April 2005 Newsletter

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia


Newsletter — April 2005— Vol. XI, no. 3


Dear Friends,

It is surely appropriate that this issue of our Newsletter be devoted to the memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was murdered sixty years ago, on April 9th 1945, in Flossenbürg concentration camp in southern Germany. Germany has produced a large number of distinguished, world-famous theologians. In the early years of the twentieth century, Adolf von Harnack was widely seen as the most notable German scholar of his day; in the mid-century Karl Barth dominated the Protestant theological scene; but in the final years both have been overtaken by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose reputation and legacy are engaging, not just his own countrymen and denominational brethren, but ever wider circles in various Christian communities. He is unique in being recognized not just for his life and thought, but also for his death. In July 1998, his statue was one of 10 unveiled by the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the presence of the Queen, on the front portico of Westminster Abbey, in London, commemorating the Christian martyrs of the twentieth century.

The evidence for Bonhoeffer’s far-reaching impact, both spiritual and theological, is to be found in the number of books which have appeared over the years. A few of the more recent ones are reviewed below. But it may be claimed that his world-wide fame and teachings, and his radical rethinking of Christian obedience, continue to provoke and stimulate thoughtful reflection in a “world come of age”. That is his true legacy.


1) Book reviews

a) Slane, Bonhoeffer as Martyr
b) Hauerwas, Performing the Faith
c) Haynes The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon

2) Journal articles:

a) Hernandez, Russian village bells
b) Sack, Frank Buchman and college religion

3) Conference announcement – April 15 -16th.

1) Craig J.Slane, Bonhoeffer as Martyr. Social Responsibility and modern Christian commitment. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2004. ISBN 1-58743-074-6. 256 pp.
Craig Slane’s study of Bonhoeffer as martyr is clearly the product of extensive research and meditation, some of which took place in Bonhoeffer’s former home, now a museum and retreat centre for the diocese of Berlin. His achievement is two-fold: first, he analyses the current thinking about Christian martyrdom; and second, he sheds new light on Bonhoeffer’s spiritual pilgrimage in order to show the continuities and congruities in both his life and death. He brings together for an English-speaking readership many of Bonhoeffer’s perceptive theological insights, with which we are already familiar, but which are here linked in a convincing and often challenging pattern.

Today, we have perhaps forgotten that sixty years ago, at the time of his execution by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer was considered a criminal, to be shunned by the majority of his fellow churchmen in Germany. In the eyes of many, he had deserved his fate by participating in the plot to assassinate Hitler. He was branded as a political traitor, not esteemed as a Christian martyr. The remarkable change in his reputation is, of course, due to the untiring efforts of his friend and biographer, Eberhard Bethge, but also because events have proved him right. But Craig Slane looks more closely to show how the concept of martyrdom has also changed. Today it no longer excludes those whose witness took the form of political activity, and is no longer limited to those who died openly professing the truths of the Christian gospel. He argues that, in the broadest sense, martyrdom has always been political. Furthermore, an especially prominent feature of contemporary martyrs is their calculated solidarity with all the victims of human injustice. Those prepared to suffer and die in the interests of their fellow men and women are in fact living out the imitatio Christi. They recognize that Christ’s death on the cross was the supreme act of reconciliation. And so a martyr, baptized into the structure of Christ’s death and resurrection, may become an instrument by which God communicates his abiding commitment to mend the creation.

Slane spells out the significant characteristics of a modern martyr, and suggests that Bonhoeffer very consciously adapted his witness accordingly. His Finkenwalde community, for example, was deliberately structured to fit a pre-Constantinian pattern in which discipleship and martyrdom were closely connected. Here was a minority group which professed the claims of Christ to its age at great cost, and on the margins of public life, given the situation to which the Confessing Church in the 1930s and 1940s was reduced.

This was the place where Bonhoeffer wrote what is perhaps his most popular and influential book The Cost of Discipleship. The German title Nachfolge had clear martyrological overtones from past history upon which Bonhoeffer now built. But he recognized that, in such a situation, communion and community between the brethren was a vital prerequisite for the tasks ahead. Martyrdom, if this was to be their destiny, was not just a solitary act, but an example of the cost of discipleship borne by all the committed community. So, where outsiders saw the Finkenwalde experiment as a kind of pietistic escapism, Bonhoeffer knew it to be a preparation for self-sacrificing witness and if necessary death.

The title martyr cannot of course be conferred on the living, nor should the living seek to join its ranks. But a martyr’s death is not just accidental. Rather it holds the power to summarize the martyr’s entire existence in a way ordinary deaths do not. So this becomes a signal of resonance between the faith of the living and the faith of the dead.

Slane seeks to show that Bonhoeffer’s pilgrimage from 1931 onwards, when he became “converted” by studying the deeper meaning of the Sermon on the Mount, was really his deliberately chosen course towards death. Indeed Bonhoeffer’s desire to follow in Jesus’ footsteps increasingly led to his recognition that the Christian life has to include the practice of death, particularly the death to human selfishness and sin.

In this sense, Bonhoeffer affirmed, the encounter with Jesus is fundamentally different from that with Goethe or Socrates. Jesus lives. He cannot be avoided. But his redemptive power is found through his suffering and death. Christ allows himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. And man is challenged to participate in these sufferings at the hands of a godless world. Indeed it is just this participation in the suffering and death of God in the life of the world that makes a Christian what he is.

Contrary to the ancient martyrs, whose deaths were often public spectacles, on the morning of Bonhoeffer’s hanging there were scarcely any witnesses. The final stages of his life were spent in the high secrecy of political conspiracy, with no opportunity to confess the faith openly. But, through the lens of martyrdom, his unadorned death, freely and voluntarily accepted, can be seen as the “coming out”, the proclamation of his faith in the political sphere.
It is only in recent years that Bonhoeffer has been legally acquitted of the crimes for which he was condemned, or publicly admired for attempting the violent overthrow of the nation’s ruler.

At the time, few of his fellow churchmen supported him, or even recognized the moral ambiguity through which he struggled to find justification. But this did not deter Bonhoeffer from his chosen course of discipleship. The final months of his imprisonment were brutal and degrading. Yet, as the Letters and Papers from Prison show, he gained in certainty the assuredness of God’s nearness. Indeed as his final letters affirm, he believed himself surrounded by the powers of good. He learnt to face death because he experienced dying daily with Jesus Christ. “Christ in us gives us over to death so that he can live in us. Physical death in the true sense does not become the end, but the consummation of life with Jesus Christ.”

And his final recorded words were: “Das ist das Ende – für mich der Beginn des Lebens” (This is the end – but for me the beginning of life). It was a confident assertion of the Christian belief in resurrection.

For this reason, as Slane justly comments, “more than a witness to the transcendent Christ, and more than an earthly referent to the divine reality, the martyr’s ordeal becomes a concrete instance of God’s suffering presence in and to the world.”

In the midst of the twentieth century, tortured by genocide, military violence, ideological fanaticism and sheer hatred for humanity, Bonhoeffer is a witness to God’s love, to justice, and to hope. He fulfilled the martyr’s key role by living and dying as the embodiment of these values.


b) Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith Bonhoeffer and the practice of nonviolence, Grand Rapids, Mich: Brazos Press 2004
ISBN 1-58743-076-2 252 pp.

Stanley Hauerwas is a well-known advocate for Christian pacifism, and has contributed two chapters on Bonhoeffer’s political theology in his latest collected essays, Performing the Faith. Like many others he seeks to explain how Bonhoeffer’s early commitment to Christian pacifism can be reconciled with his later decision to participate in the plot to kill Hitler. The stages of this transition cannot now be determined with certainty, but Hauerwas is convinced that both stances were part of his dedication to a Christian discipleship, which could stand out against the brutal powers of the world and their attempt to make history without God.

This oppositional stance was clearly influenced by Karl Barth’s theology and hence can be seen early on in Bonhoeffer’s thought. Despite his training in the very best school of liberal Protestantism, he rejected the kind of adaptations and compromises with the world so frequently advocated by these scholars. Instead, Bonhoeffer asserted, the mission of the Church should not be to justify Christianity in this present age, but rather to justify the present age before the Christian message.

So, in his Letters and Papers from Prison, he opposes all those who try to argue for a “God of the gaps”, providing an explanation beyond what secular reason can supply. At the same time, he opposed those pietists who called on God as a kind of therapeutic device when secular medicine failed. Instead, he proclaimed, God reigns, in life, in death, in politics, in society – in short, everywhere. The Church’s task is to proclaim this fact unequivocally, and not allow itself to be rendered irrelevant on the margins of society.

Nationalism, and its attendant evil of militarism, was defended by some Lutherans as part of an inalienable “order of creation”. But Bonhoeffer posits a more dynamic image of the “orders of preservation”, which required the church to adopt a determined policy of challenging any state power which threatened to overstep the ethical bounds of justice and peace.

Yet he is also clear that all practical actions taken by the individual Christian, or the sanctified Church, stand under the judgment of God and call for a vivid awareness of sin and the need for repentance. Hence any open-ended call for “democracy” or “freedom” forgets the fact that such forces can easily lead men to the depths of slavery, because of its deification of human effort. God is relegated to the sidelines, and there are no barriers to nihilism. Too often the Church has allowed itself to be pushed out of politics, or has relied solely on its privileged position in a Constantine-era situation. But in a post-Constantinian world, the Church has to strive to earn or regain its own visibility, based on the power of Jesus’ teachings.

Hauerwas rightly points out that Bonhoeffer was a relentless critic of any way of life that substituted agreeableness for truthfulness. This was the weakness of the ecumenical movement, which Bonhoeffer at first championed. But the unwillingness of the Geneva-based officers to cut their ties with the official Reich Church, controlled by the Deutsche Christen, and the refusal to recognize the Confessing Church as the only true witness to Christ in Germany, disillusioned him. He came to see that more extreme measures were required to prevent the overthrow of Christian civilization. Toleration in his eyes could lead to compromise, and hence to the abandonment of truth.

Most of his contemporaries did not want such honesty. Nor could they accept the view which Bonhoeffer had expressed already in 1934: “the time is very near when we shall have to decide between National Socialism and Christianity. It may be fearfully hard and difficult for us all, but we must get right to the root of things with open Christian speaking and no diplomacy. In prayer together we will find the way”. Failure to do this could only lead to equivocation or cynicism. Hence the failure of the Church to oppose Hitler was the failure of Christians to speak the truth to one another and to the world.

In the politically frenzied world created by the Nazis, the Church’s role was to speak the truth in political witness. “The commandments of God indicate the limits which dare not be transgressed, if Christ is Lord. And the Church is to remind the world of these limits”. And the same would apply to the new order to be created once the war was over. Bonhoeffer was to sketch out in very general terms in his Ethics how this task should be fulfilled. In Hauerwas’ view, this was possibly Bonhoeffer’s most significant witness. If the Church does not preach the gospel truthfully, but instead is ready to accommodate itself to every so-called “progressive trend”, then we are all condemned to see our Christian civilization destroyed. Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom is the clearest witness to his determination not to let this happen.


c) Stephen R.Haynes, The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon. Portraits of a Protestant Saint. Minneapolis: Fortress press 2004. 280 pp
ISBN 0-8006-3652-X

In this the sixtieth anniversary year of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death, the wealth of “Bonhoefferiana” continues to grow at an astonishing rate, not only within the ranks of professional scholars but also, and just as powerfully, within a more popularist corpus of novels, plays, films and websites. It is to Haynes’ great credit that his latest offering provides a thorough overview of both the academic and popular representations of Bonhoeffer that have shaped the German theologian’s reception in the six decades since his execution.

Haynes’ book has, at its core, a readily-identifiable objective: to demonstrate that, irrespective of technical definitions, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life, work and death – his vita, in fact – enables him, in death, to function as a saint. Moreover, this distinctive appellation is the key to rightly understanding his other functions of seer, prophet, apostle, cultic-figure and bridge (pp.xi-xii). Working from Lawrence Cunningham’s ‘The Meaning of Saints’, Haynes seeks to show that the normative Catholic constraints on the definition of sainthood do not ultimately preclude Bonhoeffer from being received in popular religious consciousness as a de facto, if not de jure, saint.

In much the same way, argues Haynes, Yad Vashem’s strict criteria for the bestowal of the title of ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ does not, in the end, disenfranchise Bonhoeffer from that distinction in the wider religious imagination. Just as fictional works such as ‘Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace’ (2001), ‘Saints and Villains’ (1998), and ‘The Cup of Wrath’ (1992) assert Bonhoeffer’s rigorous defense of the Jews as the primary reason for his execution, Richard Rubenstein has similarly suggested that Yad Vashem’s imprimatur is not ultimately necessary for the ajudication of Bonhoeffer as a ‘Righteous Gentile’ (pp.114-116, 119). While both Bonhoeffer’s sainthood and his ‘gentile righteousness’ may remain contested issues, Haynes does show well that institutional endorsement is not, in a postmodern and essentially de-institutionalized (Protestant) world, the final arbiter of popular religious reception.

These conclusions at which Haynes arrives are founded upon a broader gloss of liberal and evangelical assessments of Bonhoeffer within the book’s earlier chapters. Bonhoeffer, as read by Haynes, has been variously adopted as the champion of radical ‘death-of-God’ theology ( JAT Robinson, Gabriel Vahanian, Harvey Cox), liberal theology (Larry Rasmussen, Geffrey Kelly) and conservative evangelical theology (Georg Huntermann, David Gushee and, somewhat incredibly, James Dobson).

These chapters are, to my mind, simultaneously the book’s strength and weakness. At one level, Haynes ably demonstrates the malleability of the Bonhoeffer legacy into any number of pre-determined paradigms; by its very nature as fragmented and incomplete, Bonhoeffer’s life and witness is susceptible to being hijacked by causes and movements, which are often at odds with one another. That Bonhoeffer has been press-ganged into advocacy of the pro-life movement, Vietnam veterans, and the anti- Iraq War protest, and that he has been characterized as both the arch-enemy and the purest example of both liberalism and evangelicalism is a sobering reminder of the fluidity of subjective reception and indeed the persuasivity of popular consciousness.

On the other hand, it is slightly disconcerting that Haynes lets the respective interpreters of Bonhoeffer speak for themselves with little critical assessment from him. Most notably absent is any thorough engagement with Bonhoeffer by Haynes himself. It would be unduly harsh to labour this point, as clearly Haynes’ intent is not to add yet another layer of Bonhoeffer-analysis to an already-weighty corpus, but rather to scan the existing and competing assessments of him. Nonetheless, there are times when the exhaustive ‘literature review’ produced by Haynes would benefit from a greater level of Haynes’ own critique on the basis of his own reading of Bonhoeffer’s vita.

A final, smaller, complaint is that, with the exception of the first two chapters in which European, Asian and Latin American interpreters are mentioned, Haynes’ interpretive view is primarily North Americo-centric. It is, to a significant extent, a survey of Bonhoeffer’s reception within the USA. While this is undoubtedly a legitimate endeavour, there remains scope for further exploration of the ways in which Bonhoeffer has been received (or not) elsewhere in the world. Haynes indeed notes that the 4- yearly International Bonhoeffer Congresses now draw delegates from all corners of the
world (p.166). Inclusion of the insights from these more liminal receptors would not only be immensely insightful but would also reflect the genuinely ecumenical and international outlook espoused so clearly by Bonhoeffer himself.

These slight criticisms aside, though, Stephen Haynes has presented a timely and provocative assessment of the current state of Bonhoeffer-studies. Meticulously researched and beautifully written, ‘The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon’ is sure -and deserves – to become a vitally important text in the coming phases of Bonhoeffer- research.

Mark R. Lindsay, Melbourne, presently Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge.

2a) Richard L.Hernandez, Sacred Sound and sacred substance: church bells and the auditory culture of Russian villages druing the Bolshevik ŒVelikii Perelom’ in American Historical Review, Vo. 109, no. 5 (December 2004) p. 475ff

During the Communist government’s massive attempts in 1928-1932 to propagandize and enforce the “great turn” in rural Russia away from old beliefs and habits, in order to introduce the new socialist system, church bells frequently came to play a role as symbols of peasant resistance. Richard Hernandez shows how the village bells reinforced traditional religious identity in practice over and against Bolshevik idolatry. Despite vigorous efforts made by various party organizations to confiscate, suppress and destroy all bells, the backlash was significant, and led to violent confrontations, even riots. In some cases, the Red Army had to be called in. These incidents served to show the mingling of sacred and secular causes in the struggle against the entire Bolshevik project.

b) Daniel Sack, Men want something real: Frank Buchman and Anglo-American College Religion in the 1920s in Journal of Religious History, Vol. 28, no. 3, Oct. 2004 pp. 260ff

Frank Buchman was a Lutheran evangelist and sometime YMCA secretary in Pennsylvania who in the 1920s repackaged evangelical Christianity for British and American elite universities, creating a religious message tailor-made for a community of young men. Stressing a personal experience of God, Buchman’s message owed much to the kind of evangelical exhortation found in Keswick.

He reached out to “key men”, or elite members of the university, and later the wider society, especially the wealthy, offering help to sustain their personal morality through group meetings and dedication. The religious group experience, especially the importance of repentance and the cultivation of love, rather than the adherence to, or propagation of, theological doctrines, became the hallmark of Buchmanism, later to be “re-christened” as Moral Re-Armament.
Sack shows that this creed appealed to men, and sought to avert what many evangelicals thought was the regrettable “feminization” of Christianity. Concentrating on undergraduate heroes, especially champion athletes, Buchman propounded an evangelism suitable for the leaders of the post-1918 world’s commercial and scientific age. But by concentrating on a narrow personal morality – and often only on questions of sex – Buchman avoided any wider challenge to the existing social order. In Britain his Oxford Groups propagated these views through very popular house-parties, often held in lavish country mansions. The aim was to evangelize from the top downwards. Certainly these cells seemed to fill a social and spiritual need, challenging the conformist and cultural Christianity of the day with a more intense and masculine spirituality.

Sack’s account focusses mainly on the American scene, and notes that probably Buchman’s most enduring legacy is Alcoholics Anonymous, whose techniques are directly derived from the Oxford Group’s evangelical methods.


3) A commemorative conference to mark the 6oth anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s death is to be held on April 15-16th at St John’s College Ministry Centre, Morpeth, New South Wales, Australia. The principal speakers will be Dr Maurice Schild, Adelaide and Prof John Moses, Armidale, NSW.
Contact: stephen.moore@ozemail.net au

Best wishes to you all,
John S.Conway