The Common Good
January 2004

Spiritual Leadership

by Duane Shank | January 2004

The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson.

When I was a college student considering how to respond to the Vietnam draft, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship had an important impact on my thinking. For 35 years I’ve continued to reflect on him, reading his theology, ethics, and numerous biographies. Now, in The Cost of Moral Leadership, Burton Nelson and Geffrey Kelly explore the spirituality that animated Bonhoeffer’s leadership in opposing Hitler and the Nazi regime.

From his first anti-Hitler sermon in 1933, days after Hitler became chancellor, through his leadership in the Confessing Church and his involvement in the conspiracy that resulted in his execution, Bonhoeffer’s political activity was based in trust in God, obedient discipleship to Jesus Christ, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, all expressed in Christian community living in compassionate solidarity with the oppressed.

The book begins with his "Christocentric spirituality," his close and personal relationship with Christ. And it led, the authors write, to his feeling the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in "speaking truth to political and religious falsehood. One honors the Spirit of love by acts of compassion on behalf of those whom the agents of falsehood hate and oppress." This produced a spirituality of liberation lived in solidarity with the oppressed.

He had a strong sense of the compassion of God in Christ—that in the incarnation, God freely chose to suffer with suffering humanity. In one of his best-known quotes, Bonhoeffer explained, "We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled—in short, from the perspective of those who suffer." And this spirituality was rooted in the reality of the church community. He deeply believed, the authors write, that "Christ’s presence does indeed transform communities into spiritual centers for God’s healing power in the world...."

AN IMPORTANT chapter traces the development of Bonhoeffer’s call to pacifism, particularly related to his involvement with the ecumenical movement. His guiding principle was that "this church of Christ exists at one and the same time in all peoples, yet beyond all boundaries, whether national, political, social, or racial." In the early 1930s, he became attracted to Gandhi, wanting to learn more about nonviolent resistance. He made plans to visit India, securing letters of introduction and a personal invitation from Gandhi. At about the same time, however, he was called by the Confessing Church to head a seminary at Finkenwalde. This community became a significant experience, about which he was to write Life Together, yet one cannot help but wonder how his life, and perhaps the resistance in Germany, might have been different had he made that trip to India.

In 1942-43, Bonhoeffer’s pacifism gave way to what he saw as the overriding need to confront the massive evil of Nazism through participating in the plot to assassinate Hitler. The authors note, "Germany had reached an extraordinary situation, the point where war and a coup d’état were the inevitable last resort and only responsible initiative of those who resisted evil structured into their national government." Even then, Bonhoeffer’s decision was accompanied by "ambiguity, sin, and guilt," the authors write, expiated only by a reliance on the Christ who "takes on the guilt of sinners, and to extend the forgiveness of his Father God to those sinners."

This section ends with an excursus on terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, and U.S. militarism, trying to answer the unanswerable question of how Bonhoeffer would react in 21st-century America. There are no easy answers, only a reminder that whatever else it may be, violence is "still a denial of the gospel teachings of Jesus Christ."

As the American church is now faced with the challenge of a nationalistic religion put to the service of empire, Bonhoeffer’s life (and death) has much to teach us about moral leadership grounded in faith in Jesus Christ. Every confessing Christian should read this book.

Duane Shank is issues and policy adviser at Sojourners.

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