When I First Met Bonhoeffer

When I first met Dietrich Bonhoeffer, through reading his books

as a young seminarian, he explained the world of faith to me.

This young German theologian who was executed by the Nazis for

his opposition to Hitler helped me to understand the difficult

religious experiences I had known in America.

I had just come back to Jesus after rejecting my childhood

faith and joining the student movements of my generation when I

discovered for the first time the Sermon on the Mount as the

manifesto for a whole new order called the reign of God. I

discovered Matthew 25: "As you have done to the least of these,

you have done to me."

The evangelical Christian world I had grown up in talked

incessantly about Christ but never paid any attention to the

things that Jesus taught. Salvation became an intellectual

assent to a concept. "Jesus died for your sins and if you accept

that fact you will go to heaven," said the evangelists of my

childhood. When it came to the big issues that cropped up for me

as a teenager - racism, poverty, and war - I was told explicitly

that Christianity had nothing to do with them: they were

political, and our faith was personal. On those great social

issues, the Christians I knew believed and acted just like

everybody else I knew - like white people on racism, like

affluent people on poverty, and like patriotic Americans on war.

Then I read Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship, which relied

heavily on the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount and the

idea that our treatment of the oppressed was a test of faith.

Believing in Jesus was not enough, said Bonhoeffer. We were

called to obey his words, to live by what Jesus said, to show

our allegiance to the reign of God, which had broken into the

world in Christ. Bonhoeffer warned of the "cheap grace" that

promotes belief without obedience. He spoke of "costly

discipleship" and asked how the grace that came at the

tremendous cost of the cross could require so little of us.

"Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably

Christianity without discipleship," he said, "and Christianity

without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It

remains an abstract idea, a myth."

At the time, I had just experienced a secular student movement

that had lost its way. Without any spiritual or moral depth,

protest often turned to bitterness, cynicism, or despair.

Finding Jesus again, after years of alienation from the

churches, reenergized my young social conscience and provided a

basis for both my personal life and my activist vision. Here

again Bonhoeffer showed the way, by providing the deep

connection between spirituality and moral leadership, religion

and public life, faith and politics. Here was a man of prayer

who became a man of action - precisely because of his faith.

Bonhoeffer will appeal today to all those who are hungry for

spirituality. But his was not the soft New-Age variety that only

focuses on inner feelings and personal enlightenment. Rather, it

was Bonhoeffer's spirituality that made him so politically

subversive. And it was always his deepening spiritual journey

that animated his struggle for justice.

Bonhoeffer will appeal today to all who are drawn to Jesus

Christ, because at the heart of everything Bonhoeffer believed

and did was the centrality of Christ. The liberal habit of

diminishing the divinity of Christ or dismissing his

incarnation, cross, and resurrection had no appeal for

Bonhoeffer. But his orthodoxy has demanding implications for the

believer's life in the world. He refused to sentimentalize

Jesus, presenting him as the fully human Son of God who brings

about a new order of things.

During a stint at Union Theological Seminary in New York City,

Bonhoeffer's response to theological liberalism was tepid, but

he became inspired by his involvement with the Abyssinian

Baptist Church in Harlem. Meeting the black church in America

showed the young Bonhoeffer again that a real Christ was

critical of the majority culture.

Bonhoeffer will appeal today to all those who love the church

and long for its renewal. But they won't find in Bonhoeffer

somebody who was primarily concerned with new techniques for

more contemporary worship, management models for effective

church growth, or culturally relevant ways to appeal to the

suburban seekers. Bonhoeffer could not imagine the life of

solitary discipleship apart from the community of believers. But

he would not tolerate the communal life of the church being more

conformed to the world than being a prophetic witness to it.

And, of course, Bonhoeffer appeals today to all those who seek

to join religion and public life, faith and politics. Because he

doesn't fit neatly into the categories of left and right, and

liberal and conservative, Bonhoeffer can speak to Democrats

trying to get religion, to Republicans who want a broader

approach than hot-button social issues, and to people who are

unhappy with our contemporary political options. He was drawn to

the nonviolence of Jesus and, like Martin Luther King Jr., was

planning to visit Gandhi in India to learn more about nonviolent

resistance. Like King, he was killed before he could make the

trip. But Bonhoeffer's pacifism gave way to what he saw as the

overriding need to confront the massive evil of Nazism by

participating in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

Yet, according to F. Burton Nelson and Geffrey Kelly, in their

book The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich

Bonhoeffer, he believed that violence was "still a denial of the

gospel teachings of Jesus," and his decision to join the

conspiracy against Hitler was accompanied by "ambiguity, sin,

and guilt" that were only expiated by a reliance on Christ who

"takes on the guilt of sinners, and extends the forgiveness of

his Father God to those sinners." That decision, which cost him

his life, demonstrates Bonhoeffer's profound wrestling with the

always-difficult questions of how faith is to be applied to a

world of often imperfect choices.

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