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

Ulrich Lincoln – The Perception of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany

The first address at the 2014 Project Bonhoeffer Conference was by Ulrich Lincoln, a Lutheran Pastor working in London. We reproduce here the introduction to his talk and make the full text available as a PDF download.

My name is Ulrich Lincoln, I am currently pastor at the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Church in Forest Hill in Southeast London. The question I was asked to address today is: How is Bonhoeffer seen in Germany? I find this a very challenging question. And I would like to try answering it by giving a sketch of the history of Bonhoeffer’s perception in his (and my) native country. I believe we only understand the way in which people see and interpret him today if we know a bit about the history of this perception and interpretation……………….

Download the full text

Bonhoeffer in Germany by Ulrich Lincoln

JAMES BURN: What does it mean to live for others?

At last year’s Bonhoeffer Day conference, our second speaker was James Burn, a social worker in Birmingham, who spoke movingly of the challenges he has faced in his work with some of the most vulnerable victims of poverty and injustice who have been his clients. He reflected on their pain and distress and his response to their situation in the light of what Bonheoffer had written about discipleship …

….. what disturbs me most is not that these things are happening, but that the existence of all of these things are not being labelled as “wrong” and we’re not hearing voices calling for their end. In fact this situation is being normalised and legitimised in the media and made out to be the right thing, justice or necessity. Bonhoeffer warned his readers and listeners to be very wary indeed of easy catchwords, slogans and the like “which take hold of fools like a spell and blind them, leaving them capable of any evil but not of seeing it is evil”.

I read this quote from Bonhoeffer last week and shuddered:

“The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts. For evil to appear disguised as light, charity or historical necessity or social justice is quite bewildering. For the Christian who bases his life on the bible, it merely confirms the fundamental wickedness of evil.”

So, it’s clear that we are going in a dangerous direction. So, what has Bonhoeffer taught me about what to do?

I guess this cuts to heart of what Bonhoeffer was about. There’s a whole lot I could say but as many of you will know, Bonhoeffer was clear that trying to change things isn’t just a nice optional extra for people who claim to be following the way of Jesus. Bonhoeffer calls us to a following which has at its centre citizenship, that is both actively challenging together the powers of the day, and performing good works on behalf of the voiceless.

This perhaps runs contrary to much teaching in the church, which calls us to focus on saving souls for heaven, and not worrying too much about the world “out there” but an internal, privatised theology.

Let me just remind you of a few central teachings of Bonhoeffer.

One of the things he wrote that inspires and yet scares me is, “the meaning of living in Christ is to exist for others.” To exist for others. Not to try and help them a bit in the spare time around my own interests, but to live a life entirely for others. Bonhoeffer was as clear about the role of the Church:

“The distinctive function of the church is to participate in suffering, to die itself for the world. The only way of life for the Church is to be for the world in identification and service, to the point if necessary of dereliction and abandon. The church is her true self only when she she exists for humanity…she must take her part in the social life of the world, not lording it over men but helping and serving them.”

Love is not “out there” but in the midst of struggles.

For Bonhoeffer, not only must we resist judging the suffering, but we must identify so much with them that we suffer with them. We must put aside our own lives to serve the world without limits. Until we do that, we are not the Church, according to Bonhoeffer. Rather than withdrawing into our church buildings and inviting the poor in occasionally to get tins and coats, Bonhoeffer was clear that the Church should be without walls and function amongst the poor, “living as a servant in the house of another.”

Bonhoeffer talked about a need for “free and responsible action”. By this he meant not just a bit of voluntary action on the side, but a life orientated around the poor and suffering, involving sacrifice and courage. He talked of having a clear sense of duty to oneself and one’s society. The problems I have outlined are our problems as citizens of this time and country, and ones we have a duty to orient our lives around.

Bonhoeffer talked of the solution to the problem of what to do with life coming in making a “determination to lead a responsible life before God”. Just as Jesus existed as a man for others, we have to do the same. “If we want to be Christians, we must act in responsibility and with freedom and by showing a real sympathy for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behaviour.”

In one of his chirpier moments, Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This is the gravity of the call Bonhoeffer thinks Jesus makes of us. To put aside our lives, our desires, our wishes and our hopes, and live for others as Jesus did.

This may be very challenging, but it’s also quite inspiring. In a world of little purpose, Bonhoeffer gives us a very clear purpose indeed, and a chance to live a life literally full of meaning and purpose.

Ulrich Lincoln: “The relevance of Bonhoeffer in today’s Europe”

Ulrich_faceAt the end of his fascinating presentation at our Bonhoeffer Day conference last year in Birmingham in which he described the on-going impact of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and ideas on the German churches and society since his execution in 1945, Pastor Ulrich Lincoln had this to say about some important ways in which Bonhoeffer’s thinking is relevant not just to Germany but to the whole of Europe today:

Does Bonhoeffer have a relevance today? Does he have a future?

When I ask German theology students today about their interest in Bonhoeffer, I do not run into much enthusiasm. Perhaps it is because he has become part of the theological establishment – I don’t know. On the other hand, there is still a flood of books on him being published in Germany. There are churches and streets named after him, there are songs, oratories and even an opera about Bonhoeffer. And he is still frequently quoted within debates about church and state and ethics and so on. It is not a bad career for a pastor, I guess. Also in the UK I meet a lot of people who show a great interest in the man and his work.

There have been times when Bonhoeffer was fashionable, and others when he was not discovered yet, or seemed outdated already. But apart from the fluctuation of theological fashions and attention spans, I believe there are at least three points which shed light on his relevance for modern Germany. And of course these three points are quite subjective, they mirror basically my very own questions. I will try to relate all of these three aspects to the notion of discipleship:

 Discipleship as ethical responsibility:

Bonhoeffer develops a new concept of responsibility. It has to with the ability to respond appropriately and ethically to a situation. The German churches are always in danger of becoming too self-centered, of being too much occupied with themselves and their survival. If, however, the Christian church is always a church for the world and for the other person, as Bonhoeffer so famously stated, she has to practice and exercise this kind of responsibility which looks beyond itself. I believe that, as Europe is currently facing a new political struggle about refugees, exiles, and immigration, the churches need to listen closer to what Bonhoeffer had to say about responsibility – and act accordingly. Bonhoeffer’s contribution to a theological understanding of human rights seems to me quite important. Within the twentieth century theology he was one of the first to address the theme of human rights, and he still has a lot to say about that.

Discipleship as a Christian listening to their Jewish heritage:

I believe that we Germans still have to come to terms with the Holocaust. Not because there has not been an intense discussion and education about that story. No, we did have the discussion and the education and all of that and we are still having it. But we certainly have not exhausted the story yet, neither the story of the murderers nor the story of the victims. And that also applies to theology. Thirty years ago Theology after Auschwitz was an exciting project, but for the current generation of students it seems to be a chapter from the past. Bonhoeffer’s writing speaks from inside the situation of the holocaust, almost. As you know, he himself from the very beginning on saw very clearly that the church had to stand with the Jewish citizens against their persecutors. He was able to apply his theological thinking to the political and moral situation of his time, and he was one of the very few Christian thinkers who did that. I believe reading Bonhoeffer helps in a conversation with Jewish thinking, a conversation which is not about historical guilt, but from a Christian perspective about the question of self-understanding: Christianity needs to listen to the Jewish story in order to understand its own existence in the footsteps of Israel, God’s chosen people.

Discipleship as an existential theology:

One of the most interesting concepts in Bonhoeffer for me is the notion of reality, and of Christ’s reality within the world. The concept of reality is one of the hinges on which he hangs, or builds, his Ethics. He writes: “In Jesus Christ the reality of God entered into the reality of this world” (Ethics (1965), 194). But reality also means, very concretely, Bonhoeffer’s own existence and the circumstances of his existence: I mentioned his curiosity, his going beyond borders of culture, religion and milieu. Bonhoeffer was a person who was attracted by that strange reality on the other side of his personal world. That is what I would call his “Wirklichkeitsnähe“, his closeness to reality, his constant search for Christ’s reality in other corners and parts of the actual world. Therein lies a particular way of relating to the world. The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas talks about “sensitivity” and “vulnerability“ as a way of relating to the world, and in particular to the other human being. [Levinas, one of the major philosophers of the twentieth century, was born in the same year as Bonhoeffer and they share a lot of common experiences and thinking].

And that brings me back to the beginning of my talk. That is what I probably felt and sensed when I read Bonhoeffer’s letters for the first time, back then in the early 1980s: that sensitive closeness to the reality of human existence, that feeling for the essential vulnerability of the other person. I am sure that also in the future readers in Germany will always react to that closeness.