Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands at the fore of figures of the Christian past who loom large over political theology and religious activism today. The German pastor and theologian’s life elevates his ideas to that of legend. Bonhoeffer: the man who earned his doctorate at twenty-two and held his own on subjects spanning ontology to ecclesiology and thinkers from Barth to Heidegger, the man who then spearheaded the Confessing Church to fight against Nazism and even joined a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, the man then jailed for his resistance, the man who mused of a ‘world come of age’ and a ‘religionless Christianity’ in his Letters and Papers from Prison that has haunted theologians since, and finally, the man whom his Nazi jailers hanged and killed just weeks before V-E Day.

Like most celebrity, Bonhoeffer’s has divided him among partisanships and clichés that have clouded the man himself. He is claimed by all shades of the political spectrum, from Eric Metaxas, who authored his popular biography and now oft exploits Bonhoeffer’s life of tough choices as precedent to support whatever Donald Trump happens to declare, to Union Theological Seminary, which once housed Bonhoeffer himself during his stay in America, now houses the International Bonhoeffer Center, and has long adorned itself with labels like “progressive theology” and “deep commitment to social justice.” And he is just as popular among those who are labeled as moderates (e.g. Russell Moore, Tim Keller, etc.), as their frequent citations of Bonhoeffer recently drew the attention of a satirist in Chronicles Magazine.

None of these debates surrounding Bonhoeffer are new. Eberhard Bethge, his closest confidant, spent the years following Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom arguing with death-of-God theologians over his friend’s positions and legacy. Was Bonhoeffer’s thought radical, pietistic, traditional, or modern? The fight included such heavyweights as Barth and Bultmann, and it reached its point of exhaustion in Heinrich Ott’s Reality and Faith (1966), in which the successor to Barth’s chair at Basel cleared the air with the frank wisdom: “of what use are such labels to us? The right course is to direct our questions at the facts themselves” (151). Then the Bonhoeffer controversy waxed and waned with the next generation of theologians, just as it continues to do today.

He is concerned foremost with the reality of the world and its precedence over political partisanship through the pre-political institutions of Creation, human work, and marriage.

In this current time, called a ‘Bonhoeffer Moment’ by many, Ott’s wise call to turn from unhelpful labels to the facts themselves is just as needed to break that cycle and allow the actual Bonhoeffer to speak. And the actual Bonhoeffer outlines a program of political theology in his last work, Ethics, which is rather clear, considering both its origin—as an unfinished assortment of drafts written in prison, published only, like the Letters, after his death—and also the cloud of debate still shrouding his thought. Attention to this work written concurrently with the controversial Letters will reframe Bonhoeffer’s thought from one of political activism towards that of sober reflection. He is concerned foremost with the reality of the world and its precedence over political partisanship through the pre-political institutions of Creation, human work, and marriage. By recognizing these concerns, we may see how ironic it is—indeed, tragic—that Bonhoeffer’s character has become so contested by partisan battles today.

The thesis of Ethics is, above all else, reality. In good Lutheran fashion, Bonhoeffer begins with discussion of the human state of sin, arguing that the root of human sin is ethical self-justification without God. His interpretation of the Edenic fall— “to know good and evil is to know oneself as the origin of the good and evil”—reveals how even the human ability to discern between the right and wrong is its own most primordially fallen attempt to wrest that right from God. Only God may determine what is right or wrong—and He had already determined that all Creation was “very good.” And man’s attempt to determine reality for himself through the knowledge of good and evil is precisely his fall into sin.

Understanding morality as humanity’s most intimate sin is so radical as to endanger the very possibility of ethics, which, as a human enterprise, depends on some sort of basic moral principle in order to even begin. But Bonhoeffer argues that this basic problem of ethics for the Christian opens the possibility for a real ethic in the first place, and this leads to Bonhoeffer’s thesis for political theology. Upon conversion, the Christian gains the wisdom “that reality is not built upon principles but that it rests upon the living and creating God” (71). And this reality is not built by a god in the metaphysically detached realm of the cosmic είδος but rather in “in the midst of history” itself: it “lies in Jesus Christ, the Reconciler of the world” (71). The facts of the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the reconciliation of God with the world in Jesus Christ mean that God has reestablished His place as the origin and subject of reality. Therefore, human eyes must turn downward from principles to the simple fact of the reality that has Jesus Christ as both its inhabitant and its basis.

This turn downward sets Bonhoeffer both in agreement and at odds with Nietzsche, of all thinkers. Bonhoeffer notes that “anyone who reads the New Testament even superficially cannot but notice the complete absence of this world of disunion, conflict and ethical problems” (30). For Bonhoeffer, the apostles are, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, beyond good and evil. But quite unlike Nietzsche, he declares Ecce homo! in an opposite sense: behold the God-Man Who reconciled the world by the fact of a “lived love of God,” and behold the man reconciled by God, the man whom God loves, “not an ideal man,” but “man as he is, not an ideal world, but the real world” (72-73). God, and therefore the Christian, are not interested in man who may become übermensch but man who is and will remain human. “God wishes us men, too, to be real men” (73).

Bonhoeffer recognizes historicity, and not as a web from which to escape but as a fact to accept.

The rest of Bonhoeffer’s Christian ethic follows from this demand to be real men. Throughout Ethics, he is not so much concerned with producing a grand vision; his goal is not “any kind of abstract ethic” but an “ethic which is entirely concrete,” the way “in which Christ takes form among us here and now” (87). But this emphasis on the concrete should not fall prey to caring only for the present moment of individual taste. Instead, the recognition of concrete reality recognizes the historical “nexus” of experiences, responsibilities, and decisions that bind each culture to its situation (88). Bonhoeffer recognizes historicity, and not as a web from which to escape but as a fact to accept.

This recognition has particular importance, for Bonhoeffer, in the culture of the West. He writes that “until our own days” the fact is that “the form of Christ” has been “consciously affirmed and recognized” as the West’s “underlying basis” (88). Bonhoeffer is concerned with the fact that the West is a unified historical particularity in which the universal λόγος has chosen to be revealed.This is cause neither for boasting nor mourning, but it is the case. And so Bonhoeffer, as a western man concerned with the ethical formation of Christians in the West, chooses to focus on “the peoples of Europe and America” as his subject. And therefore, the West and its history must be given due account, from its debt to Israel as its forefather and its recognition of Greco-Roman antiquity as the site of revelation.

Bonhoeffer shows no bitterness toward the facts of history and tradition. For instance, he states that “the relation of the western nations to antiquity was positive and fundamental” through the treatment given it by the church. Antiquity continues to this day in both the Roman and Greek form, the former still living in the Catholic Church and the latter first retrieved through attempts of the German Reformation—though, in the context of Nazi Germany, such retrieval may devolve into anti-Christian mythologizing. With such mythologizing at the forefront of his mind, Bonhoeffer declares that “it is only in relation to Christ that there is a genuine inheritance from classical antiquity in the west” (92). Bonhoeffer shares the same opinion as Luther in the Heidelberg Disputations: we may only read Aristotle once we have become thoroughly foolish in Christ. But once we have become foolish in Christ, we may accept the fact of Aristotle, Cicero, or indeed even Achilles or Odysseus—but preferably the admirable Hector—as our heritage. (At this point, one cannot help but notice the irony that Bonhoeffer is now considered by many as an early herald of liberation and contextual theology, a movement whose theologians today without a wink consider any form of ‘white’ or ‘western’ Christianity as evil incarnate and irredeemable. Only willful ignorance of what Bonhoeffer wrote can explain such irony.)

While he treats the West as a unified whole, Bonhoeffer recognizes the particularities that have driven the individual cultures within it. For instance, he notes that European countries have struggled to find a “Christian basis for democracy.” But America, having been founded by Calvinists and enthusiasts who held fast both to human depravity and the kingdom of God as the independent congregation of the faithful, has regarded “democracy alone” as the “Christian form of the state” (105). Neither position has an advantage over the other, and Bonhoeffer diagnoses the problems of each in his contemporary situation—if only Bonhoeffer’s own lucidity in diagnosis could return today. But again, it is a recognition of the fact that a culture was built by certain people in a certain time and place which guides his thinking towards this lucidity.

Once Bonhoeffer finishes his overview of the Western situation, he outlines the different areas of human political life within it, with a particular emphasis on the extent of the role of Church and state regarding each. Again, with a sober outlook, his goal is not a total program but rather a delineation of the limits of each area. While throughout all of Ethics he polemicizes against the strict separation of powers in classical two-kingdom theology—he derides such as a ‘pseudo-Lutheran’ notion—he nonetheless retains a similar focus on what the primary and distinct duties of Church and state are and how they are to fulfill those duties. The government’s task consists in the “exercise of the worldly power of the sword and justice,” and this task includes both the “negative” of punishing the wicked and the positive of “praising the good” (335). The government can do nothing creative, and it always rests on the prior basis of the created world (207). Therefore its “divine task” is summed up in preservation of the world (339).

For its part, the Church’s task is the proclamation of Christ in the world. Since all things are created in and through Christ, “they are all subject to Christ’s commandment and claim” [emphasis added] (318). But Bonhoeffer is not concerned with a “christianizing of the secular institutions,” but rather with allowing their “true worldliness” in Christ to be shown in full (321). For Jesus Christ himself is already the overarching truth of all being as it already is. It does not need a Church to bestow or impart Christ. The Church only reveals this true worldliness, this truth of being, as it already is. The Church performs this task through proclamation, and only through proclamation of the word, not the sword or any other program. Therefore, the Church has no responsibility to advocate a “Christian policy” (342) or to promote a special ‘campaign’ to remedy a particular societal ill (351). It must simply remind the world that it belongs to Christ and Christ belongs to it.

And this is Bonhoeffer’s most striking point: the world, and specifically in this context, human life within the world, precedes both state and Church.

If the government is restricted to preserving the world and the Church to proclaiming Christ’s lordship over the world, then there is much space left for the world itself to be—the world. And this is Bonhoeffer’s most striking point: the world, and specifically in this context, human life within the world, precedes both state and Church. Bonhoeffer mourns that the “natural has fallen into discredit in Protestant ethics,” and he states that it must be “recovered” on the Protestant basis of the Gospel (142-143). He contributes to this recovery with an endorsement of life that conceives of the natural and bodily as both 1. a means to the end of eternal life and worship of God, and 2. an end in itself as a gift of God’s own doing. As both a means to an end and an end in itself, bodily life enjoys the innate right to “bodily joys” without any purpose at all beyond joy itself (156). And these joys then serve as “reminders” of God’s own promised joy in eternity (157). Here Bonhoeffer shares some affinity with another thinker also writing at the time while imprisoned by the Nazis, Emmanuel Levinas: “We breathe for the sake of breathing… Life is a sincerity.”

This sincerity of life colors Bonhoeffer’s privilege of labor and family in particular over the spheres of politics and church. In fact, of these ‘four mandates,’ labor and marriage precede the latter two. Labor is the first of the four, as it exists as a mandate both before and after the Fall. That man must wrest his nourishment from the earth in the sweat of his brow is, even as a curse, the only right manner in which he receives nourishment. By it human beings participate in a reflection of God’s “act of creation,” tilling the land, creating cities, crafting decorations and musical instruments and swords (206). Each act is a poor reflection indeed of aspects of the celestial Paradise once had and still promised by God, and Bonhoeffer notes that it is Cain’s children who have built this artifice. But the artifice is still a reflection nonetheless. In labor man experiences both the fulfilment of a task well done and the tragedy that such a task is under the shadow of the curse. Like the thesis of all Lutheran theology, it is a labor ‘of the cross’ through which man discovers both humility and meaning. Through labor, man thus inhabits a world designed and destined for Christ, whether “knowingly or not” (206).

This point may shed some light on what Bonhoeffer meant by a ‘religionless’ Christianity mentioned elsewhere in his writings. It is not a godless faith in which people go throughout their day as if God never existed. It is rather a faith so conjoined to the real that, once freed from prayers given in hope for an exchange of superficial prosperity, it may go through each moment with something of George Herbert’s words in the subconscious, “Teach me thy love to know; / That this new light, which now I see, / May both the work and workman show…”

Like labor, marriage precedes government and Church as well. In fact, Bonhoeffer goes so far as to declare that marriage precedes any other “bonds of human society” (172). Marriage brings man and woman into “one in the sight of God,” and it is the will of the Creator to “share the process of creation” with this union of humanity in childbearing (206-207). As such, no ecclesial or governmental authority may delineate the bounds of marriage concerning denomination or class. That the state and Church have always recognized marriages in public, whether through license or ceremony, is to serve only as confirmation that they recognize a natural right preceding their own jurisdiction. The only authority governing marriage is marriage itself, which acknowledges “the right of life that is to come into being,” the bearing of children. While he, as a 20th century Protestant, allows for periods in marriage in which birth control may be judicious (especially in light of concerns for overpopulation in his day), Bonhoeffer exhorts that the life of a family—the right to a family, in his words—must be accepted in principle, and so birth control cannot be total (173). And in this demand for life, he rejects outright any justification for any kind of abortion.

These are two foundations which can only be established locally, and if done well—which is rarer today than even in Bonhoeffer’s time—labor and marriage bind human beings to their place and the people dwelling within it.

For Bonhoeffer, then, society rests on these two pillars of labor and marriage. Labor brings human beings into relationship with Nature and things through cultivation and craft. Marriage brings human beings into relationship with each other, indeed with the force of Life itself through childbearing. These are two foundations which can only be established locally, and if done well—which is rarer today than even in Bonhoeffer’s time—labor and marriage bind human beings to their place and the people dwelling within it. The duty of government is then to safeguard and preserve that place by maintaining order, while the Church’s duty is to remind this place, through proclamation of the Word, that it rests upon and looks toward the reality of Jesus Christ.

A summary of Bonhoeffer’s whole political theology is thus that “it is God’s will that there shall be labor, marriage, government and church in the world”—in that order—and “all these, each in its own way, shall be through Christ, directed towards Christ, and in Christ” (204). And these four mandates arise from Bonhoeffer’s dual concern for reality as founded upon Jesus Christ and a Protestant reappraisal of the natural in light of this foundation.

What the popular interpretations of Bonhoeffer today have in common is their shared picture of the man as one wholly concerned with political activism, whether for principles like progressive social justice, traditional Christianity, or whatever else ‘cultural engagement’ fights for in the mind of the partisan. According to these interpretations, Bonhoeffer was foremost a disruptor. His life certainly may suggest as much, as his particular situation did indeed call for disruption of the government in his time. But the thesis of Ethics is anything but revolutionary—or if it is, it is revolutionary in its modesty. For he exhorts limits, and in a moment when ‘everything is political’ or the ‘personal is political,’ this call for limits, especially the limits of a political project threatening to consume all other areas of life, is needed. Such limits do not mean an ascetic withdrawal towards a path of sainthood, as many today fear whenever they hear what they think are calls for so-called ‘quietism.’ To the contrary, Bonhoeffer takes as his basis a devotion to bodily joy. He is not so much a compatriot to Gandhi as to the stodgy Englishman who wrote about the latter:

The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.

Like George Orwell, Bonhoeffer raged moralistically for a strange, humble sort of a-morality, yet the kind that finds its solace in daily work and commitment to other people rather than in the isolation of existential adventure. And both recognized that the truly terrible withdrawal is not toward the home but that which forsakes this daily life for gossiping jargon and abstraction. Bonhoeffer’s rage for the real was borne of a high-minded love for that which keeps humanity low to the earth. But where Orwell imagined opposition to that path in the Christianity of his day (and Tolstoy’s primitive Christianity in particular), Bonhoeffer found the path to reality precisely in the Christian life.

And Bonhoeffer’s Christian life stands in a far different light than that preached by those who clamorously claim his mantle today, those who preach that history is but a battle between abstractions of Marxian proportions, that this earth is not our home and thus demands little care, that men’s words or actions do not matter as much as the political momentum they create, or that care for kith, kin, and neighbor matters little if one does not keep up donations and tweets concerning the latest trends in politics or charity. It seems the Bonhoeffer of Ethics would have little regard for these preachers of ideology for whom people and things matter less than ideas and movements. No doubt cherishing one’s neighbor, tending to modest work, and cultivating a love for one’s place—all of it pervaded by the simple joy of being a Christian—are things that an ideologue must avoid. But as Bonhoeffer recognized, ideology is a thing that human beings must avoid.

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  1. Thanks so much for this article. I was introduced to Bonhoeffer when he was assigned to me in a Christology class at Holy Cross College in 1978 and he remains a strong influence on my Catholic Christian faith. Your articulation of his Christ-centered anthropology is clear and powerful. His explication of a morality beyond law makes sense because it is rooted in the Sermon on the Mount and Pauline theology. We are increasingly “free” from “the law” to the extent that Christ finds a dwelling within us. Other students in the class, all men, were assigned theologians like Barth, Bultmann, Sobrino, and Rahner. I am so happy that Bonhoeffer was given to me (because I was a woman and perhaps not up to the Rahner league). At the final oral exam, which involved all eight students, I was asked if Bonhoeffer even qualified as a theologian. My response was an honest one – I asked the questioner why he asked me that and then said it didn’t matter to me as Bonhoeffer showed me a living Christ, a Jesus who still lived. There was silence in the room.

    • Thank you for your kind words. And if it’s worth anything, I think that Bonhoeffer is proving to line up fully well with, perhaps even surpass, the ‘Rahner league,’ and I can’t think of a better academic ‘Bonhoeffer moment’ than your reply in the final exam!

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