Bonhoeffer 60th anniversary meditation
by Rev. Theodore Gill
Ecumenical Center Chapel, Geneva
Monday, 4 April 2005

“Only someone who speaks out for the Jews has the right to sing Gregorian chant.” The words are Bonhoeffer’s, to his seminarians in the late 1930s.

But the reality is one of the most important things held in common by two of the people whom we remember in worship this morning: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karol Woytijla.

Both of them spoke for the Jews, and acted for individual Jews, at great personal risk, though in Bonhoeffer’s case, at least, not without feelings of guilt that he might have spoken a little more loudly, or acted more effectively.

Still, neither life was one exclusively of Gregorian chant, much though both of them loved it. Theirs were lives of discipleship, and chants of praise came through the gift of a costly grace.

We know that Father Karol – later known as John Paul II – was familiar with Bonhoeffer’s sacrifice, and with at least some of his contemplative writings. On January 18, 2000, in the grand ecumenical service marking that jubilee year in Rome, John Paul presided at worship in the basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, where the three principal readings on Christian unity were taken from I Corinthians 12, the Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky, and Protestant pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Late the following year, on November 14, 2001, a homily at one of the pope’s weekly audiences included a thoughtful quotation of Bonhoeffer’s reflections on the longest of the psalms.

Still, it must be admitted that the Dietrich Bonhoeffer of John Paul’s devotions was not necessarily the same Dietrich Bonhoeffer quoted by liberation theologians.

He may be one of the most frequently quoted of 20th-century Christian writers, yet sometimes it is for the sake of his near-mystical vision of the church, sometimes for his love of the world and its beauty, for music and art and family, sometimes for the near-monastic fellowship of the underground seminary in the Hitler years, sometimes for the celebration of his remarkable network of friendships throughout the world, sometimes for his poetry, biblical and secular, at other times, of late, for the romance of his prison correspondence with his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer – but most often he is cited for hints and suggestions in the fragmentary writings of his final years, in letters and meditations and rough notes in which he spoke of Jesus as, above all else, “the man for others”, discipleship and our calling to embody “a church for others”, the recognition that “in a world of suffering, only a suffering God can help”, his mention of the need for a “religionless Christianity” to serve and bring reconciliation to “a world come of age” – a world that no longer needs the hypothesis of God, though Bonhoeffer himself never ceased to speak that name.

The remarkable thing is that all of these ideas and assertions are authentic aspects of Bonhoeffer’s life and thought. His life; not just his thought – that’s another remarkable thing:

As US ecumenical activist Barbara Green once put it,
“What he thought, he believed. And what he believed, he did.”

Not that what he did was always understood or appreciated. His father, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Berlin, was bitterly disappointed when he learned his son was planning to enter the church. Why should such an intellect be wasted on something so peripheral? Later, Dietrich himself was frequently disappointed by the church – and I’m talking about the Confessing Church and the councils of the ecumenical movement. Often, he found their workings political in the worst sense, too quick to compromise, and too concerned for appearances; too little concerned for action on behalf of others, or for justice.

His sacramental vision of the church may have been idealistic, but he was always keenly aware of the hard realities.

Some ecumenical leaders found him lacking in gratitude. They were trying so hard to support the Confessing Church: How dare brother Dietrich demand that they do more? More than that, many came to be deeply suspicious of his basic allegiance. In 1940, to use his own words, he “joined the great masquerade of evil” in Berlin, accepting a posting in the Abwehr, German military intelligence. We know now that he did so to participate in the conspiracy against Nazi rule, and eventually in the plot to assassinate Hitler.

We know that now. But what were people to think at the time, when they heard Bonhoeffer had gone to work for the Abwehr? Only his closest friends and colleagues abroad continued to trust him implicitly – People like Bishop George Bell in the UK, Paul and Marion Lehmann in the US, Jean Laserre in exile from his native France. He gave up his career, and risked his reputation, and separated himself from ecumenical colleagues, in hope of making a concrete difference in the life of the world.

On July 21, 1944, the day after the failure of the assassination plot, Bonhoeffer intimated in a letter to Eberhard Bethge that, despite the failure of the conspiracy and the near-inevitability of death,
he was relieved that at last he would be seen again
as on the side of good, and not of evil.

Looking at his life, we see that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a theologian of the practical, of the Penultimate, of taking the Ultimate seriously enough to work for the transformation of this world, to volunteer to embody Christ, with others, in this imperfect church.

One of Bonhoeffer’s biographers – my father, in fact – wrote that the word “concrete” itself is too abstract a term to describe the consequences of Bonhoeffer’s ethic, and of his witness.

“The commandment becomes concrete,” said Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “in those who proclaim it.”

Let us pray.

Eternal God:
Open our eyes to the wonders of your world, and our lives to the discipline of giving ourselves for others,
that we, too, may become active members of the body of Christ on earth, and may exercise the right to chant your praise. We pray in your Triune name, and in the love of Jesus. Amen.