We live in a world where God is no longer central to our
culture. We live in a world where angry
voices sometimes make being a voice of peace much harder. History shows that others have faced these
challenges before. Their experience can help us to understand the role our
faith has in a society that has gone far away from God. This is the
story of one of the great theologians of our time who faced just such
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born on the 4th February
1906 in Breslau Germany into a middle-class family. The First World War saw the
Bonhoeffers lose one son and another wounded. They suffered the privations of
the Allied blockade and the treaty of
Versailles for which Dietrich never forgave the allies. Dietrich was given the best education and it was a great surprise to his family when
he chose to study theology.
As Hitler’s power and
persecution of the Jewish people grew in 1933, he spoke out on their behalf
calling them “Worthy Citizens”. This
open opposition of the tide of hatred robbed him of a blossoming career.
It was perhaps unsurprising then that Dietrich saw
Christianity as a faith that has a cost to its followers. In 1937 he wrote “The Cost of Discipleship”
which spoke of, Cheap and Costly Grace. “Grace” can be defined as unconditional love toward a
person who has done nothing to deserve it”. “Cheap Grace”
essentially is grace where we know we are forgiven and carry on how we like,
and it’s the grace without the following, grace without the discipleship. However,
then he talks about the flip side, costly
grace is the gospel which must be sought again
and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must
knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace
because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man
his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.
He then says “Costly Grace” may call us to do things we may feel
unworthy of or unprepared at the time we are
called. Our job is to follow the call.
“‘Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend – it must transcend all
comprehension. Plunge into the deep waters beyond your own comprehension, and I
will help you to comprehend even as I do. Bewilderment is the true
comprehension. Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. My
comprehension transcends yours.”
One thing that makes this journey easier is that with Christ
as our mediator we become one humanity. This
binding of us through Christ makes intercessionary
prayer the most powerful thing we can do. The Christ that mediates and acts
in us, exists and acts in our brothers
loving and sympathetic we try to be, however, sound our psychology, however
frank and open our behaviour, we cannot penetrate the incognito of the other
man, for there are no direct relationships, not even between soul and soul.
between us, and we can only get into touch with our neighbours through him. That is
why intercession is the most promising way to reach our neighbours, and corporate prayer offered in the name of Christ,
the purest form of fellowship” (Take a look at Ephesians 2 and see how Paul explores the
same theme of “One Humanity” mediated by Christ).
His explanation of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 shows that this fellowship
extends beyond the tribe we belong too.
The first mistake Bonhoeffer thinks the lawyer made was to ask, ‘who is my neighbour?’ I think you can hear that question being
asked today in our time, and of course,
Bonhoeffer could hear that question in his time. Bonhoeffer’s response to this question is as follows.
literally no time to sit down and ask ourselves whether so-and-so is our neighbour or not. We must get into action and obey – we must
behave like a neighbour to him. But perhaps this shocks you. Perhaps you still think you ought to think out
beforehand and know what you ought to do. To that, there is only one answer.
You can only know and think about it by actually doing it. You can only learn
what obedience is by obeying. It is no use asking questions; for it is only
through obedience that you come to learn the truth.
In simple terms,
Bonhoeffer says that discipleship should always cost us something and change
the way we behave. That Christ is in all
humanity, and that means we share in the suffering of Christ and of our fellow
humans. That all of our fellow humans have Christ in them and as a result become
our neighbours. That like Peter as he left his nets, this call and response
should be immediate and without question, as should our love for our neighbour.
As Hitler’s power grew, he created “Reich Churches” which
removed bibles and replaced them with Mein Kampf. In response to this Bonhoeffer
helped create the illegal “Confessing Church” and became the leader of a
seminary in Finkenwaldein. Here he wrote
“Life Together” that still influences Christian communities on what it means to
live a life before God.
The major themes of this book are that Christian communities
have been built to become a dwelling in which God lives. Various ministries should be present in these
communities, Meekness, Listening, and Helpfulness, Bearing one another’s Burden,
Proclamation and Confession.
At one point he escaped to America but felt he had to come
back because he felt that he could not lead the church in Germany after the war
if he had not tried to do so during it.
He was at arrested on a minor charge in 1943 and taken to Tagel Prison.
in prison it became clear he was involved in the failed plot to assassinate
Hitler. His correspondence became the
posthumous “Letters and Papers from Prison”.
In them, he wondered what a Christian’s role
is in a Godless world where God isn’t needed
for answers. Where God is no longer “A Priori”, that is to say, a given, or an automatically assumed truth.
How should Christians behave in a world where
God isn’t used for guiding our ethics,
On July 18th 1944 he wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge in response to this question
human being is called upon to share in God’s suffering at the hands of a
godless world. Thus, we must really live in that godless world and not try to
cover up or transfigure its godlessness somehow with religion.”
The conclusion he reached from this is that
“It is not a religious act that
makes someone a Christian, but rather sharing in God’s suffering in the worldly
life. That is “μετάνοια,” not thinking first of one’s own needs, questions,
sins, and fears but allowing oneself to be pulled into walking the path that
Jesus walks, into the messianic event, in which Isaiah. 53 is now being
This is the relevance of Christ in a Godless world for
Bonhoeffer. Humanity is unified by the Christ
in all of us. “Religious” rites do not make us right with God. Our Lord wants
our discipleship, our following. Our Lord suffers because his children suffer,
and as we have the suffering Christ in us, we share his suffering. The only resolution, therefore, is to love our
neighbour and to know that everyone is
our neighbour. We must do this openly and, in the world, not cloistered away,
letting the world see, this is why we are as we are.
If all that has left, you
thinking Bonhoeffer was some sort of
“Superman” that we can neither aspire to
nor learn from? My last words are a poem he wrote shortly
before his execution on the 9 April 1945.
Who am I?
They often tell me
I would step from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I?
They often tell me
I would talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
Who am I?
They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that
which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
restless and longing and
sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were
compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for
flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
trembling in expectation of
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine.
We only have Bonhoeffer’s early work as he was
murdered at age 39.
I hope you learn to love him as much as I do.