Date: June 10, 2001
Location: University of Dayton, Alumni Hall
Meeting Topic: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Lutheran theologian and victim of the Third Reich
Facilitator: Agnes Hannahs
Hosts: Sophie and Stephen Kahn
PRESENT: Eileen Moorman, Acting Chair, presiding; Nan Adams, Donna Bealer, Larry Briskin, Bea Burke, Shirley Flacks, Eric Friedland, Erika Garfunkel, Lillian Gillespie, Bradley Gray, Brian Gray, Judie Griffith, Agnes Hannes, Eugene Hannahs, Edith Holsinger, Sophie Kahn, Stephen Kahn, Ellie Katchum, Jack Kelley, Eleanor Koenigsberg, Harry Koenigsberg, Jerry Kotler, Lorraine Kotler, Margarete Lakovic, Barbara Levine, John Magee, Jack Pitsinger, Bill Rain, Ken Rosenzweig, Jack Sederstrand, Cameron Smith, Robin Smith, Bill Straughen, Peggy Straughen, Dieter Walk, Suzie Walk, Bill Youngkin.
Prior to the meeting, Jack Kelley distributed to the attendees a list of current events relevant to Christian-Jewish dialogue and a copy of the controversial "B.C." cartoon which shows the progressive extinction of a menorah and its transformation into a cross.
Eileen called the meeting to order at 8:00 PM. She thanked the hosts of the meeting, Steve and Sophie Kahn. Steve delivered the invocation which was a reading from Esdras on the value of truth: "Great is Truth, and stronger than all things." At this point, people newly attending a Dialogue meeting were asked to introduce themselves. These included: Bea Burke, Ellie Katchum, Cameron Smith, Brad and Bryan Gray, Maggie Lakovic, Judy Griffith, and Peggy and Bill Straughen.
Ken made three announcements. Paths to the Holy, A Christian-Jewish Chautauqua is to be held August 19-24 in Lakeside, Ohio. This event has a distinguished panel of speakers and numerous events relevant to Christian Jewish Dialogue. Lou Vera of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati is a key organizer of the event. For further information, contact Lou at (513)421-3131 or e-mail her at "LouVera@aol.com". The second item that Ken announced is that Poland’s Catholic Bishops have asked forgiveness for the complicity of church members in the wartime massacre of Jews. Thirdly, Ken had several audio cassettes recorded at the 16th National Workshop on Christian-Jewish Relations held in Houston in the year 1999. These were provided to Ken by Lou Vera. Ken has listened to most of these and found the discussions to be fascinating. The cassettes are available for lending to Dialogue members and friends. Contact Ken for further information.
Shirley provided regards from Sophie Rubenstein who has been ailing but is now doing better. Eileen reported that Connie Breen has gone home after her recent illness. She is also doing better.
Agnes Hannah’s Presentation
Eileen introduced Agnes. Agnes has been a member of the Dialogue for three or four years. Eileen noted that Agnes found out about the Dialogue from her studies with Eric Friedland. Agnes is a retired teacher. She has taught at ELMI, the English language institute for foreign students now located on the University of Dayton campus, and at Wright State University. Agnes recently delivered a fascinating talk to the Dialogue about Hannah Arendts.
Agnes began her talk at 8:10 PM by noting that she found the preparation for her presentation very difficult and emotional. Agnes distributed a five-part handout to the attendees..1
". . . the line of our forefathers goes back beyond the appearance of Jesus Christ to the people of Israel. Western History is, by God’s will, indissolubly linked with the people of Israel, not only genetically but also in a genuine uninterrupted encounter. . . ."2
Tonight we are going to discuss Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian, a pastor in the Protestant church of the 1930s, a member of the Resistance in Germany in the 1940s. Bonhoeffer was a German born and bred, one who became an active political resister to Nazi ideology and to the Nazi state; a man who evolved in the course of his life from Lutheran orthodoxy to "religionless Christianity." There are many ways we could discuss Bonhoeffer: his life and times, the books he wrote, conversations, action, writings - especially his prison writings.
For us in this Dialogue group, the focus for tonight will be the hard choices he made as a German and as a Christian, a man who felt himself and all Christians to be inextricably bound to the reality and the fate of the European Jews of the 1930s and 1940s. Those hard choices were made by a man who lived a culturally rich life before the fateful month, April 1933. We are going to spend some time on the years before he turned 27 in 1933.
As for beyond his death in 1945: Bonhoeffer is not dead and gone, a relic of another age, buried no one knows where, a footnote in 20th century European and Protestant church history. Not at all! Though Bonhoeffer was never given the opportunity to develop a post-Holocaust theology, by his actions and his writings he has been a part of theology of the last 50 years.
In the fifty-six years since his murder in a Nazi prison, in decade after decade, waves of books by him and about him have continued to be published. His reflections, especially his prison writings that were smuggled out and saved in a hole in a backyard for safe-keeping from the Gestapo-- those writings have become a catalyst for liberation theology in South America, in South Africa, in racist and separatist America. His letters, papers, and books have been issued and reissued, translated and retranslated. To give you a sense of his relevancy in these millennial years: in 1998-99 twelve books were published either written by Bonhoeffer or written about his life, his writings and influence; in 2000 eight books were published, and in this year four (so far) are being published: two in this month of June, two more in July.
[A personal note: We ourselves (Agnes and Eugene Hannahs) were involved in the mid-to late-1950s with a retreat group that met to read, discuss, and meditate on Bonhoeffer’s books that had, for the first time been published in English. One book we were meditating on is now called The Cost of Discipleship. (Paul van Buren, who will be discussed in a summer Dialogue meeting, was an adjunct to that group.) We were members of a group of lay people and clergy, Protestants, struggling to find a way through the thickets of the affluent 1950s when American churches reflected the complacent attitudes--and bland culture--of newly created suburbia. I, for one, have never forgotten the influence he had on us all and the shared sense of deep grief felt because of his death at age 39, so young--by order of Hitler and carried out by Himmler. Hitler committed suicide several weeks later. The order, it has been reported, was arbitrary and off-hand.]
I believe it is relevant to the purposes of the Dialogue to have an evening to reflect on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran. As he came up against Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews and of the Christian Churches, he evolved in his view of the Jewish religion and his understanding of what it means to be a Christian. He was galvanized into action not only by the powerlessness of church to avoid being taken over by Nazi ideology, but most especially by atrocities against Christian-Jewish colleagues, Jewish friends and a Jewish relative, his brother-in-law, the husband of Bonhoeffer’s beloved twin sister. He came to identify with all Jews, the Suffering People.
His evolution continued in prison in the 1940s as he studied the Hebrew Bible and reflected on the Jewish-Christian connection. Pinchas Lapide, a post-Holocaust Jew, in 1979 writing in German, quoted Bonhoeffer: One quote is "an expulsion of the Jews from the West must necessarily bring with it the expulsion of Christ. For Christ was a Jew." Lapide writes: "From a Jewish perspective, Bonhoeffer is a pioneer and a forerunner of a slow step-by-step re-Hebraisation of the churches in our days."
BUT not everyone has been convinced that Bonhoeffer evolved. I have listed for you some resource materials (see the first page of the handout: Bibliography, section A.). They are there for you IF you should want to do your own readings about the impression that "Bonhoeffer was ambivalent toward the Jews". [That sentence was said to me several times when I mentioned I was working on Bonhoeffer for this Dialogue presentation.] I am not here to defend Bonhoeffer against "ambivalence." What I want to do tonight is bring his humanity to life, he as a deeply committed human being. You make your own decisions about his "ambivalence."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the first in the Protestant churches to understand the Nazi threat to the Jews (not to mention to Christians and western civilization). In 1933, upon the ascendancy of Hitler to Reich Chancellor, Bonhoeffer understood what it meant when the National Socialists took control of the power structures in Germany: this included universities, newspapers, the church. There were those in the church whose first reaction was to accommodate the National Socialists; they believed (fervently hoped) that Hitler had miraculously moved from 1920s rabble- rouser to 1930s world-class "statesman". Such people were deluded into assurance that extreme measures that denied civil rights were but a passing phase, possibly a necessary phase. All would be "normal" when Germany was thoroughly organized: trains running on time, ruinous inflation under control, the spirit of the German people lifted out of the disillusion that followed WWI. Hitler would be the strong leader who would take the country out of the social and monetary chaos of Weimar Germany. He would make Germany "workable" again. [Agnes recalls a German industrialist saying this when visiting her family in 1939.]
In quick reaction to Hitler’s ascendency to Reich Chancellor on January 30, 1933, Bonhoeffer gave a speech on February 1 that was cut off the air half way through. In the speech, he warned that a fixation on a person rather than the office would lead to idolatry.
Now we come to April in that fateful year which determined Bonhoeffer’s (and millions of others’) life course. On April 7, 1933 legislation that included "Aryan Civil Service" became law. This resulted in all "non-Aryans" (that is, Germans with at least one Jewish grandparent) as well as people married to non-Aryans being banned from public employment, including university posts, editorships, and church leadership. In response to that legislation, Bonhoeffer published his essay, "The Church and the Jewish Question." A couple of sentences in this essay have given Bonhoeffer "mixed reviews" among several authors.
Before we discuss the essay, we will consider where Bonhoeffer came from. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was raised in a large (8 children in ten years!), caring, cultured family of the upper-middle class. His father, Karl, was a psychiatrist and when the family moved to Berlin when Dietrich was six, his father became director of the clinic for nervous diseases attached to Berlin University where he was also professor. He, by the way, and others of his colleagues were aware of Adolf Hitler and the true state of his mental wellbeing.
The family lived in pleasant neighborhoods of well-appointed, spacious, but for all that, unpretentious houses. This was their life-style: the parents desired for their children a happy childhood, one in which boasting and pretension and fibbing were not acceptable. Family life ran smoothly with the assistance of a parlor maid, a housemaid, a cook, gardeners (ah me!).
There was a saying in the family; "Germans have their backs broken twice in the course of their lives: first in school and then in military service." The parents did not want the children being sent to school at an impressionable age, so a governess was retained for the older children. Paula Bonhoeffer, an intelligent, energetic, and loving mother, who had graduated from university as a teacher (not at all usual), did much of the teaching of the younger ones. It was a home that nurtured, a close-knit family, a musical environment.
Both sides of the family came from a tradition of at least 200 years leadership in Germany: in education and government, land ownership (one was a count), notable achievement in the professions including medicine and the law, in writing, in artistic endeavors, even in the church (but not many of those). Unconsciously, Dietrich and his siblings absorbed the richness of this heritage. Said a biographer, "it set the standards for Dietrich Bonhoeffer and gave Dietrich a certainty of judgment and manner that cannot be acquired in a single generation. . . . He grew up in a family that believed that the essence of learning lay not in a formal education but in the deeply rooted obligation to be guardians of a great historical heritage and intellectual tradition." This is an important point. Dietrich’s active opposition to the Third Reich was certainly in response to the twisted use of power and the atrocities against the Jews, but also because he was fighting for the European civilization that had been his birthright.
In the neighborhoods where the Bonhoeffers lived and Dietrich and his siblings played and went to school were Jewish families, the children of which were in and out of the house and garden, the families included in musical evenings in the Bonhoeffer home and elsewhere. Many of those neighbors, the ones who escaped Germany in the 1930s, remained life-long friends of the Bonhoeffers. At the clinic, Karl Bonhoeffer wanted to have working with him well-trained, intelligent assistants. Invariably they were Jews. The Jews in the neighborhood, in the classroom, at the clinic were, it should be said, assimilated German Jews. Just as the Bonhoeffers thought of themselves as Germans, liberal Germans first, and Christians second, so, too, the Jews thought of themselves as liberal Germans first and Jews second - or third.
While we are on the family, I should say here that within the culture-at-large in the 20s and early 30s were rabid anti-Semitic groups spouting pseudoscientific racial theories. The Bonhoeffers ignored them, not giving such the dignity of their attention. For them it was totally unbelievable that there could ever be a resumption of discrimination, of legislated discrimination against Jews.
This was typical of the anti-Nazi stance of all the Bonhoeffers right up to 1945: in 1933 during a boycott of Jewish businesses, the 91 year old grandmother, Julie Tafel Bonhoeffer was confronted by S.A. thugs that surrounded a Jewish department store she had patronized all her life. She simply ignored them and walked right through the cordon and into the department store. At her funeral service in January 1936, Bonhoeffer said (in part), "She could not bear to see . . . the violation of another’s rights. Thus her last years were clouded by the great sorrow she endured on account of the fate of the Jews among our people, a fate she bore and suffered in sympathy with them. She was the product of another time, of another spiritual world–and that world goes down with her to her grave."
The Bonhoeffers were nominal Christians. They were not church-goers, though in deference to bourgeois German church customs, Paula, their mother, sent the children off to those notoriously banal confirmation classes. Paula, with her own traditions, told them Bible stories, and saw to it that grace was said before meals, family prayers said together in the evening before bed--in a darkened room so no child could spend the time watching the antics of another, or showing off surreptitiously. [Anyone who has raised children or been a child in a family of siblings knows what is being said here.] One could describe the family as a disciplined but "free" household, authoritarian but not repressively so.
Dietrich grew up a normal, intelligent boy. His father wrote in his diary when Dietrich was 8 or 9, "Dietrich does his work naturally and tidily. He likes fighting, and does a great deal of it." But Dietrich began to separate himself from his siblings. His brothers and sisters sang folk songs and played musical instruments to entertain at the musical evenings; Dietrich, musically gifted, became proficient enough on the piano that his parents took him to a school of music to be auditioned. Dietrich had other plans.
An older brother was a scientist, another a lawyer; Dietrich determined early on to become a minister and a theologian. At age 14, he chose Hebrew over English as a language option in school. A cardinal rule of his parents was that the children, though conscious of parental authority during childhood years, should be allowed in their teens to start making life decisions without parental interjection. When Dietrich’s siblings tried to talk him out of his choice, pointing out that the German Protestant church was a "poor, feeble, boring, petty, and bourgeois institution," he replied, "In that case, I shall reform it!"
He wasted no time getting started. By 1927 (when he was 21) he had written his thesis, defended it, and obtained his PhD in theology from Berlin University. Three years later, after a stint as a curate (assistant minister) to a German-speaking congregation in Barcelona, Spain, he successfully completed his dissertation (which qualified him to teach at university level); he taught one class in theology in the summer. He was 24.
From then on until 1933, he was engaged in writing several books, was officially appointed a lecturer in theology at Berlin University while simultaneously holding a chaplaincy at the Technical College in Berlin. And for a year and a half during this time (1930-31), he studied at Union Theological Seminary in NYC. At holiday breaks, he traveled to Cuba and then to Mexico. At an ecumenical meeting in Cambridge, England, he was appointed youth secretary for the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches.
All of this before he turned 27. Then came 1933 and everything changed, was upended for Germany, for Europe, for Jews, for Christians - and for Bonhoeffer. I have spent some of our time on Dietrich’s early years. I think the more we know of him and his background, the more he becomes human to us, and it helps us understand who he was as he took his stand in Germany of the 1930s and 40s.
We now come back to that essay, "The Church and the Jewish Question" written in response to the Nazi legislation against non-Aryans in April 1933. In the Lutheran tradition of Bonhoeffer’s day, virulent anti-Semitic statements of Martin Luther had been excised from the current theological study. However, a residual was left and in 1933, Bonhoeffer would seem to be still in the grip of orthodox Lutheranism. Mainline Protestant churches in Europe, in the USA, in the world over either explicitly or implicitly believed--or used for their own purposes--the following statements which Bonhoeffer wrote in his essay: "The Church of Christ has never lost sight of the thought that the ‘chosen people’ who nailed the redeemer of the world to the cross must bear the curse for its action through a long history of suffering." He goes on to say, "But the history of the suffering of this people, loved and punished by God, stands under the sign of the final homecoming of Israel to its God. And this homecoming happens in the conversion of Israel to Christ." Those who have held Bonhoeffer accountable for these sentences write as Eva Fleischner in 1975 did, ". . . despite his consistent and heroic opposition to Nazism, which ultimately cost him his life, there is no evidence that he ever repudiated the notion of a divine curse over the Jewish people." Ruth Zerner, also in 1975, wrote: "I do not intend to suggest that Bonhoeffer was an anti-Semite. Rather, like all of us, he was to some extent a victim of his background and perspectives."
Bonhoeffer made that Lutheran orthodox statement in this essay not as an act of racial ideology but of church doctrine; but then--it is important to note this--he leaves it behind in that very same essay and moves on to his real focus which was so revolutionary in April of 1933 that some of the audience (church officials) walked out of the meeting where it was read. In the essay, he enlarges his concern for the non-Aryan clause of April 7 into the question of the treatment of all Jews. Though the phrase "the Jewish problem" is used it soon becomes obvious that his real concern is "the Christian problem." He states unequivocally that 1) it is the duty of the church to admonish the state (admonish The Third Reich?!) if it is exercising too much or too little government, specifically if it is terrorizing Jewish citizens or denying them protection. 2) The church owes unlimited solidarity with the Suffering People - each and every victim of discriminatory laws regardless of religious confession. 3) If the oppression is virulent, the church must "not only bind and heal the wounded, but also jam up the spokes of the wheel." That "jamming the spokes" phrase was prescient of Bonhoeffer’s future actions which he commits to in the early 1940s.
We must "jam the spokes of the wheel" resonates to this day, and has given strength to the work of the liberation theologists of the later 20th century in South America and Africa. To understand how radical the April 1933 essay was, compare it to another German theologian (Walter Kunneth) writing at that same time. He agrees with Bonhoeffer that it is impossible to separate the Christian non-Aryan from the Christian congregation, but then Kunneth goes on to say that the state has the right to take "lawful measures to protect the German people from foreign contamination", and the church should take a stand to "eliminate Jews as a foreign body from the nation’s life" - in a manner, he says, consistent with Christian ethic (oh? and what manner would that be: gently? politely? helpfully?). This same theologian, while warning against excesses, was hardly alone in hailing race and nationhood as "orders of God" as well as "the new political self-consciousness about the uniqueness of the German nation."
Bonhoeffer’s writings especially while he was in prison from 1943 to 1945, and his actions until his arrest in 43, show that he was increasingly aware of the Church’s responsibility to the Jews in their suffering, and that the Church was a part of the problem that had allowed persecution to take place. His heightened sensitivity toward Judaism led him into further reflection on the Hebrew Bible. In 1979, Pinchas Lapide, the Jew quoted earlier, wrote that the prisoner Bonhoeffer "arrived at insights which, long lost to traditional Reformation theology, came surprising close to the Torah and Mishnah."
Now we need to back up again. In the 1920s, for Bonhoeffer the "Jewish question" or "Jewish problem" did not exist. Friends and colleagues were . . . friends and colleagues, no more, no less. Was he aware of the Jewish revival taking place in the Germany? There is no evidence that he was - or he wasn’t. He and other Christians: seminary students, church leaders, theologians and teachers, lay people did not feel that it was important to hold dialogue with Jewish thinkers of the 1920s and early 30s such as Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Eugen Rosenstock, and Leo Baeck. The lack of communication was not a conscious act, at least it wasn’t for Bonhoeffer. Rather, he and Christian church people were in their world; Jewish leaders and thinkers in theirs.
What involved Bonhoeffer in the 1920s was the Barthian school of dialectical theology which posited the validity of revelation in the whole Bible. For those of that school of theology, the Torah was not treated as if it were the writings of a primitive people, a preparation for the development of Christianity and the modern era of advanced humanity(!). Long before 1933 Bonhoeffer had criticized, openly, celebrated Berlin University professors (Harnack/Seeberg) who, when teaching Bonhoeffer’s classes, had devalued the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. The following quote from such theological circles is typical ". . . to preserve [the Old Testament] in the 19th century as a canonical document in Protestantism is the consequence of a religious and ecclesiastical paralysis."
So: we have Bonhoeffer, well before 1933, studying the Hebrew Bible and challenging people--professors--who would denigrate it.
At this point a portion of a PBS video on Bonhoeffer was played.3 The video showed Bonhoeffer visiting Black churches during his 1939 stay in New York. Bonhoeffer loved Black gospel singing. Agnes noted that Bonhoeffer had been brought to the US in 1939 partially to protect him from the Nazi government. However, Bonhoeffer was uncomfortable being away from Germany, and he told Reinhold Niebuhr that he could not speak effectively on what was going on there unless he returned.
In the years 1932-33, Bonhoeffer was lecturing at Berlin University. He said in the lectures: "God is the one God in the whole of Holy Scripture: the Church and theological study stand and fall with the faith" and "The God of the Jews is also the God of the New Testament." This ran counter to the opinion, widespread in the church, that "God’s love is reserved for the New Testament; his anger and law is expressed in the Old Testament."
For Bonhoeffer to deliver such statements in lectures at a state university in 1933, meant that he was identified as an intercessory for the Jews, a person who confesses solidarity with the Jews. He was placing his professional career on the line. Bonhoeffer had been galvanized into action by the events in 1933. He was one of the few in the Church to recognize early on that the brutal treatment of the Jews was a violation of Christian love for one’s neighbor. Christians and Jews were bound together in the Bible, and in life.
Four decades later, a theologian (Heinz Eduard Todt, May 1979) commented: "In 1933 Bonhoeffer was almost alone in his opinions; he was the only one who considered solidarity with the Jews, especially with the non-Christian Jews, to be a matter of such importance as to obligate the Christian Churches to risk massive conflict with the state--a risk which could threaten their very existence."
Bonhoeffer was a marked man, someone the Nazi’s needed to watch for his subversive statements. An SS journalist three years later found in a rather obscure journal a write-up of a Bible study led by Bonhoeffer. The journalist wrote in an official Nazi publication: "The praise of Juda in the Third Reich . . . our paper is too dear to us to print here the disgusting yammering about King David--whose actions will offend the sense of propriety and morality of the Germanic Race. But the concluding sentence is more than telling." He quotes Bonhoeffer: "The people of Israel will remain the people of God, in eternity, the only people who will not perish, because God has become their Lord, God has made His dwelling in their midst and built His house." The journalist goes on to say: "It is easy to recognize from this article what this Confessing Church pastor thinks about the basic concept of the National Socialist uprising: that is, about race theories. Isn’t it advisable to concern oneself with the ‘Bible studies’ of such a ‘brotherhood’ of curates?"
In that same year, 1936, Bonhoeffer delivered an address on the state of the church in Germany to Olympics visitors. This address was supposed to extoll the German Church under the Nazi regime, but instead Bonhoeffer criticized the German Church. The next day, he was banned from teaching at Berlin University.
After the 1933 takeover by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer focused on three areas: one being what was the nature of Christian witness; this included the development of a clandestine church, called the Confessing Church and seminaries; he founded a clandestine seminary at Finkenwalde. The second area was to save as many Jews as possible by helping them to safety in other countries; and the third was getting the word out to influential people outside of Germany about the Resistance movement, and to ecumenicists about the state of the true church..
In the "Chronology" section of the handout, you can trace for yourself his actions during those years. Some of the things he wrote and said are also in the handout. Are they the most important, or the most revealing? Has everything been covered that should be brought to this group? Undoubtedly not. But my intent this evening has been to introduce Bonhoeffer to you. You take the handout home and look it over; you will have a place from which to start in thinking about him.
After Kristallnacht erupted on November 9, 1938, Bonhoeffer, who was at Finkenwalde (the clandestine seminary), preached a sermon in which he used Psalm 74: "they have set afire all the houses of God in the land." Some of the seminarians "discussed the curse which had haunted the Jews since Jesus’ death on the cross." One of them remembered Bonhoeffer "reacting to this "punishment theory with extreme sharpness." He absolutely refused to see the destruction of the synagogues as curse fulfillment. "This," he said, " was a case of sheer violence." Another of the young pastors remembered him at that time as being "driven by a great inner restlessness, a holy anger."4
In a letter from prison, Bonhoeffer wrote his friend Eberhard Bethge about a former Nazi official, now imprisoned who followed Bonhoeffer around: "I’ve had to take a new line with the companion of my daily walks. Although he has done his best to ingratiate himself with me, he let fall a remark about the Gert (code for Jew) problem that made me more offhanded and cool to him than I have ever been to anyone before; I’ve also arranged for him to be deprived promptly of all the little comforts. Now he feels obliged to go around whimpering for a time, but it leaves me--I am surprised myself, but interested too--absolutely cold. He really is a pitiful figure."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s "Confession of Guilt" by the Christian Church5
"The church confesses that she has witnessed the lawless application of brutal force, the physical and spiritual suffering of countless innocent people, oppression, hatred and murder, and that she has not raised her voice on behalf of the victims and not found ways to hasten to their aid. She is guilty of the deaths of the weakest and most defenseless brothers of Jesus Christ."
Tegel Prison: July 16, 1944
. . . We cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world (etsi deus non daretur). And this is just what we do recognize–before God! God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age (his term) leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without God. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets the divine self be pushed out of the world onto the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which God is with us and helps us [Mathew 8:17 makes it quite clear that] Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
. . . Our religiosity makes us look in our distress to the power of God in the world. . . The Bible directs a person to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may say that the development toward the world’s coming of age outlined above, which has done away with a false conception of God, opens up a way of seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by weakness. This will probably be the starting point for our "secular interpretation."
Agnes summarized a few points from the presentation. Bonhoeffer is seen by many as pointing the way to a post-Holocaust theology. One absolutely unique aspect of this theology is that of a "religionless Christianity." Another important concept from Bonhoeffer is that God is weak in the world, and therefore humans have responsibility for its betterment.
At about 9:00 PM, Agnes called on others in the audience who know about Bonhoeffer to share their thoughts. Jack asked whether he was married. Agnes said that Bonhoeffer never married, but he was engaged mostly during the period he was in prison. Jack referred the group to a book which Jack had assisted in writing with Bill Kuhns in 1965. It is titled, In Pursuit of Dietrich Bonheoffer, and is available in the University of Dayton library. Erica asked about the marriage of Bonhoeffer’s twin sister, Sabina, to a Jew. Were they married in a synagogue? Agnes replied that Sabina’s husband was a Christian-Jew. He was actually a Christian but was considered a non-Aryan since he was of Jewish extraction. The Reichchurch (Nazi controlled) wanted to get rid of all these non-Aryans but the Confessing Church wanted to keep them. Erica pointed out that German Jews called themselves Germans of Jewish religion. It was Hitler who reclassified Jews as non-Germans.
Eileen compared Bonhoeffer’s views to people who are spiritual but not involved in organized religion. Steve said that he admired Bonhoeffer, but he wonders why Bonhoeffer seemed to blame religion for the anti-Semitism of the Nazis. Doesn’t he place some responsibility on the individual person? Many in the audience replied that Bonhoeffer does not blame religion itself but rather blames the religious establishment. He feels that religion should have taken a stand against the Nazi atrocities. Agnes observed that the Confessing Church, even though it had previously opposed the Nazi actions, capitulated when the Nazi Government in 1939 demanded allegiance. Agnes stated that Bonhoeffer stayed for three weeks in the US in 1939. After returning to Germany, he joined a resistance group which tried to kill Hitler. The assassination attempt failed. Donna Bealer asked how Bonhoeffer justified killing Hitler. Agnes replied that although he was a pacifist, he felt it necessary to act against the Nazi atrocities ("jam up the spokes in the wheel"). He was very tough and very realistic.
Lorraine complimented Agnes on her well-researched and insightful presentation. Lorraine went on to speculate that Bonhoeffer’s reputed ambivalence toward the Jews merely reflected the ambivalence of the Christian church generally toward the Jewish people. It is a great paradox throughout Christian history that the church which has taught love as its primary principle has at the same time persisted in attacking Jews and the Jewish people. On another matter, Lorraine commented that Hitler wanted to attack Christianity but could not do so directly. On a third matter, Lorraine said that she did not understand the section on the weakness of the Church. Agnes replied that while in prison, Bonhoeffer was trying to think through what the Church should be in the postwar world. He wanted to get rid of the institutional church and have Christians get out and help the people. He felt that God could be found among the weak, not in the power structures. Although he started as an orthodox Lutheran, he evolved toward anti-institutionalism.
Bill Youngkin commented that he studied Bonhoeffer while at Union Theological Seminary. Bill said that Bonhoeffer’s notion of the weakness of God seemed to some a foolish and incomprehensible notion. Bonhoeffer wrote a book entitled Life Together which was a training manual for young pastors in the Confessing Church. The book emphasized that Christians cannot expect to always live among friends, and may have to live among enemies. It maintained that God is not the God of emotions but of truth; and humans must face the tough reality of realizing that we are all alone and we must nevertheless make the religious choice.
Erica noted that Bonhoeffer never repudiated the teaching of the Church about the curse on the Jewish People. Agnes replied that in the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence Service), Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, began recording all the violations of human rights by Hitler and the Nazi regime. Members of Bonhoeffer’s family were fighting against Hitler even earlier. With respect to Bonhoeffer’s failure to repudiate the curse on the Jewish People, Jerry observed that if Bonhoeffer had renounced that generally accepted Christian teaching, he would have been dismissed as an authority by Christian leaders. Jerry commented that next month the Dialogue will be discussing Paul Van Buren, who may have actually developed the post-Holocaust theology that Bonhoeffer aspired to. Eileen observed that Bonhoeffer was a great man who looked forward to a new theology. However, he could not have articulated it like we can today because our historical context which includes active interreligious discussions did not exist in his day. Eric commented that he read on the internet about Bonhoeffer. Even when Bonhoeffer was in prison he interacted regularly with those without any religious faith. Eric said that Bonhoeffer has given us an important key to the most critical challenges of our day: not only dialogue between people of different religions but more importantly dialogue between religious and non-religious people. Steve noted that there was always a small resistance movement in Germany. He asked whether Bonhoeffer ever expressed any political opinions. Agnes said that he did not express thoughts on political issues, other than opposition to totalitarianism. Lillian Gillespie noted that Bonhoeffer’s life illustrates the importance of the power of one. Agnes noted that the Confessing Church was closed down by the Nazis even though it finally pledged allegiance to Hitler.
Someone asked how many members were in the Confessing Church. In reply, Agnes said that 4,000 pastors left the institutional church along with Bonhoeffer. Agnes noted that the Reichs Church was taken over by Hitler and he appointed the leaders. The people who stayed in the Reichs Church called themselves German Christians.
The meeting adjourned at about 10:00 PM.
Ken Rosenzweig, Secretary
2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, written over a period of time in the early 1940s.
3 Agent of Grace, PBS Documentary on Bonhoeffer.
4 By the early 1940's, Bonhoeffer had been implicated in attempts on Hitler's life and he knew that the end was near.
Ethics, early 1940; the church made no "Confession of Guilt" until after World War II.