The life and works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer were revisited by three historians in a panel held by the World Council of Churches (WCC).

Exploring Bonhoeffer’s own ecumenical journey and the ecumenical landscape at the time, the panelists made it clear how the ecumenical legacy of Bonhoeffer – a German theologian, dissident against Nazism and a founding member of the Confessing Church, remains relevant seventy years after his execution in 1945.

The panel was held on 4 March at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, Switzerland, moderated by Theodore Gill, senior editor of WCC Publications.

Keith Clements, whose book Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ecumenical Quest (WCC Publications) was launched at the event, noted that the message of Bonhoeffer for the church was to become part of the world, embracing its struggles and perplexities – and not just that it was “called to be a church.”

Speaking about Bonhoeffer’s prison poem Who Am I? Clements said that “Bonhoeffer does not seem to be praying for his fellow prisoners, most of whom were soldiers, deserters from the army, criminals – but praying with them, offering what could be their prayer… ‘we are the guilty, we are the sinners, and sinned against, we saw the lie raise its head and did not honour the truth.’”

“It is evident from his poem how we need to build more into our ecumenical spirituality – identifying ourselves with the world we live in,” Clements said.

Clements is a British historian and theologian, whose international service includes eight years as general secretary of the Conference of European Churches. Among his several works on Bonhoeffer is volume 13 of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, London: 1933-1935, and his most recent work is Ecumenical Dynamic: On Living in More than One Place at Once (WCC Publications).

Reflecting on Bonhoeffer’s “commitment and active involvement in the ecumenical movement,” Clements said the challenge “Bonhoeffer laid down to that movement in his time remains a legacy which still has to be fully claimed by the ecumenical world today.”

Clements expressed his hopes that his book may stimulate further discussion about Bonhoeffer and the nature of the ecumenical movement and its relevance in today’s world.

Clements said that Bonhoeffer’s 1935 essay that focuses on the “command and promise of God” is something that the ecumenical movement must hold on to while reaffirming its commitments.

Relevance of Bonhoeffer’s words today

Speaking about the wider ecumenical and interfaith picture during the period, Victoria J. Barnett, director for Programmes on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust, U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said that such an in-depth study, such as Clements’s, of Bonhoeffer’s role in the ecumenical movement was long overdue.

“Keith’s book gives us a vivid portrait not just of Bonhoeffer, but of the remarkable ecumenical leaders of that era and the larger issues that were at stake,” she said.

Barnett remembered Bonhoeffer as a young German in the 1920s who “flirted briefly with nationalism.” Bonhoeffer scholars tend to brush all this aside, she said, but if taken at its face value it helps explain that “Bonhoeffer understood and perhaps to some extent even felt the appeal of nationalism – and yet for several reasons he was capable of critiquing it and drawing very different conclusions.” One of those reasons was his engagement with the ecumenical movement, she said.

Barnett went on to say that ecumenism’s appeal for Bonhoeffer pre-dates the Nazi era, but the fault lines between the ecumenical movement and National Socialism were clear to him from the beginning, because the ideals of ecumenism and Nazism were so fundamentally incompatible.

Bonhoeffer’s ongoing relevance was addressed by panellist Stephen Brown, who serves as programme executive of the Geneva based network and is author of Von der Unzufriedenheit zum Widerspruch – a book on the role that the ecumenical Justice Peace and Integrity of Creation process played in the peaceful revolution in East Germany.

Brown noted that Bonhoeffer envisioned a church “not dominating but helping and serving” in which its word “gains weight and power not through concepts but by example.”

He shared how Bonhoeffer’s words resonate with the call for a “pilgrimage of justice and peace” issued by the WCC 10th Assembly in Busan. “A pilgrimage is not about uttering the authoritative word that the world cannot ignore. Instead it is a path, walking with others, listening for the Word of God,” Brown said.

“Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s authoritative witness stems not only from his words, but from the authentic witness of how he lived his life, and his death – his death that we are commemorating today – as a political conspirator, far from the official institutions of the church,” Brown concluded.

Buy the book: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ecumenical Quest

Listen to the presentation from Keith Clements
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ecumenical Quest

Listen to the presentation from Victoria J. Barnett
The Ecumenical and Interfaith Landscape in Bonhoeffer's Time

Listen to the presentation from Stephen Brown
Bonhoeffer's Continuing Challenge to the Ecumenical Movement

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