April 9 – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christian thinker

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 into a scholarly and academic family which, though not actively “church-going” was steeped in the humanitarian and liberal traditions that were prevalent in the Christian church within Germany in the later part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries.  Like all his siblings, he was intellectually astute, was a talented musician and well grounded in the art and literature of his time.  At the same time, he rejoiced in the love of family and friends, and appreciated deeply the beauties of the natural world.
He seemed to be set for an academic career, and became lecturer in Systematic Theology at Berlin University.  In the 1930s, however, Bonhoeffer became an opponent of Hitler’s National Socialism in Germany.  He quickly understood that the policies of this political movement focused on mere human endeavour and a complete denial of the presence and power of God.  His opposition to the policies of Hitler led ultimately to his imprisonment and death.
Before that happened, however, Bonhoeffer became a leader in the Bekennende Kirche (the “Confessing Church” which was opposed to the pro-Nazi “German Evangelical Church”), and he participated in the preparation of the “Barmen Confession”.  This document rejected the doctrines of the “German Evangelical Church” – that the church was subordinate to the state, and the Word and the Spirit were subordinate to the church – and reasserted the Lordship of Christ over the Church, and the submission of the Church to the Holy Spirit and Holy Scripture.
Bonhoeffer’s influence within the worldwide Church comes from his commitment to Christian discipleship as a fundamental component of Christian community.  Even before his formal ministry began (in Barcelona in 1928) he had gathered a group of friends with whom he discussed issues of faith, including questions about the difference between religion founded on human experience and community based on living in the way of Christ.  Following his martyrdom in 1945, friends in Germany, England and the United States took pains to ensure that his written works were made more widely available.  Books like The Cost of Discipleship (a book of addresses on the Sermon on the Mount) and Life Together (a handbook of Christian community) provide insights into Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the ways in which we are called to follow Christ.
Bonhoeffer’s poems and prayers also provide the essence of his theology and faith.  Together in Song provides a poem (song number 240: “All go to God when they are sorely placed”) in which Bonhoeffer brings together an awareness of our need for God, of God’s need for us, and of God’s grace in denying no-one the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection. And a section of a prayer recorded in Letters and Papers from Prison gives insight into Bonhoeffer’s confidence in and reliance on God’s presence and love:

O God, …

In me there is darkness,

But with you there is light.

I am lonely, but you leave me not.

I am feeble in heart, but you leave me not.

I am restless, but with you there is peace.

In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;

Your ways are beyond understanding, but

You know the way for me.        (language updated)

 Graham Vawser