Tag Archives: dietrich bonhoeffer

Shapeshifting Hippie Jesus

A popular progressive blogger recently said that Jesus “doesn’t lay heavy teachings on people” in connection with his yoke being easy and his burden light (Matt 11:28).

So if Jesus’ teaching seems too heavy and hard for folks (Lk 9:23), does this mean that they merely need to reinterpret Jesus or soften his commands in order to ease their discomfort? I sure hope not.

I prefer Bonhoeffer’s sentiment that those who accept Christ’s commands are the ones who find his yoke easy and the burden light, but to those who resist them (him) his yoke is hard and the burden too heavy for anyone to carry. Just ask the rich man, or those listening to the Sermon on the Mount for the first time.

Jesus didn’t say, “accept yourself and take up your sword and follow me.”

Which translates this way today: I’m fine the way I am and I’ll fight (by whatever means necessary) anyone who says otherwise.

This seems to be particularly reflective of our narcissistic, morally relativistic American society still experiencing the destructive political and social consequences of the 1960’s. We can easily see the error of the tactics used by the Religious Right in the 1980’s to promote a power-over, politicized Jesus, but it was the social “hippie” revolution that completely emasculated Christ and transformed him into an anything-goes “love” guru.

If you follow my writings, you know that I’m not down with the cage-fighting Jesus. I’m an Anabaptist. I believe that Christ is love (agape) and peace as revealed on the cross, but these truths are understood in their purest form after letting Jesus define them for us in word and deed, even in the hard stuff.

It doesn’t happen, and will never happen, by shaping Jesus to fit a new cultural trend, what is politically correct, or what the current zeitgeist (spirit of the age) would have us believe about ourselves, the Messiah, and the sacred Scriptures.

Anyone who reads the Gospels will hear Jesus teaching a radical repentance to come into the Kingdom (Matt 3:8; Mk 1:15; Lk 5:32; 13:1, etc.), but our shape-shifting of Jesus to accommodate our cultural presuppositions about ourselves and our world appears to be keeping us from actually repenting of anything.

Jesus didn’t lay heavy teachings on people? No, quite the opposite. But this is where we are today: well-intentioned folks fed up with fundamentalism not realizing how dangerously close they are to reshaping Jesus to further their own interests and agendas—another version of fundamentalism, the libertine sort.

As Jesus said, “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” to those who lived by the law. I’d say it equally applies to those who use fancy-free language that make folks feel better about their sin in order to promote an easy believism, or a moral therapeutic deism. They both stink to high heaven!

To be clear, I don’t think the one who said Jesus “doesn’t lay heavy teachings on people” really believes that the love of Christ is an “anything-goes” sort of thing, but this misleading rhetoric inevitably sets a person on a trajectory of disaster. It’s not the pathway of repentance for the inheritance of the Kingdom.

Christ ought to be forming us into his image, not the other way around. That is the critical difference. It’s certainly what has made all the difference in my life.

What do you think? When you read the Gospels, is Jesus laying down some hard stuff? Do you hear Jesus extending a high invitation and high challenge to those who would join him?

D.D. Flowers, 2014.


On Christian Community, Diversity & Equality

We just recently celebrated the life and work of the great civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There is no doubt that King will forever stand as a symbol of civil and social justice against the menacing tide of racism. He yearned for equality in the United States, and around the world as well.

At the end of last year we remembered the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, the South African leader who helped end apartheid. Two men. Two countries. One passion. It amazes me what God can do through broken people!

I see much of Christ in these men, and celebrate their accomplishments, but I think it is important to remember Christ himself as the purest symbol of diversity and equality. And not just as a symbol, but as a LIVING Spirit at work in the world to draw all men into divine community—which is far different from a world community apart from him. That much is clear today.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognized in his time the need for authentic community, with Christ at the center.

“Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.” Life Together, p.21

Bonhoeffer went on to say that Christian community is governed by the Spirit, in human community it is psychological techniques and methods (p.32).

There is a difference between the community of sinners and the community of saints. The spiritual love of Christ fuels authentic human community. This is absent in the pop-cultural expressions of love and acceptance.

While I do believe that a world which doesn’t know Christ can share in the abundant overflow of God’s love and grace permeating throughout creation, in sincere pursuit of human community, there will always be a missing Center.

Only community with Christ at its center is restorative, redemptive, LIFE-giving, and everlasting.

This has been recognized throughout church history, beginning with Christ himself. You can’t have community without love, and you can’t truly know love without first knowing the God revealed in Jesus (1 Jn 4:7-9).

Therefore, community for the Christian ultimately comes through separation from the world. In the world, yes. But certainly not of the world (Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 2:12). A truth that we are hearing less and less these days.

The postmodern idea of diversity and equality is not the same as that of the divine Christian community established by Christ. The rhetoric is often the same, but they stand in stark contrast to each other. Think about it.

The former doesn’t recognize sin as a spiritual sickness and therefore denies the need for a savior, for repentance, renewal, and transformation.

In today’s world, this sort of human “community” ultimately explains sin away as merely a genetic problem, external cultural forces, or simply says there was/is NO problem in the first place.

The gospel of Christ, and the whole of Scripture, testifies that human beings have a sin problem. Even as someone who personally believes in theistic evolution, I affirm Christ and the Scriptures about the broken state of human beings and their futile attempts at global solidarity (Gen 3; 11:1-9; Rom 3:23).

When Peter recognizes he is in the presence of a holy Jesus, he falls down and cries, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Lk 5:8). Jesus doesn’t reply with, “No, you’re just a product of evolution… your daddy beat you… you just need to accept who you are… the power of positive thinking can help!”

To be clear, I’m confident that Jesus would recognize that modern scientific discoveries can help us understand ourselves better today than in the first century, and that he would suggest some counseling for troubled folks, but it is post-enlightenment arrogance to assign Jesus’ language and teaching to “pre-scientific” ignorance about the human psyche. The spiritual component is no less real than that which can be charted by a neurologist or your therapist. In fact, Jesus saw the spirit, mind, and body as a whole.

So, let’s call selfish, destructive behavior what it is: sin. We all experience sin at work in us everyday. It wars against us (Rom 7). And there is only one remedy.

Jesus was clear that he came, “not to call the righteous, but to save sinners” (Mk 2:17). He actually seeks out sinners (Matt 9:9-13). He tells us to repent of our sins and come into the Kingdom he is preparing for those who are willing to be transformed into his glorious image (Mk 1:15; Lk 13:2-6; 2 Cor 3:18). There is no salvation apart from repentance.

This Kingdom is about the here and the now. This salvation is for today.

God calls us, as broken sinners, into a community of saints who practice repentance and have foresworn all sinful behavior.

This divine Christian community discovers diversity and equality through the salvific work of Christ to transform sinners into saints, not by overlooking our deep human brokenness for the sake of secular tolerance.

The call is for people of every tribe and tongue to repent of their sin and come into the Kingdom of God. This diversity does not allow for a moral licentiousness and a tolerance of all human behaviors (Eph 4:17-32; Col 3:1-17).

Remember, it is a community of Christ. Christ, who shows us what it means to be fully human, must be the Center of community.

There is grace for the journey, even in the church. But the reality of sin and the need for repentance must be acknowledged if divine community is to be experienced. Only then can we know what is part of our God-given humanness, and what is to be repented of for individual wholeness, as well as for the forming of Christ’s Body on the earth.

Let’s agree on that, brothers and sisters.

This is what the communion table represents—a community of sinners-made-saints who are daily repenting of sin, being fashioned and formed into Christ, and celebrate together the past, present, and future of this new reality.

Eat and drink in remembrance of him.

D.D. Flowers, 2014.

Why the World Hates Jesus of Nazareth (1 of 7)

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”  Jesus, Jn. 15:18


Why would anyone actually hate Jesus? It’s much more understandable that people might have an extreme dislike for Christians, being that many professing believers don’t take the teachings of Jesus very seriously.

But hate Jesus?

It’s no secret that many skeptics and critics of Christianity would agree with Ghandi, the Hindu guru who admired Jesus for his call to non-violent resistance. Ghandi said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.”

I will be the first to empathize with this sort of repugnant response from non-believers against the Christian faith. It’s disheartening to know that many Christians have outright rejected the teachings of Jesus—either largely due to ignorance or extensive efforts to do some manner of hermeneutical gymnastics around the biblical text.

Regardless of the reason, there is simply no excuse for it. If you’re an atheist or skeptic reading this, I’m sorry that some Christians make it difficult for you to see the image and will of God fully expressed in the person of Jesus. I’m sorry when and where I have failed you.

Truthfully, even authentic followers of Jesus will fail to live up to Christ’s example. Therefore, if you are a skeptic, I would say there are Christians that accept all of the teachings of Jesus and are presently on a journey of faith with the intent to see Christ’s life manifested through them by the power of his Spirit. There are real disciples—true learners.

Now let me say that I don’t think that misguided Christians should be the basis by which a person makes a judgment about Jesus Christ of Nazareth. As he said to those in his own day who were trying to make up their mind about him, Jesus says to all of us today:

“Who do you say that I am?”

Who was Jesus? What did he teach? What did he believe about himself? What did he accomplish in his short ministry? And what does it have to do with me? If we will approach the Gospels in all sincerity and with an open heart, I believe we may encounter Christ for ourselves.

So what is it that Jesus had in mind when he said that the world would hate his followers because it first hated him? Well, rest assured that it’s not for being hypocritical, or for purposely being self-righteous jerks.

Jesus said, “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (Jn. 15:19).

What then does it mean to “not belong” to this present world system? For that is indeed what Jesus has in mind. He is not promoting some sort of Gnostic escapism. His kingdom is not of this world, but it is for this world.

As God intends to bring heaven to earth, how has Christ called us to live in this world that lovers of the world would hate us for it?

That’s what this series of posts will address.

I intend to argue that we must take Jesus at his word or do away with him entirely. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer has written, “There are only two ways possible of encountering Jesus: man must die or he must put Jesus to death.” In other words, you must lose your life if you wish to save it.

In an attempt to clarify the gospel message for Christians and skeptics alike, I have chosen seven primary reasons for why the political and religious leaders in the first century hated Jesus and had him put to death. And of course why the world system still hates Jesus of Nazareth today.

I will briefly expound on each of these in the next six posts:

  1. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God.

  2. Jesus was not patriotic.

  3. Jesus was not religious.

  4. Jesus rejected materialism.

  5. Jesus challenged worldly wisdom.

  6. Jesus was loving and intolerant.

  7. Jesus revealed the new way to be human.

This is not an exhaustive list. I have simply decided to use these seven provocative statements to summarize the radical life and teachings of Jesus.

This summary will help us to stare long and hard at the most controversial man in all of human history, and to rethink what we thought we knew about the radical Jewish Messiah from Nazareth.

It’s my hope that Christians will consider if they have fully accepted the teachings of Jesus regarding the gospel of the kingdom of God, and if they are intentional in being obedient to Christ’s commands.

If you are a skeptic, it’s my prayer that you will open your heart to the historical Jesus in the Gospels of the New Testament—that you might know him as being alive today and doing something about evil.

In my next post, I’ll begin by expounding on the first two reasons together, since they are related. For the remaining five, I will address each of them individually. I intend to keep them succinct as possible for easier reading.

1. Jesus Proclaimed the Kingdom of God and 2. Jesus Was Not Patriotic.

D.D. Flowers, 2013.

Christ, Community, & Christian Ethics

Christ, Community, & Christian Ethics:             The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Since his death, and especially in the last two decades, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) has stirred the hearts and minds of Christians worldwide. It is through his life and writings that he has earned a place in history as one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century. Bonhoeffer presented a stimulating challenge to a church that had colluded with the secular powers, and that had lost the will to resist evil with Christian discipleship.

Bonhoeffer is popularly remembered for his attention to Christ’s demands in the Sermon on the Mount. He provocatively discussed these demands in his book Discipleship. He wrote, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.”[1] However, it is his works on Christology, ecclesiology, and theological ethics that readers have appreciated Bonhoeffer as an innovative Christian thinker.[2] Above all it was Bonhoeffer’s ingenuity amidst a crippled church and his resilience in the face of an evil political regime that has led to his enduring legacy as a Nazi resister.

It is the purpose of this paper to survey the literary and theological contributions of Bonhoeffer by: (1) briefly discussing his particular situation and context, (2) appraising his ideas born out of social, cultural, and political adversity, (3) offering praise and critique of his unique contributions to Christian faith and living. More specifically, this paper will highlight those literary works of Bonhoeffer that reveal the thinking behind his actions as a disciple of Christ. This paper will conclude with a sensitive critique of Bonhoeffer’s theological ethics.


Nazi Germany and the Confessing Church

Adolf Hitler ascended to power in Germany in January of 1933. The German Christian Church eventually fell complacent, even submissive to the ideals of the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer shortly after became a founding member of a new church, a “Confessing Church” formally founded at Barmen in May of 1934. Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church dedicated itself to remaining free of the anti-Semitism that had plagued Germany.

The Barmen Declaration, principally authored by Swiss theologian Karl Barth, plainly stated what the German church had always believed according the Scriptures. Therefore, it rejected the state’s takeover of the church, it repudiated the anti-Semitic agenda of the Nazis, and it denounced other heresies set forth by German Christians.[3]

The following excerpt directly addresses extreme nationalism:

We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church’s vocation as well. We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State. The Church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and sacrament. We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans (Theological Declaration Concerning the Present Situation of the German Evangelical Church, 8.23-27).[4]

The Confessing Church received increasing pressure from the Gestapo, and Bonhoeffer soon found himself in the minority as the Evangelical Church turned away from the Gospel of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. In August of 1937, the Confessing Church was declared illegal. The following month, the Gestapo shut down the church’s Finkenwalde seminary. Twenty-seven of Bonhoeffer’s students were arrested, others were forced to join the army. In January of the next year, the Gestapo banned Bonhoeffer from Berlin, and the Nazis began burning down churches.

Union Seminary and the Harlem Experience

Bonhoeffer first visited the United States in 1931 to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He developed a friendship with four Union students: Jean Lasserre (French), Erwin Sutz (Swiss), Paul Lehmann (American), and Albert Franklin “Frank” Fisher (African American).

Jean Lasserre, a devout pacifist, was a major influence on Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the Sermon on the Mount. It is true that Bonhoeffer likely read the antiwar novel All Quiet on the Western Front in seminary, but it was the viewing of the film with Lasserre that brought a lasting change in Bonhoeffer. Eric Metaxas writes:

The sadness of the violence and suffering on the screen brought Bonhoeffer and Lasserre to tears, but even worse to them was the reaction in the theater. Lassarre remembered American children in the audience laughing and cheering when Germans, from whose point of view the story was told, were killing the French. For Bonhoeffer, it was unbearable. Lassarre believed that on that afternoon Bonhoeffer became a pacifist. Lassarre spoke often about the Sermon on the Mount and how it informed his theology. From that point forward it became a central part of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology, too, which eventually led him to write his most famous book, The Cost of Discipleship.[5]

While Lasserre helped to shape Bonhoeffer’s thinking on non-violent resistance, it was Frank Fisher an African American from Alabama that would have the greatest influence on Bonhoeffer’s life and theology. Bonhoeffer was not all that impressed with many liberal churches in New York that had given up the centrality of Christ for social activism, but he was captivated by the experience of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

Fisher introduced him to the African American community that sang and preached Christ with great passion and conviction. It was there at Abyssinian that Bonhoeffer heard Christ-centered preaching that fueled action for social justice on behalf of the oppressed Negro people. At the time, Bonhoeffer had never seen such bigotry and racism.

Bonhoeffer once remarked that there was no “analogous situation in Germany” that compared to the treatment of blacks by whites. “It is a bit unnerving that in a country with so inordinately many slogans about brotherhood, peace, and so on, such things still continue completely uncorrected,” said Bonhoeffer.[6] His experiences in Harlem would prepare him for what he would soon encounter in his own country with the Jews.

Bonhoeffer would return to America a second time in June of 1939 to take a teaching position at Union Theological Seminary, as he avoided the military call-up issued by Germany. But Bonhoeffer was deeply troubled as he contemplated the will of God for his life and for Germany in such a dark hour under Hitler. In a letter to Reinhold Neibuhr, he wrote:

I have had time to think and to pray about my situation and that of my nation and to have God’s will for me clarified. I have come to the conclusion that I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I shall 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 people.[7]

After only twenty-six days in New York, Bonhoeffer resigned and returned to Germany the following month. He committed himself to endure the hardships of his people during wartime.[8]

From Pacifist Pastor to Nazi Resister

World War II began on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. In October of 1940, the Gestapo banned Bonhoeffer from speaking in public, and soon after was forbidden to publish his writings. Bonhoeffer had already been receiving inside information for some time from his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, who worked with Military Intelligence, and was part of a growing resistance to Hitler.

After having been silenced by the Gestapo, Bonhoeffer would learn of new horrifying details about the Third Reich that prompted him to begin taking an active role against Hitler for the sake of Germany and the church. He was convinced that Hitler must be removed from power.

Hitler was unveiling an evil plan, which he had been waiting to act on since his rise to power. “Hitler received moral support for his claim to be the God-given executor of historical justice, and only a small remnant was able to perceive, precisely here, Satan in the form of an angel of light,” wrote Bonhoeffer.[9]

In July of 1940, Bonhoeffer made the decision to serve as a “V-Man” (Verbindungsmann, or confidential agent) for Military Intelligence under another lead military resister, Admiral Canaris. Metaxas writes:

Canaris and the others in German military leadership thought that Hitler’s bestial nature was unfortunate, but they had no idea it was something that he cultivated and celebrated, that it was part of an ideology that had been waiting for this opportunity to leap at the throats of every Jew and Pole, priest and aristocrat, and tear them to pieces. The German generals had not seen the dark river of blood bubbling beneath the surface of the new Germany, but suddenly here it was, gushing like a geyser. Despite all the hints and warnings, it was too gruesome to be believed.[10]

Bonhoeffer’s sister-in-law once wrote to him saying, “You Christians are glad when someone else does what you know must be done, but it seems that somehow you are unwilling to get your own hands dirty and do it.”[11]

To be clear, it wasn’t out of pressure that Bonhoeffer joined the resistance and decided to get his “hands dirty” in the process, it was out of conviction. Eberhard Bethge, friend and biographer, remembers Bonhoeffer’s shift “from confession to resistance” when they were together during a call to salute Hitler: “Bonhoeffer raised his arm in the regulation Hitler salute, while I stood there dazed. “Raise your arm! Are you crazy?” he whispered to me, and later: “We shall have to run risks for very different things now, but not for that salute!”[12] Bonhoeffer embraced the double-life, the lies, and the deception that goes along with being a conspirator and Nazi resister, and he felt strongly it was the will of God for his life.

Bonhoeffer continued writing and pastoring while he kept his front as Abwehr agent with the Nazi regime. He was engaged in a “high-stakes game of deception upon deception”—convinced that he was being obedient to God. Metaxas writes: “Bonhoeffer was not telling little white lies. In Luther’s famous phrase, he was “sinning boldly.”[13]

The resistance made several attempts to assassinate Hitler, but all attempts failed. Bonhoeffer did manage to help Jews escape Germany and keep pastors out of the military. He made frequent trips abroad in order to communicate with the allies that there was a real resistance to Hitler.

The Nazis were bearing down on the Confessing Church and all those who conspired against them. It was shortly after one resister’s failed attempt to detonate a bomb in his overcoat while in the presence of Hitler that the Gestapo began to close in on the conspirators. In April of 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested with the rest of the resistance. The Nazis knew of his efforts to help Jews while under the guise as an Abwehr agent. And they would later discover Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the assassination plot.

Bonhoeffer was incarcerated at Tegel prison in Berlin for two years, with a short stint at a Gestpo prison for interrogations. He continued to write letters and papers from prison.[14] He encouraged the inmates there, and even established a relationship with a solider that wanted to escape with Bonhoeffer.[15] But he refused to escape and put the lives of those he loved in further danger. Finally, he was taken to Flossenbürg concentration camp, marched naked to the gallows, and executed for high treason on April 9, 1945. He was 39 years old. His final words were, “This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.”[16] Less than a month later, the war was over.


The Centrality of Christ

In the Summer of 1933, Bonhoeffer gave a series of lectures on Christology at the University of Berlin. Prior to these lectures, he had already been in dialogue with his students about the role Christ plays in all matters of life, including matters of the state.

What was the church going to do about the growing threat of the Nazi regime? How would she respond on behalf of the poor and the oppressed, racist social policy, and the prospect of war? For Bonhoeffer, making Christ central means living in the world, it means social action.

[Bonhoeffer] decried the church’s hesitation to hear Christ’s gospel in movements toward social justice. Crass opportunism coupled with cowardly passivity had rendered the church irrelevant to average workers who had as little use for a capitalist Christ impervious to their needs as for a church rallying the troops around the flag of privilege.[17]

The church in Germany had compartmentalized her faith to a great degree. She had joined the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. It was later during Bonhoeffer’s incarceration that he would reflect on his time as a “world come of age.” Jeffrey Pugh writes, “By this Bonhoeffer had in mind a world of increasing maturity that was able to arrange itself very well without the tutelage of religion or God.”[18] Therefore, Bonhoeffer envisioned a new sort of Christianity, with Christ at the center—a new brand of “religionless” Christianity. The only way to get at this kind of faith is to have a real, holistic encounter with the living Christ.

The eternal Christ cannot be shaped to fit our own agendas. As Bonhoeffer said in his lectures, “There are only two ways possible of encountering Jesus: man must die or he must put Jesus to death.”[19] Bonhoeffer believed that the person and work of Christ is central to Christian faith. He said, “This complete Christ is the historical Jesus, who can never in any way be separated from his work.”[20] Christology and soteriology cannot be separated and continue to be true Christian faith.

The soterian (salvation) gospel alone, divorced from obedience to the teachings of Christ, is no gospel at all. Bonhoeffer stated, “It is through the work that I recognize the gracious God. My sin is forgiven, I am no longer in death, but in life. All this depends upon the person of Christ, whether his work perishes in the world of death or abides in a new world of life.”[21] According to Bethge, the Christology lectures in the Summer of 1933 were “the high point of Bonhoeffer’s academic career.”[22]

Christ in Community

Bonhoeffer believed that truth is a person (Jn 14:6). He said, “Truth is not something in itself, which rests for itself, but something that happens between two. Truth happens only in community.”[23] The discovery of God’s will in Christ happens in the context of community. His doctoral dissertation, at the age of twenty-one, was entitled, Sanctorum Communio (The Communion of Saints), and was first published in 1930.[24] Karl Barth called his work a “theological miracle.”[25]

From the very beginning, Bonhoeffer was captured by the sociology of the church, “Christ existing as community.” The Volkskirche (church-of-the-people) would lay in stark contrast to Hitler’s new Germany. For Bonhoeffer, without the church, the communion of saints, all that exists is a community of sinners. That community is broken and incapable of existing for the good of humanity. Only by embracing Christ in community can the world be healed—reconciled to God and to each other.

Bonhoeffer writes, “Community with God exists only through Christ, but Christ is present only in his church-community, and therefore community with God exists only in the church.”[26] In his Life Together (1938), Bonhoeffer writes, “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.”[27]

God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of a man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure. And that also clarifies the goal of all Christian community: they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation. As such, God permits them to meet together and gives them community.[28]

This community is bound together in Trinitarian love, a spiritual love. Bonhoeffer contrasts this spiritual love with a human love—a love with conditions and boundaries—a self-love. He writes, “Human love produces human subjection, dependence, constraint; spiritual love creates freedom of the brethren under the Word.”[29] Christ existing as community is manifested in a church that is sustained by a spiritual love, even using that love as its only weapon.[30]

Like the church’s true leader, the communion of saints overcomes through cross-bearing. Bonhoeffer writes, “It is the fellowship of the Cross to experience the burden of the other. If one does not experience it, the fellowship he belongs to is not Christian. If any member refuses to bear that burden, he denies the law of Christ.”[31]

In Bonhoeffer’s view, the church in Germany was guilty of rejecting an incarnational communion of Christ on the earth, and for the earth. The hour was late. The church should seize the moment and boldly profess that Christ alone is Fuehrer, and his Volkskirche is the only life-giving community on earth, or be condemned by her silence.

Theological Ethics

Bonhoeffer was one of the first evangelical theologians to recognize the great evil taking place within the Third Reich, especially as it concerned Hitler’s policies against the Jews. Hans von Dohnanyi warned Bonhoeffer that Hitler was making plans to persecute the Jewish people.[32] Before the Third Reich released the Aryan paragraph, discriminating against Jews, Bonhoeffer presented an essay on The Church and the Jewish Question—a call for the church to take action.

He proposed that there were three possible ways the church could respond toward the state: (1) admonish the state’s actions, (2) help the victims regardless of their religious affiliation, (3) not only bandage the victims under the wheel of the state, but “jam a spoke in the wheel itself.”[33]

What exactly did Bonhoeffer have in mind at this time? It is hard to say. While he was certainly insinuating direct political action, it does not appear that Bonhoeffer was thinking of an assassination plot at this time. There is no indication that he had given up his views on pacifism. However, it appears that his ethics were evolving.[34] Bonhoeffer said the church is the “boundary of the state” and must hold the state accountable as God’s instrument of righteousness.[35] This would have no doubt smacked of revolution.

Metaxas writes: “Bonhoeffer’s three conclusions… were too much for almost everyone. But for him they were inescapable. In time, he would do all three.”[36] Geffrey Kelly writes: “Church timidity on this issue was one of the reasons he joined the political resistance movement.”[37] A few years later, after being fully convinced that the church was either unwilling or incapable of responding to the actions of the state, Bonhoeffer would find an opportunity to “jam a spoke in the wheel” of the Third Reich.

When Bonhoeffer returned from America in 1939, he knew that war was inevitable. Dohnanyi had given him disturbing evidence of the evil holocaust well underway. One month before the war officially began, Bonhoeffer became a civilian agent of the Abwehr. Disguised as Nazi military intelligence, Bonhoeffer would aid the escape of Jews and join in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He then began writing Ethics at Klein-Krössin. It is in this book that we glean insights into Bonhoeffer’s thinking. For Bonhoeffer, his actions begin with the will of God.

The will of God may lie very deeply concealed beneath a great number of possibilities. The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for this reason a man must ever anew examine what the will of God may be. The heart, the understanding, observation and experience must all collaborate in this task. It is not longer a matter of man’s own knowledge of good and evil, but solely of the living will of God; our knowledge of God’s will is not something over which we ourselves dispose, but it depends solely upon the grace of God, and this grace is and requires to be new every morning.[38]

Bonhoeffer believed that proper ethical action must first be rooted in the will of God. The will of God is not always a “concrete” reality. It is at this point where Bonhoeffer’s thinking takes a radical shift from anything he had previously articulated about the will of God, and his own complicit actions against the state. In a broken and fragmented world, doing the will of God might require actions that are less than the ideal—even actions that are evil in themselves.

Bonhoeffer declared, “What is worse than doing evil is being evil. It is worse for a liar to tell the truth than of a lover of truth to lie.”[39] Considering the context of Ethics, it is safe to assume that Bonhoeffer has his own evil deeds in mind. However, those evil deeds done by righteous men are better than the alternative—a person could actually be evil like Hitler—which is far worse.

The following example illuminates Bonhoeffer’s odyssey of reasoning (rationalizing?) the idea:

For example, a teacher asks a child in front of the class whether it is true that his father often comes home drunk. It is true, but the child denies it. The teacher’s question has placed him in a situation for which he is not yet prepared… The child’s answer can indeed be called a lie; yet this lie contains more truth, that is to say, it is more in accordance with reality than would have been the case if the child had betrayed his father’s weakness in front of the class. According to the measure of his knowledge, the child acted correctly. The blame for the lie falls back entirely upon the teacher.[40]

Bonhoeffer believes the Third Reich stands in the place of the teacher who has abused her power. Is the Christian, or the lover of truth, obliged to “tell the truth” to those who have no interest in the truth—those who indeed despise the truth?

Bonhoeffer did not believe so. In fact, the lover of truth should lie, and lie for all he is worth. For Bonhoeffer, this is the “living truth.” Metaxas writes: “Bonhoeffer knew that the flipside of the easy religious legalism of ‘never telling a lie’ was the cynical notion that there is no such thing as truth, only ‘facts.’ This led to the cynical idea that one must say everything with no sense of propriety or discernment, that decorum or reserve was ‘hypocrisy’ and a kind of lie.”[41]

Therefore, Bonhoeffer was seeking a new kind of ethics in a world where he believed the rules had changed so dramatically under Nazism. According to Bonhoeffer, the old ethics simply did not work any longer. James Burtness has written that Bonhoeffer’s work throughout his adult life reveals the formulation of an “ethical theology.” This theology knows the difference between believing and behaving, between confessing and acting, but attempts to demonstrate connections at every point.[42]

For Bonhoeffer, his theological ethics were always rooted in what he believed was a Christo-centric worldview.


Finally, what can be said about Bonhoeffer’s shift from the pacifist solution to the problem of evil to involving himself in a conspiracy to kill another human being, even one as wicked and tyrannical as Adlof Hitler? It is rather difficult to understand his thinking because his words so often required a great level of secrecy. Stanley Hauerwas has written:

That we cannot know how he understood his participation in the attempt to kill Hitler and thus how his whole life “makes sense” is not a peculiarity Bonhoeffer would think unique to his life. The primary confession of the Christian may be the deed which interprets itself, but according to Bonhoeffer our lives cannot be seen as such a deed. Only “Jesus’ testimony to himself stands by itself, self-authenticating.” In contrast, our lives, no matter how earnestly or faithfully lived, can be no more than fragments.[43]

While it might be impossible to piece together the “fragments” of Bonhoeffer and acquire answers to all the questions that could be asked of him, it is still necessary to include a brief critique of Bonhoeffer’s expressed thoughts and actions–remembering that he is a fallible man following an infallible Christ.

Bonhoeffer believed that the “will of God” is the launching pad into a world of ethical decisions. I agree that the will of God is not always concrete or a rule to be applied legalistically. However, it should be a serious concern for all disciples to recognize that Christ is the full expression of God’s will for human beings. Christ has expressed the will of God in his own life and teachings—even in the face of his mortal enemies. Therefore, God’s will always looks like Jesus dying for those that crucified him.

The church must give up on the myth of redemptive violence, and dispel the disease of “necessary evils.” The cycle of violence ends on a cross, and exposes the hearts of evil men, even disarming them in shame. If the church ever needs to “jam a spoke in the wheel” of the state again, it should be in the form of creative cross-shaped living. The way of the sword always loses.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and a prophet to a church that had largely traded the God of the Scriptures for a god of nationalism. His prophetic voice is still needed today.[44]  Bonhoeffer did not abandon the church or the German people in one of the darkest hours the world has ever known. He continually counted the cost of discipleship, even as he anticipated his ensuing martyrdom. While not without sin, he was truly a great man of faith.

The courage of Bonhoeffer to stand up and speak truth to power is part of his lasting legacy. His unbridled faith and his belief in a hopeful future despite the odds breathe life into the dark corners of a suffocating, cynical world. His lasting contributions are his passion for the centrality of Christ, his insight into the community life of the church, and his untiring devotion to the cause of social justice in the ongoing quest for an ethical theology.

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

Get the new biography by Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, SpyAlso, view the documentary by Martin Doblmeier, Bonhoeffer: Pacifist, Pastor, Nazi Resister (2004), and the movie, Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace (2000).

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 89.

[2] This paper will focus on Bonhoeffer’s thinking set forth in the following books: Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church (MN: Fortress Press, 1998); Christ the Center (New York: Harper & Row, 1978); Ethics (New York: Touchstone, 1995); and Life Together (London: SCM Press, 1954).

[3] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 222.

[4] Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance (New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 411.

[5] Metaxas, 112-113. The German title of the book is Nachfolge. The English translation is Discipleship.

[6] Ibid., 114.

[7] Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 655.

[8] For more on Bonhoeffer’s transformational experiences in America, see Ruth Zerner’s, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s American experiences: people, letters, and papers from Union Seminary.” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 31, no. 4 (June 1, 1976): 261-282.

[9] Schlingensiepen, 242.

[10] Metaxas, 351.

[11] Ibid., 359.

[12] Bethge, 681.

[13] Metaxas, 370.

[14] See Bonhoeffer’s, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Touchstone, 1997).

[15] Metaxas, 493.

[16] Schlingensiepen, 378.

[17] Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Harper Collins, 1995), 111.

[18] Jeffrey C. Pugh, Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Troubled Times (New York: T&T Clark, 2008), 45.

[19] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), 35; Bonhoeffer’s “Christology” lectures were entitled “Christ the Center” in English publications.

[20] Christ the Center, 39.

[21] Ibid., 38.

[22] Kelly and Nelson, 111.

[23] Christ the Center, 50.

[24] Kelly and Nelson, 54.

[25] See Clifford Green, ‘Human sociality and Christian community’, in John W. de Gruchy ed., The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 122.

[26] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 158.

[27] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (London: SCM Press, 1954), 21.

[28] Life Together, 22-23.

[29] Ibid., 37.

[30] Sanctorum Communio, 202.

[31] Life Together, 101.

[32] Schlingensiepen, 125.

[33] Kelly and Nelson, 130-132.

[34] Bonhoeffer did not begin writing Ethics for another seven years, but his ideas on the relationship between church and state were already moving him to a new position.

[35] Christ the Center, 63.

[36] Metaxas, 155.

[37] Kelly and Nelson, 131.

[38] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 41.

[39] Ibid., 67.

[40] Ibid., 362-363. Christian ethicist, Stanley Hauerwas, discusses this analogy in his article: “Bonhoeffer on truth and politics.” Conrad Grebel Review 20, no. 3 (September 1, 2002): 40-57. For a lengthy discussion on the context of Bonhoeffer’s theological ethics, see: Heinz Eduard Tödt, Authentic Faith: Bonhoeffer’s Theological Ethics in Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).

[41] Metaxas, 366.

[42] James H. Burtness, Shaping the Future: The Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 25.

[43] Stanley Hauerwas, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s political theology” (Conrad Grebel Review 20, no. 3 September 1, 2002: 17-39), 19.

[44] For a modern application of Bonhoeffer’s ideas, see David Wellman’s, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ethic of resistance in George W Bush’s America: a call to progressive Christians in the United States.” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 60, no. 1-2 (January 1, 2006): 69-77.

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