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Bonhoeffer, Freedom for Others, and Preparing the Way for Grace


_41556822_bonhoeffergettyBonhoeffer, in the Ethics manuscript entitled, Ultimate and Penultimate Things, discusses what it means to prepare the way for Jesus in another’s life. This task, according to Bonhoeffer, is a responsibility with which all who know about the coming of Jesus Christ must come to terms. What Bonhoeffer says next is worth quoting at length:

The condition which grace meets us is not irrelevant, even though it is always only by grace that grace comes to us. We can make it hard for ourselves and others to come to faith. It is hard for those thrust into extreme disgrace, desolation, poverty, and helplessness to believe in God’s justice and goodness. It becomes hard for those whose lives have fallen into disorder and lack of discipline to hear the commandments of God in faith. It is hard for the well-fed and the powerful to comprehend God’s judgment and God’s grace. It is hard for those who are disappointed by a false faith and who have lost self-control to find the simplicity of surrendering their hearts to Jesus Christ. This is not to excuse or discourage those to whom this applies. Instead, they must learn all the more that in Jesus Christ God comes down into the very depths of the human fall, of guilt, and of need, that the justice and grace of God is especially close to the very people who are deprived of rights, humiliated, and exploited, that the help and strength of Jesus Christ are offered to the undisciplined, and that the truth will lead the erring and despairing onto firm ground again. 


None of this excludes the task of preparing the way. It is, instead, a commission of immeasurable responsibility given to all who know about the coming of Jesus Christ. The hungry person needs bread, the homeless person needs shelter, the one deprived of rights needs justice, the lonely person needs community, the undisciplined one needs order, and the slave needs freedom. It would be blasphemy against God and our neighbor to leave the hungry unfed while saying that God is closest to those in deepest need. We break bread with the hungry and share our home with them for the sake of Christ’s love, which belongs to the hungry as much as it does to us. If the hungry do not come to faith, the guilt falls on those who denied them bread. To bring bread to the hungry is preparing the way for the coming of grace (163, emphasis mine).

There are two particular points, in this passage, that I think Bonhoeffer gets right. These words were not only appropriate when Bonhoeffer penned them, they are words that we desperately need to hear today. First, Bonhoeffer speaks to the fact that Christians can, and often do, make the gospel message difficult–or nearly impossible–to hear and accept. Often, in our rejection of others (whether documented immigrants, undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ persons, transgender teens, the homeless, etc…) we alienate those we are called to love; effectively pushing them further and further away from Jesus Christ.

Yet, we must not forget that in pushing away those on the margins of society we push Jesus away as well (Matt 25). In Life Together, Bonhoeffer makes precisely this point.“The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community” Bonhoeffer argues, “may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in the poor brother Christ is knocking at the door. We must, therefore, be very careful at this point.” I am sad to say, this exclusion of the other (and of Christ) is far too common in our society.

Maybe, if we get down to the heart of the matter, the difference between embracing actions and rhetoric that alienate the other and embracing love of the other comes down to two very different understandings of freedom. A negative view of freedom supposes that each individual is free from all other individual selves. This is a particularly common understanding of freedom in the West. On this account of freedom we are free to pursue our own autonomous needs, wants, and desires regardless of, and in spite of, others (especially those who are unlike us). In contrast, Bonhoeffer posits a view of Christian freedom wherein one is only free if they are free for others. In speaking about responsible action for the other, Bonhoeffer notes that “a human being necessarily lives in encounter with other human beings and that this encounter entails being charged, in ever so many ways, with responsibility… To act out of concrete responsibility means to act in freedom”. As Bonhoeffer often does, he looks to Christ to ground this understanding of freedom. Christ was free for humanity. His freedom did not consist in autonomous concern for self, but rather, in freedom, he bore the weight of human sin and guilt. It seems to me that when the concern for personal freedom (whether that freedom is used to ensure personal safety, wealth, or happiness) trumps love for others, we ultimately reject the freedom for others that Christ exemplifies.

Now back to the opening quote of this post. The second point that I think Bonhoeffer gets right is his statement that “if the hungry do not come to faith, the guilt falls on those who denied them bread.” This is a particularly harsh statement and one that immediately challenges our assumptions of individual responsibility for one’s own action. “How”, we might ask, “am I guilty if another person willingly chooses to reject the gospel?” I think Bonhoeffer would respond by saying that if we have failed in our calling to prepare the way for the coming of grace in another’s life (or have actively hindered the coming of grace), then we bear guilt for that individual’s subsequent rejection of the gospel. If I was going to take Bonhoeffer’s statement and apply it to today, I would think it would go something like this:

If LGBTQ persons do not come to faith, guilt falls on Christians who denied them community.

If the homeless do not come to faith, guilt falls on Christians who denied them dignity.

If the refugee does not come to faith, guilt falls on Christians who denied them safety.

If the emotionally wounded do not come to faith, guilt falls on Christians who denied them stability

… and the list could go on.

All this is to say, we are called to be a people who live responsibly, in freedom for others, and who prepare the way for the coming of grace in other’s lives. If our rhetoric and/or our actions are contrary to this way of life, then Bonhoeffer reminds us that we may be guilty of far more than it might seem at first glance. This is true for me… it is true for you… and it is true for those in leadership (of churches and nations). As we listen to the rhetoric during this election season, may we be ever conscious of how what we say and what we do can affect how others may or may not receive the gospel of Jesus Christ; especially if the title “Christian” is one which we openly embrace and proclaim.

A response to Schlingensiepen on Metaxas and Marsh

Having just completed a book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and woman, I feel compelled to respond to Ferdinand Schlingensiepen’s review on this blog of Metaxas’s and Marsh’s biographies.

First, as Schlingensiepen must know–and his biography, witty and well-informed, is one of the best–writing a biography of Bonhoeffer must be one of life’s more daunting feats. I realized in writing my own the impossibility of cramming such an immensely full life in the  300-500-page format publishers expect. Even Bethge’s byzantine 1,000-page biography omits huge amounts of personal material, especially about the women in Bonhoeffer’s life, a piece of the puzzle integral for understanding a figure for whom the personal and the theological were so tightly intertwined.

After dealing with errors in every book about Bonhoeffer I read, including, I might say, Schlingensiepen’s and Bethge’s, I realized that the fault lies perhaps not entirely in the biographer’s stars but in a genre that insists on a single volume, standard size life. Condensing a life as complicated and multivalent as Bonhoeffer’s leads to distorting it–and this lends itself to omissions that can become blunders. Further, to condemn a writer for leaving out parts of Bonhoeffer’s life with fewer than 500 pages to work with is to condemn him or her for doing the inevitable: it is tantamount to condemning a person for not working four forty-hour a week jobs.

Given the complexity of Bonhoeffer’s life, we all need to read multiple biographies and primary sources to gain a multi-faceted understanding of Bonhoeffer. More to the point, the world of Bonhoeffer scholarship cries out for a day-by-day, blow-by-blow multi-volume Bonhoeffer biography similar to those we have for figures such as Henry James. I can’t even begin to discuss how much time I spent simply unraveling timelines–those in the Works are very helpful but incomplete– in order to figure out where major players in my book were when.

So first, it would be most helpful to have a multi-volume companion biography to the Works. This would allow writers to devote their energies to concentrating on discrete pieces of Bonhoeffer’s life.

All that being said, I agree that the Metaxas biography was largely a biographical fiction, though I would contend it largely repeats the “heroic narrative” that is standard Bonhoeffer fare: it is the book that people want to read, that mirrors back to them their own desire for a pillar saint. I find it difficult, however, to lump it with Marsh’s book: I dismissed Metaxas and would not use him as a source: Marsh is so much better I would hesitate to conflate him with Metaxas.

Marsh’s biography, though breathtakingly beautifully written, stymied me as I couldn’t track sources from it, and I decided to stop judging it for being what it is not: it is not a pedantically fact-based account of Bonhoeffer’s life. Instead, I found it a lyrical meditation on Bonhoeffer written by someone well steeped in primary sources. Yes, yes, the moment where Marsh insists that Ruth von Kleist-Retzow was dismayed at the engagement between Maria and Dietrich is a point where Marsh gets the story wrong–but Marsh is hardly alone in his misreading of the women in Bonhoeffer’s life. And I appreciated Marsh for having a point of view that dared to deviate from the party line.

As I blogged at my website, in a post entitled “On Biography” –(, Marsh’s Bonhoeffer is not my Bonhoeffer. Nor is anyone else’s Bonhoeffer my own. A biography inevitably becomes a merging of one person’s with another person’s consciousness, one person’s time with another person’s time, one person’s nationality with another’s. We inevitably will distort: we can’t not do so. The question  underlying biography–how can any of us have the hubris to purport to know another person’s life?–and of anachronism: how can a post-war person have an understanding of the lens through which a pre-World War II person saw?–haunted me as I wrote and haunts me still. We are conscious and we are blind. We make mistakes, and we soar with insights. Some of us do it better and with more accuracy: none of us is perfect.

Schlingensiepen cannot be suggesting that nobody who is not of the nationality of a subject is unqualified to write a biography of that person. That would be as absurd as to contend that we can add nothing to our understanding of person’s life if we come from a later time period. After all, we write biography as much to understand the present as the past, as much to understand our own society as another’s. Second, while I found little of interest in Metaxas, Marsh’s biography, which came out as my almost completed draft wended towards a publisher, became a sounding board, a conversation piece for me, a way for me to sharpen and refine, often albeit in contradiction, my own understanding of who Bonhoeffer was as I did a final edit on my book. And for that I am grateful. That, in the end, is what any single decent biography is–not the final word, but one person’s informed contribution to an ongoing conversation.

The Pope and the Refugee Question

On 6 September, Pope Francis called on Catholic parishes across Europe to offer hospitality to the influx of refugees,

 “May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary in Europe host a family,” the pope told a crowd in St. Peter’s Square after reciting the traditional noon Angelus prayer. [1]

To those who follow Pope Francis, Catholic or not, this type of call should not have surprised anyone. It follows earlier proclamations regarding the role of Christian response to refugees from including a piece from 2013 in which Pope Francis remarked,

The Church, responding to Christ’s command to “go and make disciples of all nations”, is called to be the People of God which embraces all peoples and brings to them the proclamation of the Gospel, for the face of each person bears the mark of the face of Christ! … We ourselves need to see, and then to enable others to see, that migrants and refugees do not only represent a problem to be solved, but are brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected and loved. They are an occasion that Providence gives us to help build a more just society, a more perfect democracy, a more united country, a more fraternal world and a more open and evangelical Christian community. [2]

As a personal fan of Francis but a student of Bonhoeffer, my immediate reaction to the 6 September call was as follows:

  1. “Wow, Pope Francis isn’t afraid of actually calling the Church to action” [Francis fan]
  2. “I wonder how difficult it will be for those parishes to follow this commandment with all of the various state laws that hinder migration?” [Bonhoeffer scholar]

The sad reality of the horrific and on-going debate over how to respond to the influx of Syrian refugees (among others) highlights how difficult it is to navigate the relationship between the church and the state. This challenge is even more evident in the rise of the European Union and a plurality of state laws within a larger, “state” structure.

Bonhoeffer’s works illustrate this on-going discussion of church and state. In the face of human crises, it seems that those who have at least a cursory reading of Bonhoeffer quickly refer to his 1933 piece, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” as a helpful rallying cry for action to be taken. Yet, I think this piece must be held in tension with his 1939 “Theological Position Paper on State and Church.” These two, short documents bookend his theology on the church and state.

In, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” which the title of this post alludes to, Bonhoeffer calls upon the church to be in, “service to the victims of the state’s actions. The church has an unconditional obligation toward the victims of any societal order, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.”[3] While this rallies excitement, Bonhoeffer does not abandon Luther’s theology of church and state. The church has no direct call to political action if the state is taking legitimate action, “in its function of creating law and order by force.”[4]

These claims are mirrored in the later piece as well. Even in 1941, post the unhidden racial atrocities and restrictions on freedom being carried out by the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer is loathe to reject an arrangement that maintains that the government exists as ordained by God to uphold creation for the redeeming work of Christ.[5] Obviously, whether the Third Reich was carrying out this responsibility isn’t the question that Bonhoeffer is asking. It is through his explanation of what the proper responsibility of government is that he can critique the Nazi state while holding close to Luther’s theology.

The call that Pope Francis issued sets up an interesting thought puzzle for how Bonhoeffer’s political theology extends to modern Europe. If the Pope is right (and I believe that he is) and the Gospel challenges us to welcome the stranger, the poor, the migrant, the refugee, into our home- then that is essentially a call for the church to challenge the state’s immigration policies if those policies prevent the Church from living out that Gospel message. Yet if Bonhoeffer is also right (and again, I believe that he is), state’s that are earnestly attempting to maintain law and order via their immigration policies are indicative of the state carrying out its commission.

The important caveat, however, is that, despite his ecumenical and international efforts, I do not believe that Bonhoeffer imagined the impact that the European Union would have on the role of state legislation. When Bonhoeffer writes of the state, the context is localized. It is the nation. We have seen in the past week how immigration policies of the EU can get in the way of independent member state actions. One only had to turn on CNN or the BBC to see the gathered and wearied travelers camped out at the a Hungarian train station- wanting to travel to Germany, a state that has taken on the challenge of resettling refugees, but the Hungarian government saying that EU resettlement and refugee laws gave them the right to restrict movement out of Hungary.

The glimmers of change, however, have been the responses of citizens and national church bodies to their respective governments. The Pope’s challenge can be seen as a challenge to the EU, but the actual work to proclaim the Gospel and challenge the nations is worked out in the local congregations and among individual Christians. In the ever increasing difficulties of navigating where one part of the church begins and another ends and where one state begins and the other ends, Bonhoeffer can be instructive. He writes,

The duty of the Christians to obey binds them up to the point where the government forces them into direct violation of the divine commandment, thus until government overtly acts contrary to its divine task and therefore forfeits its divine claim… Disobedience can only be a concrete decision in the individual case. [6]

Whether the various government policies are within the proper realm of maintaining law and order, or if they are based on xenophobic views of the other is the salient question. If it is the former then the church must proceed with caution, if it is the latter, then the red-tape to bring refugees into a country challenges the Gospel. I don’t presume to know the answer or to believe that I am skilled enough in statecraft to declare one or the other since it seems that it is a mixed bag in regards to Europe. I can say, however, that both Bonhoeffer and Pope Francis seem to be challenging the Church to understand that proclamation of the Gospel means that the Christians have responsibility to those on the margins and I cannot fathom anyone more on the margins than the stateless and those who have been driven from their homes because of genocidal tactics.

  • [1] Francis X. Rocca, “Pope Francis calls on Europe’s Catholics to Shelter Refugees.” Wall Street Journal , 6 September 2015 <>
  • [2] Pope Francis, “Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees,” 24 September 2013 <>
  • [3] DBWE 12:365
  • [4] DBWE 12:364
  • [5] DBWE 16:504, 516
  • [6] DBWE 16:517

A New Bonhoeffer Moment: The Acceptance of Guilt

GuiltLeading up to the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage some American Evangelical conservatives coined the term “Bonhoeffer Moment” in an effort to explain their now seemingly precarious position within society. It was Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, who initially coined the term as a way to rally American Christians to stand up in the face of growing American immorality and wickedness. In making his claim, Floyd cited issues such as “Islamic militancy, human trafficking, poverty and religious liberty” as well as referencing the US Supreme Court’s ruling which legalized same-sex marriage.[1] Floyd’s language and thought has spread throughout the evangelical community and has undoubtedly lead to instances such as the Kentucky clerk, Kim Davis, who, now jailed, refuses to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples based on her religious beliefs. This is seemingly her “Bonhoeffer Moment.“ What I would like to do in what follows is not refute Floyd’s use of Bonhoeffer or to critique Kim Davis’ actions as a public official. My intention is much more modest. I would like to offer an alternative definition to the phrase “Bonhoeffer Moment” and explore what it would look like for the church-community to embrace Bonhoeffer’s thought in an entirely different way than how Floyd intended.

In the Ethics manuscript entitled Guilt, Justification, Renewal Bonhoeffer expounds on the necessity of the Church to both accept and repent of her guilt within society. “The church is” according to Bonhoeffer, “the community of people who, grasped by the power of Christ’s grace, acknowledge, confess, and take upon themselves not only their personal sins, but also the Western world’s falling away from Jesus Christ as guilt toward Jesus Christ.”[2] Perhaps a “Bonhoeffer Moment” as the acceptance of guilt is the type of moment the church currently needs. Acceptance of guilt differs from the previous definition of a “Bonhoeffer Moment” precisely in that the reflection of the community of believers is turned inward in recognition that it is she who is the worst of sinners. Here, in this confession of guilt, there can be no place for a “sidelong glance at the others who are also guilty.” It would be beneficial at this point to quote Bonhoeffer at length:

Confession of guilt happens without a sidelong glance at the others who are also guilty. This confession is strictly exclusive in that it takes all guilt upon itself. When one still calculates and weighs things, an unfruitful self-righteous morality takes the place of confessing guilt face-to-face with the figure of Christ. Because the origin of the confession of guilt is the form of Christ and not our individual transgressions, therefore it is complete and unconditional. Christ conquers us never more strongly than by completely and unconditionally taking on our guilt and declaring it Christ’s own, letting us go free. Looking on this grace of Christ frees us completely from looking at the guilt of others and brings Christians to fall on their knees before Christ with the confession: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”[3]

Whereas the former definition of a “Bonhoeffer Moment”, one which calculates and weighs things (particularly the unrighteousness of the other), fosters a self-righteous morality, the latter definition brings the Church to her knees in humble repentance before her God. While the former definition can be detected in the actions of Kim Davis, the latter can be seen in Bonhoeffer’s confession of corporate guilt within the pages of Guilt, Justification, Renewal. It is precisely this ecclesial position that gives the Church the proper stance in relation to others in society (even in relation to those with whom she fundamentally disagrees) . Bonhoeffer then argues that it is through the Church’s confession of guilt that the justification and renewal of the West can be realized.

But what exactly does this look like when lived out in concrete circumstances within contemporary society? I believe that the Church’s corporate confession of guilt will foster an attitude of humility that will replace the self-righteous morality often seen when the Church simply condemns the sin of the other without reflecting on the reality of her own implicit guilt (an attitude which is depicted in the image above). Furthermore, this exchange will, in turn, lead to an increased ability for the Church to love her neighbor as herself. Bonhoeffer gives us a wonderful picture of what this attitude looks like. While all ten of Bonhoeffer’s confessions of guilt within this manuscript are worth reflection, I will for the sake of brevity quote three and ask you, the reader, to contemplate what it would look like for the church of today to adopt a similar attitude in her relation to the world. As opposed to Floyd’s usage of the phrase, Bonhoeffer’s example of confession and guilt bearing might be a better illustration of what it means for the church to be in a “Bonhoeffer Moment.”

The church confesses that it has misused the name of Christ by being ashamed of it before the world and by not resisting strongly enough the misuse of that name for evil ends. The church has looked on while injustice and violence have been done, under the cover of the name of Christ. It has even allowed the most holy name to be openly derided without contradiction and has thus encouraged that derision. The church recognizes that God will not leave unpunished those who so misuse God’s name as it does…

The church confesses that it has witnessed the arbitrary use of brutal force, the suffering in body and soul of countless innocent people, that it has witnessed oppression, hatred, and murder without raising its voice for the victims and without finding ways of rushing to help them. It has become guilty of the lives of the weakest and most defenseless brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ…

The church confesses that it has looked on silently as the poor were exploited and robbed, while the strong were enriched and corrupted.[4]




[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green and Ilse Tödt, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009). 135

[3] Ibid. 136

[4] Ibid. 138-140