So very close to the end of the Second World War, on 9 April 1945, Lutheran minister and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, aged 39, was executed by hanging at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Nazi Germany. After the start of WWII, Bonhoeffer had joined the underground resistance movement in opposition to Hitler. He believed that true
discipleship demanded political resistance against a criminal state. He staunchly resisted Hitler’s Nazi dictatorship and Jewish persecution and genocide.
Bonhoeffer remains one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century.
Bonhoeffer’s writings on being a Christian in the secular world were widely influential and have had a major impact on my life, especially his books The Cost of Discipleship and Letters and Papers from Prison. I first encountered Bonhoeffer’s thought in my early twenties when I was a seminarian at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. There I read and re-read Letters and Papers from Prison.
In a letter written from his Nazi prison cell on April 30, 1944, Bonhoeffer described his thoughts about contemporary Christian life: “You would be surprised,” he wrote, “and perhaps even worried, by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to… What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, for us today.” He continued: “Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious’…. how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any ‘religious’ reaction? What does that mean for ‘Christianity’?”
When he was a young seminarian in his twenties, Bonhoeffer travelled to the United States for postgraduate study at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. There he encountered life-changing experiences and friendships. He studied under Reinhold Niebuhr and met Frank Fisher, a black fellow seminarian who introduced him to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Bonhoeffer began to see things “from below.” He said he “turned from phraseology to reality.” What was happening to Bonhoeffer was a personal conversion from being a theologian primarily attracted to the intellectual side of Christianity to being a dedicated man of faith.
Travel helps one better see oneself and to see bigger realities. Today I write about D. Bonhoeffer not J. Dick; but when I was a seminarian in my twenties I travelled to Europe for postgraduate theological study. My life for a while was turned upside down. Bonhoeffer’s thought was a strong spiritual guide as I started to really think about my own reality. My father use to chuckle and say “after Louvain, Jack was never the same.”
Today, 71 years after his death, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and writings challenge us all to pursue justice even when it’s not popular, to care for and defend the persecuted, and to relentlessly ponder and follow the Gospel.
A concluding reflection: Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed that someday, a time would come when Christians would once again powerfully proclaim the word of God so that the world could be transformed and renewed by it.
“It will be a new language,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming — as was Jesus’ language. It will shock people and yet overcome them by its power. It will be the language of a new righteousness and truth….”
And that was my inspiration for Another Voice. I hope I can meet the challenge.