Listening to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life – Part One

What does it mean to “listen” to a human life?  What does it mean to really hear what a person’s life might be saying to the world? If we listen to the spirit behind the words and actions that characterized the life of Dietrich

Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of Tegel prison (summer, 1944) — Christian Kaiser Verlag

Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of Tegel prison (summer, 1944) — Christian Kaiser Verlag

Bonhoeffer, what might we hear that is instructive for our time as dark totalitarian forces rise up, once again, targeting the Jewish people?

Everyone agrees that Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s level of personal risk in opposing the horror descending upon Europe during the Holocaust era was an extraordinary, and all too rare, example of faith-based moral courage at a time when such risks were met with sudden, brutal, and, most often, lethal, force.  Bonhoeffer ultimately died for operating at such a high level of personal risk. His impassioned anti-Nazi zeal was a burst of fervent light that extended well beyond the more moderate course of action the rest of the Confessing Church was willing to take in protest of the growing criminality of the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer’s radical theological critique of the Nazi state is duly noted as being one of the main reasons for his not having had more impact on the direction taken by his Christian peers within the Confessing Church at the time. His determination to oppose the Nazi menace seems to have been fueled by his ability to comprehend the degree of its ultimate capacity for evil.

Given his willingness to risk his life for the sake of his convictions – even while distancing himself from the support and camaraderie of his peers – I’ve always wondered about the exact nature of Bonhoeffer’s theological connection to the most hated target of Hitler‘s regime: the Jewish people.  I finally decided to research the subject and see what there was to be found. Surely something rare, unique, and ultimately divine must have inspired this man to dare shake such a closed, defiant fist in the face of the Nazi monster screaming toward him and the rest of Europe. But what was it that defined the Lutheran clergyman’s focused resistance? Was Bonhoeffer “the-German-theologian” motivated by a deep and abiding grafted-in sense of theological “oneness” with the Jewish people based on his faith in Jesus Christ? Or, was Bonhoeffer “the-Lutheran-pastor” so contaminated theologically by the centuries of anti-Jewish Church teaching to have been motivated solely by a detached, extraordinarily elevated, sense of moral Christian purpose outside of any positive theological relationship to G-d’s chosen people?

As it turns out, in the wake of the anniversary of his centenary in 2006, more research into Bonhoeffer’s writings has become available.  One thing that seems to have been universally confirmed by the increase of insight is the previous understanding that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an immensely complex person, an immensely complex thinker. But it’s also gradually coming to light that Bonhoeffer’s theological view of the Jewish people was most likely not the prime motivating factor in his decision to act in the extreme against the Nazi regime. This is somewhat of a disappointment for me; not at all the “romantic,” heartfelt motivation I’d personally, and simplistically, hoped for.  But, then again, we learn over time that some of our hoped-for expectations are the stuff of dreams not often in direct correspondence to realities actually occurring on the ground.

As C.S. Lewis cautions, “There is wishful thinking in Hell as well as on Earth.”

All said and done, as I absorb the studied opinions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life, my optimism is building as to what it all may mean for Western Christianity – especially those who see the previous darkness that descended upon the Jewish people in 1930’s Europe as having haunting parallels to the darkness rising up against Israel today.

It’s occurred to me that, in the end, we may find the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaking to us in ways that we haven’t yet fully realized.

… to be continued …

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