A Faith that Looks Forward

In his Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer has much to say about what those who follow Jesus are called to be and to do. His exposition of the Sermon on the Mount and what discipleship means has much to tell us about how we must live our lives today, recognising the worth of every human being – and indeed of all creation.

At a time of violence, upheaval and insecurity not unlike our own, Bonhoeffer dedicated himself to serving those in greatest need and facing the direst threats. His response involved enormous risks and difficult choices – but he is surely an example to all of us of what is involved in building a world of justice and peace, health and harmony. He never gave up on that vision and commitment despite imprisonment and execution. His was a faith that always looked forward

For Bonhoeffer, to follow Jesus means caring for others and for all creation, working with all who might share some of his vision of a better world, a human society caring for all and an environment providing for the needs of everyone.

Our calling today is surely to live out our faith – looking forward – as he did.


This is a synopsis of the keynote address given by Professor Esther Reed [University of Exeter] at our “Faith and Frontiers” Conference on 05 November 2016.

It is important to recall, as Bonhoeffer undoubtedly did, that Jesus and his family crossed borders to seek refuge in Egypt from Herod’s massacre of the innocents. Since the time of the Roman Empire, the establishment of ‘nation-states’ has made border-crossing a much more complex and sensitive issue for all who seek refuge from persecution in our own day. On the one hand, there was the case for the authority of the state to govern – and on the other, the right of every human being to justice, peace and freedom to seek refuge abroad when faced with persecution and peril in the land of their birth.

 interwoven images of Europe refugees and a celtic crossFrom Augustine in the fifth century onwards, christians have struggled to reconcile the authority of the state with the rights of those fleeing persecution to seek and obtain sanctuary. That debate was there for Bonhoeffer when the Confessing Church faced the Jewish Question in Germany in the 1930s. However Bonhoeffer concluded that the church’s freedom in such matters could not be absolute.  As he put it, writing on The Jewish Question:

‘The church cannot primarily take direct political action, since it does not presume to know how things should go historically. Even on the Jewish question today, the church cannot contradict the state directly and demand that it take any particular course of action’

So what should be our approach to the vexed question of frontiers today?

If some, like the philosopher Agamben, advocate a radically anarchical ‘no borders’ approach, yet others opt for the ‘difficult middle way’ between completely free movement and handing absolute freedom to governments to keep order and control. Such a middle way was adopted in the UN’s International Convention on Human Rights, signed in 1951, after a decade or more when millions trudged across Europe seeking asylum, so as to keep borders open to allow refugees to flee war and violence on the grounds that they are suffering human beings. Despite many questions for today of how such an agreement is to be monitored and managed – and underlying them, who should now be seen as refugees, it remains about as strong a working agreement as can be negotiated and broadly supported.

It was here that Bonhoeffer argued that the church must be responsible for holding the state to account where such basic human rights issues were concerned – and he strove to exercise that responsibility in Germany before and during WW2. However today an approach is needed that is local, international and transnational. In our modern world the church must be ready to carry out its responsibility on a global as well as local scale. Its  message and mission must transcend religious and cultural differences, speaking out fearlessly for justice and peace, welcoming the persecuted strangers who seek food and shelter from conflict and famine – and sharing with them what it can to meet their needs.

In so doing, Christians proclaim the Lordship of Christ, He who was once Himself a refugee

Faith and Frontiers – Our 2016 Conference

This is the Press release for our upcoming conference:-

FAITH AND FRONTIERS is the very topical title of this year’s meeting of friends and supporters of Project Bonhoeffer, at Coventry Cathedral’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation on Saturday 5th November. 

 “ Our conference is being held at a time when, as in Bonhoeffer’s day, it is imperative to bring together in a common purpose all people of goodwill. Here in the UK and throughout Europe, we must stand up for the human rights of the innocent victims of persecution, injustice, war and violence who are today’s asylum-seekers, helping to provide the shelter and support many thousands of them so desperately need until they can return to their homes.”

Geoff Driver of Project Bonhoeffer.

The Coventry conference will have two keynote speakers – both of them influenced by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology and ethics:  Professor Esther Reed of the University of Exeter and Ben Bano, founder of the UK-based refugee welfare organisation Seeking Shelter.

Professor Reed is one of Britain’s leading theologians and her interests include human rights, international law and peace ethics in an ‘age of risk’. As more European states lock out thousands of refugees, turning a blind eye towards their needs, who will care for them – where and how?

Ben Bano, a frequent visitor to camps in Calais and elsewhere in France, will speak about some of the asylum-seekers he has met there, the care and understanding they need after their traumatic experience – and the help and support those who come here to the UK will need to face the social and political pressures involved.

“Becoming Simple and Wise; Moral Discernment in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Vision of Christian Ethics” by Joshua A Kaiser – a review

The best way to read “becoming Simple and Wise”, a scholarly book of subtly developed distinctions based on a doctoral thesis, is to take it personally.

Kaiser proposes that in his life and works Dietrich Bonhoeffer is trying to understand how can I as  a Christian understand God’s will for me. It can’t be as simple as letting the pages of the Bible fall open on a passage at random and then take it literally. Karl Barth, with whom all Bonhoeffer’s work is in an intense critical dialogue suggested that the key to a Christian life was to hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, holding scripture and our times in strategic relation. Essentially we are invited to respond not to an ‘idea” but to a personal ‘call” from God.

The question is how do we recognise and interpret and properly respond to that call. Bonhoeffer insists that we can not just rely on the role of reason or conscience. As Christians we have to keep close to the “Word of God”  located in the Scriptures not least in the Gospels and the Sermon on the Mount . He could not escape from the pressure of his own context of an emerging Nazi Germany that had stepped beyond  “general moral principles’ and rationality. In other words we are expected to read the Bible but not to collect ideas or information.  The central point is one of the need to “stop discussing and start obeying” the imperatives of the Sermon of the Mount.

Kaiser’s detailed analysis of what ‘discernment’ is  and how it could work moves into a clear recognition of the need to give time to practice a time of daily meditation, prayer and silent reflection. That need to ‘press the pause button’ in our hectic and over stressed world helps us to learn not to make “every day events and routines into ethical crises” but to get on with ‘doing’. Bonhoeffer’s deep challenge is to  work at changing our ‘mindsets”  The heart of this book is “the place of spiritual exercise” from which we all can learn, bearing in mind that Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted that “Jesus calls his disciples not only when they directly confess his name but also when they suffer for a just cause” and in his “Ethics” this blessing is extended to those who are not Christian.

Kaiser’s book takes us through the complex theology of discernment but to a place of practical daily reflection and consequent action in the context of our own world. It could be a personal hand book.