Is This a Bonhoeffer Moment?

Is Lessons for American Christians from the Confessing Church in Germany.

This article appears in the February 2018 issue of Sojourners magazine

 ARE WE IN a “Bonhoeffer moment” today?

It is common to wonder what we would have done if we lived in history’s most challenging times. Christians often find moral guidance in the laboratory of history—which is to say that we learn from historical figures and communities who came through periods of ethical challenge better than others. Christians who wish to discern faithfulness to Christ often look back to learn how others were able to determine faithful discipleship when their contemporaries could not.

With this in mind, Dietrich Bonhoeffer may help us out today.

Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor who resisted his government when he recognized, very early and very clearly, the dangers of Hitler’s regime. His first warning about the dangers of a leader who makes an idol of himself came in a radio address delivered in February 1933, just two days after Hitler took office.

Despite an abiding Christ-centered peace ethic, a desire to study nonviolent political resistance with Gandhi, and extensive writing about loving one’s enemies, Bonhoeffer eventually became a member of a conspiracy that was responsible for a coup attempt against Hitler. Twelve years after he became one of the first voices in Germany to offer public opposition to the Nazis, Bonhoeffer was executed by them, as a traitor.

By Bonhoeffer’s own account, he and his co-conspirators were living in a time and place in which “the huge masquerade of evil has thrown all ethical concepts into confusion” and in which evil appears in the “form of light, good deeds, historical necessity, [and] social justice.” They were living in a time that required a radical form of ethical discernment, attuned to concrete reality, historical urgency, and the desperate cries of help from victims of the state.

Throughout his life, Bonhoeffer developed theological themes that made social interaction the point of departure for understanding Christian faithfulness. He emphasized redemptive suffering in solidarity with the most vulnerable as well as what he called “costly grace,” and he made a distinction between religion and Christ-centeredness; religion is our effort to reach God while Christ-centeredness embraces God’s self-revelation to the world in the incarnation and in the church. In his final years, Bonhoeffer emphasized Christ-centeredness as religionless, or this-worldly, Christianity.

These are themes that qualify him as one of Martin Luther’s “theologians of the cross”; that is, people—like Bonhoeffer—who join God in the world, in solidarity with those who suffer, and who make difficult, even countercultural decisions, especially in times when evil is disguised as good.

Perpetrators, bystanders, and resisters

We live in a time of moral obscurity. . .


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