Bonhoeffer and Reality on the Edges


Thousands of religious scholars descended upon Atlanta, Georgia this weekend for the American Academy of Religions/Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting. To say that the joint meeting is large would be an understatement. In the midst of the hundreds of possible paper sessions, the Bonhoeffer and Social Analysis group put forward a series of thoughtful and fruitful paper panels.

Many of these papers responded to or touched upon current areas of social engagement (as would be keeping with the name of the group). Over the meeting hung the cloud of current events, and as I left the final panel this morning, my mind could not help but reflect on the larger, cohesive question permeating through the sessions with our current reality.

The recurrence of the intersection of Bonhoeffer and the reality of experience of those on the edge of a fully integrated society is something that ought to cause us pause. Where do we consider ourselves to be in the world? Are we on the edges or in the center? My guess (and I speculate based on the demographics of those I saw at the conference and have met doing Bonhoeffer research) is that most individuals reading this blog are white and of European descent. A plurality are men. A large number are American, my own residential context, and likely to be Protestant or Evangelical Christians.

At least in the American context, we are scholars of Bonhoeffer in a very privileged center of society. Yet, Bonhoeffer beckons us away from the center. In their responses to Reggie Williams’ Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus (Baylor, 2015) both James Cameron Carter and Jenny McBride offered challenges to the audience to repent of their whiteness. While Carter and McBride approached this in very distinct and rich ways, their papers highlighted that Bonhoeffer’s works offer critiques of our own appropriation of identity and theology. But there are two other papers I wish to highlight as well. The first is Joe McGarry’s piece on Bonhoeffer and Don Quixote. McGarry proposed that Cervantes’ novel is key to understanding Bonhoeffer’s transition from Sanctorum Communio’s description of the “real” to a deeper ethic of reality as that which inhabits our world, demands our attention, and locates Christ in our midst. The second paper was by Ryan Tafilowski at the Global Luther and Genocide co-sponsored section. Tafilowski drew upon Paul Althaus (a Lutheran contemporary of Bonhoeffer in the Erlangen school) and Althaus’s construction of the “volk” as a category in Lutheran theology. This volkish theology posits that my existence and creation by God is inseparable from the blood of my people/nation.

While in Barcelona, Bonhoeffer gave a now, rather infamous sermon that expounded the virtues of nationalism and dying for his country. By many regards, in this sermon Bonhoeffer and Althaus appear eerily similar. It is a volkish reality interposed on Christianity. Yet, after Barcelona (and Don Quixote) and his experience in both Harlem and Latin America, Bonhoeffer’s devotion to the volk has notably shifted a greater call to see the world as it is and see Christ in the midst, suffering. Christ calls the Christian to bear responsibility for his neighbor. This remains a speculative exercise unless we are willing to move to the margins with our neighbor.

Alongside these papers are the news reports, particularly in America, where Christians (although by no means all Christians) have thrown support behind laws and politicians banning Syrian refugees from states, requiring Muslims to register (because that obviously didn’t have terrible consequences in Nazi Germany), and what can only be described as a rise of volkish theology. The Bible rather explicitly states that Christians are called to welcome and care for the widow, the orphan, and the alien,

This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3, among many others)

I have heard the rhetoric that those welcoming refugees are naïve, but I want to argue that the greater fear isn’t of the other but rather that in welcoming the other we strip our Christianity of its volkish veneer. We risk being in the margins with the other. We risk no longer identifying the other as “other” but as “brother.” We repent of our sins of placing security over the command of Christ.

Bonhoeffer tells us that to follow Christ means choosing to see our former identity fall away. In 1941 he writes,

I pray for the defeat of my Fatherland. Only through a defeat can we atone for the terrible crimes which we committed against Europe and the world.

This is not the language of Barcelona. It is of one that has realized that reality for Christians is radically different and much harder than we believe it to be. It is from one that was arrested for trying to help Jews escape. Bonhoeffer’s legacy continually calls us to question what we have put upon our Gospel- whether our race, our national identity, or our fear of the “other.” It is the uncomfortable call to Christ on the edge and in the margins.

One thought on “Bonhoeffer and Reality on the Edges

  1. Diane Reynolds

    Thanks for the synopsis on Bonhoeffer at the AAR conference, a conference which I could not attend. I hope you will tell us more agout the paper describing how Don Quixote led Bonhoeffer to the real. I have long pondered how Bonhoeffer received Quixote, which he was still talking about in the prison letters, and suspect it was not in the “man of la mancha” way postwar people have received it.

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