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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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What Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught me

Graduating from college is one of those moments that our parents or their friends describe as “exciting.” But it’s terrifying for those of us who are going through it. Not only must we now enter the “real world,” but we must evaluate our beliefs and ideals—and figure out how, or if, these relate to the paths we have set off on.

Like many other members of the class of 2005, I went through this process. After graduation, I moved to Washington, D.C., and began my employment in the field of national security. I’ve had to look at many aspects of my life in the context of my chosen career—my studies at college, my personal interests and, most importantly, my religious beliefs.

Growing up Lutheran, I learned about Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a historical figure whose heroic stand against the Nazis serves as an example of the true conviction to Jesus. At first glance, his works seemed to be a distant inspiration to me, influencing my beliefs but not directly impacting my life. While I’d like to think I would follow Bonhoeffer’s example if put to the test, as an American citizen I don’t expect to encounter such a situation. When I looked closer, however, I realized his legacy is immediately and crucially relevant.

In college we’re taught to approach our studies objectively. For a paper on an international relations issue, I wasn’t supposed to let my beliefs affect my analysis of the subject, which would allow me to make an accurate appraisal. Many of us approach our employment this way as well, especially in my field. We try to keep our convictions separate from the work we do and just get the job accomplished. While this is done for many reasons, the most common is the idea that our convictions and work exist in two separate realms. We do what we must to earn our pay and to serve the country in its missions, but faith is set apart.

Bonhoeffer wrote extensively on this subject. He argued that all believers must defend those who are suffering. As he wrote during the Nazi oppression of the Jews: “Only he who cries out for the Jews may also sing Gregorian [chant]” (Bonhoeffer’s Theology by James W. Woelfel; Abingdon Press, 1970; out-of-print, may be available from www.half.com). One may agree with him but still set this aside when it comes to an issue of national defense. If, as Paul said, governments are established by God, then our country should be allowed to do what is necessary to advance its interests. This was the view of Christian apologists for Nazism in the 1930s, who argued that “the proper concern of the gospel is the inner person” while “the kingdom of the state … is not subject to the gospel’s message” (The Boston Collaborative Encylclopedia of Western Theology, “Dietrich Bonhoffer” by Matt McLaughlin).

But Bonhoeffer adamantly opposed such a view. To him the belief “that one can separate a domain of life” from Christ’s message was mistaken. He asserted that all spheres of society are united in, and dependent on, the transcendent grace of God. As a result, all human activities are answerable to God, and all powers on Earth “only exist under the preservation of God as long as they are open to the revelation of Christ” (Mclaughlin). Every action we take must be in line with the teachings of Christ. We can’t ignore his calls for love and justice in favor of another cause—no matter how noble it may seem.

Bonhoeffer’s opposition to the Nazis and sacrifice for his faith won’t directly affect me as I begin my career in national security. But this aspect of his teaching will. When I confront a dilemma, when my knowledge and studies seem to diverge from my religious convictions, I can remember this question: “Who stands firm? Only the one for whom the final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these, when in faith and sole allegiance to God he is called to obedient and responsible action” (Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Touchstone, 1997; available from www.amazon.com).

That is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught me.


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