Editor’s note: the following is part of a series of articles from ELCA theologians, Rostered Ministers, seminarians/professors and other contributes that features individual viewpoints on the Reformation’s importance on the occasion of the 500th anniversary. This article reflects the perspectives and thoughts of the author and not necessarily the theological, ethical, or social stances of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or Living Lutheran.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer has captivated the interest and respect of those within, and outside of, the church arguably more than any other theologian in the 20th and 21st centuries. His narrative has become well-known as evidenced by the proliferation of publications by and about this Lutheran pastor who was imprisoned and executed by Adolf Hitler in the last days of World War II.
When many Christians in Germany were silent as the Nazis tightened their grip in the 1930s, Bonhoeffer was rare in his perspective and his commitment. He was able to notice early in Hitler’s regime the ominous signs of the gathering storm of hatred. When those who were baptized stood by as their neighbors were taken to ghettos and death camps, or worse, when they participated, the young theologian called for the church to be the church. As a leader, pastor, educator and writer within the Confessing Church , he worked passionately to inspire the faithful to stand resolute against the political regime that was encroaching on the church of Jesus Christ. The very identity of the church was at stake. Bonhoeffer worked tirelessly in the international ecumenical movement, believing that the church transcended all national boundaries with only Christ at the center. He expected that if the church embraced its vocation to indeed be Christ in the world, then the illegitimate and deadly powers of the state, even the Nazi state, could be checked.
But finally Bonhoeffer was disappointed in the moral courage of the church, both locally and globally, and looked for other ways to resist evil. A long-time pacifist, he concluded that joining a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler was the only way to stop the dictator’s evil agenda of expanding the Third Reich externally while exterminating millions internally – those Hitler considered not worthy of living and a threat to what he termed the “Aryan” race. In living out this difficult decision, Bonhoeffer could only throw himself on God’s mercy. The plot was foiled, sealing the fate of the conspirators. After a two-year imprisonment, Bonhoeffer was hanged on April 9, 1945. He was 39 years old.
Bonhoeffer’s story is compelling, as are his writings. His brilliance as both a scholar and a pastor are reflected in an amazing trove of writings, notable in the sheer quantity as well as diversity of what he produced. His own development is well-documented from his early academic publications through his essays, lectures, letters, sermons, poetry and even playwriting, much of it from his time in prison. In an era of deletable emails, tweets and clouds, it is difficult to trace someone’s intellectual development through such a thick paper trail in quite the same way. Still, that development was cut far too short. Always in engagement with his times, one wonders how Bonhoeffer’s theology might have developed in dialogue with the post-war reconstruction, the Cold War and nuclear arms race, the American civil rights movement and other social and liberation movements. Had he lived to be 83, he would have seen the fall of communism in 1989; in his 90s, he would surely have engaged the explosive growth of technology and increase in terrorism. As interesting as it is to contemplate what Bonhoeffer could have produced had he more years, what he did leave us provides a rich resource for our own theological engagement in these times.
One such resource for this moment in our history – marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation – is an essay Bonhoeffer penned in the summer of 1939 while briefly in New York. This was the second visit for the theologian to the United States, again based at Union Theological Seminary. He had spent the academic year of 1930-31 as a visiting scholar at the seminary, a year that proved to be a critical time in his own formation as a 20-something theologian. By 1938-39 the American churches were quite aware of Hitler’s growing stranglehold in Europe, including the repression of political opponents and the violence against Jews. His friends and colleagues at Union prevailed upon him to return and wait out the war there. In June he sailed to New York but immediately regretted his decision: “I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will 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.” By midsummer, he was on the last ship to sail back.
But during this brief stay in New York, he wrote an insightful yet understudied essay, “Protestantism without Reformation.” In it, he continued his observations of the American Protestant churches he had begun eight years earlier, but this time with more maturity and depth. Comparing the German and American Protestant churches, he draws striking distinctions theologically, historically and institutionally. His grasp of American history is impressive, but this is more than a comparative study. Bonhoeffer’s thinking from his earliest days as a university student until his death was focused on two critical questions: “What is the meaning of the church?” and “Who is Jesus Christ for us today, in this time and place?” and they continue to inform this essay.
In the essay, Bonhoeffer traces the very different paths of the German and American Protestant traditions – the Reformation tradition in Germany and the development of a unique Protestantism in the United States (hence the provocative title suggesting a Protestantism without a Reformation). He describes the immigrant experience of those coming to the New World – especially of people fleeing religious persecution in Europe – as cultivating a religious diversity rather than a more singular institution. Americans came to value, and protect, religious freedom and a tolerance of diversity. Further, he saw Protestants in the United States also as fighting to protect the church from intrusion by the state – the issue he was confronting in Germany as a leader of the Confessing Church. Yet, he observed, the American Protestants do not withdraw from engagement with government and public issues but very much the opposite, energetically seeking to live out their mission in the public forum. Indeed, he saw the church continuing to imprint our democracy. Whereas in Europe democracy and Christianity “are always seen somewhat in opposition to each other … American democracy can be glorified as the epitome of a Christian form of government.” 
Bonhoeffer’s appreciative analysis was not without critique of Protestantism on this side of the pond in the 1930s. He found American denominationalism to be more defined by practices (e.g., liturgy and governance) than by theology. Theological articulation did not have the same depth and breadth in the United States as Bonhoeffer found in Germany. Further, the centrality of Christ, he felt, was fuzzy in the American theological understanding of the church. (But he also was disappointed in the German churches and ecumenical movement for the same reason). He concludes by seeing the danger of a weak Christology as missing the “sole foundation for God’s radical judgment and radical grace.”  For Bonhoeffer, Christ lives in and through the church in the world. If we are more concerned with our buildings, liturgies and meetings than we are with developing a relationship with the living Christ and being his body in the world, then we completely miss the point!
Where Bonhoeffer had caught a glimpse of the living church in the United States in 1931 was in the historically black churches. He participated in Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church during his first visit and was captivated by the lively worship, the immediacy of Christ in the midst of suffering, the active and prophetic resistance to racism and its powerful expressions of faith in the music of the spirituals. In the later essay, he remains troubled by the legacy of slavery: segregated worship, the white church’s guilt, and the racialized construction of Christ. Racial reconciliation within the church as well as society, he predicted, must be a primary task for the future of American Protestantism.
Despite his significant criticisms, Bonhoeffer affirmed that the American and German wings of Protestantism had developed contextually as Christians had sought to understand who Jesus Christ is in their/our particular times and places. “God speaks differently to his church in different times. God spoke to the church in Germany during the Reformation in a different manner that is, more urgently, clearly, and publicly than in any other subsequent period … .”  Just as the German church cannot be understood apart from the Reformation, he continues, neither can the American Protestant tradition be known apart from its beginnings – believers being faithful to Christ in a new context. Still, he understood that these branches were part of the same tree. He also understood that how the church will live out its mission will be different in 1939 or 2017 than it was in earlier centuries. Time as well as place shape how we understand God’s call and our witness in a changing world.
So here we are in 2017 at the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. What might Bonhoeffer’s wisdom offer us in charting these choppy political and cultural waters as American Protestants? Certainly in this historic moment it would be well worth diving deep into the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – but not to tell us what our theology should be but rather how we might think critically in this time and place. A central commitment throughout his life’s work was to understand who Jesus Christ is for us in a particular time and place. Bonhoeffer brought a keen perspective on reading the signs of the times that was rooted in the search for Christ at the center of it all. This led him to find Christ in unexpected places, such as in the midst of suffering, in the “view from below.” It also led him into ways of engaging his context that transcended his own experience and expectations.
So, his first challenge to American Protestants, I would imagine, would be to find theological courage: the courage to move beyond our own communities and traditions to seeking where Christ is in a changing context. It is in keeping Christ at the center that we will find our own perspective in the midst of the many moving parts. Bonhoeffer was able to see through the political changes taking place in Germany from the first days of Nazism. He noticed early the seeds of destruction sown in the sweeping social movements generated by Hitler. In today’s language, we must #staywoke.
He might not be surprised by recent Pew research that shows that theological differences between Catholics and Protestants that were so definitive 500 years ago are now diminishing. This move toward Christian unity, along with our own heightened awareness of declining memberships, might provoke anxiety. In some of his later writings, Bonhoeffer began to envision a “religionless Christianity,” when structures would fall away and the church could be free to be Christ’s body. “There is no temple in the city” as John’s Revelation describes the reign of God. Such a theological imaginary could be terrifying – or it could draw us toward a new reality.
Bonhoeffer would have our attention drawn not to him but to Christ “in the concrete” of our own time and place. Where is Christ in the midst of floods and earthquakes, hurricanes and massacres? How do cultural polarization and social disparities inform our sense of call? What is the Word to be spoken in these times of alternate facts and fake news? For him, grace was famously free but not cheap. The work is challenging. But we are not alone.
- For a good introduction to Bonhoeffer’s biography and theology, Theologian of Resistance: The Life and Thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christiane Tietz, (Victoria Barnett, trans.); Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016.
- The Bonhoeffer Reader, Clifford J. Green and Michael DeJonge (eds), Fortress Press, 2015, p. 582.
- Reader, p. 591.
- Reader, p. 570.