In The Shadow of Bonhoeffer

76 years ago today, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by Nazi Germany. His final known words were reported later by a captured RAF pilot: “Today is the end. For me, the beginning of life.”

Sometimes, I wonder. What must’ve been on Bonhoeffer’s mind, walking to the gallows that day? His last words hint at his deepest heart & hope, but his human thoughts? We will never know. Of course his thoughts went to his friends and family? Was he content? Content in the confidence that his witness & writings had both challenged Nazi Germany and would, one day, change Christian theology? 76 years later, we are still reckoning with the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But are we doing this well?

Today, it’s not uncommon to treat the man like a top 5 pick in “playground theology”. He’s the guy everyone wants on their team. Nazi-resister. Scholar. Pastor. To Lutherans, Bonhoeffer is Lutheran. To Evangelicals, he’s an evangelical. We’re only just reckoning with African American Christianity’s influence on Bonhoeffer. Considering that Bonhoeffer encountered the Christianity which would animate the American Civil Rights movement is fascinating. (Reggie Williams in Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus)

These many framings, and attempts to locate Bonhoeffer, point to not only the complexity of the man, but us as well. We, who share with him the same complexity, inherent to all human beings. We are more than our thoughts, more than our tweets, more than the places we’ve lived.

Why the push to get Bonhoeffer on our team? Modern Christians love to call on Bonhoeffer’s life as justification for contemporary political, historical, and theological takes & struggles. We do this with impunity and without any sense of irony. I think Bonhoeffer would, in the strongest terms (and pun intended), resist most of our efforts to locate his work in our theological tribes. The high minded Bonhoeffer might scoff at attempts to control him this way.

His work & witness was not the result of careful consultation with denominational gatekeepers. After all, what else should we expect from a man who gave his life building a theology to answer to his own question. A question shaped by his own times: what does it mean for a human being to respond to the call of God in light of Christ?

Wrestling with Bonhoeffer’s life demands more than trying to put him on our team. It means wrestling with the very same first-order questions he did. We are not “channelling Bonhoeffer” by demonizing our opponents as Nazis. No, we begin by recognizing our age, like his, lays burdensome questions on confessing Christians. Questions like, what is the call of God? How does this call lay claim on my life today? Why does Jesus matter for this call? These are the questions only theology can answer. 

When we wrestle with the questions that matter, in light of God’s call and Christ, we attempt to share the hope & hurt of this German pastor. This man who attempted to make his whole life an answer to this question at the heart of his theology, even the heart of Christ. May our answers, like his, lead us beyond tribalism and academic speculation to the risk & responsibility of faith.

Published by Jared Stacy

Jared is an American Pastor, writer, and PhD Candidate in Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

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