The month of June marks many things in American life. Among them are LGBTQIA+ Pride, Immigrant Heritage, and Gun Violence Awareness. At TDBI, we are always searching for and discovering nexuses between the moral and ethical issues we address in our work and the life, times, and interests of our namesake, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Gun violence, immigrant heritage, and sexual identity all meet this criteria.
Bonhoeffer was a church leader who was committed to saving as many lives as possible during an unprecedented period of ferocious violence, much of it perpetrated by killers using firearms. He resolutely preached a theology and philosophy focused on the other, but it’s the category of sexual identity that is less evidenced at first glance. After all, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is known for being a single man, and his love life is not recorded until his proposal to Maria von Wedemeyer in 1943, when she was 18 and he was 36. Because of subsequent imprisonment, where he remained until his death, Dietrich and Maria had little private contact.
Many students of Bonhoeffer’s life have quietly raised questions about his sexual orientation, but one preeminent Bonhoeffer scholar examines the question openly. In his celebrated 2014 biography of Bonhoeffer, Dr. Charles Marsh, Commonwealth Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and a 2009 Guggenheim fellow, respectfully but boldly calls into question the young pastor’s unusual relationship with his close friend and confidant, Eberhard Bethge. Bethge and Bonhoeffer were extraordinarily intimate, sharing bank accounts and, sometimes, beds. Their correspondence is remarkably affectionate. Upon his death, Bonhoeffer would leave almost all of his earthly possessions to Bethge, with the exception of just one small item to Maria. Still, Marsh proffers that while it is unlikely the two had a physically romantic relationship, Bonhoeffer died in unrequited love with Bethge. While some criticize any speculation about Bonhoeffer’s sexual orientation, Marsh treats it as yet another dimension to this remarkable individual’s complexity.
Regardless of speculation, there remain clear connections between his suffering and the suffering of LGBTQIA+ people throughout American and European history, including their persecution and murder in Nazi death camps. Had Bonhoeffer lived to a natural age, chances are he would have come to the aid of those persecuted for their sexual identities just as he did for many others on the margins of society.