From Left to Right and all around the world, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is everybody’s hero. This courageous young pastor stood up to the Nazis in the 1930s, eventually took part in a plot to kill Hitler and finally was hanged in a prison camp before the war ended. Nelson Mandela talked about the inspiration he drew from Bonhoeffer’s example. But Bonhoeffer supporters cross the entire political spectrum. In American right-wing politics, Glenn Beck considers Bonhoeffer such a hero that his online store sells wall-size posters of the bespectacled pastor’s face over Bonhoeffer’s famous lines:
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Glenn Beck tells his listeners: “This is a guy you should teach your children about!” And then Beck engages in what commentators from Left and Right like to do when they speak, write or preach about Bonhoeffer: hold him up as a mirror for each side’s approach to courageous defiance of authorities.
Within several years of Bonhoeffer’s death on April 9, 1945, at the age of 39, his books began appearing in English. However, according to Google tracking of trends in American publishing, Bonhoeffer did not become hugely popular in American culture until the mid 1960s. His most widely read book, The Cost of Discipleship, which was first published in 1937 in German, struck a chord 30 years later among young Americans working for change in the turbulent 1960s. In the book, Bonhoeffer tells readers: “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.”
When Glenn Beck talks about his hero, Beck scoffs at activists who claim that Bonhoeffer was “a social justice guy.” Beck says: Not so! Beck recommends a different biography of his hero: the 2010 book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, written by the journalist Eric Mataxas and published the conservative Christian publishing house Thomas Nelson. That book does the best job of emphasizing Bonhoeffer’s evangelical purity, Beck argues.
Today, ReadTheSpirit online magazine recommends Charles Marsh’s new biography, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer published by Knopf. Marsh compellingly tells the story of Bonhoeffer’s deep Christian faith, but he also more clearly describes Bonhoeffer’s life-changing experiences while studying for a year in the U.S. Most crucial to his transformation was his regular attendance at worship in a famous black church in Harlem—and a road trip Bonhoeffer took through the American South around the time of the infamous “Scottsboro Boys” trial.
Once Bonhoeffer returned to Germany after his year in the U.S., Mataxas’s book makes it seem obvious that any Christian leader with a spine would oppose Hitler from the beginning. From the first page of his biography, Mataxas describes Hitler and his “legion of demons” as ushering in an “evilly contorted and frightening” era in Europe. Marsh’s book, in contrast, explains how very difficult it was for religious leaders to understand the extreme danger during Hitler’s rise to power in the early 1930s. In fact, Bonhoeffer comes across as a much more remarkable prophet in Marsh’s book for clearly seeing the danger in the Nazis’ first tentative steps that would lead to the Final Solution.
ReadTheSpirit Editor interviewed Charles Marsh. Here are …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH CHARLES MARSH ON
‘STRANGE GLORY’ AND DIETRICH BONHOEFFER
DAVID: Most Americans recognize Bonhoeffer’s name, but most of us don’t know a lot about him. Recently, when I’ve visited various groups, I’ve asked people what they know about him. Usually people say: He defied Hitler and the Nazis killed him. Some of them know that he could have moved away from Germany, but made a conscious decision to stay. In general, people don’t know much more than that. I think lots of our readers will find your book absolutely fascinating.
CHARLES: Well, those details you just mentioned are true. That’s what makes Bonhoeffer’s life so compelling, but it’s also true that the facts of his life create misunderstandings. He was a theologian on a restless journey.
DAVID: In reading about his childhood, I was reminded of other famous religious figures who began life with great privilege—St. Francis, the Buddha and others—but later gave that up to follow their vocations. Your book describes Bonhoeffer’s childhood as living in the lap of luxury and opportunity. His family lived in Berlin’s well-to-do Grunewald district, since the late 1800s an area known for its big homes and elite families.
CHARLES: He was a golden child, raised in privilege and yet, as an adult, very early in the 1930s he was able to see with great clarity and prescience that the appointment of Hitler as chancellor of Germany constituted the emergence of what Bonhoeffer would call the great masquerade of evil.
He was restless in his studies, his travels and his conversations. At one point, his long journey led him to reach out to Gandhi in correspondence to see what Gandhi advised about creating intentional communities for peacemaking.
He was a pacifist, but later he also was part of a conspiracy to kill Hitler as he served as a pastor and theologian to the resistance. He was clear, at that point, that killing the madman was a responsible course of action, his principled pacifism notwithstanding.
Just as you’re describing it, I am fascinated to find so many people interested in Bonhoeffer: evangelicals, liberals, conservatives, believers, nonbelievers, humanists, activists, Jews, Christians and Muslims. They all find inspiration in aspects of Bonhoeffer’s life and work. In this book, what I’ve tried to do is invite readers along on this journey of Bonhoeffer’s life, trying to show how vivid and complex a person he was.
DAVID: Some of the other books on the market portray him as a pure saint from start to finish, almost glowing on every page.
CHARLES: In my book, I wanted to move beyond that kind of hagiography to respectfully probe his character, which had so many complex dimensions.
BONHOEFFER IN NEW YORK AND THE SOUTH
DAVID: My advice to readers is to enjoy the opening chapters about Bonhoeffer’s youth—then, I think most of our readers will really start turning pages in the middle section of this biography. I read your section on Bonhoeffer’s year in America twice. He shows up in New York City to study at Union seminary in 1930 under the great Reinhold Niebuhr, who had just arrived from Detroit two years earlier. Niebuhr was teaching “practical theology,” based on his experiences in the urban crucible that was the city of Detroit. Niebuhr’s church had been in what is today called Detroit’s New Center area.
They collided in New York—Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer. As a hot young German scholar, Bonhoeffer thought Niebuhr was a theological lightweight, compared with the world of German academia.
CHARLES: That’s true. He arrived as a straight arrow academic with no sense at all that America had lessons he might want to learn. Initially, he was quite taken aback by the way theology and ethics were taught at Union Theological Seminary. He once asked Reinhold Niebuhr after one of his lectures, “Is this a seminary or a training center for social activists?”
DAVID: But your book shows that Niebuhr and Union and New York City had a profound impact on Bonhoeffer’s life. Among other things, Bonhoeffer began attending the church led by the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr., who boasted the largest Protestant congregation in the U.S. with 10,000 members: the famous Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.
He became angry over the infamous Scottsboro case in which a group of young black men were framed on charges of raping white women on a train. Bonhoeffer called it a “terrible miscarriage of justice.” He got back to Germany and summarized what he had seen of white Americans’ treatment of black citizens as so fundamentally unjust that it was “darker than a thousand midnights.” As Bonhoeffer described this evil system, he mentioned American policies on “blood laws, mob rule, sterilizations and land seizures.”
CHARLES: His travels abroad gave him a different sense of his own country’s problems. I also point out that Bonhoeffer met with officials from the American Civil Liberties Union while he was in New York. Remember that the ACLU formed partly over concerns with deportations and abuses heaped on resident aliens in this country. Bonhoeffer wrote to his older brother to say, “We will need an ACLU in Germany.”
When I was reading Bonhoeffer’s papers in the archives, I was amazed at how thick his files were from his year in America and how attentive he was to groups like the ACLU that focused on human rights and social dislocation. Bonhoeffer read news reports on lynching, on homelessness. He looked into the whole constellation of human rights organizations while he was there at Union.
DAVID: He didn’t spend much time in the South, but he did make an epic road trip into Mexico and, as you point out, he did pass through the South on his return to New York. So, in addition to reading news reports about conditions there in New York City, he did see conditions in the South for himself.
CHARLES: Bonhoeffer always had a distrust of authority and his experience in the United States showed him some of the dangers that could arise when authority over minority groups was abused.
BONHOEFFER: THE CLARITY OF HIS VISION
DAVID: This is the point in your book when I couldn’t stop reading. Bonhoeffer goes back to Germany in 1931 and he begins studying under the famous theologian Karl Barth. He’s right back in the center of the world’s most elite theological circle of scholars—people far more concerned about academia than about the real lives of ordinary people.
Then, in early 1933, Hitler is rising in power and places the “Aryan paragraph” into Germany’s civil service laws. Very soon, this limited ban on Jewish employees is extended to schools. By June 1933, it’s extended to ban intermarriage. But, this is two years before the 1935 Nuremberg Laws appear and, suddenly, everybody is seeing these frightening posters about racial purity. Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, wouldn’t happen until late 1938.
Here’s what I found fascinating: Immediately in early 1933, Bonhoeffer saw the danger and knew how to respond. You document in your book that his great hero, Karl Barth, was willing to simply ignore the Nazis as a bunch of brutes and idiots. But not Bonhoeffer. You argue that his year in America and his passionate faith let him see what was going to happen years before others in Germany could guess at the danger that lay ahead. In the summer of 1933, Bonhoeffer was helping to draft a manifesto, the Bethel Confession, that warned of the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews.
CHARLES: It is true that there were dramatic differences between the two men. Bonhoeffer was part of the original drafting of the Bethel Confession. (It went through several versions and Bonhoeffer had left for England by the time the final version was published.)
DAVID: Your book points out that Barth refused to openly defy Hitler until 1934, a year later, and when Barth did issue his declaration it was all about the rights of the churches to be free of Nazi control. Barth was mainly concerned about confronting Hitler’s God-like status and Hitler’s authority over Germany’s churches. Bonhoeffer’s early work in 1933 made statements about the Christian defense of Jewish communities that the world wouldn’t see again until Vatican II passed Nostra Aetate in 1965. Talk about a visionary prophet!
CHARLES: That’s right and that’s such an interesting part of this story. Everyone who knows about this era wants to celebrate Barth’s declaration in 1934, but in many ways Bonhoeffer’s earlier work on the Bethel Confession was the more important document.
DAVID: I keep asking myself how he was able to see the larger issue—the Christian need to oppose the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews—so much earlier than Barth or other leaders.
CHARLES: Remember that Bonhoeffer had grown up in this upper-middle-class neighborhood in Berlin that was also populated with Jewish families. His family socialized with prominent Jewish families, so this awareness was part of his upbringing.
Later, after several versions of the Bethel Confession had been revised already and Bonhoeffer was no longer in Germany, the final draft was worked on by two theologians who would become pillars of the Nazi church. They deleted references to the significance of the “Aryan paragraph.”
But you are right in mentioning Nostra Aetate. Bonhoeffer in 1933 was wanting the statement to clearly say that Jesus, who Christians follow, was a Jew. And he wanted to point out all that should follow from that.
DAVID: As I read that section, I thought: The world wouldn’t see this kind of affirmation for another 30 years and, in between, Hitler would carry out the Final Solution. So tragic that other Christian leaders didn’t listen to Bonhoeffer in 1933.
BONHOEFFER: FROM FAITH TO ACTION
CHARLES: Ultimately, just as you have been describing this, I hope that readers will find this book a compelling narrative of an amazing life. I hope that I can bring readers into this beautiful and yet heartbreaking world—Bonhoeffer’s world. And, I hope that readers will come away with a different way of understanding the life of faith among those we consider our saints today.
I hope that Bonhoeffer emerges not just as a hero from another century, but as a Christian for our time, as well. The power of his life crosses so many boundaries, bridges so many divides and illuminates so many conflicts and passions—that I believe his life story becomes an extraordinary gift to us today.
DAVID: I want to close our interview by point out that this kind of connection between faith and action is an ongoing part of your professional life at the University of Viriginia. You are part of the Lived Theology project. You’re also part of the really remarkable archive called the Civil Rights Digital Archive, which contains lots of stories about largely unknown figures in the American civil rights era, including links to original documents.
CHARLES: The Project on Lived Theology began as a way to put bricks and mortar on Bonhoeffer’s own response to what he found in America in 1930 and 1931. These were his concerns. When he arrived at Union seminary, Bonhoeffer was shocked to see his professors leading student out of the classroom to take part in lived theology in the throes of the Great Depression. He was amazed to hear students asking: What are faith’s social obligations? And, how can we use our skills as pastors and theologians to make a difference and to relieve human suffering?
Later, Bonhoeffer said that these experiences helped him to turn from the “phraseological to the real.” What was poignant about Bonhoeffer’s return to Berlin is that he tried to find space at the university for this kind of transformative approach to theology and he was not able to do that for many reasons. That’s the vision of our Project on Lived Theology. It’s to create spaces within a major research university where scholars and theologians can work alongside each other and can turn the phraseological into the real.
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