Discipleship In The Age of Tyranny

germany-postage-stamp-depicting-dietrich-bonhoeffer-a-german-lutheran-dgx9cbTHE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

RickThe Apostle Peter famously denied knowing Jesus out of fear in the hours before the crucifixion. His heartsick remorse brought him back to the risen Jesus, but the message he received was a hard one.  Jesus told Peter that loving Him would mean “when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” The Apostle John added “ Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God” (John 21:18-19).  Tradition says Peter was crucified upside down.

This ominous word from Jesus caused Peter to do a very human thing.  He pointed to John and asked “Well, that about him?!”  Jesus’ answer was instructive to both  Peter and to us: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me” (John 21:22).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Germany on this day, February 4th in 1906 during an age that placed him directly in the crosshairs of Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was a gifted theologian, but he is most remembered for his willingness to engage the world as he encountered it. His writing and social engagement against the Nazi party resulted in his arrest and ultimately his execution at Flossenburg concentration camp in 1945 at the age of thirty-nine.

Bonhoeffer had this to say about the Christian’s responsibility:

There are three possible ways in which the church can act toward the state:
In the first place … it can ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, i.e., it can throw the state back on its responsibilities.
Second, it can aid the victims of state action … The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community, “Do good to all people.” …
The third possibility is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself. Such action would be direct political action, and is only possible and desirable when the church sees the state fail in its function of creating law and order …

Our task is to take a clear-eyed look at the circumstances before us and ask a simple, yet profound question:

“What does following Jesus mean for me, right now?”


Matthew 25:31-46

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:

33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:

43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.


Dig Deeper

Art: Resistance Postage, Bonhoeffer: 1995: stamp printed by Germany

Literature and Liturgy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

bonhoefferFew theologians of the twentieth century have had such an ongoing impact upon the ecumenical church as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German *Lutheran pastor and martyr. An adolescent decision to become a theologian led him to study—first at Tübingen (1923), where he was particularly influenced by the New Testament scholar *Adolf Schlatter, whose biblical theology left a lasting impression. He continued his studies at the University of Berlin (1924–27) under several of the most prominent theologians of the time, including *Adolf Harnack, the doyen of church history and liberal Protestantism, and Karl Holl, a leading figure in the Luther-renaissance. At the young age of twenty-one Bonhoeffer completed his doctoral dissertation Sanctorum Communio, supervised by Reinhold Seeberg. Although he never formally studied with *Karl Barth, Bonhoeffer’s theological development was deeply influenced by the Swiss Reformed theologian.

Following his studies, Bonhoeffer served his curacy in Barcelona, Spain (1928), studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York (1929–30), was ordained and ministered in Berlin, completed his habilitation, Act and Being (1931), and lectured at the University of Berlin (1932–33). Some of his lectures were subsequently published, notably those on Creation and Fall and Christology. Shortly after Adolf Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of the Third Reich in 1933, Bonhoeffer, who was involved in early attempts by some theologians to oppose Nazism, went to England where he served two German congregations in London (1933–35). The escalating church struggle in Germany led to his return home and his appointment as the director of an illegal Confessing Church seminary at Finkenwalde. During these years he played a leading role awakening the ecumenical movement to the church crisis in Germany. Many of his most seminal thoughts found expression in his essays and addresses of this period, notably with regard to the peace issue, the ‘Jewish question’, and the nature and witness of the ecumenical movement. On the basis of his lectures on the Sermon on the Mount and his experience of community at Finkenwalde he wrote The Cost of Discipleship (1937) and Life Together (1939).

After a short aborted return visit to the United States in 1939, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany and became a member of the resistance movement centred in the Abwher (military intelligence). Reluctantly permitted to travel by the Gestapo to Switzerland and Sweden, Bonhoeffer used these opportunities to assist some Jews to escape and to pass on information about the resistance to the Allies. He also began writing the essays that were posthumously published as the Ethics. These reflect the moral dilemmas of those who, like himself, were engaged in the conspiracy. Arrested and imprisoned in April 1943, Bonhoeffer began to reflect on the future of Christianity and the church in a secular world. These reflections were expressed in letters smuggled to his friend Eberhard Bethge. They provide evidence of Bonhoeffer’s wide-ranging reading in prison and, in particular, of Wilhelm Dilthey’s influence on him. After the publication of Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, these fragmentary insights had considerable impact upon theological discussions in the 1960s. Bonhoeffer was murdered by the Gestapo at Flossenburg concentration camp in February 1945 at the age of thirty-nine.

While Bonhoeffer’s reflections in prison indicated that he was in the process of breaking new ground in his theology, there is a remarkable continuity in his thought which can be discerned from its early expression in Sanctorum Communio through to his Ethics and prison letters. The clue to this continuity is the Christological concentration of his theology centred on the question: ‘Who is Jesus Christ, for us, today?’ This question initially found its answer in the church, understood as ‘Christ existing as a community of persons’, then, following Luther, in the Christology lectures, in the ‘humiliated Christ’ (theologia crucis), and finally in Jesus as the ‘man for others’. Bonhoeffer’s consistent attempt to relate God’s self-disclosure in Christ (following Barth) to the reality of the world (responding to the challenge of nineteenth-century *liberal Protestantism), enabled him to pioneer a way beyond both revelational positivism and Idealism in the interests of a Christian witness concretely related to responsible living the world. This found its most powerful expression in his ‘ethics of free responsibility’, a central theme in his Ethics.

Although there is remarkable coherence in his theological development, the circumstances of his time prevented Bonhoeffer from pursuing an academic career and developing a formal systematic theology. This explains in part the open-ended character of his theology and the reason why his thought has been received and interpreted in varied ways in different contexts around the world. Yet the recent publication of the sixteen-volume critical edition of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke, presently being translated into English, is indicative of the extent of his theological legacy and the interest which it continues to attract. While much of this is academic in character, a great deal more has to do with the way in which Bonhoeffer’s life and theology, his spirituality and political involvement, combine to challenge and inspire those engaged in Christian witness in secular societies and the struggle for social justice.

Johnl W. de Gruchy, “Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (1906–45),” The Dictionary of Historical Theology (Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Paternoster Press, 2000), 80–82.


Texts: No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes from the Collected Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I 1928–1935 (ed. and intro. by Edwin H. Robertson; trans. Edwin H. Robertson and John Bowden; London, 1965); The Cost of Discipleship (trans. R.H. Fuller; rev. Irmgard Booth; New York, 2nd rev. edn, 1959); Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church (ed. Joachim von Soosten; ET ed. Clifford J. Green; trans. Reinhard Krauss and Nancy Lukens; Minneapolis, 1998); Ethics (London, 1955); Christology (London, 1966); Life Together (London, 1954); Letters and Papers from Prison (London, 1971). Studies: John W. de Gruchy, Bonhoeffer and South Africa: Theology in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, 1984); Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ (London, 1988); Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer, Exile and Martyr (ed. and with an essay by John W. de Gruchy; trans. from the German; London, 1975); A.J. Klassen (ed.), A Bonhoeffer Legacy: Essays in Understanding (Grand Rapids, 1980); Eberhard Bethge, Renate Bethge and Christian Gremmels (eds.), Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Life in Pictures (sup. Ulrich Kabitz; trans. John Bowden; London / Philadelphia, 1986); Charles Marsh, Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Promise of his Theology (New York, 1994).