Summer 1984, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 151-161.

Hermes Donald Kreilkamp:
      Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Prophet of Human Solidarity

Willing to die for the welfare of others, Bonhoeffer offers men and women longing for worldwide unity, peace, and justice an example of Christian stewardship.

Dr. Kreilkamp has a licentiate from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and a doctorate in history from Catholic University of America. He is currently professor of history and philosophy at St. Joseph's College, Rensselaer, Indiana, and a member of the International Bonhoeffer Society.

HARRY James Cargas once suggested that the Catholic church should canonize Dietrich Bonhoeffer.(1) Although I would not second that nomination for ecumenical reasons, I have no doubt that Bonhoeffer is with the saints of God. I would urge Catholics, moreover, to read his letters, which Cargas characterized, rightly, as "among the most important Christian documents of this century."

The letters to his parents and friends and the various papers which Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote while in prison are the best known, but often the least understood, of his writings.(2) They have, however, made Bonhoeffer famous throughout the world as a prophet of human solidarity.

What brought Bonhoeffer to a Nazi prison cell, Clifford Green suggests, was Christian humanism.(3) After a short, brilliant career at the University of Berlin, Bonhoeffer served as a pastor to Germans in London and as a lecturer in America. He then returned to Germany to be with his people and to do what he could to change the course of German history, to derail a war machine on a track toward total destruction, and to prepare for a new dawn of justice and peace.

Bonhoeffer's willingness to lay his life on the line to stop the slaughter of millions of people, his vision of a world united in universal friendship, his openness to change in whatever way was necessary to achieve that goal, together with his concern for fundamental human and Christian values, have attracted deep admiration from readers the world over and have made him in many ways a prophet of the movement toward human solidarity.

Bonhoeffer's letters have inspired readers to take similar risks and to make similar efforts to promote human rights. Readers in countries of eastern as well as western Europe, in the Far East, in South Africa, and in Latin America have come to admire him and to follow him.(4)

During the struggle in the 1970s for democracy, human rights, and freedom of belief in Korea, many Christians were arrested, tortured, and sentenced to imprisonment. To them, Bonhoeffer's letters came like pages from the New Testament, giving them the courage to face death without flinching. Bonhoeffer's radical following of Christ's example, his opposition to totalitarianism, and his concern for the renewal of faith in our day have inspired many to follow his way.(5)

Bonhoeffer has had a tremendous impact on liberation theology and is one of the sources of its development in North as well as South America. As a critic not only of Nazism but also of the ecclesiasticism which Hitler used to his own advantage, Bonhoeffer underscored the weakness of established churches. His prophetic call to the churches to give up their concern for privileges, status, and exemptions and to join the ranks of the poor has won for him the opposition which assails any radical call to human solidarity. This should not surprise us, of course. The Apostle has forewarned us that anyone who strives to live a godly life in Christ will suffer persecution. For Bonhoeffer, the Sermon on the Mount is the challenge and the measure of humanity. With Christ who was poor in spirit, he took his stand against Nazi fanaticism.(6)

Bonhoeffer's letters from prison have a spiritual beauty like that of autumn leaves. Each has its special color and tone deriving from the exquisite care and love with which each was written. Each has power to raise some question to tease us into thought and into finding a solution to the problem he poses.

The times during which Bonhoeffer wrote these letters were times when words such as freedom or brotherliness left a bitter aftertaste in the mouths of patriotic, reflective Germans. They were times which required tremendous courage of any German concerned to preserve these values against the Nazi program for solving Germany's problems by resorting to racism and conquest.


Despite a long-standing tradition which kept religion and politics separated in autonomous worlds of their own, Bonhoeffer saw the necessity of breaking with this tradition -- one in which he had been raised -- and of pressing for an integrative solution to human needs which would build up human solidarity rather than divide people against each other.

At a time when Hitler's power was on the rise, Bonhoeffer at ecumenical conferences of Life and Work pressed openly for resolutions on behalf of the Jews. At a time of intensifying German militarism, he urged the church to speak out, not simply for peace, but against the coming war. When these efforts failed, and at the very height of Hitler's power (after his victory over France), Bonhoeffer decided to join the ranks of the growing political opposition to Hitler within Germany and within the German military; he entered the German military intelligence (Abwehr). In this branch of the military, he was able to travel abroad, to make contacts with church leaders of other countries, and to inform them of the efforts being made in Germany to overthrow Hitler, to pursue peace, and to stop the lawless application of brutal force, the physical and spiritual suffering of countless innocent people, oppression, hatred and murder of the weakest and "most defenseless brothers of Jesus Christ [the Jews]."

As a member of the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer was able to help Jewish people escape from Germany and, finally, to collaborate with those who sought to wrench the reins of power out of Hitler's hands. It was not easy for him, a former pacifist, to make such a decision; but it seemed to him the course of action that was clearly less evil than collaborating in the killing of millions of human beings. It seemed to him the thing that needed doing before all else.(7)

This is not the place to detail the determination and composure with which Bonhoeffer and his collaborators evaded the Gestapo as they developed their plans and attempted to kill Hitler. Bonhoeffer was among the first to be jailed from this group because of his long-standing opposition to Hitler. The jailing came suddenly, in the midst of a family party. He was taken to a prison in a suburb of Berlin called Tegel. In the collection of his letters from prison, his first impressions of prison life and of what became the day -- today round of misery for him are described in the summary of his first year (248-52).

Here we catch a vivid glimpse of the extraordinary difficulties under which Bonhoeffer lived while in prison at Tegel. We are sensitized to what he had to become hardened to in order to survive: the sound of the prison staffs abusing the prisoners day and night; the first atrocious punishments of solitary confinement, without even a breath of fresh air and only a few scraps of bread; and the later, milder treatment when it was learned he was related to persons high in the German military.

What is beautiful about these letters is how Bonhoeffer maintained his sense of appreciation for so many of the things we say make life "worth living": fellowship of the spirit and community of life; reading, writing, music, and the other arts; and a circle of like-minded people with whom he was able to continue corresponding.(8) Perhaps the stark contrast between life as portrayed in the arts and life as lived in prison made his appreciation of the things he could no longer enjoy, except in memory and imagination, all the more remarkable: his observance of the "quiet, open life" of nature going on quietly despite the war, his extolling the "warmth that radiates from the love of a wife and family" (70), his realization "how closely our lives are bound up with other people's, and in fact how the center of our lives is outside ourselves" (105). He notes that in ordinary life we hardly reflect that we "receive a great deal more than we give" (109).

Even in prison, deprived of so much, having sustained great and incomparable losses, he did not consider his life or days as so much time lost or empty; instead, he maintained a variety of interests in literature and the arts; he read and meditated on his Bible daily, studied the exegesis of various books as a scholar, enjoyed a cigar or cigarette, held long talks with his jail keepers, listened to classical music on a benighted wireless, worked at various chess problems, and the like. His constant effort was to maintain "open, outstretched hands" toward God, accepting whatever came his way with all his heart, and maintaining also a quiet mind about whatever God did not grant or whatever he took away (247).

It is thrilling to read in his accounts of the bombings of Berlin his concern for others even in the midst of these events, when every window in the prison was being blown out. He remained calm, even while others cried out in fear; yet he did not look down on them or harbor anything approaching contempt for others. He came in fact to this measure of humanity, that he regarded people "less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer" (10).

Bonhoeffer's beautiful morning prayer for his fellow prisoners during his first Christmas in prison (1943) reminds one of the "Hymn to Brother Sun" of St. Francis. Bonhoeffer's prayer reads:

O Heavenly Father,
I praise and thank you
For the peace of the night;
I praise and thank you for this new day;
I praise and thank you for all your goodness and
faithfulness throughout my life.
You have granted me many blessings;
Now let me also accept what is hard
from your hand.
You will lay on me no more
than I can bear.
You make all things work together for good
for your children .... (139)

When one considers the implications of his terse descriptions of life in Tegel prison, one is amazed that, despite it all, he was able to marshall his thoughts, reflect, write, and read as much as he did. His secret was the discipline he had imposed on himself to make these occupations habitual, so that they went forward despite adverse circumstances. The outline of this discipline is given in his "Stations on the Road to Freedom" (370-71), where we read of his resolve "to go out to the storm and the action, trusting in God whose commandment you faithfully follow," convinced that it is only then that one experiences what freedom really means.


Some of the most influential passages in all his writings are his notes for an outline for a book at which he worked all the time he was in prison, but which he kept with him until the day he died, when, as far as we know, it perished with him. In this outline he speaks of humanity's coming of age as one of the most profound characteristics of our era. He speaks of "religionless Christianity" and lamented the church's defensiveness towards this development and its unwillingness to take risks, or to do the new things that needed doing. In this view we also find his notion of God's transcendence, no longer in some far-off sphere, but within reach in any situation, in the needs of our neighbor, if we would only bestir ourselves.

The outline for the book is very important for interpreting Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity." The outline itself includes, we note, a section on the church. His life-style, even in prison, indicates how seriously he took practices which we associate with religion, such as Bible reading. His fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, who visited him several times while he was in prison in Berlin, testifies that Dietrich literally lived by church holidays and seasons (cf. 416). What Bonhoeffer meant by "religionless Christianity," then, needs some explanation, as does his notion of religion.

Religion, for Bonhoeffer, was worship which had little contact or concern with the deeper currents of life.(9) It was religion fostered by the Enlightenment, religion which involved the worship of a God remote from human life and worship little concerned with biblical social teachings. For some it might include a feeling of admiration for the universe or nature, with the divine as the origin of it all, but it was a kind of religion which included little or no sensitivity to God's immanence in the world here and now, much less a sensitivity to his involvement in human suffering. For others such religion might foster a comfortable feeling of inward piety, of calm and repose, but with little concern for the needs of the hungry or the poor. A renewed Christianity, Bonhoeffer was convinced, will slough off such religion, to be true to the ideals set by Christ its Lord and by James.(10)

The philosophers of the age of Enlightenment had talked much about proving the existence of God by abstract reasoning, proceeding from various intellectual data or abstract principles. Such philosophers or theologians could spend hours showing the harmony of the universe and the unity of its laws, giving every indication of their divine origin. Such thinkers took religion as a quite natural phenomenon and considered it fitting to regard the being of such a God with awe, but they had little concern about how one actually went about, from day to day, worshiping such a God in human community.

Insofar as the Deistic notion of God and of religion took hold on the minds even of Christians, religion became simply an extolling of the glory of God in nature rather than an involvement with his struggle in human nature. As Bonhoeffer noted, the outcome even of the Lutheran reform was, unfortunately, not the perception of grace as something bought for us at a great price, but the notion of it as easily obtained, or, to use contemporary parlance, as cheap. What Bonhoeffer often pondered was what grace cost Jesus, and what it still costs to live as Jesus lived. Bonhoeffer reflected still more on the continuing need for renewal and reconciliation which, it seemed to him, his church refused to consider, choosing not to preach about, or to speak out on, the social injustices of the time -- the needs of the poor and those in prisons and concentration camps.

Why were the churches as silent as they were? They were silent for the same reasons churches today are often silent in regard to evils in our own society: they have much to lose if they rock the boat by making too many waves. Douglas J. Hall, in Lighten Our Darkness,(11) shows how our society is generally not open to negative criticism. The "power of positive thinking" may become quite defensive and even censorious toward critics who do not hesitate to call attention to its blind spots. Notwithstanding such human resistance to unpleasant criticism, Bonhoeffer insisted that the church "must come out cf its stagnation. We must move out again into the open air of intellectual discussion with the world, and risk saying controversial things, if we are to get down to the serious business of life" (378-79).

Bonhoeffer did not hesitate to criticize the structure of the church and the concept of religion which prevailed in the Germany of his day as an anachronism, based on a paternalistic society which held masses of people in tow to its tutelage. The Nazi coup of German culture indicated to him how ineffective such religion was. Who needed the God heralded by such religion? What resistance did the piety which reduced faith to the feeling of inwardness give the Nazis? It was for reasons like these that Bonhoeffer appeared as a critic of the churches as well as of the Nazis.

Bonhoeffer blamed much of the state of affairs in Germany in his day on the kind of separation of politics and religion that had taken place there, so that churchmen generally followed a policy of noninterference.(12) From his viewpoint, this was due to their image of God as one enthroned in glory and worthy of worship but removed to that extent from people's sufferings. For this reason he bent every effort to develop what, in the Lutheran tradition, was called the theology of the cross, stemming from St. Paul's determination to know "only Jesus and him crucified."


For Bonhoeffer, Christ was, above all, the "man for others," the one who emptied himself, who poured out his life in serving human needs. To be worthy of his name, Christians also need to pour themselves out in service to others. Ours is a time for action rather than words, for example such as Christ gave. "Real action," he wrote, "arises from the rediscovered unity of man with other men and with himself."(13) Such was the thrust of Bonhoeffer's life, and it gives weight to his writings. Here is someone who lived by what he believed, who died witnessing to that belief.

Bonhoeffer's ethics is at heart an ethics of loving others as Christ loved human beings. It is an ethics of taking Christ's words "I am the way, the truth, the life" and making his life-style one's own. "It is," he wrote, "the call of liberation, the call to simplicity . . . that knowledge which is entirely contained in doing the will of God."(14) For him, the moment a person accepts responsibility for others, the truly ethical situation arises. An ethical act for him is one which is based on faith in the transcendent God, acting within the world in accord with reason and social necessity. The goal of Christian ethics is not conforming to a universally recognizable Kantian principle but acting, at the moment, in a way that will help my neighbor become a human being before God.(15) Such was Christ's effort, even though it led to his being nailed to a cross.

If we are to live as Jesus lived, then we must act as though everything depended on us (or, to use Bonhoeffer's phrase, "as if there were no God"). We need to assume responsibility for what goes on around us, to the extent that it lies within our power to do so. If we so live, God will be with us, as God was with Jesus. God may not save us from death, any more than Jesus was saved from dying, but God will raise us from the dead as Jesus was raised.

The message of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is not an easy message, even for believers. But it was Bonhoeffer's response to the Jesus who said, "If anyone wishes to be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me." Christ meant this more literally than most of us imagine; that, certainly, was Bonhoeffer's conviction.

The best summary of what Bonhoeffer stood for he himself gives us in the prologue to the collected letters, "After Ten Years" (3-17). Here we see the true Christian who is also a true humanist, striving toward human solidarity and the fellowship of the spirit. We see it shining brilliantly against that great masquerade of evil which was Nazism and which still threatens human solidarity on so many fronts.

Bonhoeffer's analysis of the reasons for the failure of the liberal humanists of his day, who simply did their duty without giving it much thought, bears careful study today, as does his own analysis as to why he chose to do what he did. What is essential to human values is summed up neatly here: "The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask, is not how to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live" (7). How is the coming generation, our children, to live in the concrete situation we are helping create? Basic also is his principle that "respect for ultimate laws and human life is also the best means of self-preservation" (11). To this he joined the recognition that necessity may at times move in apparent conflict with this principle, but only to avoid the greater evil.

How deep Bonhoeffer's faith was seems clear from what he says about sincere prayers joined to responsible actions, about putting our lives in the hands of those we trust, about human dignity and reserve, about modesty and moderation, and about the capacity for suffering, or "large heartedness" (13). All of us, if we are to have some share in Christ's large heartedness, need to act "with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and show a real sympathy that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer" (14).

It was not easy for him to suffer, as he did, condemned by his own government as a traitor and shunned by his own church, under suspicion of complicity in crime. But he had foreseen this, too, and had accepted it. He foresaw that the martyrs of the future must all be willing, because of the complex nature of the issues we face, to do what needs to be done and to be ready to be cast out for it, as useless and unprofitable servants. For if it was the lot of Jesus, can we expect any less, if we choose to be his disciples?

Bonhoeffer believed that the future belongs to Jesus and to his followers, provided they follow his way of life, seeking and pursuing human solidarity. Bonhoeffer was, moreover, to the end, optimistic about the possibility of such a future, despite the obvious failure of his own efforts to achieve it. His life seemed to him, as it may to many even today, a jigsaw puzzle for which most of the pieces are still missing. But what we can piece together seems to make marvelous sense.

His vision of the history of the future is a challenge to any historian. He calls the historian to see the future, to act in it, and to record it as it appears to those who are "below," not, that is, from the viewpoint of the powerful and the wealthy, but from the perspective of "the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, and the reviled -- in short from the perspective of those who suffer" (17). Does not such a view give hope to many, perhaps most of us?

In his letter to his beloved friend and incomparable biographer, Eberhard Bethge, he wrote this testament:

If we are to learn what God promises and what he fulfils, we must persevere in quiet meditation on the life, sayings, deeds, sufferings, and death of Jesus. It is certain that we may always live close to God and in the light of his presence, and that such living is an entirely new life for us; that nothing is then impossible for us, because all things are possible with God; that no earthly power can touch us without his will, and that danger and distress can only drive us closer to him. It is certain that we can claim nothing for ourselves, and may yet pray for everything; it is certain that our joy is hidden in suffering, and our life in death; it is certain that in all this we are in a fellowship that sustains us. In Jesus God has said Yes and Amen to it all, and that Yes and Amen is the firm ground on which we stand. (391)

  1. 1 Harry James Cargas, "Protestant Martyr Canonization Fitting," National Catholic Reporter, 22 October 1982, p. 21.
  2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, enlarged ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1972). Quotations from the letters will be from this edition and reference will be made by page number in parentheses in the text of the article.
  3. 3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Fiction from Prison: Gathering Up the Past, ed. Renate and Eberhard Bethge, trans. U. Hoffman (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), p. vii.
  4. For his influence in Poland, see Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer, Exile and Martyr (New York: Seabury, 1975), p. 14.
  5. 5 John D. Godsey, "Bonhoeffer and the Third World: West Africa, Cuba, Korea," in J. D. Godsey and G.B. Kelly, Ethical Responsibility: Bonhoeffer's Legacy to the Churches (New York: Mellen, 1981), p. 263.
  6. "The Sermon on the Mount is not a Word to be treated cavalierly .... Its validity depends on its being obeyed. This is not a Word . . . that you can take or leave. It is a compelling, dominating Word" (Bonhoeffer, as cited by Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Man of Vision -- Man of Courage, trans. E. Mosbacher et al. [New York: Harper, 1970], p. 369).
  7. M. Bosanquet, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Harper, 1962), p. 221.
  8. Bethge, Bonhoeffer: Man of Vision, p. 385.
  9. What Bonhoeffer associated with "religion" is summed up best by Eberhard Bethge in his essay "Bonhoeffers Assertion of Religionless Christianity -- Was He Mistaken?" in A.J. Klassen, ed., A Bonhoeffer Legacy: Essays in Understanding (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), pp. 3-11. See also, in the same book, John D. Godsey, "The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer," pp. 161-69.
  10. 10 "Religion pure, unspoilt in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world" games 1:27).
  11. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976).
  12. On the two realms of politics and religion, see Bethge, Bonhoeffer, Exile and Martyr, pp. 11 ff.
  13. Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. E. Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1965), p. 31; on p. 131 he notes how Jesus lived in utter poverty among men, unmarried, and how he died as a criminal.
  14. Ibid., p. 35.
  15. Ibid., p. 85.