Bonhoeffer, Dietrich

Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer Gay? A New Biography Raises Questions

RNS photo courtesy Joshua Zajdman, Random House
Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived from 1906 to 1945. RNS photo courtesy Joshua Zajdman, Random House

A new biography is raising questions about the life and relationships of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an anti-Nazi dissident whose theological writings remain widely influential among Christians.

Both left-leaning and right-leaning Christians herald the life and writings of Bonhoeffer, who was hanged for his involvement in the unsuccessful plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. Bonhoeffer was engaged to a woman at the time of his execution, observing that he had lived a full life even though he would die a virgin.

The new biography, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from University of Virginia religious studies professor Charles Marsh, implies that Bonhoeffer may have had a same-sex attraction to his student, friend and later biographer Eberhard Bethge.

“There will be blood among American evangelicals over Mr. Marsh’s claim,” Christian Wiman, who teaches at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, wrote in a review for The Wall Street Journal. But there’s been no bloodbath yet, at least considering a few initial reviews.

The Steep Price of Grace

An encounter following a recent viewing of a documentary on Dietrich Bonhoeffer unnerved me. As discussion of the film about the German theologian and leader of Christian resistance to the Nazis drew to a close, an elderly gentleman stepped to the microphone and said simply: “I’m a Holocaust survivor, and I can tell you what year this is: It’s 1932.” He turned and left.

As a Christian ethicist I was struck by the implications of what the man said, especially in the context of the focus on Bonhoeffer, whose life and work were radically shaped by events in Germany during the early 1930s.

The elderly man’s unsettling judgment was echoed in a November 2004 speech by Fritz Stern, the prominent historian of modern Germany. Even a good historian’s reticence to draw historical parallels couldn’t suppress Stern’s sense that the early ’30s in Germany might be a prism for viewing some recent events. Germany is not the United States and the 1930s are not the present. Still, careful attention must be paid to Holocaust survivors who think this year somehow resembles 1932—and to historians who are uneasy.

The rise of National Socialism was not inevitable, Stern said in his speech. Some clearheaded Germans recognized emerging Nazism as a “monstrous danger and ultimate nemesis.” But there was also widespread “civic passivity and willed blindness.”

Still, Stern continued, these are only preconditions, which of themselves don’t explain “the triumph of evil in a deeply civilized country.” What then does?

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Sojourners Magazine February 2006
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When I First Met Bonhoeffer

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?

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Sojourners Magazine December 2005
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Costly Grace

"We should not harm anyone. But we will not allow anyone to harm us." These are the words of Adolf Hitler, spoken at the beginning of Martin Doblmeier's new documentary film Bonhoeffer, which spans the life of the German pastor and theologian martyred by the Nazis. That they could have been spoken to justify a pre-emptive strike in 2003 makes this film particularly pertinent to its moment.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has achieved the status of a saint, an emblem of Christian virtue in the face of tyranny. Indeed he has been captured in stone on the façade of Westminster Abbey. But sainthood is not a role that Bonhoeffer would have relished. On July 21, 1944, one day after a failed assassination attempt on Hitler that sealed Bonhoeffer's fate, he wrote to his best friend and future biographer, Eberhard Bethge. He told Bethge of his friendship in America with a French exchange student, Jean Lasserre. "He said he would like to become a saint," Bonhoeffer recalled, "and I think it's quite likely that he did become one. At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith."

Bonhoeffer is a moving account of a life that was supremely faithful. The film makes extensive use of archival photographs to follow Bonhoeffer on his path from childhood to the gallows in the waning days of World War II. The Bonhoeffer who emerges is not without flaws, and Doblmeier does not attempt to dehumanize his subject by sanctifying him. Here is the Dietrich who, out of fear, does not speak at the funeral of his sister's Jewish father-in-law. Here is the man who flees to America in 1939, only to return to Germany because he believes such flight has been profoundly unfaithful. And here is the Christian who struggles with his participation in an act of tyrannicide.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2003
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The Bonhoeffer Assumption

There’s a trap that I’d call the Bonhoeffer assumption. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was studying at Union Seminary in New York. He was about to go to India to study nonviolence with Gandhi when he decided he had to go back to Germany. And when he got back, he discovered there weren’t any people who had committed to nonviolence except for the Bruderhof and a few others; there were no troops, in other words. The churches had failed their job in evangelizing people about nonviolence. So Bonhoeffer decided to join the death squad against Hitler because he could see no other alternatives that would be effective.

American thinkers who have used Bonhoeffer as a way of justifying the just war theory overlook his clear statement that he does not regard this as a justifiable action—that it’s a sin—and that he throws himself on the mercy of God. He does not use his act as a legitimization of war. I don’t want to take the position that if you use nonviolence and it doesn’t work, you use violence.

Walter Wink is professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York and author of many books, including The Powers That Be, When the Powers Fall, and most recently The Human Being.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2002
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A Time of Trials

Fifty years ago, April 9, 11 days before U.S. troops liberated the Flossenbürg Concentra-tion Camp where he was held, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by his Nazi captors. He and perhaps 5,000 others were put to death in the months before the end of World War II because of their participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler. This extra-

ordinary Lutheran minister and theologian lived only 39 years, the last two years of which he spent in prison. Yet he left behind sufficient theological reflections to fill 16 volumes.

Still he is not a household name. Last summer at a retreat center with a religious identity only one of 25 college juniors and seniors could identify Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They had been asked if they would like to participate in a Bonhoeffer seminar led by Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer's student, close friend, and key biographer, and Renate Bethge, Bonhoeffer's niece and co-trustee of the Bonhoeffer legacy. (Several did in fact attend.)

It's not something we do well, remembering our "heroes of conscience." But Dietrich Bonhoeffer deserves to be remembered and studied as a 20th-century martyr in the same breath with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, and others of notable achievement who could have honorably stayed above the battle but chose to risk their lives for what they believed.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1995
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