The Common Good
December 2005

When I First Met Bonhoeffer

by Jim Wallis | December 2005

I had mostly experienced an American Christianity without Christ.

When I First Met Bonhoeffer

At this time of year, when we remember God’s incarnation into the world, we also remember those who lived that gift of God in and to the world. One such person was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp 60 years ago this past April.

When I first met Dietrich Bonhoeffer through reading his books, he explained the world of faith to me and helped me understand the difficult religious experiences I had known in America. The evangelical Christian world I had grown up in talked incessantly about Christ but never paid much attention to the things that Jesus taught. Salvation became an intellectual assent to a concept, rather than any radical turnabout in one’s life direction.

Then I read Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, which relied heavily on the beatitudes and the idea that our treatment of the oppressed was a test of faith. To believe in Jesus meant to follow him, Bonhoeffer said. Believing in Jesus was not enough; we were called to obey his words, to live by what Jesus said, to show our allegiance to the kingdom of God which had broken into the world in Christ. What a radical idea! And such an obvious one, yet almost entirely missed by the American churches of the 20th century. Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned of the “cheap grace” that promotes belief without obedience, and I knew exactly what that meant. He spoke of “costly discipleship” and asked, how could the grace that came at the tremendous cost of the cross require so little of us?

We fledgling seminarians in Chicago were catching fire with the idea of “radical discipleship,” and Bonhoeffer provided us the textbook. “Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth.”

I realized that what I had mostly experienced was an American Christianity without Christ, a religion highly conformed to its culture and mostly uncritical of its nation.

At the same time, I had just experienced a secular student movement that had lost its way, that had no firm foundations to build upon and no spiritual compass for people’s lives or their politics. Without any spiritual or moral depth, protest often turned to bitterness, cynicism, or despair. Finding Jesus again, after years of alienation from the churches, had re-energized my young social conscience and provided a basis for both my personal life and my activist vision. Here again Bonhoeffer showed the way, by providing the deep connection between spirituality and moral leadership, religion and public life, faith and politics. Here was a man of prayer who became a man of action—precisely because of his faith.

THE MORE I READ Bonhoeffer, the more amazed I became. He seemed to break all the categories. He was a brilliant intellectual (earning his doctoral degree at the age of 21), yet felt called by the crisis of his historical moment to act, not just to think. He was both a contemplative and an activist, who showed that you really can’t be one without becoming the other as well. His insistence on the life of personal discipleship to give belief its credibility was matched by his conviction that the life of community was the essential way to demonstrate faith in the world. All those paradoxes were necessary complementarities for Bonhoeffer and formed an integrated faith and life rare in his time, or in any time.

Bonhoeffer will appeal today to those who are drawn to Jesus Christ because, for him, the centrality of Christ was at the heart of everything he believed and did. The liberal diminishing of the divinity of Christ, or the dismissing of his incarnation, cross, and resurrection, had no appeal to Bonhoeffer. But his orthodoxy has demanding implications for the believer’s life in the world. Bonhoeffer makes Christ both central in the lives of believers and concrete in the life of the world.

Bonhoeffer will appeal today to those who are hungry for spirituality. But his was not the soft new-age variety that has mostly to do with inner feelings and personal enlightenment. Rather, it was Bonhoeffer’s spirituality that made him so politically subversive. His commitment to daily prayer and meditation is what sustained him and provided the courage for his political resistance. But his was never a private spirituality. Bonhoeffer offers us spirituality for public engagement, in a time that cries out for both.

Bonhoeffer will appeal today to those who love the church and long for its renewal. But they won’t find somebody who was primarily concerned with new techniques for more contemporary worship, management models for effective church growth, or culturally relevant ways to appeal to the suburban seekers. Bonhoeffer’s primary concern for the church was that it be faithful to Christ in the world.

And, of course, Bonhoeffer appeals today to those who seek to join religion and public life, faith and politics. Because he doesn’t neatly fit into the categories of left and right, liberal and conservative, Bonhoeffer can speak to Democrats trying to get religion, Republicans who want a broader approach than the hot-button social issues, and to people who are unhappy with our contemporary political options. Bonhoeffer’s deeply personal faith had clear political consequences.

Bonhoeffer rejected the easier options of political withdrawal which were available to him. He returned to Germany from the United States when many warned him against it. “I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share in the trials of this time with my people.” Because he chose the path of risk, went to jail, and gave up his life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, and many others whose faith led them to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. This column is excerpted from the foreword to A Year With Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Daily Meditations from His Letters, Writings, and Sermons, to be published by HarperSanFrancisco in January.

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