Magazine article The Christian Century

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ecumenical Vision

Magazine article The Christian Century

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ecumenical Vision

Article excerpt

On April 9, 1945, SS officers in the Flossenburg concentration camp carried out Hitler's orders to execute some of the last remaining "enemies of the Reich." Among their victims was the 39-year-old theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who went to his death, according to a witness, "brave and composed ... I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God."

It must have been clear that April morning to the guards in Flossenburg that their days in power were numbered. At several camps further to the east, the SS had already fled. Yet the Nazis vindictively murdered their opponents until the end. Over 5,000 Germans were executed between the July 20, 1944, assassination attempt on Hitler and the end of the Third Reich in May 1945; among them were Bonhoeffer's brother Klaus and brother-in-law Rudiger Schleicher, shot in Berlin on April 23.

It was as though, with the end in sight, Nazi leaders had decided to eradicate the moral leadership of postwar Germany. They did not entirely succeed, but the absence of Bonhoeffer and other resistance leaders left an immeasurable void in the postwar political landscape. We will never know what the world would have been like had they survived to lead Europe out of the ruins.

Nonetheless, the initial impact of Bonhoeffer's death was felt less in his native Germany than in the international ecumenical community. During the final months of the war, ecumenical leaders such as Willem Vissert' Hooft of the Netherlands and Bishop George Bell of England discussed the imminent re-establishment of ties with the German churches. Bonhoeffer's name was on every list of potential leaders. The sense of loss within the ecumenical world at the news of his death went beyond personal grief. Bell described Bonhoeffer's death as a tragedy not only for Germany but for all of Europe.

There was less unanimity among German Protestant leaders, many of whom saw Bonhoeffer as too overtly political and divisive a figure. Bonhoeffer himself realized this in the early months of the Kirchenkampf; it was one factor in his decision to leave Germany in October 1933 for a parish in London. As he wrote to Karl Barth, he found little support for his views, even among friends, and had decided "to go for a while into the desert."

After he returned to Germany in 1935, Bonhoeffer led a small illegal seminary in a remote region in the east. Periodically, he emerged with his students to serve as a thorn in the side of official Protestantism. At the 1935 Confessing Synod at Steglitz, he and his students traveled to Berlin to lobby on behalf of the increasing number of racial victims of Nazism. They won a small (though not insignificant) victory: the Synod, meeting only two weeks after the passage of the Nuremberg racial laws, tabled a statement that expressed tacit church support for those laws. Still, the Synod's support for non-Aryan Christians (it refused to even discuss the plight of non-Christian Jews) was, in the words of Martin Niemoller, "even less than the minimum" of what should have been said.

Bonhoeffer led futile protests against the Confessing Church's 1938 decision to allow pastors to swear an oath of loyalty to the Fuhrer and the wartime "legalization" of Confessing pastors (in which they made some concessions to the official church in return for financial and career security). These controversial stands prevented him from ever becoming a central figure in the Confessing Church. Although he was enormously loved and respected by his students, the rest of the church disregarded him. Many Confessing Christians never heard of Bonhoeffer until after 1945.

Given this history, Bonhoeffer's posthumous influence is all the more astonishing. His theological writings, letters and papers have a timeless and universal appeal, despite the fact that they were written in a very specific time and place. Bonhoeffer's thought has inspired several generations of German theology students, African-Americans, Latin American Catholics, South Korean activists and many others. …

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