The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute president, Rev. Rob Schenck, often says that to know our namesake as a morally courageous martyr is to know only a small fraction of him. Bonhoeffer was a resister of Nazism, an opponent of politicized religion, and an advocate for Jews and other oppressed peoples in Germany. At his core, however, he was a theologically driven ethicist.
Any approach to Bonhoefferian ethics is complicated because Bonhoeffer himself questioned whether it was even appropriate to classify any ethical system as Christian. In many ways, he was a universalist and saw ethics as a universal human undertaking.
Still, as Clifford Green, the editor of the most recent edition of Bonhoeffer’s posthumous magnum opus, Ethics, notes, “Repeated like a litany in Ethics are meditations on the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ.” In other words, Christology is central to Bonhoeffer’s ethical theory. But, as his controversial prison musings on “religionless Christianity” and “a world come of age” indicate, this does not mean a person must be Christian to understand or practice an ethical life. Nor does it mean ethics must be approached only from a Christian understanding to be valid.
For TDBI, our ethics are informed by Bonhoeffer’s insights but not tied inseparably to them. After all, his volume was unfinished at the time of his death at 39 years old. We can only imagine how his ideas would have further developed had he lived past the war’s end. There is also his “ultimately responsible question” posed in his essay, After Ten Years. It is not, “how I extricate myself heroically from a situation?”, but rather “How is the coming generation to go on living?” The answer is not a static one, but dynamic, relative, and for a specific moment.
Our Institute considers Bonhoeffer’s concepts of ethics, his role as an ethicist, and his own application of his ideas, as key to our mission to form, support, and encourage ethical and morally courageous leaders to address the social crises of their time.
In the coming weeks, we’ll share more about how we carry out our mission in concrete and meaningful ways.