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A Personal Reflection on Dietrich Bonhoeffer: What I’ve Found This Lent

April 15, 2014

 

Bonhoeffer with Confirmands, 1932

Bonhoeffer with Confirmands, 1932

I knew when I was preaching through the Sermon on the Mount recently that I would make good use of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. I had no idea that a single question I asked would lead me–in my quest for an “answer”–so far into the life and writings of Bonhoeffer.

Of War and Peace: Which Bonhoeffer? (Revisited)

Russia invaded Ukraine in early March, just days after the Revised Common Lectionary reading was Matthew 5:38-48, which reads in part:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

I wondered: does “turn the other cheek” apply just on an interpersonal level, or at a state level? I turned to Bonhoeffer, who rejected a privatized read of Jesus’ words. In 1937’s Discipleship he wrote:

The overcoming of others now occurs by allowing their evil to run its course. The evil does not find what it is seeking, namely, resistance and, therewith, new evil which will inflame it even more. Evil will become powerless when it finds no opposing object, no resistance, but, instead, is willingly borne and suffered….

Should Ukrainians (or other oppressed peoples) just let themselves be invaded (or oppressed)? I struggled with Bonhoeffer’s words:

There is no thinkable deed in which evil is so large and strong that it would require a different response from a Christian. The more terrible the evil, the more willing the disciple should be to suffer. Evil persons must be delivered to the hands of Jesus. Not I but Jesus must deal with them.

And yet in 1945 he was hanged for his involvement in a conspiracy to kill Hitler. This was not the “no opposing object” and “no resistance” that Bonhoeffer had talked about in Discipleship.

But maybe Bonhoeffer differentiated between evil done to him and evil done to others? Should the Christian be willing “to suffer” in the former instance but willing to act and resist on behalf of another in the latter instance?

As I asked these questions a month and a half ago, I found my own response to Matthew 5 and “turn the other cheek” to be more tension-filled than I would have liked.

Is There a Resolution to the Tension in Bonhoeffer? 

I had been hoping that further study of Bonhoeffer would help me to find some writing where he would essentially repudiate his non-violence stance in Discipleship, saying instead something like, “But when others are oppressed, take up force to eliminate evil, if necessary.”

Bonhoeffer never said any such thing. In fact, on July 21, 1944, the day after a bomb intended for Hitler failed to kill him, Bonhoeffer wrote from prison (about that 1937 book) to his good friend and biographer-to-be Eberhard Bethge:

Today I clearly see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by it.

He still stood by it. Did he mean he also stood by the line from that book, “Not I but Jesus must deal with them”? Was not his involvement in an effort to bomb Hitler a way of trying to deal with him? (Note: I’m not sure I fault Bonhoeffer either way.)

After a Lenten discipline of reading Bonhoeffer (and sections of his biographies) slowly and meditatively, I’m no closer to a resolution of such tensions than I was when I first discovered them. If anything, I’ve been encouraged to see other readers of Bonhoeffer wrestling with the same sorts of questions. This question of whether a ready-to-use-violence Bonhoeffer is consistent with the turn-the-other-cheek Bonhoeffer is, in fact, a fruitful question in Bonhoeffer studies.

What I’ve Found Instead

Tension in Bonhoeffer notwithstanding (and I’m actually coming to appreciate it), I’ve been deeply moved at nearly every turn as I’ve delved more deeply into the life and writings of an activist pastor.

I’ve found:

  • An inspired and passionate preacher, not afraid to tell the truth about life and about Jesus
  • A brilliant writer, already evident at age 19 and age 21
  • An eloquent catechist and Christian educator
  • A brave and gutsy man, who valued the life of others more than his own
  • A gifted poet with incisive awareness of the human condition

His preaching has encouraged mine. His deliberateness in pastoral care and visiting congregants has inspired me. I used one of his catechisms for our church membership class (his writing in that context was met with appreciation by all of us). His courage has bolstered mine, even if I don’t face the sort of trials that he did.

And, best of all, he has pointed away from himself and to the cross of Christ, so that my appreciation for Bonhoeffer doesn’t finally center on Bonhoeffer himself. Rather, through the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer–no doubt inhabited again by the Holy Spirit–I have come to see and know and love Jesus more deeply.

As Bonhoeffer says of the early disciples, listening to Jesus on the mountainside:

They have only him. Yes, and with him they have nothing in the world, nothing at all, but everything, everything with God.

What do you think?

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