Magazine article Cross Currents

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a Theology of Interfaith Cooperation: Third Speech in the Union Theological Seminary Interfaith Cycle, Originally Delivered March 14, 2013

Magazine article Cross Currents

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a Theology of Interfaith Cooperation: Third Speech in the Union Theological Seminary Interfaith Cycle, Originally Delivered March 14, 2013

Article excerpt

Scenes from the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that are seared in my mind:

  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, son of the German aristocracy, child of one
  of the most respected psychiatrists in the country, declares at
  age 14 that he intends to be a pastor and theologian. His father
  is opposed. telling him: the church is a "poor, feeble, boring,
  petty bourgeois institution." "In that case," the young man says,
  "I shall reform it."

  Bonhoeffer preaching at the funeral of his grandmother in 1936. A
  woman who--just days after Hitler ordered Germans to boycott Jewish
  businesses--walled into a Jewish-owned grocery store right past a
  group of Nazi storm troopers, stating that she would do her shopping
  where she always did her shopping. At her funeral, Bonhoeffer
  eulogized: "She could not bear to see the rights of a person
  violated ... her last years were darkened by the grief that she
  bore about the fate of the Jews in our country ... This heritage,
  for which we are grateful to her, puts us under obligation."

  Bonhoeffer in rural Germany, at the illegal seminary that he ran
  for the Confessing Church, despairing at the onward march of the
  Nazi death machine and the cowering response of too many
  Christians, bringing Harlem to Finkenwalde by leading his students
  in a song he learned while a student at Union Theological Seminary:
  "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."

  Bonhoeffer returning to the United States in 1939 to teach a summer
  course here at Union and go on a lecture tour organized by Reinhold
  Niebuhr, realizing that he made a mistake, and boarding the last
  ocean liner that sailed east across the Atlantic during World War
  II, leaving Niebuhr with a letter that said: "I will have no right
  to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany
  after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my

  Bonhoeffer in the wan light of Cell 92, Tegel prison, writing to
  his friend Eberhard Bethge--"The church is only the church when
  it does for others."

  April 8, 1945, in a school house turned prison near the Nazi
  extermination camp at Flossenburg, a small group of prisoners
  who know the inevitable has arrived, asks Bonhoeffer to lead a
  prayer service for them. He offers a meditation on I Peter, "By
  his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was assassinated by the Nazis the next day. Upon hearing of his martyrdom, Niebhur wrote: "The story of Bonhoeffer ... belongs to the modern acts of the apostles."

This is the last of my three talks as Visiting Distinguished Lecturer here at Union Theological Seminary. I have been deeply honored by this appointment and deeply grateful for this time with you. As I reflect back upon this year, and the people that I have chosen to focus on--Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer--I see a powerful thread running through their lives: the question of what it means to be a person of faith in the times in which we live. This is the question that brought King to Riverside Church in 1967 to speak out against the Vietnam War, it is the energy that moved Heschel to march at Selma, it is the reason that Bonhoeffer declared after the Nuremberg Laws were passed in 1935: "Those who did not cry out for the Jews do not deserve to sing Gregorian chants."

King and Heschel came to Union as mature adults. King was 38 and knew exactly the risk he was taking in giving that full-throated Christian critique of the Vietnam War. Heschel was in his late fifties when he delivered "No Religion Is an Island" here in November 1965, a talk which summed up years of thought and action on interfaith cooperation. But when Bonhoeffer walked these halls in 1930 and 1931, he was just 25, a young man whose views on life and faith and the world were still very much in formation. I imagine him staying up late into the night to discern the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount with his fellow European Jean Lasserre, awakening hour by hour to Jesus's call and command to peacemaking. …

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