Kelly to present life of dichotomous German activist


Geffrey Kelly

Emma Morehart | Staff Writer

Geffrey Kelly has made studying the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer a second career. He has written four books about the German pastor and activist, teaches about him at La Salle University and was a board member of the International Dietrich Bonhoeffer Society for 26 years. He received an honorary doctorate for his research on Bonhoeffer and has edited translations of Bonhoeffer’s writings.

Bonhoeffer broke a lot of the rules of his time and taught that faith should be external and active, Kelly said. To Bonhoeffer, pursuit of justice and faith were inextricably linked. These teachings resonated with Kelly during an unexpected time in his life when his faith most needed it.

“When you’re in a monastery like I was, life is pretty much mapped out,” said Kelly, a systematic theology professor at La Salle University. “I thought maybe at that point in my life, I was following a rule, but I had lost contact with Jesus Christ, and I think that’s what really turned my life around — being on the receiving end of (Bonhoeffer’s) criticisms.”

Bonhoeffer was, as fitting with the Interfaith Lecture Series theme this week, a spy for God. At 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, Kelly will discuss Bonhoeffer’s dichotomous life in a lecture called “The Costly Grace of Christian Discipleship in the Life, Writings and Espionage Activities of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”

However, his desire for justice and active faith often put him in conflict with his own pacifism. Most notably, he was a double agent — both a spy for the Third Reich and an active member of the conspiracy to overthrow and kill Hitler, Kelly said.

“We can search the writings of religious writers of that period, but there’s no one who spoke so forcefully or eloquently on the need for peace on earth, so it seems a bit incongruous that he will then join the conspiracy to kill the head of state,” Kelly said.

Bonhoeffer wrote, questioned and re-questioned his ethics several times to reconcile the two desires. Out of this came the double effect of morality, in which Christians recognize sinful behavior but trust they will be forgiven and accept the fault, Kelly said.

Bonhoeffer lived by the double effect of morality standard, which was reflected in the political and espionage work he did in Germany that eventually led to his execution.

“He understood that when you are confronted with an evil that is so systemically rooted in an entire country and an entire ideology, that violence may be necessary,” Kelly said.

In Kelly’s own teachings, he said he takes a cue from Bonhoeffer and encourages his students and audiences to challenge their own faiths and influences.

“A lot of it comes down to sharing our faith and sharing aspects of our lives when we wonder what will be our contribution to the future of our country and our personal lives,” Kelly said. “I think all of us need mentors, and we also need those who can be integrated into the ideal that we need. … It’s simply taking the action of their lives and responding to their challenges.”