Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

When I First Met Bonhoeffer

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

When I First Met Bonhoeffer

Article excerpt

At this time of year, when we remember God's incarnation into the world, we also remember those who lived that gift of God in and to the world. One such person was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp 60 years ago this past April.

When I first met Dietrich Bonhoeffer through reading his books, he explained the world of faith to me and helped me understand the difficult religious experiences I had known in America. The evangelical Christian world I had grown up in talked incessantly about Christ but never paid much attention to the things that Jesus taught. Salvation became an intellectual assent to a concept, rather than any radical turnabout in one's life direction.

Then I read Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship, which relied heavily on the beatitudes and the idea that our treatment of the oppressed was a test of faith. To believe in Jesus meant to follow him, Bonhoeffer said. Believing in Jesus was not enough; we were called to obey his words, to live by what Jesus said, to show our allegiance to the kingdom of God which had broken into the world in Christ. What a radical idea! And such an obvious one, yet almost entirely missed by the American churches of the 20th century. Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned of the "cheap grace" that promotes belief without obedience, and I knew exactly what that meant. He spoke of "costly discipleship" and asked, how could the grace that came at the tremendous cost of the cross require so little of us?

We fledgling seminarians in Chicago were catching fire with the idea of "radical discipleship," and Bonhoeffer provided us the textbook. "Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth."

I realized that what I had mostly experienced was an American Christianity without Christ, a religion highly conformed to its culture and mostly uncritical of its nation.

At the same time, I had just experienced a secular student movement that had lost its way, that had no firm foundations to build upon and no spiritual compass for people's lives or their politics. Without any spiritual or moral depth, protest often turned to bitterness, cynicism, or despair. Finding Jesus again, after years of alienation from the churches, had re-energized 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.

THE MORE I READ Bonhoeffer, the more amazed I became. He seemed to break all the categories. He was a brilliant intellectual (earning his doctoral degree at the age of 21), yet felt called by the crisis of his historical moment to act, not just to think. He was both a contemplative and an activist, who showed that you really can't be one without becoming the other as well. His insistence on the life of personal discipleship to give belief its credibility was matched by his conviction that the life of community was the essential way to demonstrate faith in the world. …

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