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.