Conference Report: “Re-Forming the Church of the Future: Bonhoeffer, Luther, Public Ethics,” Union Theological Seminary, New York, April 7-9, 2017

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 23, Number 1/2 (June 2017)

Conference Report: “Re-Forming the Church of the Future: Bonhoeffer, Luther, Public Ethics,” Union Theological Seminary, New York, April 7-9, 2017

By Katie Day, United Lutheran Seminary, Philadelphia

On this spring weekend marking the 72nd anniversary of the execution of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer by the Nazis in their last, bloody, days, scholars gathered to consider his legacy in light of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation as well as current political shifts. Over 130 scholars and church leaders gathered from the U.S., Germany, the U.K. and South Africa as part of the annual Bonhoeffer Lectures in Public Ethics, held alternately in Germany and North America, a partnership of Union Seminary and the International Bonhoeffer Society (English Language Section). This year’s event was sponsored by Union’s Bonhoeffer Chair in Theology and Ethics, and coordinated by its scholar, Dr. Clifford Green. It was appropriate that reflections on Bonhoeffer take place within the spaces where the young theologian’s thought had been significantly formed in stays in 1930-31 and briefly in 1939: Union Theological Seminary and Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

The diversity and credentials of the presenters was impressive and included historians, theologians, ethicists, church leaders (including Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm) and even the former Prime Minister of Australia, the Honorable Kevin Rudd. Together they brought the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer into engagement with five different historic contexts: his contemporary Nazi context, the Reformation (especially Martin Luther), the Civil Rights Era in the U.S., the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and contemporary trends in the economy, climate science and the Church. The consistent thread weaving these disparate topics together was a consideration of the meaning of resistance, and the construction of a theology of resistance within “the concrete” of specific time and place—a recurring preoccupation for Bonhoeffer.

Historians Hartmut Lehmann (Founding Director, German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C.) and Victoria Barnett (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and General Editor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English Edition) describe the co-optation of Martin Luther by Hitler. The 450th anniversary of Luther’s birth became a national event in 1933 to unite German Protestants, and to inaugurate what Hitler had framed as a Second Reformation. The Reich Church fused Luther’s theology with nationalism, drawing on his emphasis on the “orders of creation” which provided rationale for a strong state. His tirade against “Jews and their Lies” provided additional fodder for Nazi ideology. There was no real theological basis for resistance in Germany, Lehmann pointed out, because there was an ideological basis for a strong state. But Bonhoeffer, although very much a student of Luther, ended up critiquing both his view of the state and of Jews in the 1933 essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question.” Bonhoeffer’s work provided theological fuel for the emerging Confessing Church. Barnett analyzed the alliances of Protestants as being denominationally and geographically divided, with those steeped in the Lutheran tradition remaining loyal to the Nazis by and large, and the Reformed wing more likely to identify with the developing resistance of the Confessing Church. However, after six years of the “Church Struggle,” Bonhoeffer recognized the limitations of the Confessing Church in inspiring sustained resistance; resistance needed to be both effective as well as faithful. Therefore he famously turned to conspiracy to end Nazism.

Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Luther’s theology was complex and nuanced. Both lived within what they saw as “Kairos moments,” where systemic evils were set against the purposes of God, argued ethicist Karen Bloomquist (formerly of Lutheran World Federation and Pacific Lutheran Seminary; currently editor, Radicalizing Reformation). Yet methodologically, Luther was more likely to construct theological polarities (two kingdoms, law/grace, Jew/Christian, as examples). Bonhoeffer, on the other hand, never met a binary he liked, as was pointed out by Greek Scripture scholar from Union, Brigitte Kahl. In developing his insights on the church and humanity, Bonhoeffer drew on Pauline texts to argue against categorization which defines one over against the other. Community is an expression of unity out of diversity, such as in the metaphor of the body. Binaries inevitably lead to hierarchical systems and oppressions and were deconstructed in Bonhoeffer’s dialectics. Theologian Michael DeJonge continued this theme, analyzing Bonhoeffer’s resolution of the tension between the two kingdoms central to Luther’s theology. There is only one kingdom, one reality; otherwise, the church identifies with the divine kingdom (and becomes apolitical) or the earthly one (and is consequently defined by politics). The church occupies a middle space which draws on divine revelation for inspiration and critique and at the same time is immersed in concrete realities. Bonhoeffer was arguing for a viable, relevant church that would engage and resist the oppressive political systems. This church would be visible in its public witness, Bishop Bedford-Strom asserted. However, despite his hope in this ideal, Bonhoeffer was constantly disappointed in the ecclesiastical spine. In his 1943 missive, “After Ten Years,” he asked, “Who stands firm?”

Who, indeed? Theologian Josiah Young (Wesley Seminary, Washington, D.C.) focused on three leaders within the Civil Rights Movement who, like Bonhoeffer, saw as sinful those systems that perpetuate binaries of otherness and break, rather than build, community. Bonhoeffer had witnessed, and learned from, the American system of segregation. Although they were not directly influenced by his work, Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and Fannie Lou Hamer reflected and embodied his theology of resistance, which was at once critical and activist.

The situation of apartheid in South Africa, and the struggle against it, had many resonances with Bonhoeffer’s German context. This struggle was analyzed by one of its leaders, theologian Allen Boesak (former Chair of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches). Like the nationalist theology of the Reich Church, so too had the Dutch Reformed Church provided a theological rationale for apartheid, having “weaponized the Bible.” The Kairos Document was inspired by the Confessing Church’s Barmen Declaration, but took it further: “We want not just your hearts with us but your bodies also.” Resistance, Boesak asserted, is not cheap (echoing Bonhoeffer’s critique of cheap grace in Discipleship). “Protest without sacrificial resistance is just begging.” South Africa’s Bonhoeffer was theologian and pastor Beyers Naude who insisted on “turning words into deeds.” Boesak extended his critical theology of resistance to the post-apartheid situation in his country as it struggles with reconciliation. Any repentance without restitution and justice, he forcefully stated, is just “political pietism.”

The current context presents particular challenges. Union President Serene Jones opened the conference with a reading from “After Ten Years,” from the section “on folly,” which sounded prescient in the present political situation.

Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil. You can protest against evil, you can unmask it or prevent it by force. Evil always contains the seeds of its own destruction, for it always makes men uncomfortable, if nothing worse. There is no defense against folly. Neither protests nor force are of any avail against it, and it is never amenable to reason. If facts contradict personal prejudices, there is no need to believe them, and if they are undeniable, they can simply be pushed aside as exceptions. Thus the fool, as compared with the scoundrel, is invariably self-complacent. And he can easily become dangerous, for it does not take much to make him aggressive. Hence folly requires much more cautious handling than evil. We shall never again try to reason with the fool, for it is both useless and dangerous.

Although there were references throughout the conference to the current administration, deeper dives were taken into responding to the growing economic disparities and climate crisis. Wolfgang Huber (former Presiding Bishop of the Protestant Church of Germany and current chair of the German Bonhoeffer Werke Editorial Board) focused on the vocation to address economic injustice produced and reproduced by neo-liberal global capitalism. Bonhoeffer’s understanding of vocation was not individualistic but was cast in terms of responsibility—the call to community. Informed by what he called “the view from below,” decades before Liberation Theologians appropriated the “preferential option for the poor,” the call of the church community and its members is to enabling equity in access to resources and to economic justice, what Huber called “contributive justice.”

Inextricably related to economic injustice is climate injustice, argued ethicist Larry Rasmussen (Niebuhr Professor Emeritus, Union Seminary; author, Earth Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key). Bonhoeffer had seen a rise in humanity’s power over the earth in his idea of the “world come of age,” an underdeveloped concept he introduced in his later prison writings. For Rasmussen there are two sets of laws in this world come of age which are on a collision course: the law of capitalism (which needs unfettered expansion) and the law of the earth (which dictates that humanity’s use of the planet’s limited resources has to contract). Only one set of laws can be changed. The first strategy is to dismantle systems of privilege (gender, race, class, region). Only then can we move toward global wholeness, health, sustainability and indeed survival.

The call to responsible action was further enhanced by theological ethicists Jennifer McBride (McCormick Seminary, Chicago) and Esther Reed (University of Exeter, UK). Public witness must be both bold and humble, argued McBride, beginning in public repentance for our complicity in injustice. Bonhoeffer wrote that like Christ, the church (which is Christ in the world) must take on guilt and identify with the evil done in our name. Such humility is the beginning of transformation. For Reed, such action cannot be parochial but taken on by the whole church, based in an ecumenical theology that Bonhoeffer so hoped for but never saw actualized.

On Palm Sunday, April 9th, conferees attended worship at Abyssinian Baptist Church. The date marked the day on which Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at Flossenburg Prison in 1945 as the Allies were advancing and the Third Reich was on the brink of collapse. Bishop Bedford-Strom brought greetings to the church that had had such a profound impact on the young Bonhoeffer. At this African American church, he had first encountered people of faith who had a genuine sense of the divine in their worship, had suffered great injustice but had an unquenchable thirst for, and commitment to, justice. Bonhoeffer had ended up teaching Sunday School there as well as absorbing the preaching of Rev. Adam Clayton Powell and the moving “Negro spirituals” that he carried back to his students in Germany. Under the leadership of Rev. Calvin O. Butts, the theological and political commitments have continued in this flourishing congregation. (For a video of the April 9 service, see

Is this a Bonhoeffer moment? is a question that has continued to be posed. While there is not a one-to-one correspondence to Germany in the 1930s and the U.S. and Europe in the first quarter of the second millennium, one came away from the conference with the sense that it is indeed a Kairos moment and that a theologian who wrote and died more than 70 years ago—Dietrich Bonhoeffer—continues to be a resource for our own perspective and, hopefully, moral courage. Papers from this conference will be published next year by Augsburg Fortress, Michael DeJonge, editor.