Editor’s note: With global migration on the rise and cultural polarization increasing, there is a pressing need for peace among neighbors and nations. In this six-part series, “Lutheran legacy of peacemaking,” we’re exploring Lutheran contributions to the Christian tradition of peacemaking. The series will culminate in the September issue in conjunction with the International Day of Peace (Sept. 21).

In his brief 39 years (1906-1945), Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a prolific teacher, writer and preacher who deeply engaged his political and social context of Nazi Germany. He modeled a compelling witness to Christ, a journey of discipleship that led to his execution by Adolf Hitler in the waning days of World War II. He walked his talk in a way that is truly exceptional and continues to resonate today.

Perhaps the current interest in Bonhoeffer has to do with our own time and society: we’re witnessing troubling signs of polarization, violence and extremism that we have never navigated. We long for wisdom that will keep us grounded in our faith in the midst of churning times. To paraphrase Jeremiah 6:14—peace, peace, we cry, when there is no peace.

Peace was at the core of Bonhoeffer’s theology and work. He never met a polarity he liked, instead always showing the relatedness of the law and gospel, Christ and the world, church and state, etc. But this wasn’t about theological abstraction; Bonhoeffer was consumed with what it meant in the concrete (a word he used frequently). He was never more concrete than when, as a 28-year-old, he spoke at an ecumenical conference in Fano, Denmark, in the summer of 1934.

Hitler had been in power for one year. While some in the German church supported him politically, the majority were taking a “wait-and-see” position. The Confessing Church was a small but growing resistance movement, and Bonhoeffer was emerging as one of its leaders. They were seeing ominous signs of war and violence in Hitler’s agenda of expansionism, hyper-nationalism and racial purity. The church had just issued its Theological Declaration at Barmen, which publicly asserted the independence of the church of Jesus Christ over any other power that would demand absolute loyalty. Finding its voice, the Confessing Church declared that Christian identity transcended race and nationality.

A conversion to pacifism

As he addressed the gathering of the World Alliance of Churches that summer, Bonhoeffer knew he needed to persuasively frame the theological basis for the ecumenical movement’s role in peace building. The world was on the verge of war, a historic moment that called the global church into living out its presence as Christ in the world.

Bonhoeffer had had a conversion of sorts to pacifism when he had a profound engagement with the Sermon on the Mount a few years earlier. He came to believe that Jesus wasn’t setting up a rhetorical dilemma by showing how far we had fallen away from God’s intention so that we would seek salvation. Rather, Jesus was calling his followers to live in the way of peace with one another—a peace that was incompatible with war.

In outlining his theses going into his address, he argued against any justification of war as being heroic, inevitable or as a vehicle for peace. “To the objection [that] the State must be maintained: the church answers: Thou shalt not kill,” Bonhoeffer said. “To the objection [that] war creates peace: the church answers: This is not true, war creates destruction.”

Bonhoeffer had had a conversion of sorts to pacifism when he had a profound engagement with the Sermon on the Mount a few years earlier. He came to believe … Jesus was calling his followers to live in the way of peace with one another—a peace that was incompatible with war.

In his address to the delegates, Bonhoeffer brought the passion of a preacher. For him, the ecumenical organization did not only represent a conference of diverse traditions, but the embodiment of the church itself. The church transcended all human boundaries of nation, politics, ethnicity and race; the church was Christ himself in the world, living out the commandment of the Prince of Peace. Therefore, he found, it can’t take up arms, especially against itself, the body of Christ. Of course, this is exactly what would happen in World War II, as Christians killed other Christians on bloody battlefields throughout Europe.

“Peace must be dared”

For Bonhoeffer, this radical view of peace could not be implemented through treaties, reallocation of global capital or even the processes that might be promoted by secular pacifism. All of these, he argued, confuse peace with safety. For him, the way of peace building, like grace itself, is not cheap or easy. According to The Bonhoeffer Reader (Fortress Press, 2013), he said:

“There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be made safe. Peace is the opposite of security … peace means to give oneself altogether to the law of God. … Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won where the way leads to the cross.”

This is not an individualistic, pietistic approach. Individual Christians and denominations can’t do it alone—they will be “suffocated by the power of hate,” Bonhoeffer said. Only the whole ecumenical church acting as a singular witness will be effective. The ecumenical church, when united, has proven to be a powerful agent for peace throughout history.

As we face our own wars and rumors of wars, Bonhoeffer’s words ring across history from Fano in 1934: “The hour is late. The world is choked with weapons, and dreadful is the distrust. … For what are we waiting? … We want to give the world a whole word, not a half word—a courageous word, a Christian word.”

May it be so.

Next: In June this series will explore Lutheran peace initiatives after World War II, including the work of Otto Frederick Nolde and the founding of The Lutheran World Federation.

Katie Day
Katie Day is the Charles A. Schieren Professor of Church and Society at United Lutheran Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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