Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s complex legacy is still lighting our way, webinar finds

At a 23 September webinar commemorating 90 years since the entry of Dietrich Bonhoeffer into the ecumenical movement and its witness for peace, speakers reflected on how Bonhoeffer’s wisdom has withstood the test of time and still illuminates the ecumenical movement today.

Sara Gehlin, senior lecturer in Religious Studies and Theology, Eastern Christian Studies, and Human Rights at the University College Stockholm, moderated the discussion, expressing appreciation for both young and senior scholars sharing their knowledge and insights on historical and contemporary matters.

“Working as a scholar of ecumenical peace theology, my research has frequently brought me into encounters with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and ecumenical engagements,” she said.

A German Lutheran theologian born in 1906, Bonhoeffer was executed in 1945 for his opposition to Hitler; his life and writings have continued to inspire new generations of theologians.

In September 1931, Bonhoeffer was appointed a youth secretary of the World Alliance for International Friendship Through the Churches, a forerunner of the World Council of Churches.

As a young man in the 1920s, Bonhoeffer was briefly involved with nationalist groups, said panellist Victoria J. Barnett, the general editor of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s works in English, but his outlook was fundamentally changed by a year in New York in 1930 and his subsequent involvement in the ecumenical movement.

These were “crucial experiences” in which Bonhoeffer gained important allies and developed a new understanding of his country and his church, said Barnett.

Victoria Turner, a PhD candidate in World Christianity at Edinburgh University, considered parallels and lessons from Dietrich Bonhoeffer for young theologians today. Turner discussed how Bonhoeffer worked to ensure young people’s equality of belonging in the ecumenical movement.

“For Bonhoeffer, the reason for youth ministry is to enable and help young people enter the larger church community, not to carve out a separate space or institution,” she said, adding that Bonhoeffer believed that young people should be fully part of the church community at all levels, local and international.”

Samuel E. Murillo Torres, a minister with the Methodist Church of Mexico, and currently a PhD candidate in Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen Divinity School, spoke about what we can learn from the young Bonhoeffer about confronting injustice and institutionalized systemic violence today.

Confronting injustice was important to Bonhoeffer, said Torres, adding, “It was also important for him to ask under which authority was the church speaking.”

Ultimately, Torres said, Bonhoeffer believed “the word of the church is the word of the present Christ.” Then Torres examined this theology in the context of forced disappearances and violence in Mexico.

Bonhoeffer’s “commitment to justice and peace was an expression of his core emphasis on faith and discipleship,” said Nadine Hamilton, senior lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of Erlangen, Germany. “He himself consciously took the step of solidarity with all those who suffered under the terrible regime of the National Socialists.”

Hassan Musa, a Bonhoeffer scholar in Nigeria who serves at ECWA Theological Seminary Kagoro, discussed Bonhoeffer’s theology of responsible action and the notion of “otherness” in African contexts today. “The problem of otherness in African contexts has largely been seriously manifested along several lines of social, political and religious interests,” he said. “I wish to construct my reflections on Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the call for peace and order among the churches as a positive Christian response to the times of crisis.”

Panellist Keith Clements, one of the contributors to the discussion and author of several works on Bonhoeffer, expressed appreciation for the breadth of speakers.

“This webinar recalled how, in 1931, the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer at a conference in Cambridge, England, plunged himself into the ecumenical enterprise in order to awaken the churches to their true calling: to be one church knowing no national boundaries, and in the name of Jesus Christ, to declare against, racism, injustice and war,” said Clements, who is also former general secretary of the Conference of European Churches. “At the same time, we heard from younger theologians of today who are inspired by Bonhoeffer to continue his witness in contemporary contexts of injustice.”

The webinar was first in a series that is planned on Bonhoeffer.

“I look forward to the next two webinars when we shall consider Bonhoeffer’s continuing influence on ecumenical life over the years, and hear from theologians who are now drawing from his theology to address issues such as interfaith relations and climate change,” said Clements.

Keith Clements is author of the book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ecumenical Quest (WCC Publications, 2015), available as a free download for a limited period.

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