Kelly: In midst of danger, Bonhoeffer never backed down


Geffrey Kelly speaks on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the Hall of Philosophy Tuesday. Photo by Eve Edelheit.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

Perhaps no other “spy for God” is as well known as the subject of Geffrey Kelly’s lecture: Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Kelly’s presentation, “The Costly Grace of Christian Discipleship in the Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” was the second installment in Week Three’s interfaith lecture series, “Spies for God.”

Maureen Rovegno, assistant director of the Department of Religion, described Kelly as “steeped in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” Kelly is a professor of systematic theology at La Salle University and the author of five books about Bonhoeffer. He is also one of the founding members of the English language section of the International Dietrich
Bonhoeffer Society.

“Bonhoeffer was an unlikely candidate for his actions to bring down the Nazi government,” Kelly began, explaining that Bonhoeffer was a double agent recruited by military intelligence.

Bonhoeffer came from a wealthy family. From the beginning of his education, Bonhoeffer was a gifted student; he received his doctorate of theology at the age of 21. He went on to teach at the University of Berlin.

Bonhoeffer’s doctoral dissertation “defined the church as Christ existing as the church community,” Kelly said. “The downside of this understanding of church was his conviction that the church of today could easily become the false church of tomorrow.“

Nowhere else was this belief more evident than in the allegiance of many churches to Hitler and the ideology of the Nazi party.

Bonhoeffer had a passion for the underprivileged and vulnerable, groups of people disparaged by Nazi ideology — groups of people Bonhoeffer believed Christians were called to serve.

He won a scholarship to Union Theological Seminary in New York. There, he met Reinhold Niebuhr, the famed social ethicist and theologian. Bonhoeffer learned Niebuhr’s three steps of social ethics: the ideal (unconditional love for all peoples), the achievable reality (justice) and the means (coercion, hopefully non-violent).

At Union, he learned the difference between an acculturated religion and prophetic religion, between a church ensconced in national politics and a church self-reflective and critical of power.

“He would conclude with Bonhoeffer that the purpose of theology was to change the world for the better, to continue what Jesus Christ had begun in his prophetic, earthly ministry,” Kelly said.

Bonhoeffer met Franklin Fisher, a young black theologian, who taught him about the Social Gospel.

“His experiences in Harlem would make him doubly sensitive to the persecution of Jews in his native Germany,” Kelly said.

Bonhoeffer also met Jean Lasserre, a French pacifist, who influenced his anti-war and anti-violence philosophies.

He had a conversion experience while at Union. Returning to Germany, his sermons took on new power. He argued passionately against the magnetism of Nazi ideology, which many churches found appealing for its strong family values, and the role of Hitler as “God’s man in Germany.”

The day after Hitler won his dictatorship, Bonhoeffer gave a radio address to explain the difference between a leader and a “misleader.” The Gestapo cut off his presentation.

“At every stage, Bonhoeffer attempted to counteract Nazism,” Kelly said. “He bemoaned the timid escapism of the church that was now affecting the leadership of the church and the country.”

He criticized the church for not listening to the commands of peace in the New Testament and for subjugating its teachings to politics. His message “The Church is Dead” lambasted the church for its love of security, calling it idolatry, and criticized the church’s acceptance of war.

Bonhoeffer addressed the clergy of Berlin after the passage of anti-Jewish legislation, urging his peers to question the authority of the legislation, help the persecuted and be ready to take action against the government if it did not comply. It didn’t go over well.

“These words provoked a loud cry of protest,” Kelly said. “Many stood up and left; some shouted him down. Several of the clergy accused Bonhoeffer of being a troublemaker, guilty of treason.”

Bonhoeffer denounced Hitler’s pretentiousness in declaring a new world order and his role as a supposed revolutionary. He avoided arrest only because his brother-in-law was the assistant to the minister of justice.

He rejected the ideas of war and the arms race. At an ecumenical conference, Bonhoeffer declared, “Peace is the opposite of security. Peace must be dared. It is the great venture.”

One student audience member remarked later, “(Bonhoeffer) left (the other delegates) with a troubled conscience.”

He was more progressive than his fellow clerics. He preached an anti-war sermon on the National Day of Mourning in Germany. His audience was filled with soldiers.

As anti-Jewish sentiment increased, Bonhoeffer left the university to be a pastor. No church wanted him.

“The marks against him were that he was too young, too radical; he would disturb their peace,” Kelly said. “And since he had brought his pastor friend (Franz Hildebrandt), whose parents were Jewish, and therefore (Jewish) in the eyes of the Nazis … he was called a Jew-lover.”’

He served in a London pastorate position for two years. His resistance activities did not wane.

“He refused to sign a statement that he would not criticize the Nazi government while he was abroad,” Kelly said. “He never lost an opportunity to denounce Nazism in his sermons at conferences in London.”

He wanted to visit Mahatma Gandhi to learn tactics of peaceful protest in order to further educate the churches of Germany, but his old mentor Niebuhr told him this is was a foolish idea, that the German government lacked the conscience to make civil disobedience an effective method of protest.

Instead, members of the renegade confessing church approached Bonhoeffer and asked him “to lead a secret illegal seminarian pomerania,” as Kelly termed it.

Eager to train clergy as a force of subversion, Bonhoeffer accepted and directed the program for two years until it was closed by the Gestapo in 1937. These collected teachings became The Cost of Discipleship.

“For Bonhoeffer, the trouble in Germany was that the voice of Jesus Christ had become muted except in domesticated, non-challenging, non-prophetic ways within the churches,” Kelly said.

Church leaders praised Hitler for ridding the country of atheism and communism instead.

Bonhoeffer refused the German army draft in 1939, risking imprisonment and execution. Niebuhr and Paul Lehmann tried to rescue him by inviting him to lecture in America.

But Bonhoeffer said, “I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”

In the midst of danger, Bonhoeffer continued to criticize the church’s inaction and to renounce different aspects of Nazi ideology, including euthanasia. During the expulsion of the Jews, Christians not only took Hitler for their conscience instead of Jesus but virtually expelled Jesus from Germany, too — Jesus was a Jew, Bonhoeffer declared.

Kelly concluded by mentioning three of Bonheoffer’s most subversive espionage assignments in Germany where he worked as a double agent. Many of Bonhoeffer’s family were involved in intelligence.

His first mission was to Norway, which was in turmoil. Bonhoeffer and a colleague were supposed to quell rebellion against the German occupation.

“(Norwegian politician Vidkun Quisling) had issued a prohibition forbidding one of the main organizers of the Norwegian church … to hold a religious service at the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim,” Kelly said. “That cathedral was a rallying point for opponents of the Nazi occupation … and the Quisling puppet government.”

The head bishop of Norway was put under house arrest, and Bonhoeffer was called upon to address the clergy. Instead of calming the conflict, Bonhoeffer encouraged the rebellion.

The second mission was Operation 7, which assisted several Jews in escaping Germany for Switzerland so they could be a voice for the effects of Nazi oppression.

The third mission was to use Bishop George Bell’s influence in an assassination plot against Hitler and to come to peaceful terms of surrender with Germany if the assassination attempts against Hitler were successful.

Kelly closed by quoting a letter Bonhoeffer wrote.

“We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.”