Seventy years ago today, the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis in the Flossenbürg concentration camp.
There are two distinctly different accounts of his death. Hermann Fischer-Hüllstrung, a Nazi doctor who witnessed Bonhoeffer’s death, wrote that “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
Dr. Fischer-Hüllstrung may, however, have been whitewashing a much more brutal scene. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, Ferdinand Schlingensiepen argues, “Fischer-Hüllstrung had the job of reviving political prisoners after they had been hanged until they were almost dead, in order to prolong the agony of their dying.” Because Bonhoeffer was executed as a political prisoner, he may well have died a lingering, painful death.
Whether Bonhoeffer’s death was a model of peaceful resignation to God’s will, or was drawn out by the horrors of Nazi torture, throughout his life he chose the costly way, repeatedly risking suffering for the sake of fidelity to the Gospel.
In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living and incarnate.” On the other hand, “Costly grace,” Bonhoeffer says, “is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake the man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ for which the disciple leaves his nets and follows Him.”
I have long admired Bonhoeffer, and have referred to his writings in the past, not because of his sexuality—I didn’t learn that anyone suspected him of being attracted to other men until last year—but because of his theological writings, particularly The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, where he wrote, “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”
At the same time, my love for Bonhoeffer’s writings is not disconnected with questions of sexuality. One of the chief reasons that the sexual revolution has been so successful in worming its way into the Church over the last few decades is Christian amnesia about the cost of discipleship and the need for true community in Christ. Many Christians have lost the sense of what it means to live in a genuinely counter-cultural way; instead, having too often tolerated or tacitly accepted sex before marriage and compromised on divorce, many Christian communities are now poised to accept gay marriage. Bonhoeffer is one of the few twentieth century Christian writers who, in my view, takes seriously the degree of commitment necessary to remain faithful to Christian ethics even in the most difficult circumstances.
Although martyrdom represents the high point of the witness to moral truth, and one to which relatively few people are called, there is nonetheless a consistent witness which all Christians must daily be ready to make, even at the cost of suffering and grave sacrifice. Indeed, faced with the many difficulties which fidelity to the moral order can demand, even in the most ordinary circumstances, the Christian is called, with the grace of God invoked in prayer, to a sometimes heroic commitment. In this he or she is sustained by the virtue of fortitude, whereby—as Gregory the Great teaches—one can actually “love the difficulties of this world for the sake of eternal rewards”
Yet it’s important to remember that although Bonhoeffer was ultimately martyred for opposing the Nazi regime, his efforts to do so were at times tentative and halting. In 1933, after failing to convince German Protestant churches to resist Nazification, Bonhoeffer took a post at a German-speaking Lutheran church in London. When Bonhoeffer tried to explain his decision to Karl Barth, Barth said simply, “I can only reply to all the reasons and excuses which you put forward: ‘And what of the German Church?'” Bonhoeffer eventually returned to Germany in 1935 to resume the fight for the German Church. (It’s worth noting that Barth, who criticized Bonhoeffer’s flight to London in 1933, returned to his native Switzerland in 1935 and remained there until the end of the war. But it seems to me pointless for us—who face so little opposition when compared with what either Bonhoeffer or Barth faced—to presume to pass judgment on either of their decisions to withdraw from the fight.)
Writing in the Washington Post, Victoria Barnett—one of the general editors of the 17-volume “Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works” (English Edition) and director of Programs on Ethics, Religion and the Holocaust at the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum—offers a note of caution to those who would see Bonhoeffer only as a hero on a pedestal:
The story of Nazi Germany is the story of what historian Klemens von Klemperer, himself a refugee from Nazism, once described as a “consensual dictatorship,” one in which the vast majority of Germans became complicit in the Nazi system. Even those who turned against it were unable to keep their hands completely clean.
Bonhoeffer saw what had happened to his country, and he wrote about the poignancy of trying to do good when there are no good options. In Bonhoeffer’s own life there is an ongoing and striking tension between silence and speaking, between compromise and protest, between the moments when he acted and those in which he did not.
We cannot understand his wartime and prison writings if we see only the heroic Bonhoeffer. “We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds…are we still of any use?” he wrote fellow conspirators in December 1942. With regard to the profound failures of his church under Nazism, he charged that it had fought “only for its own self-preservation,” thereby losing the very capacity to bring “reconciliation and redemption to humankind and to the world.”
Bonhoeffer’s question—“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds…are we still of any use?”—strikes me as one that we all need to reflect on. In writing for and in editing Spiritual Friendship, I have always tried to defend the dignity of all human beings, regardless of sexual orientation, and to stand up for the truths about human sexuality taught by the Christian tradition. Yet there are countless assaults on human dignity, and challenges to the truth about human sexuality that I don’t speak out about. I think—as I assume Bonhoeffer thought about his own choices in dealing with the Nazis—that I am trying to exercise good judgment in picking which battles to fight and which to avoid. But his question remains haunting, a question that anyone touched by the Kulturkampf of our own day ought to reflect on: “We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds…are we still of any use?”
I think the answer is that, however faltering his opposition may have been at times, he was of some use; his life and his writings have inspired many to take Christian commitment more seriously. And if we recognize that even a man like Bonhoeffer was at times a silent witness of evil deeds, that can help inspire us to keep speaking, even as we honestly face our own failures in the face of evil.
Thanks to Strange Glory—a biography of Bonhoeffer that raises questions about his sexuality in light of his relationship with his close friend Eberhard Bethge—2014 was in some ways the “Year of Bonhoeffer” here at Spiritual Friendship. In What Kind of Friend Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wes wrote,
as I’m nearing the end of working on my friendship book, I can say that reading Bonhoeffer and Bethge’s correspondence was one of the richest experiences I had in the course of my research. Other than Pavel Florensky’s The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, I doubt there was a book that taught me more about friendship than Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. What struck me in reading it, perhaps in contrast to Marsh and Stackhouse’s views, was how unwieldy our categories are—either “homosexual” or “just friends”—when it comes to classifying a relationship as profound as Bonhoeffer and Bethge’s was.
Christopher Benson explored the “face to face” intimacy of friendship in Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Romance of Friendship:
Bonhoeffer, it seems, was trying to overcome the habits of isolation that beset modern people. His intimate friendship with Bethge should be lauded because it reminds us “there is no knowing the good without friendship, and no knowing without friendship. To see the good is to become intimate friends with others,” as Catherine Pickstock says in her endorsement for the aforementioned book. A characteristic mistake of modernity is to assume that friends have taken the wrong turn when they look at each other, face to face, rather than ahead. Thanks to Dr. Freud, we have sexualized eros, as if every longing must be consummated in genital sex. Bonhoeffer and Bethge may show us a more excellent way, where the sexual element—if present—is transformed and transcended by a preoccupation with the mystery of God.
In One More Post on the “Gay” Bonhoeffer, Wes reflected on two dangers to avoid as we look for insight in Bonhoeffer’s story for conversations about sexuality and friendship here at SF:
First, we need to guard against the impulse to assimilate the past into the present. (Who was it who said, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”?) In other words, we need to avoid the reflexive, “Bonhoeffer and Bethge did things that I do because I’m gay; therefore they must have been gay too!” It’s a totally understandable impulse to want to find solidarity with a person from the past, especially if they’re a hero, but we need to be prepared to acknowledge that close, non-sexual friendships between men may have existed in far more significant and prominent ways in Bonhoeffer’s Germany than they do in early 21st century America, and just because we can’t conceive of those friendships not being “gay” doesn’t mean they were. (See Trevin Wax’s thoughts on this point.)
But, second, it also seems to me there’s an opposite danger that, in our effort to articulate and defend the existence of something like “close, non-sexual friendships between men” in past eras, we may overlook the importance of homosexual feelings in shaping those friendships. Yes, of course, “homosexuality” as we know it didn’t exist as a social construct until relatively recently, but that doesn’t mean the reality of persistent, predominant same-sex sexual desire didn’t exist and that it didn’t have a friendship-deepening effect for those who experienced it. Sure, Bonhoeffer wasn’t “gay” in our post-Stonewall sense. But what Marsh’s biography tries to explore is whether Bonhoeffer may have experienced same-sex attractions and how those attractions may have led him to look for ways to love his friend Bethge. Bonhoeffer evidently didn’t—and maybe didn’t even want to—have sex with Bethge (and presumably Bethge himself wouldn’t have consented anyway). But did Bonhoeffer’s romantic feelings for his friend, if indeed they existed (as Marsh believes they did), lead him into a pursuit of emotional and spiritual intimacy with Bethge that he wouldn’t otherwise have sought? I think there’s a danger in avoiding that question, too, even as there’s a danger in jumping to the conclusion “Bonhoeffer was gay.”
Finally, Wes reviewed Strange Glory for Books and Culture. Reflecting on Bonhoeffer’s friendship with Bethge, Wes wrote,
We speak often here at SF about needing to see real-life, in-the-flesh friendships—how they work (or don’t), what makes them tick. For me, even before Marsh’s biography appeared, the friendship of Dietrich and Eberhard was one of those inspiring and instructive models. It was far from peaceful: Dietrich could be possessive, mercurial, demanding. But reading their letters to one another is still, I would say, one of the high points of my life as a reader. Their friendship continues to move me and delight me and provoke me, and I’d commend their writings to anyone here who wants to know more about what friendship can be.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer—pastor, theologian, friend, martyr—offers us encouragement that even in the most difficult circumstances, grace can strengthen a flawed, sometimes uncertain human being to take up his cross and remain with Christ, even to the end. And, we may hope that, having suffered with his Lord, he has been purified of all imperfection and raised with Him to enjoy a “life together” beyond all his earthly imagination.