Recently, as I was preparing to speak on “cheap grace” in light of Matthew’s Parable of the Wedding Feast (22:1-14), I turned to an old friend for inspiration, the German Lutheran theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author of The Cost of Discipleship and Letters and Papers from Prison.
In researching Bonhoeffer, who was imprisoned and hanged for his participation in a plot to overthrow Adolf Hitler, I learned something new about this courageous Christian: Bonhoeffer was an ecumenist. Dr. Keith Clements, former general secretary of the Conference of European Churches, writes in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Critical Prophet of the Ecumenical Movement (2015):
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 believed in the concept of the Church as “Christ existing as community.” The Church is a body of persons gathered under the word of Christ. As Catholics, we would add, gathered under the word of Christ and the sacrament of his transforming presence. Word and communion in the body and blood of Christ bring about the deep union of all who are in Christ. Moreover, sacramental communion in the body and blood of Christ gradually changes us, individually and as Church, into his body.
Bonhoeffer’s ecumenical vision was global, not denominational; it focused on the role of the Church in modern secular society. If anything, this emphasis is needed even more today, given the growth of secularism and its enshrinement in contemporary political thought. Bonhoeffer believed that the Church is constituted to proclaim the Gospel, to teach truth, and to oppose all forms of evil and injustice.
The Confessing Church was formed in the 1930s when approximately 3,000 Protestant pastors broke off from the main religious bodies in Germany, Lutheran and Catholic, in protest of their acquiescence in the rise of National Socialism and its program of Aryan domination, antisemitism, and human rights violations. Bonhoeffer was a leading witness to the fact that people of conscience and moral courage are found everywhere. He is also a window into the institutional dynamics of church and state that both facilitated and hindered Hitler.
Bonhoeffer teaches us that we must think and act boldly, as God gives us the grace to do. The demands of the Gospel and the needs of the world today are simply too great for us to do anything less; this was an important insight of Vatican II. We who profess one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and gathered under the word of Christ and the Lord’s table must have the global vision of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For, as the Lord said, “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).
Anthony Schueller, SSS