Bonhoeffer, friend of the "next generation", uniting reflection and action

by John W. de Gruchy last modified 05 May 2020 06:38 PM
Bonhoeffer, friend of the "next generation", uniting reflection and action

Photo: World Council of Churches

05 May 2020

In August 1976, I was among those who gathered at the WCC headquarters in Geneva for a special event to mark the 70th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s birth. On that occasion, Eberhard Bethge, his friend and biographer, remarked that it was difficult to think of Bonhoeffer as an old man of seventy years.  Now he would be one hundred and fourteen!  So, how come we still read what he wrote? What does he have to say to my generation and the next?

Ever since they first met at the illegal Confessing Church seminary in Finkenwalde in 1935, Bonhoeffer and Bethge became close companions in a remarkable “inter-generational” friendship that Bonhoeffer celebrated as “daring’ and “trusting.”[1] That friendship was cruelly cut short when Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Gestapo in 1945 for his role in the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler the previous July.  But Bethge’s commitment to Bonhoeffer was such that succeeding generations, including so many of us, have been enriched and challenged by Bonhoeffer’s legacy as preserved and passed on by Bethge’s passionate life’s work as Bonhoeffer’s biographer, interpreter and editor of his extensive writings.

Bethge was only three years younger than Bonhoeffer, yet Bonhoeffer once told him that his “less reflective” nature made him “more a member of the younger generation” and, in turn, made himself feel like an “uncle.”[2] Bonhoeffer thought the younger generation was  more spontaneous and open, and that this made them “fitter for life” compared to their elders’ more reflective character which made them less impulsive.  Maybe that is not always the case.  But generally, it seems that older people reflect more on their life-long experience before committing themselves to action, whereas younger people act more immediately.  The problem is that too much reflection can lead to prevarication and compromise, while too little reflection may result in an unrealistic radicalism, rushing headlong into action without due consideration of the consequences.  Bonhoeffer rejected these as false alternatives and sought to find a more responsible path between them, one in which reflection and action inform each other in responding to reality. Perhaps that is why he stressed the importance of the older and younger generations working together, not just to reach some level of mutual understanding, but for the sake of  justice and peace.

Bonhoeffer’s concern for the “next generation” had already become a passion when, as a young pastor he ministered to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in Berlin.  Soon after, as an assistant professor at the University of Berlin students found his lectures more interesting and challenging than those given by more illustrious members of the faculty, not least because of the way in which he engaged them.  Likewise when he became the director of the Illegal Seminary in Finkenwalde, his students, while at first taken aback by his youthfulness,  soon began to appreciate his theological insight, his commitment to the struggle against Nazism, his concern to ensure that they were well-prepared for their ministry in traumatic times, and his ability to identify with them.  That interest and passion continued to the end, as can be seen from the many letters he wrote to former students during the war, not least when numbers of them became conscripts on the Eastern Front, as well as to younger members of his own extended family.

One of the gems in Bonhoeffer’s legacy is a Christmas letter he wrote his fellow conspirators in the plot against Hitler, entitled “After Ten Years”.  Written shortly before his imprisonment in April 1943, the letter provides much insight into the way in which Bonhoeffer had decided that it was both necessary and responsible to join the Resistance and participate in the conspiracy.  There could no longer be any prevarication or compromise, for the reality facing Germany demanded action, action determined by careful reflection and planning.

Bonhoeffer’s letter also includes a question that he frequently asked himself.  The “ultimately responsible question” he wrote, “is not how I extricate myself heroically from a situation but [how] a coming generation is to go on living.”[3] He asks this question several times in his prison letters, and it also motivates  the sermon he wrote from prison for the baptism of Bethge’s son, Dietrich -- “the first of a new generation in our family.”[4] It is a remarkable sermon, concluding with words that have often been quoted since then:

we can be Christians today in only two ways, through prayer and in doing justice among human beings. All Christian thinking, talking, and organizing must be born anew, out of that prayer and action. By the time you grow up, the form of the church will have changed considerably. It is still being melted and remolded, and every attempt to help it develop prematurely into a powerful organization again will only delay its conversion [Umkehr] and purification. It is not for us to predict the day—but the day will come—when people will once more be called to speak the word of God in such a way that the world is changed and renewed. It will be in a new language, perhaps quite nonreligious language, but liberating and redeeming like Jesus’s language, so that people will be alarmed and yet overcome by its power—the language of a new righteousness and truth, a language proclaiming that God makes peace with humankind and that God’s kingdom is drawing near. [5]

Bonhoeffer did not want to hand over responsibility to the next generation as if he and his own could wash their hands of the chaos they had created.  He was asking whether and how they could work together going forward. For his generation to abnegate responsibility for what had happened and leave the mess to the next generation to sort out was totally irresponsible and unacceptable. What was necessary for his generation o was to “think and to act with an eye on the coming generation and to be ready to move on without fear and worry.” [6] But Bonhoeffer also believed that the “younger generation” will “have the surest sense whether an action is done merely in terms of principle or from living responsibly, for it is their future that is at stake.”[7] So it was the “next generation” that had to keep his generation on their toes and accountable for what they did.

I was six years old when Bonhoeffer died, so I was part of the “next generation” and privileged to meet his godson Dietrich and know some of his students and others of that generation. But when I began to study his theology during the “revolutionary” 1960s we were told not trust anyone over 30!  Despite this, we trusted Bonhoeffer because he spoke to us at that time of social upheaval and change, and has done ever since, not least in South Africa during the struggle against apartheid.  And his legacy continues to inspire people, both non-Christians and Christians alike from many different denominations, confessions, backgrounds and walks of life, in responding to the enormous challenges facing the world today.  The reason is that he reflected deeply and critically on the realities of his time, and when required he acted decisively.  In this way he did theology with an eye on future generations and the world they would inherit.  So Bonhoeffer is always our contemporary, because he lived, reflected and acted ahead of the curve, anticipating the next step in the journey of faith as a friend of the “next generation.”

[1] In Bonhoeffer’s poem The Friend, (DBWE8:527}; see also John W. de Gruchy, Daring, Trusting Spirit: Bonhoeffer's Friend Eberhard Bethge (London: SCM, 2005).

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, ed.  John W. de Gruchy, vol. 8 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 312.

[3] Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 42.

[4] Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 428.

[5] Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 389-90.

[6] Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 50.

[7] Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 42.


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