Why did 13 people make their way to my campus on a dreary February evening in 2020 for a new class I was teaching on a long-dead German theologian called Dietrich Bonhoeffer? We obviously shared an interest in Bonhoeffer’s life and teachings, but what really brought us out was an intuition that his legacy remains uniquely relevant to the cultural moment in which we’re living.
At the time, we assumed this meant that Bonhoeffer could help us to understand how faith communities both reflect and drive the deep divisions in American society that have opened up over the presidency of Donald Trump. But by the time the course ended in mid-March the question was a different one: does Bonhoeffer offer us any insights into how to live faithfully in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic?
Born the son of a prominent German psychiatrist in 1906, Bonhoeffer announced at age 13 that he would become a theologian. This shocked his family, who weren’t very religious and thought that the precocious youngster should follow his father and brothers into a more respected profession. Undeterred, Bonhoeffer continued on the path that eventually led to a dual vocation as pastor and theologian. He finished his Ph.D. in Berlin at age 21 and began lecturing there at 26. But from the beginning Bonhoeffer’s academic work had a practical dimension. His dissertation, for example, dealt with “the sociology of the church,” which he defined as “Christ existing as community.”
During an era in which Germans tended toward insularity, Bonhoeffer lived abroad in Barcelona (1928-9) and New York (1930-31), the latter as an exchange student at Union Theological Seminary. His teachers at Union included Reinhold Niebuhr, but even more influential during this New York sojourn were Jean Lasserre, a French pacifist, and Frank Fisher, an African-American student who introduced Bonhoeffer to Harlem.
When Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin in 1931 he was ordained to the ministry, beginning church work in a depressed area in the north of the city and taking up his duties as a junior lecturer at the university. Based on his ability to connect with young people, he showed remarkable promise in both venues, but when Hitler came to power in January 1933 everything changed. Opposed to Hitler and National Socialism from the start, in early February 1933 he delivered a provocative radio address about “leaders” who become “misleaders.”
Then in April he wrote that the church had “an unconditional obligation toward the victims of any societal order, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.” Further, if the state did not faithfully discharge its duty to uphold law and order, the church might have to engage in direct resistance - “not just to bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel,” as he put it in The Church and the Jewish Question, “but to seize the wheel itself.” These were remarkable statements for a young clergyman working in the theological tradition of Martin Luther. They not only alienated many of his church colleagues but also brought him to the attention of the political authorities.
Bonhoeffer became a leader in the “Confessing Church,” whose main antagonists were the “German Christians” who sought to align themselves with the Nazi movement by adopting the so-called “Aryan paragraph” that excluded Jews from many civil service positions, thus creating a Volkskirche (or “people’s church”) purged of “non-Aryans.” He proclaimed that making church membership a racial privilege would precipitate a “confessional situation” in which genuine faith had to be distinguished from apostasy: thus his statement (very odd coming from the pen of a Protestant) that “whoever knowingly separates himself from the Confessing Church in Germany separates himself from salvation.”
Beginning in 1935, Bonhoeffer dedicated himself to training pastors for service in a time of widespread apostasy, when Christian faithfulness might well lead to suffering and martyrdom. At an illegal Confessing Church seminary at Finkenwalde he created a semi-monastic community dedicated to living in obedience to Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. The books The Cost of Discipleship (1937) and Life Together (1938) emerged from Bonhoeffer’s work of mentoring these “illegal” pastors, and remain among his most popular works today.
By 1939 Bonhoeffer had concluded that effective resistance against the Nazi regime could no longer be waged in the ecclesiastical sphere. Through family members he had long been privy to reliable information about Hitler’s war plans and the regime’s crimes against civilians. Certain that he could not serve in Hitler’s army and unwilling to endanger his family and church by declaring himself a conscientious objector, Bonhoeffer arranged to emigrate to New York. But after just a few weeks in the US he returned home, having concluded that he would “have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if [he did] not share the trials of this time with [his] people.”
But what could Bonhoeffer do as Germany teetered on the brink of war? The Confessing Church was in a shambles, and he had been prohibited by order of the Gestapo from writing, speaking publicly or even traveling freely. So in a decision that many have struggled to fully understand, Bonhoeffer joined his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi in a resistance cell within the German Office of Military Intelligence (or Abwehr).
Ostensibly, Bonhoeffer was engaged in “essential war service,” calling on his ecumenical contacts in Allied and neutral countries to stay abreast of foreign developments and represent the interests of the Reich. In fact, the interests Bonhoeffer was serving were those of the anti-Hitler resistance. Among his clandestine activities were composing a report on Jewish deportations from Berlin, assisting a small group of non-Aryans in emigrating to Switzerland, and utilizing his relationship with George Bell (the-then Bishop of Chichester) to extend peace feelers to the British government.
Bonhoeffer was also aware of a series of plots on Hitler’s life, including the one that destroyed the Führer’s bunker on July 20, 1944. But his work as a double agent went undetected until he was arrested in April 1943 on suspicion that his service in the Abwehr was a ploy to avoid conscription. The case against Bonhoeffer went nowhere until October 1944, when his name was discovered on a list of July 20th plot conspirators. From that moment his fate was sealed. He was transferred to a Gestapo prison in Berlin, then to Buchenwald, and finally to Flossenbürg, where on Hitler’s orders he was hanged on April 9, 1945.
Bonhoeffer’s reception and reputation have changed considerably over the decades since his execution. Immediately after his death he was thought of as a brave Christian - a martyr even - but an average theologian. However, that verdict has been dramatically overturned in recent decades, as 17 volumes of Bonhoeffer’s collected works have become available in both German and English.
Scholars continue to discover new insights in his writings, but it isn’t just academics who are drawn to Bonhoeffer, as the adult learners in my class demonstrated. What people find continually relevant is his courage to speak out early and often against Nazism and all attempts to ‘Nazify’ the church; his ability to combine deep learning with a passion for Christian discipleship; and his willingness to turn theological conviction into political action when circumstances demanded.
My students came into the class in February wanting to know if Americans had reached a ‘Bonhoeffer moment’ in which Christians are called on to step outside their comfortable ecclesiastical circles and actively work alongside others to resist the current Administration. But as the coronavirus crisis deepened we refocused our attention on Bonhoeffer’s relevance for our responses to the pandemic.
Not surprisingly, over the past couple of weeks there have been a series of attempts to apply his life and thought in the wake of Covid-19 in articles like “Coronavirus, Bonhoeffer and ‘Divine Interruption;’” “Coping with Corona Virus Disappointments: Five Lessons from Dietrich Bonhoeffer;” “Covid-19 and Bonhoeffer’s ‘The Day Alone;’” “Reading Bonhoeffer’s Life Together in Light of Covid-19 Isolation;” and “Bonhoeffer and COVID-19: ‘Life Together’ in Isolation.”
What emerges from these pieces are important lessons for faith during difficult times. One is that, despite the importance of gathering to worship, the “church” is present even when people cannot be together. According to Bonhoeffer the church is realized by the work of Christ, so it exists whether its members are together or apart.
Second, Bonhoeffer teaches us that it is possible to keep our moral and theological bearings amid interruptions, prohibitions and even confinement. “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God,” he wrote, an insight he came by honestly. In fact, Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together, his classic study of Christian fellowship, in the wake of the Gestapo’s closing of Finkenwalde and the dispersal of his students.
Third, Bonhoeffer teaches us the importance of spiritual disciplines that can withstand changing circumstances. While away from home, living as a double agent and even in prison, Bonhoeffer devoted himself to Bible reading, letter writing, prayer and listening for God. In these days of solitude and waiting, he urges us to remain connected to the sources of our strength.