Right up until the day he was executed—today on April 9, seventy-one years ago—Bonhoeffer was an acting representative of Christ suffering with the victims of Hitler’s reign of terror.
At the heart of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology of the cross was his ethics of suffering solidarity. In the article, “The Incarnation and Crucifixion in Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship,” Hamish Walker says that Christ’s “willingness to suffer, to endure and overcome, on man’s behalf, the distance between God and man is the proof of His solidarity with man.” In Christ, God reveals to humanity that He is aware of our suffering, is willing to suffer with us—facing the problem head on—and offers solutions to the world’s pain through his representatives on earth.
In the Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Geffrey B. Kelley expands the theology and cruciform discipleship by which Bonhoeffer lived and died:
God does not offer Christians a rational, logically ordered answer to the why of their afflictions. God suffers with them….God in Christ will not offer glib, evasive explanations for the agonizing problems faced by those whose lives have been menaced by the murderous forces of twentieth-century evil. God chooses to suffer with those who suffer, all the while raising up prophets of hope who are spiritually empowered to free God’s people from their captivity.
As God descends into the world through Christ to form a suffering bond with humanity, Bonhoeffer believed that it was his responsibility as a representative of Christ (and thus every Christian’s responsibility) to suffer with his fellow human beings and oppose every evil that sets itself up against God’s people. Nothing was more forming for Bonhoeffer in this regard then his experiences with the African American struggles in Harlem and the oppression of the Jews in his homeland.
According to Reggie L. Williams in Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture, Bonhoeffer’s “interaction with the…black experience in America and his criticism of the color line in Germany…are important to Bonhoeffer’s deepening understanding of Luther’s theologia crucis….From this basis, Bonhoeffer…began to insist on our solidarity with outcasts, because Christ is hidden in suffering.”
In 1939, Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced a difficult dilemma. The Nazis were ordering all men of his age to register with the military. Bonhoeffer was convinced that this was not God’s will for him, so he decided—with support from his family and friends—to travel to America to avoid the coming war. Once it New York, it had not been over twenty- four hours when Dietrich began to question his decision to flee Germany. It appeared that God was calling him back to Germany to face the Nazis with his fellow Germans. In a letter to Reinhold Niebuhr in July 1939, Bonhoeffer wrote these poignant words (from A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer):
I have had the time to think and to pray about my situation and that of my nation and to have God’s will for me clarified. I have come to the conclusion that I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.
Bonhoeffer only stayed in New York for twenty-six days, and by August 26—two and half months after he landed in America by ship—he was back in Berlin.
This experience marked a dramatic turning point in Bonhoeffer’s life. From here on, he began to actively partake in the resistance against Hitler, which included an effort to rescue fourteen Jews by providing safe passage to Switzerland, officially known as Operation 7. In the article, “Religionless Christianity and Vulnerable Discipleship: The Interfaith Promise of Bonhoeffer’s Theology,” David H. Jensen writes:
Bonhoeffer’s participation in Operation 7…offers…evidence of his solidarity with those most vulnerable under Nazi terror. By the fall of 1941 and continuing until his arrest, Bonhoeffer’s cumulative actions displayed a concern with those victimized most brutally by Nazism and a willingness to put himself at risk on their behalf.
Everything Bonhoeffer believed about the Church (that it should be for others), discipleship (that it is fellowship with the suffering) and ethics (that Christ forms us for ethical action), was materializing in his life. Indeed, for Bonhoeffer, “Life in Christ can be nothing less than solidarity with the world,” Jensen adds.
He understood very well what this meant for him as a Christian in the context of Nazi Germany, and we can learn from him today. Jensen continues:
…in Bonhoeffer’s context, this focus on suffering proved decidedly subversive: Following the Crucified One, Christians were thrown into solidarity with those Jews whom the State was annihilating. The vulnerability of the cross was not for its own sake but for the sake of God’s relationship with the world and humans’ relationships with each other, particularly with those most vulnerable under Nazi tyranny.
Bonhoeffer displays for us a deeply committed follower of Jesus submitted to the will of God; a who man who offered his body as a vessel where Christ could become concretely present in the world through suffering solidarity and passionate love.
On the anniversary of his death, it’s fair to say that Bonhoeffer’s cruciform discipleship was one of the most extraordinary examples of Christ’s love (and Christ-likeness) we have from the 20th century.