Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Good Neighbor
When our family moved to Berlin, Germany in July 2016 for my husband’s (David Fabrycky ’00) next diplomatic assignment at the U.S. Embassy, we found evidence of Dietrich Bonhoeffer—the German theologian, pastor, and anti-Nazi resistance member—everywhere. Even his last home in Berlin was not far from our new house. Simply put, we had moved into his neighborhood.
Our family visited the Bonhoeffer-Haus later that fall. Dietrich’s parents built it when his father retired in 1935, but the Bonhoeffer family enjoyed little retiring there as the Nazi grip tightened on daily life. The Bonhoeffers’ home was always one of culture, curiosity, and courage, but it also became a place of conspiracy. Dietrich was arrested in this house in April 1943, his upper-floor bedroom the last place he stood as a free man.
Put to death by the Nazis at the age of 39 in April 1945 for conspiring against Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and writings still inspire and challenge scholars, general readers, and Hausfrauen like me. From 2017-19, I served as a volunteer guide at the Bonhoeffer-Haus, opening its doors to visitors from around the world, telling Dietrich’s story, and inviting reflection on the questions he asked in life and answered both in his life and death.
Even with historical and cultural distance, many Wheaton College alumni and faculty continue to find Bonhoeffer a neighbor worth listening to, a friend to think with and be challenged by. They share his influence on them in a number of new and forthcoming books.
One is Wheaton’s Professor of Urban Studies Dr. Noah Toly ’99, whom I welcomed to the Bonhoeffer-Haus for a 2018 visit with his eldest son. After graduating from Wheaton, Toly worked with a community development organization in Wilmington, Delaware, where he witnessed firsthand how inseparable environmental policies were from social justice concerns. As part of his 2006 job interview at Wheaton, Toly delivered a lecture on that subject, and asserted a sweeping policy idea. After a satisfying discussion, he took one last question that stumped him: Why that policy in light of so many other good ones? That ethical dilemma haunted Toly for years, even though he got the position.
The question’s tight knot began to loosen when Toly, now as a faculty member, took a course on Bonhoeffer taught by Wheaton's Gunther H. Knoedler Professor of Theology Dr. Daniel Treier. “We read Bonhoeffer’s Ethics,” Toly said, “and I was struck by Bonhoeffer’s insistence that ‘the definitive context for responsible action’ is one in which ‘right collides with right,’ a reference to the Greek poet Aeschylus.” Toly knew that collision of goods well; it was central to his research on environmental policy and global governance. But he now saw how facing that tragic reality of competing goods—one that many try to avoid with “nihilism, moral skepticism, and paralysis”—was critical to responsible Christian living. “Our everyday lives are full of situations in which right collides with right,” said Toly.
Bonhoeffer’s insistence that Christ freed us from self-justification helped Toly see that Christ also freed us to be responsible, to wrestle with complex policy challenges as thoughtfully, humbly, and prayerfully as we can. Renewed in that hope, Toly returned to that hard, haunting question, answering it in his most recent book, The Gardener’s Dirty Hands: Global Environmental Politics and Christian Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2019). With Bonhoeffer as his muse, Toly said, “We need to respond [to environmental ethical challenges] in ways that bear the costs so that others might benefit.”
While scholars like Toly find ballast in Bonhoeffer’s thought, more general readers of Bonhoeffer know his adventurous life story thanks to a growing number of popular and academic English-language biographies and the 17-volume Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English (Fortress). Bonhoeffer’s more devotional writings, like The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, are considered classics. Many Wheaton students who read Bonhoeffer as undergraduates find that his work grows with them.
That such a wide range of people find nourishment in Bonhoeffer demonstrates just how rare a figure he is, said Carolyn and Fred McManis Professor of Christian Thought Dr. Timothy Larsen ’89, M.A. ’90. “Our devotional writers are rarely leading scholars and thinkers now; our theologians are rarely brave actors in great world dramas.”
Fellow theology professor Dr. Keith Johnson agreed, “Bonhoeffer is one of the few modern thinkers whose writings span the divide between popular-level devotional literature and the highest levels of academic theology. He helps those in both groups grow in new ways.”
Together, Larsen and Johnson co-edited Bonhoeffer, Christ, and Culture (IVP Academic, 2013), with papers from leading scholars and participants in the 2012 Wheaton Theology Conference on Bonhoeffer.
Living in the midst of complex moral and political failures in both society and the church, Bonhoeffer “saw what others didn’t see as quickly or as clearly,” said Dr. Daniel Treier. “Bonhoeffer held together a radical commitment to Christ’s lordship over all aspects of reality and the elements of [the two kingdoms doctrine] that could keep the church from being too perfectionistic or too power-hungry about transforming society here and now.”
Bonhoeffer’s commitments stimulate fresh thinking about Christian discipleship and ethical responsibility in a variety of contexts, including places like Ethiopia, which Dr. Andrew DeCort ’05 now calls home.
DeCort knew how Bonhoeffer’s story ended. But after spending an entire year reading every surviving published word of the theologian, he still wept when he read Bonhoeffer’s last words. “It felt like one of my dearest friends had just been murdered,” DeCort said.
Bonhoeffer scholars have lauded DeCort’s Bonhoeffer’s New Beginnings: Ethics after Devastation (Lexington/Fortress Academic, 2018) as a groundbreaking book in the crowded field of Bonhoeffer scholarship. A rising academic and practitioner, DeCort considers the tough question: “How can we start over after we have lost our way or been devastated?”
DeCort first learned about Bonhoeffer in his high school youth group and was captivated by the martyr’s well-known words, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” He began to read Bonhoeffer and continued doing so during his undergraduate days at Wheaton. Between his junior and senior years, DeCort traveled to Ethiopia and returned to the country soon after graduating. Helping plant a new church in Addis Ababa in 2005, DeCort was writing a discipleship curriculum when deadly political turmoil broke out, with violence and mass arrests affecting his congregants and their fellow citizens. In that difficult context he wrestled with what it meant to obey Christ’s command to love one’s neighbor.
DeCort met his wife, Lily, in Ethiopia, and the couple moved to the United States so he could begin doctoral studies in theological ethics at the University of Chicago. A series of personal devastations—some serious family crises and the passing of his beloved adviser, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Eyob, a young man he met suffering on the streets of Addis—left him reeling. DeCort clung to Bonhoeffer’s principle that new beginnings emerge out of apparent endings. Those difficult years proved to be the seedbed for his book.
DeCort also returned to Wheaton, bringing his friend Bonhoeffer with him. He developed a seminar and study abroad program for Wheaton students called “Authority, Action, Ethics: Ethiopia,” which he led from 2014 to 2016. Each day, the group recited together Bonhoeffer’s words: “The other person… is God’s claim on us; indeed, it is the holy God in person whom we encounter.”
Challenged by Bonhoeffer’s insight that following Christ means “being human for others,” Andrew and Lily returned to Addis in 2016, where Andrew began teaching at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology. He also founded the Institute for Christianity and the Common Good with the mission of sharing presence, strengthening theological education, and promoting neighbor-love within Ethiopia and beyond. And he has recently released an eight-hour course, available online, called Neighbor-Love: A Revolutionary Idea that Could Save Our World.
In 2016, protests erupted in Ethiopia with calls for political and social reforms and an end to human rights abuses. Attempting to quell the protests with a heavy hand, the government also declared a nationwide state of emergency. With turmoil raging outside, DeCort delivered a public lecture on Bonhoeffer. “Telling Bonhoeffer’s story and discussing his ethics of making a new beginning after devastation in this context was extremely moving, especially in light of the Ethiopian churches’ deafening silence in the face of mass political injustice and violence.” DeCort wants to encourage and equip “Ethiopian Bonhoeffers.”
The DeCorts visited the Bonhoeffer-Haus in the summer of 2018. (Alas, I did not serve as their guide.) Lily said after their visit that “it felt like visiting the house of a family member,” their lives having been so informed by his.
Karen Wright Marsh ’83 and her husband, Charles, share that deep friendship with Bonhoeffer too. Growing up in the church, Karen knew of Bonhoeffer as a hero and martyr of the faith. After graduating from Wheaton, she married Charles Marsh, who focused on Bonhoeffer in his graduate studies in philosophical theology. (Charles Marsh has since published several books about Bonhoeffer, including the critically acclaimed biography Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer [Vintage, 2014].)
A formative post-graduate fellowship allowed the Marshes to live and study in Zurich, Switzerland. There, as her command of German strengthened, Karen Marsh read more of Bonhoeffer for herself. She was riveted by his insights about community and his profound, even costly commitment to others in relationship.
After they returned to the United States, Charles took a position at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland, and together, in 1990, they founded Theological Horizons, a nonprofit ministry committed to “vibrant theological scholarship and authentic Christian community,” values that Bonhoeffer so treasured. In 2000, they transposed this ministry to Charlottesville, Virginia, and Karen became its executive director.
Their own “Bonhoeffer House” in Charlottesville seemed to find them. “A friend called us to say he had found a perfect place for us to live out our vision. With its red tile roof and stucco façade, the house even resembles the Bonhoeffers’ house in Berlin,” Karen Marsh said. Naming it after the German theologian, they opened their home as a place to gather neighbors from their university community, offering good food and drink alongside thoughtful intellectual and spiritual conversation.
“The house’s name means I’m often called Mrs. Bonhoeffer by mistake,” Marsh said, chuckling. “But it also allows us to talk about Dietrich’s life and about living in this world, and loving our neighbors, even with all our manifold differences.”
Every Friday, for years, Marsh has offered lunch and stories of “vintage saints” to the often 60 to 70 people who come—usually university students from a variety of faith backgrounds. Marsh introduces a Christian figure, and the group reads and discusses related primary texts. These lunchtime stories served as the foundation of her award-winning book, Vintage Saints and Sinners (IVP, 2017). In it, Marsh offers evocative human sketches of 25 Christians in history—Dietrich Bonhoeffer among them.
“Dietrich was a hero, no doubt,” said Marsh. “But it’s his love of life that I find so compelling. He loved bringing people together. He loved adventure and traveled widely—from Rome to Libya, from New York City to Mexico, all through the American South—and always in a suit! He loved good food, music, art, and poetry. He even cared about his wardrobe! And in prison, he longed for the people he loved and for glimpses of the sky and trees.”
“The older I get, the more I live in this world, the more I see and savor how much Bonhoeffer loved this world and life in it, which makes his sacrifices for it even more astounding,” Marsh said. “He is a true Christian brother and a truly human one too. If anything, that’s what we need more of—people who love this world enough to defend it.”
The Toly family joins in that loving defense at dinner, reading a portion of Bonhoeffer’s Prayerbook of the Bible aloud, followed by a psalm. The DeCorts share presence and practice neighbor-love in Ethiopia. Karen Marsh prepares another Vintage Lunch. And though I have now surrendered my keys to the Bonhoeffer-Haus, I share what I learned there about being a Christian, a citizen, and a neighbor in my book, Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus (Fortress, forthcoming). Around the world, the legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and faith lives on.