This Just Went to the Top of My Reading Stack

Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker


For months I’ve been waiting for this book to come out. Today I received it in the mail. As it weds two of my loves in life–youth ministry and Bonhoeffer–it’s going straight to the top of my reading stack.

About Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker:

The youth ministry focus of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life is often forgotten or overlooked, even though he did much work with young people and wrote a number of papers, sermons, and addresses about or for the youth of the church. However, youth ministry expert Andrew Root explains that this focus is central to Bonhoeffer’s story and thought. Root presents Bonhoeffer as the forefather and model of the growing theological turn in youth ministry. By linking contemporary youth workers with this epic theologian, the author shows the depth of youth ministry work and underscores its importance in the church. He also shows how Bonhoeffer’s life and thought impact present-day youth ministry practice.

With appreciation to Baker Academic. I’ll post a review here this fall. Check out the Table of Contents and first chapter here. You can also pre-order the print book on Amazon or the Kindle edition.


Bonhoeffer’s Life Together for $2.99, Chance to Win 17 Bonhoeffer Works

DBWE Life Together


For $2.99, Fortress Press is selling Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, the purchase of which also gives you chance to win all 17 volumes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (English Edition). This includes the new, forthcoming Volume 17: Index and Supplementary Materials.

Life Together is a powerful and heart-transforming book. I just finished reading it at the end of the summer, and reflected:

Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is substantial evidence that this servant of God saw himself as belonging to the church. The short, powerful book is both a gift and a challenge to any Christian who will take the time to study it.

My full review of the book is here.

Go here to check out Life Together for $2.99, as well as to have a chance to win the whole DBWE hardcover set.

Bonhoeffer’s Life Together: A Review

A scroll through some of my recent Facebook statuses shows the quotability of Bonhoeffer’s Life Together and its impact on me:


Also, this one:

And, just for fun, here’s some Bonhoeffer from a letter quoted in Eberhard Bethge’s biography of him:

Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is substantial evidence that this servant of God saw himself as belonging to the church. The short, powerful book is both a gift and a challenge to any Christian who will take the time to study it.

I have just finished reading it through all the way for the first time. Though it’s true that there is a focus on how one can be a faithful member of a Christian community, the application to the Christian-as-individual is rich, as well.

How Life Together is Structured

There are five main sections of Life Together:

  1. Community
  2. The Day Together
  3. The Day Alone
  4. Service
  5. Confession and the Lord’s Supper

Bonhoeffer was, in fact, writing with his own seminary community in mind (see “Benefits of the DBWE Critical Edition,” below), but he also intended with Life Together something more universal:

We are not dealing with a concern of some private circles but with a mission entrusted to the church. Because of this, we are not searching for more or less haphazard individual solutions to a problem. This is, rather, a responsibility to be undertaken by the church as a whole.

Throughout each of the sections, the focus of the book is “life together under the Word” (my emphasis, but also an ongoing emphasis of Bonhoeffer). An editor’s footnote explains that “life together” can also be translated from German as “common life.”

Christians in community are a sort of sacrament to each other, a theme throughout Life Together:

The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian living in the diaspora recognizes in the nearness of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. In their loneliness, both the visitor and the one visited recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body.

Through prayer and worship together, intentional solitude, service to each other, hearing confession of sins and–ultimately–through participation in the Lord’s Supper, the purpose and aim of Christian communities is “to encounter one another as bringers of the message of salvation.”

Bonhoeffer’s Dialectic of Solitude and Community

Throughout the book Bonhoeffer explores the dialectic between living in community (“The Day Together”) and the individual’s time alone (“The Day Alone”). He suggests that the ones who will do best living in community are those who already do well alone. Those who cannot already live at peace with themselves will not do well in community:

Those who take refuge in community while fleeing from themselves are misusing it to indulge in empty talk and distraction, no matter how spiritual this idle talk and distraction may appear.

On the other hand, “the reverse is also true.” Discipleship is best when not received, experienced, and lived just as a solitary endeavor. Bonhoeffer says, “Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone” (emphasis in original).

Both solitude and the company of others, then, are needed:

We recognize, then, that only as we stand within the community can we be alone, and only those who are alone can live in the community. … It is not as if the one preceded the other; rather both begin at the same time, namely, with the call of Jesus Christ.

Bonhoeffer’s characteristic and refreshing forthrightness brings the point to a head:

Those who want community without solitude [Alleinsein] plunge into the void of words and feelings, and those who seek solitude without community perish in the bottomless pit of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.

Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community. Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone.


Benefits of the DBWE Critical Edition

Bonhoeffer Life TogetherLife Together is Volume 5 of Fortress Press’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (English Edition); it’s also the first one published (1995) in the series.

In addition to its being a new translation from Bonhoeffer’s German, there is an Editor’s Introduction to the English Edition, Editors’ Afterword to the German Edition [abridged], and an extensive (though not distractingly so) set of footnotes as part of an explanatory critical apparatus.

Though one could certainly read Life Together in its own right, editor Geffrey B. Kelly’s introduction is a great set-up. From the very beginning he highlights the fascinating history of the book:

It was because [the Gestapo] had shut down the preachers’ seminary at Finkenwalde that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was finally persuaded to compose his thoughts on the nature and sustaining structures of Christian community, based on the “life together” that he and his seminarians had sustained both at the seminary and in the Brothers’ House at Finkenwalde. … With the closing of the seminary at Finkenwalde and the dispersal of the seminarians, however, Bonhoeffer felt compelled not only to record for posterity the daily regimen and its rationale, but also to voice his conviction that the worldwide church itself needed to promote a sense of community like this if it was to have new life breathed into it.

Kelly brings to light more about the historical situation leading to Life Together (including the Finkenwalde seminary), as well as ties it in with some of Bonhoeffer’s earlier writing that undergirds the book. Kelly notes that Life Together is ultimately a highly Christocentric work. Indeed, Bonhoeffer writes:

Christian community means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. There is no Christian community that is more than this, and none that is less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily community of many years, Christian community is solely this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.

The critical footnotes are excellent and seem to be placed at just the right spots. They include biblical references, historical background, explanations of German-to-English translations, and descriptions, where needed, of the larger body of Bonhoeffer’s thought that informs a given passage.

For those wanting to read Life Together, there’s a nice bonus with the Fortress Press DBWE edition: it includes also Bonhoeffer’s Prayerbook of the Bible: An Introduction to the Psalms. Given his emphasis already in Life Together on the importance of the Psalms for the prayer life of the community (“The Psalter is the great school of prayer”), its inclusion in this volume is perfectly fitting. The text itself is just above 20 pages, with the addition of an English editor’s introduction and German editors’ afterword.

One More Bonhoeffer Quote,
and How to Get the Book

The last word of this review goes to Bonhoeffer. Here it is:

The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I will die. And the fact that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, will be raised on the day of judgment. Our salvation is “from outside ourselves” (extra nos). I find salvation not in my life story, but only in the story of Jesus Christ. Only those who allow themselves to be found in Jesus Christ—in the incarnation, cross, and resurrection—are with God and God with them.

If you don’t already own Life Together, you should. If you do own it in an old paperback edition, you should get the Fortress Press Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works edition, if possible, whether through purchase or library check-out.

If you really want to go in depth, Geffrey B. Kelly (lead English editor of DBWE 5) wrote Reading Bonhoeffer, which includes a reading companion to Life Together.

Many thanks to Fortress Press for the review copy, given to me with no expectation as to the content of my review. You can find Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible here on Amazon (affiliate link), or here at Fortress Press.

Bonhoeffer: If You Can’t Listen to Others, You Won’t Listen to God

Bonhoeffer Life Together

I’m reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together for the first time. As I near completion of the book, here is a convicting passage that jumped out at me:

But Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either; they will always be talking even in the presence of God. The death of the spiritual life starts here, and in the end there is nothing left but empty spiritual chatter and clerical condescension which chokes on pious words. Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others, and finally no longer will even notice it. Those who think their time is too precious to spend listening will never really have time for God and others, but only for themselves and for their own words and plans.

You can find the book here (affiliate link) or here (they sent me a review copy). I’ll post again soon when I finish.

The Gay Bonhoeffer?

Strange Glory
Was Bonhoeffer gay? That’s been a focus of inquiry and discussion since Charles Marsh has suggested the possibility in his new biography of Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

There is an excellent summary of the discussion from Sarah Pulliam Bailey here, which links to the major reviews of Strange Glory thus far, as well as offers insight on Bonhoeffer’s sexuality from a few Bonhoeffer scholars. (Her section heading “Speculation without confirmation” seems appropriate, though one could also question the appropriateness of the speculation itself.) There is also this New York Times review of the book, just published on the newspaper’s site today.

Wesley Hill offers some valuable and nuanced perspective (as does Charles Marsh, whom he quotes) in this post at the Spiritual Friendship blog.

Of course, Marsh’s biography covers much more territory than just the nature of Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Eberhard Bethge. I have the Marsh biography, though have yet to complete the Bethge biography. I look forward to reading Marsh firsthand soon.

FREE THIS MONTH: Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall

DBWE 3 Creation and Fall

You may have read Bonhoeffer on the Sermon on the Mount, but did you know that he has a compelling and inspiring set of published lectures of Genesis 1-3, too?

Already at the age of 19, Bonhoeffer was laying the groundwork for what would become Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3. In an early essay he talked about God as the one

for whom the terms “God spoke” and “it became so” are identical.

In Creation and Fall this idea reaches fuller expression:

That God creates by speaking means that in God the thought, the name, and the work are in their created reality one. What we must understand, therefore, is that the word does not have ‘effects’; instead, God’s word is already the work. What in us breaks hopelessly asunder–the word of command and what takes place–is for God indissolubly one. With God the imperative is the indicative.

This month Logos Bible Software offers Creation and Fall for free. I haven’t read the whole thing, but what I have read has helped even familiar chapters of Scripture come alive in new ways. Highly recommended.

You can find Creation and Fall for Logos here. As part of the same promotion, Logos is also offering Bonhoeffer’s Fiction from Tegel Prison for $0.99.

If you’re not already set up with Logos, feel free to message me here, and I’ll tell you how to do it.

Fall 2014: A New Dietrich Bonhoeffer Book (DBWE 17!)


This October Fortress Press will publish a new–and the final–volume of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (English edition). This is Volume 17: Index and Supplementary Materials.

Here is the description from Fortress Press:

The completion of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, the definitive English translation of the Critical Edition, represents a milestone in theological scholarship. This wonderful series is a translation from the German editions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke. The product of over twenty years of dedicated labor, the comprehensive and thoroughly-annotated sixteen-volume series will be the essential resource that generations of scholars will rely upon to understand the life and work of this seminal thinker in the wider frame of twentieth-century thought and history.

Now, the editorial team has offered an essential companion to the entire series in the form of an index volume.

Here are the book’s contents. It is more than just an index, per se:

General Editor’s Foreword to the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English Edition—Victoria J. Barnett
The Translation of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English Edition: An Overview—Victoria J. Barnett
The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English Edition: A Retrospective—Clifford J. Green
The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke: Afterword to the German Edition—Wolfgang Huber

Part I: Additional Letters and Documents

Part II: Comprehensive Chronology and Master List of Documents
1. Chronology 1906–1945
2. Master List of Documents for DBWE 8–17

Part III: Master Indexes
1. Master Index of Scriptural References
2. Master Index of Names
3. Master Index of Subjects

New to Bonhoeffer? I collected some reflections on his writings after spending much of Lent reading him. All my Bonhoeffer posts are gathered here. I’m currently reading Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible (DBWE 5) and will post a review some time this summer.

As for DBWE 17, here is its product page at Fortress Press. It’s also here at Amazon.

My understanding is that the “Additional Letters and Documents” (Part I) have been published elsewhere, but not necessarily in English, and not in the German Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke. So DBWE 17 will include material that is new to the Works series, some of it appearing in English for the first time anywhere.

The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series in English is described here, available for purchase (hardcover) through Fortress Press here. Fortress Press tells me that once DBWE 17 is published, there will be a discounted purchase rate available for the whole set for a short time this fall.

Geffrey B. Kelly’s Reading Bonhoeffer

I’m a sucker for biblical and theological studies with an unapologetically doxological posture. So it was with excitement that I read John W. Matthews’s concluding sentence in his foreword to Geffrey B. Kelly’s Reading Bonhoeffer: A Guide to His Spiritual Classics and Selected Writings on Peace. Matthews writes:

I believe both the author and the subject [Bonhoeffer] would be disappointed if this book did not somehow draw you, the readers, closer to Jesus Christ and to your neighbor.

Kelly’s short yet substantive book does very much that. His first encounter with Bonhoeffer is intertwined with a beautiful story of his own re-awakening to Jesus. He says in the Preface:

Through Bonhoeffer’s inspirational words Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount seemed to be addressed to me personally for the first time. I was hooked.

Reading Bonhoeffer has four major sections:

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biographical Sketch
  2. On Reading Bonhoeffer’s Spiritual Classic, Discipleship
  3. Life Together: Bonhoeffer on Christian Community
  4. Selected Writings on Peace: An Ecumenical Conference and Two Sermons

The Preface, after describing Kelly’s transformative first read of Discipleship, offers some helpful background information and resources for Bonhoeffer studies. Kelly mentions, for example, his involvement with the International Bonhoeffer Society, English Language Section. He writes about the International Bonhoeffer Congress. And he discusses the genesis of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series (English translation), published by Fortress Press.

1. A Riveting Biographical Sketch

Kelly’s “Biographical Sketch” is longer than Renate Bethge’s short work, and (obviously) a much quicker read than Eberhard Bethge’s monumental biography. 28 pages follow Bonhoeffer through his life, writings, and ministry.

Reading BonhoefferThere are a few things that stand out about Kelly’s short biography. For one, though it’s scant on details of Bonhoeffer’s early life (to be expected, given its length), the overview is thorough and really orients the reader well to Bonhoeffer. Kelly has a knack for succinctly summarizing Bonhoeffer’s writings in understandable language–even Bonhoeffer’s challenging Sanctorum Communio!

Second, Kelly’s biography is itself a gripping narrative. There is real movement as he progress through the various pastoral and academic positions Bonhoeffer held, from Berlin to London, from the seminary at Finkenwalde to the church struggle, Bonhoeffer’s arrest, and his imprisonment. I found myself wanting more dates in places (e.g., “Once back in Berlin…”–when?), but perhaps this omission was deliberate to keep the narrative moving. I was not able to put the book down until I had finished the page-turner of a biography.

Third, Kelly describes many of Bonhoeffer’s key terms and concepts, both in this first section and throughout Reading Bonhoeffer. Even a reader with little or no Bonhoeffer background will walk away from the biographical sketch with confidence to read any of Bonhoeffer’s writing.

Fourth, Kelly is clearly in awe of his subject, and rightly so. This, in turn, allows the reader to be inspired by Bonhoeffer. Kelly includes a treasure trove of Bonhoeffer quotations, some familiar, and some more off-the-beaten path. To wit:

I was quite pleased with myself. Then the Bible, and in particular the Sermon on the Mount, freed me from that. Since then everything has changed…. It was a great liberation. It became clear to me that the life of a servant of Jesus Christ must belong to the church, and step by step it became plainer to me how far that must go.

2. Kelly on Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship

Kelly served as co-editor, with John D. Godsey, of Discipleship, volume 4 in the (English) Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series (DBWE). This second section of Reading Bonhoeffer offers more than 60 pages of commentary on that well-loved Bonhoeffer book, known also as The Cost of Discipleship.

After a brief “history of the text” Kelly proceeds section-by-section through Discipleship. In short, according to Kelly,

Discipleship is a book in which Bonhoeffer uses Jesus’ own words as recorded in the gospels and the exhortations of the apostle Paul to confront readers with the uncushioned challenges to all their inaccurate ideas, falsified by Nazi propaganda, of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

DBWE DiscipleshipReaders of Discipleship will of course already know that much of the book exposits Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but Kelly’s unique contribution as a commentator here is in highlighting the historical context that makes Bonhoeffer’s writing even more remarkable. Not only does Kelly note a particular Nazi evil to which Bonhoeffer may have been alluding, he also points ahead in Bonhoeffer’s life to instances where he would live out the call of his own writings.

As Kelly was co-editor of the DBWE volume, to read his chapter-by-chapter commentary on Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship is to have a guided tour by a leading expert, complete with summary statements and key quotes from that book. It’s well-footnoted with reference to the page numbers in the DBWE edition, so following up in Bonhoeffer’s text is easy. It’s an essential companion.

3. Kelly on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together

The first Bonhoeffer book to be published in the DBWE series was Life Together, which appears as volume 5, bound together with Prayerbook of the Bible. Kelly served as editor of that volume, which includes an introduction and critical apparatus (i.e., lots of informative and orienting footnotes).

DBWE Life TogetherAs with the previous section of Reading Bonhoeffer, Kelly’s commentary on Life Together, although significantly briefer in its section-by-section analysis, serves as a really useful reader’s guide. Its introductory section in this book is thorough, drawing on Kelly’s introduction in the DBWE edition. This sets up the reader well to better understand Bonhoeffer’s important work on community life in the Church.

Kelly, for example, points to “Bonhoeffer’s distinction between being with and being for the others in community.” He traces Bonhoeffer’s interest in building a community, going back even to socio-theological themes in Sanctorum Communio, Bonhoeffer’s first doctoral dissertation. Kelly summarizes and comments on each of the five sections of Life Together in turn: Community, The Day Together, The Day Alone, Service, and Confession and the Lord’s Supper.

4. Peace Writings

Kelly notes the tension that many students and readers of Bonhoeffer experience when they realize a conspirator against Hitler was a peace activist. After tracing the development of Bonhoeffer’s concern for peace, via an overview of his friendship with pacificst Jean Lasserre, Kelly looks at “three texts in which Bonhoeffer reveals himself as an uncompromising advocate for peace on the troubled earth where Nazism ruled with tactics of fear, violence, and the promise of a return to German military glory.” These include a 1932 conference lecture in Switzerland (with excerpts), a 1932 sermon (also with excerpts), and Bonhoeffer’s address to the Ecumenical Council of Christian Churches at Fanø, Denmark in 1934.

Together these orations display Bonhoeffer’s boldness and even impatience at times with inaction around him. In the address in Denmark, for instance, Bonhoeffer says,

Why do we fear the fury of the world powers? Why don’t we take the power from them and give it back to Christ? We can still do it today. The Ecumenical Council is in session; it can send out to all believers this radical call to peace.

Kelly helps Bonhoeffer’s call to peace come alive for the reader many decades later.

Concluding Remarks

There is little to critique in Kelly’s book. However, I was distracted by a number of sentences that were long (multiple modifying prepositional phrases) and comma-less. For example:

[Bonhoeffer] recognizes the danger posted by abandonment of Christ’s vision for the world and the manner in which even basically good people can succumb to the temptations to fall into the compromises in morality for which worldly attitudes are particularly prone, business and government plaudits given to acts of avarice and violence serving as prime examples of why it is necessary to be single-minded in following Christ.

A re-read of every such sentence showed that it was generally clear enough. But additional punctuation or shorter sentences would have helped. If there are future printings of this fine book, perhaps this and a few other minor editorial oversights could be re-visited.

Woven throughout Reading Bonhoeffer are “the twin aspects of Bonhoeffer’s spiritual legacy: scholarly expertise and pastoral care.” Kelly himself writes as one in the academy whose own pastoral sensitivity and concern is fully on display. I can only imagine how engaging and inspiring a Bonhoeffer course with him must be.

Reading Bonhoeffer would be a stimulating read for pastors, theologians, seminary students, and Christians who are intent to more faithfully follow Jesus in both individual and community contexts. The discussion questions at the end of each section will facilitate this book’s use in a small group, Sunday school, or classroom setting.

Kelly writes about Bonhoeffer, yes, but Bonhoeffer points so often and so clearly to Jesus, that a good commentary on Bonhoeffer (which this book is) will do the same. I am grateful for this short, hearty work that Kelly has written, and hope that more DBWE volumes receive similar treatment in the future.

By the way–I’m also grateful to Wipf and Stock Publishers for the review copy. They’ve provided a 40% off coupon code to readers of this blog, good toward the purchase of Reading Bonhoeffer or anything else on Wipf and Stock’s site. Simply use the code LETTERS at checkout. It’s good through the end of May.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (16 Volumes) for $100

Bonhoeffer in Olive Tree

For just a few more days, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (DBW) (16 volumes) are $100 in Olive Tree Bible software. I have not seen DBW in Olive Tree, but have reviewed the app here. Their iOS and desktop apps are free, so if you like Bonhoeffer and have the cash, this is probably the best price for his complete works in English that one will ever find.

(Except for checking the books out from your local theological library, which is even cheaper!)

UPDATE: It would appear this sale has ended, a couple days before the date Olive Tree had given me via FB. Despite the miscommunication, the folks at Olive Tree have let me know the set may go on sale again in the future. To your library!

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


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.