The Fragments that were Bonhoeffers Life and Work

The primary confession of the Christian before the world is the deed which interprets itself. If the deed is to have become a force, then the world itself will long to confess the Word. This is not the same as loudly shrieking out propaganda. This Word must be preserved as the most sacred possession of the community This is a matter between God and the community not between the community and the world. It is the Word of recognition between friends, not a word to use against enemies. This attitude was first learned at baptism. The deed alone is our confession of faith before the world. (Bonhoeffer 1990: 191)

So wrote Bonhoeffer in 1932, just before the German church's struggle with Hitler began. This may seem an odd passage with which to begin an essay on Bonhoeffer's political theology, but it is so only if one assumes a distinction can be made between Bonhoeffer's theology - at least his early theology found in Sanctorum Communio (Bonhoeffer 1998) and Act and Being (Bonhoeffer 1996a) - and his later involvement with the Abwehr plot against Hitler. Indeed, it will be the burden of my account of Bonhoeffer's life and theology to show that from the very beginning Bonhoeffer was attempting to develop a theological politics from which we still have much to learn (Rasmusson 1995). Bonhoeffer may have even regarded Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being as his "academic theology," which no doubt they were, but I will argue that the theological position Bonhoeffer took in those books made the subsequent politics of his life and work inevitable.

Anyone who has read Eberhard Bethge's Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Bethge 2000) knows it is impossible to distinguish between Bonhoeffer's life and his work. Indeed, Marilynne Robinson uses the passage with which I began to challenge those who think the consistency as well as significance of Bonhoef-

fer's theology are given a prominence they might not otherwise have had without his courageous political activity and death (Robinson 1998: 110-11). It is no doubt true that Bonhoeffer's fame as well as his theological significance were attributed to his unfinished Ethics (Bonhoeffer 1963) and his Letters and Papers from Prison (Bonhoeffer 1971). Many, quite understandably, interpreted some of Bonhoeffer's own remarks in his prison correspondence to suggest his political opposition to the Nazis had occasioned a fundamental shift in his theology (Bonhoeffer 1971: 328, 360). I will try to show, however, that Bonhoeffer's work was from beginning to end the attempt to reclaim the visibility of the church as the necessary condition for the proclamation of the Gospel in a world that no longer privileged Christianity. That he was hanged by the personal order of Himmler on April 9, 1945, at Flossenburg concentration camp means he has become for those of us who come after him part of God's visibility.

I am aware that some, reading my account of Bonhoeffer and, in particular, my emphasis on his ecclesiology for rightly interpreting his life and work, will suspect my account of Bonhoeffer sounds far too much like positions that have become associated with my own work. I have no reason to deny that may be true, but if it is true it is only because I first learned what I think from reading Bonhoeffer (and Barth). This is the first essay I have ever written on Bonhoeffer, but it is certainly not the first time I have read him. I am sure Bonhoeffer's Dis-cipleship (Bonhoeffer 2001), which I read as a student in seminary, was the reason why, some years later, John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus (Yoder 1994) had such a profound influence on me. Both books convinced me that Christology cannot be abstracted from accounts of discipleship; or, to put it more systematically, that we must say, as Bonhoeffer does in Sanctorum Communio, "the church of Jesus Christ that is actualized by the Holy Spirit is really the church here and now" (Bonhoeffer 1998: 208).

The reason I have not previously written on Bonhoeffer has everything to do with the reception of his work when it was first translated into English. The first book by Bonhoeffer usually read by English readers was Letters and Papers from Prison (Bonhoeffer 1971). As a result Bonhoeffer was hailed as champion of the "death of God" movement (Robinson 1963: 22-3, 36-9) and/or one of the first to anticipate the Christian celebration of the "secular city" (Cox 1965: 224-43). On the basis of Bonhoeffer's Ethics (Bonhoeffer 1963), Joseph Fletcher went so far as to claim him as an advocate of situation ethics (Fletcher 1966: 28). As a result I simply decided not to claim Bonhoeffer in support of the position I was trying to develop, though in fact he was one of my most important teachers. That I write now about Bonhoeffer is my way of trying to acknowledge a debt long overdue.

Bonhoeffer's decision to participate in the plot to kill Hitler also seemed to make him an unlikely candidate to support a pacifist position. Yet I doubt that Bonhoeffer's involvement with the conspiracy associated with Admiral Canaris and Bonhoeffer's brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, can ever be understood with certainty. Bonhoeffer gratefully accepted von Dohnanyi's offer to become a member of the Abwehr (military counter-intelligence) because it gave him the means to avoid conscription and the dreaded necessity to take the oath of loyalty to Hitler. Yet the secrecy required by the conspiracy means we have no way to determine how Bonhoeffer understood his work with the Abwehr. It is by no means clear, for example, that those around Admiral Canaris had a common understanding of whether overthrowing Hitler entailed his assassination (Hoffman 1996: 216-24).1

That we cannot know how Bonhoeffer understood his participation in the attempt to kill Hitler, and thus how his whole life "makes sense," is not a peculiarity Bonhoeffer would think unique to his life. The primary confession of the Christian may be the deed which interprets itself, but according to Bonhoeffer our lives cannot be seen as such a deed. Only "Jesus' testimony to himself stands by itself, self-authenticating" (Bonhoeffer 1966: 32). In contrast our lives, no matter how earnestly or faithfully lived, can be no more than fragments. In a letter to Bethge in 1944 Bonhoeffer wrote:

The important thing today is that we should be able to discern from the fragments of our life how the whole was arranged and planned, and what material it consists of. For really, there are some fragments that are only worth throwing into the dustbin (even a decent "hell" is too good for them), and others whose importance lasts for centuries, because their completion can only be a matter for God, and so they are fragments and must be fragments - I'm thinking, e.g. of the Art of Fugue. If our life is but the remotest reflection of such a fragment, if we accumulate, at least for a short time, a wealth of themes and weld them into a harmony in which the great counterpoint is maintained from start to finish, so that at last, when it breaks off abruptly, we can sing no more than the chorale, "I come before thy throne," we will not bemoan the fragmentariness of our life, but rather rejoice in it. I can never get away from Jeremiah 45. Do you still remember that Saturday evening in Finkenwalde when I expounded it? Here, too, is a necessary fragment of life - "but I will give you your life as a prize of war." (Bonhoeffer 1971: 219)

However, thanks to Eberhard Bethge's great biography of Bonhoeffer, we know the main outlines of Bonhoeffer's life, which I can only briefly sketch here. Bonhoeffer was born in 1906, and was raised in an academic and cultured family. His father held the chair of psychology at the University of Berlin. Somewhat inexplicably, early in his life Bonhoeffer decided he wanted to be a pastor and theologian. Accordingly, at the age of 22 he earned his doctorate at Berlin. His dissertation was called Sanctorum Communio. He did parish work in Spain for a year as well as study at Union Theological Seminary before returning to Berlin to lecture at the university. One of the early critics of Hitler, he went to London in 1934 to serve as the pastor to two Lutheran churches.

In 1935 he returned to Germany to direct a seminary of the Confessing Church in Finkenwalde. Discipleship (Bonhoeffer 2001) as well as Life Together (Bonhoeffer 1996c) were written during his time here. The forced closing of the seminary in 193 7 occasioned a return to America for Bonhoeffer. Yet he quickly decided he could not stay in America if he was to have a voice in postwar Germany. He returned to Germany to become an envoy for the Abwehr, which in effect made him a double agent. He was arrested in 1943 in connection with the assassination attempt on Hitler. He spent the last two years of his life in prison, where he continued to work on his Ethics as well as the collection of writings now called Letters and Papers from Prison. He was hanged on April 9, 1945, at Flossenburg.

His was a life that was at once theological and political. It was so, however, not because he died at the hands of the Nazis. Bonhoeffer's life and work would have been political if the Nazis had never existed; for Bonhoeffer saw clearly that the failure of the church when confronted with Hitler began long before the Nazi challenge. Hitler forced a church long accustomed to privileges dependent on its invisibility to become visible. The church in Germany, however, had simply lost the resources to reclaim its space in the world. How that space can be reclaimed, not only in the face of the Nazis but when times seem "normal," is the heart of Bonhoeffer's theological politics.

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