By Keith Clements*
Seventy-five years ago, on 9 April 1945, the German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, with six other members of the conspiracy to overthrow Adolf Hitler, was hanged at Flossenbürg execution camp in Germany. He was 39.
From the conclusion of his student years in Berlin to his death on the Nazi gallows at Flossenbürg, the ecumenical movement was central to Bonhoeffer’s concerns. During these years he fulfilled several distinct roles: academic theologian and teacher, leading protagonist for the Confessing Church, pastor, seminary director and – most dramatically and controversially – willing participant in the German resistance and the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler. But it is his commitment to and active involvement in the ecumenical movement that forms the most continuous thread of his life and activity and links all his various engagements. Bonhoeffer was a friend of Willem Visser ’t Hooft, who would become the first general secretary of the World Council of Churches, visiting him in Geneva during the war years and bringing him news of the opposition to Hitler, but also discussing such issues as the ecumenical implications of baptism.
Bonhoeffer and what it means to be the church
Bonhoeffer brought his own theology into the movement, worked out in his doctoral thesis Sanctorum Communio with its fundamental concept of the church, “Christ existing as community.” Bonhoeffer believed the church is a relational body of persons gathered under the word of Christ –Christ as known in his work of “vicarious representative action” – and whose members are in turn bound to each other in that same relationship. Bonhoeffer had no “ecumenical theology” other than this understanding of what it means to be church, writ large on the widest scale, indeed global.
Hence ecumenism for Bonhoeffer was inherently also the call to proclaim and embody peace in the world. Thus we see him at the Fanø ecumenical conference in 1934 in Denmark issuing his striking appeal for the churches of the world, as the great “ecumenical council” in session, to issue a call for the nations to lay down their arms.
The Confessing Church and the ecumenical movement
Nevertheless, for all his commitment to it, Bonhoeffer at certain points sat uncomfortably with the ecumenical movement of his day. His 1935 paper “The Confessing Church and the Ecumenical Movement,” was written at a critical moment in the German Church Struggle. It was prompted in particular by the stance of the Faith and Order wing of the ecumenical movement, which neither accepted nor understood the claim of the Confessing Church to be the true Evangelical Church of Germany. The question of truth, Bonhoeffer argued, could not be bypassed by the ecumenical movement for it was on that question that the Confessing Church was staking its life.
The ecumenical movement and the Confessing Church, he said, needed one another. In this paper, he forged an understanding of ecumenism as churches and Christians in the oikoumene engaging in a common witness to the truth of Christ, in which their interdependence is crucial, summed up in one glorious sentence: “It [the ecumenical movement] is not an ideal that has been set up but a commandment and a promise – it is not high‐minded implementation of one's own goals that is required but obedience.”
A church for others
Bonhoeffer is often seen during the war years, from 1940 until his arrest on 5 April 1943, as a lone figure in the shadowy borderlands of being a double agent, moving into the political arena and away from “church affairs,” with his only theological existence being the solitary writing of his Ethics. Yet this is to misunderstand the nature of the conspiracy and Bonhoeffer’s activity in it. The political resistance was hugely imbued with Christian values on the part of its main protagonists. Indeed it could almost be described as a lay ecumenical movement on its own – and on the Roman Catholic side included a good number of clerics too. Bonhoeffer became more and more interested during this time in ecumenical and inter‐church questions, both intra‐Protestant and Catholic‐Protestant ones.
Nor is this interest broken off in his prison writings. His “radical” letters home in on the question of what it means to be church in the “world come of age.” Bonhoeffer is not concerned about a “churchless” Christianity, but a Christianity embodied in a church that identifies with the world, a Christianity without religious privileges, taking the shape of Christ in his existence for others.
This means “belonging wholly” to the world, reaching that point of profound identification with the world in its strengths as well as weaknesses, its hopes as well as its fears. In Christ, God and world are united, and neither God nor the world can be met without the other. It is in that engagement of faith with the world that the image of God in Christ is created in us. It is in sharing the sufferings of God in the world that one becomes “a human being, a Christian.” This is an invitation to be transformed, as much as to transform.
Above all national interests and conflicts
On Low Sunday 1945, the eve of his execution, in a schoolroom in the village of Schönberg in Bavaria, Bonhoeffer conducted a service at the request of his fellow‐prisoners being transported south from Buchenwald concentration camp. His small congregation comprised people of various nationalities, of various church traditions and none – an ecumenical occasion indeed.
He had barely finished when two Gestapo officers come in: “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, prepare to come with us.” Everyone knew what that meant. Bonhoeffer whispered to a British officer, Payne Best, “This is the end, for me the beginning of life,” and gave him a message for his closest English friend George Bell, bishop of Chichester: “Tell him, that with him I still believe in the reality of our Christian brotherhood which rises above all national interests and conflicts, and that our victory is certain.” Bonhoeffer’s last known words were a reaffirmation of ecumenical vision and commitment, the seal upon a whole career of devotion to that cause.
At the time of his death in 1945, Bonhoeffer was clearly ahead of his age. And he will remain ahead of us for a long time to come.
* The Rev. Dr Keith Clements is a former general secretary of the Conference of European Churches, and the author of a number of books and articles on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ecumenical Quest, published by WCC Publications in 2015. This article is based on an address given at the launch of the book at the Ecumenical Centre on 4 March 2015, and subsequently published in The Ecumenical Review, July 2015.
Consult these articles from The Ecumenical Review (PDF format, free to read):
W. A. Visser ’t Hooft, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1945 – 1965
Ecumenical Review 17:3 (July 1965), 224–31
Julio de Santa Ana, The Influence of Bonhoeffer on the Theology of Liberation
Ecumenical Review 28:2 (April 1976), 188–97
Keith Clements, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ecumenical Quest
Ecumenical Review 67:2 (July 2015), 295–301