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A Spoke in the Wheel: A Conference Report on the Public Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
In 2012 at Sigtuna, Sweden, a conference on 'the political' in the theology of Bonhoeffer was held. Here is a report. Bonhoeffer helped an effort to overthrow Hitler.
By Keith Clements
Editor's Note: The following conference report is included at this website in order to help identify our primary focus here, political acts based on faith commitments within theological traditions. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was involved in an active plot to kill Adolf Hitler during the second world war. He had come to believe that the Christian must help place "a spoke in the wheel" of the state machinery if that state had come to cause such immense evil and suffering in the world. This was in opposition to those "German Christians" who believed Hitler was promoting traditional cultural values and preserving the German nation. As the religious right in the United States today, these "German Christians" placed their faith in their race and nationality rather than the God revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer spoke early and strongly against Hitler's attack on Jewish people. Later he was imprisoned and hanged by the Nazis.
Bonhoeffer enjoys a broad following of scholars around the world who gathered in Sweden in 2012. Below is a report of that conference. The report was found at the website of the Contemporary Church History Quarterly, an outstanding publication offering many articles of interest for anyone concerned with public theology. Victoria J. Barnett has an interesting article on recent books on Bonhoeffer titled Interpreting Bonhoeffer - Post Bethge.
Keith Clements is a Baptist minister and Coordinating Secretary for International Affairs, Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland. His teaching and research is mainly in modern theology and church history. Dr. Clements was general secretary of the Conference of European Churches from 1997-2005 and editor of Bonhoeffer Works Volume 13: London, 1933-1935.
Conference Report: XI International Bonhoeffer Congress, Sigtuna, Sweden, June 27-July 1, 2012
By Keith Clements
Sigtuna, Sweden, was the venue for the recent XI International Bonhoeffer Congress. The 140 participants came not only from Europe and North America but from as far afield as Brazil, South Africa, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, drawn by the overall theme A Spoke in the Wheel: Reconsidering the Political in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Sigtuna, the small, picturesque lakeside town situated between Sweden’s capital Stockholm and its most historic cathedral city Uppsala, lays claim to having the country’s oldest surviving street, Stora Gatan. For the Congress participants however one house in Stora Gatan was invested with particular historic interest, for it was there that late one night in May 1942 Dietrich Bonhoeffer had his clandestine meeting with his English ecumenical friend Bishop George Bell, giving him the fullest possible details of the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler. These details Bell was to pass to the British foreign office in the hope of securing allied support for a coup and a new, non-Nazi German government. It was perhaps the most significant, daring and fateful point in Bonhoeffer’s political involvement. The house in Stora Gatan (today it is the local tourist office) became a point of pilgrimage for many at the Congress, while the recalling of that 1942 meeting provided a firm point of contact with historical and political reality for the Congress discussions themselves.
No less appropriately, the Congress was housed in the Sigtuna Stiftelsen (Foundation), established in 1917 and one of Sweden’s most creative and influential church-related institutes facilitating dialogue on social and cultural issues. On the opening evening two of our Swedish hosts—Congress President Bishop Dr Martin Lind and Prof. Dr Sven-Erik Brodd—cogently but carefully expounded the significance of the Swedish Lutheran scene and its relation to Bonhoeffer’s German context for a proper understanding of the reception of Bonhoeffer in Sweden—a reception which in fact began in 1936 when Bonhoeffer brought his Finkenwalde class of students on a short visit to the country. The Congress was equally well served by the other plenary lecturers whose presentations followed by open discussion occupied the next three mornings: Bishop Prof. Dr Wolfgang Huber (Berlin) on ‘The Theological Profile of Bonhoeffer’s Political Resistance’; Prof. Dr Jean Bethke Elshtain (Chicago) on ‘The Profile of Bonhoeffer’s Political Resistance from the Perspective of Political Science’; Prof. Dr Wolf Krötke (Berlin) on ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Understanding of the State’; Dr Victoria J. Barnett (Washington D.C.) on ‘‘Church, State and Civil Society”; and Prof. Dr Nico Koopman (Stellenbosch, South Africa) on ‘How Do We Live Responsibly?’ Rarely can Bonhoeffer’s thought and actions have been subjected to such scrutiny and interpretation from so varied angles in three short days. Warnings were issued, for example by Wolfgang Huber, against seeing Bonhoeffer as more than a marginal figure in the political resistance as far as his personal activity was concerned. As the other presenters also argued, his true significance lies rather in his underlying perception of responsibility in relation to state and society, and his daring to inhabit the misty borderland between ecclesial and individual responsibility. Another reiterated concern was Bonhoeffer’s relation to democracy: was he, or would he have become, a democrat such as we assume now to be the norm in westernised society? Again, warnings were heard against too easy answers, either those of dismissing him as a conservative traditionalist and therefore of little contemporary relevance, or of assuming that his anti-totalitarianism equally betokens an ease with what passes for liberal democracy (but may in truth be anything but liberal or democratic) in western society today. The real questions are about how Bonhoeffer theologically interpreted his situation then, and how we might learn from him how we might no less critically and theologically evaluate our situations now. Nico Koopman aptly summarized how, in the still-changing context of post-apartheid South Africa, Bonhoeffer is persistently relevant:
Bonhoeffer’s theology helps South Africans in our quest for responsible living. He offers helpful descriptions of responsible living as a life that responds faithfully to the concrete call of God in Jesus Christ, which also implies responding faithfully to human beings of our generation, as well as those of past and future generations. He equips us with a theological rationale and motivation, as well as with thicker theological descriptions of human dignity and human rights. He provides essential tools for formulating policies that are cautions about wrong compromises, and that advance the fulfilment of human dignity and human rights. He shows the way to a threefold action of firstly prayer, which includes spiritual and moral formation, secondly concrete obedience, and lastly active hoping and waiting upon God.
The issues raised in plenary, with other questions, were examined further in no fewer than 36 shorter afternoon seminars on a fascinating range of subjects which presented participants with beguiling problems of choice: topics ranging from ‘Religion, Race and Resistance’ to ‘The Form of Christ and Christian Formation’; from ‘The Politics of Life Together’ to ‘The parish as a body of otherness’; from ‘Theology as Politics versus “Political Theology”’ to ‘Bonhoeffer and Human Rights.’ Andreas Pangritz (Bonn) looked yet again at the oft-quoted phrase ‘to fall within the spokes of the wheel,’ alluded to in the Congress title itself and found in Bonhoeffer’s 1933 essay ‘The Church and the Jewish Question.’ It seems we Anglophones are still wilfully misreading this phrase! But as well as established academics taking a fresh look at perennial points of interest and debate, these seminars also allowed many younger scholars to share their work-in-progress on quite new themes and perspectives, and drawing upon more recent approaches in social and political science, gender studies and psychology. The plenary papers and much of the seminar material will, it is hoped, be published in due course.
Though intensive, in true Bonhoefferian style the Congress was not ‘all work and no play.’ An octet of voices from the Uppsala University Choir gave an utterly charming evening concert of traditional Swedish songs, to rapturous and prolonged applause (have you ever seen young people sing so joyfully with their whole faces?). A group performed the play ‘Dem Rad in die Speichen fallen’, by Galileo Galilei and der Narr. The layout of the Foundation with its informal lounges and outdoor ‘cloister’ made for easy communality during coffee breaks and late evening conviviality around the bar, while in the long Scandinavian summer daylight Sigtuna at large, with its lakeside and woodland walks, lent itself to contemplation whether alone or with others. It is rumoured that theological conversations even took place between early-morning joggers. Then of course mealtimes served not only splendid meals, such as Bonhoeffer himself would have relished, but also the opportunities to talk or argue with friends old and new. To all this was added morning worship in the chapel, calm and meditative, and uplifted by the inspiring organ-playing of Gottfried Brezger (Berlin). Thanks are due to John Matthews, Hans Buurmeester, Michael Lukens and Gottfried Brezger for arranging these services. Towards the end of the Congress, news from the different language and national sections of the International Bonhoeffer Society was shared.
Prof. Dr. Christiane Tietz (Mainz) perceptively and succinctly surveyed the ‘Harvest’ of the Congress under five main headings: awareness of the need for care in retrospective reading of Bonhoeffer in his own historical context as distinct from ours; a new perception of the political character of Bonhoeffer’s whole theology; a realization that a contextually committed theology will always have political implications; new insights into Bonhoeffer’s political actions which were not simply confined to his role in the conspiracy but involved a novel questioning of the state and the nature of its authority; and a fresh encounter with the foundational role of spirituality in Bonhoeffer’s political engagement, which enabled him to remain faithful even in the most extreme circumstances. These insights, Tietz stated, map a future for the new generation of Bonhoeffer scholars but are not merely of historical interest: they are inspirational for our own contemporary responsibilities in society.
The Congress certainly demonstrated that Bonhoeffer studies not only have a past but a future, as evidenced by the strong presence and vital contributions of so many younger participants—not to mention the fact that for reasons of time and space the organizers had had to decline as many proposals for seminar topics as they accepted. At the final chapel worship, one of the leading veterans of the Bonhoeffer Society, John de Gruchy (South Africa), gave a poignant meditation on the theme ‘Nothing is Lost,’ referring to the text Ephesians 1:10 ‘. . . as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ,’ taken up by Irenaeus in his doctrine of recapitulation and in turn by Bonhoeffer in his prison reflection on the line in the hymn ‘I will restore it all.’ A group that has existed as long as the Bonhoeffer Society, said de Gruchy, should have no fears that the work of its pioneers will lose its significance, any more than a loss in our personal lives is irredeemable. In this spirit also, a card with signed greetings was sent by the Congress to Renate Bethge who is no longer able to attend meetings in the way she, and of course Eberhard, did to the immense profit of so many of us.
At the Congress banquet on the final (Saturday) evening several distinguished guests from church and cultural life in Sweden were welcomed, and Bishop Martin Lind as President expressed his deep satisfaction with all that had taken place. John Matthews from the English-Speaking section spoke of the Sigtuna event providing a four-fold experience for us all: inter-national, inter-generational, inter-disciplinary and inter-personal and thus a real taste of Gemeinsames Leben. Finally, next morning we made our way to Uppsala for High Mass in the impressive Cathedral, at which Bishop Lind preached on authentic witness to Christ as always involving the overcoming of separation—a hopeful note on which to take leave of one another to go our ‘separate’ ways across the world.
Heartfelt thanks, then, to our hosts in Sigtuna and the Congress organizers especially Bishop Lind, Kirsten Busch Nielsen, Anders Jonåker, John Matthews, Karina Juhl Kande, Jurjen Wiersma, Hans Buurmeester, Martin Hüneker and Stephen Plant. Much appreciated also was the work of the German-English interpreters Elaine Griffiths, Renate Sbeghen and Ursula Ziel.
And what of a future Congress? Sigtuna has set a dauntingly high standard in terms alike of content, organization and venue, but a provisional committee is already investigating possibilities for 2016. This particular wheel will keep turning!
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