried with them of an open and morally egalitarian society remained firmly implanted despite the soon-tragedy facing Germany. Bonhoeffer became refined in these fires, a young theologian whose intellectual gravitas resounded Christian virtue and Breslau sensibility. Quoting on several occasions Proverbs 31:8, he wrote, “Open your mouth for those who have no voice,” followed once with the question: who still knows that in the church today; that this is the least requirement of the Bible in such times?”[7]

[1] Till van Rahden, Jews and Other Germans: Civil Society, Religious Diversity, and Urban Politics in Breslau, 1860-1925, Trans. By Marcus Brainard (The University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, WI, 2008), 18.

[2] Ibid., 19.

[3] Abraham Ascher, A Community Under Siege: The Jews of Breslau Under Nazism, Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture (Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA, 2007), 31.

[4] Norman Geschwind, “The Work and Influence of Wernicke,” Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Proceedings of the Boston Colloquium for the Philosophy of Science, 1966/1968, Volume IV, Edited by Robert S. Cohen and Marx W. Wartofsky (D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht-Holland, 1969), 10-11.

[5] Van Rahden, Jews and Other Germans, 232.

[6] Ibid, 234.  

[7] DBW 13: London 1933:1935, 204-5. 


Trey Palmisano is a Rose A. Winder scholar in the Jewish Studies program at Towson University. He is the author of Peace and Violence in Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Analysis of Method (Wipf & Stock, 2016).