Saint Stories: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I'm a Baptist. And Baptists aren't known to name saints or remember saints or even pray to icons. We are free church rebels that value the priesthood of all believers at our core.

But as I've lived into my pastoral vocation in an ecumenical setting and studied theology in an ecumenical setting, there are those saints of Christian history that stuck with me. Not just ones I've personally known such as those I wrote about here and here this week, but saints who are a part of the larger cannon of church history.

One of them is Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945), a Lutheran theologian, scholar and social activist known for his work as a teaching pastor at an underground seminary during World War II in Germany.

Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together: the Classic Exploration of Faith in Community while he was a part of the underground seminary-- a text that wrestled with the hard questions of Christian community.

In my first year at Duke Divinity School, I was assigned to read Life Together no less than 3 times I think. (If Duke Divinity had a cannon, Life Together would certainly be at the top of the list).

With each re-reading, I found myself caught up in Bonhoeffer's struggles of what it meant for him to live authentically. Sections like this one were highlighted and highlighted again.

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community... Let him who is not in community beware of being alone... Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”

The language of Life Together can be dense to get through. But I've found much practical instruction in his words. I can't think of a better source of wisdom of what it means to have a life a part with God and a life grounded in community.

“The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”

The "I'm an introvert" (i.e. leave me alone) or "I'm an extrovert" (i.e. let me do all the work) rules that we often want to throw out into our roles in community life, really don't apply says Bonhoeffer. We all have to find our place at the table and help others find their place at the table too.

Bonhoeffer is a saint in my book-- not only because of his willingness to live in the midst of conflict (he had the choice to remain in the US and not return to Germany to teach during the war) but because he faced the hard questions of what it means to be the church, even when it was hard.

This is why Life Together has been one of my favorite book studies to lead small groups through during the years.

Others know Bonhoeffer because of his controversal decision that scholars still to do this day debate whether it was right or wrong--  to lead a plot to assassinate Hitler. He felt like he could not stand by and watch so many Jews suffer and die if the man responsible was not held accountable. Bonhoeffer was later caught, sent to prison and executed only days before the Americans liberated his camp.

But no matter whether you think that Bonhoeffer was right or wrong on this very brave and costly choice-- I am remembering him today and his great body of work. I'm so glad to have him in the great cloud of witnesses that has given me a language of community life.