Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Future Hope column, April 11, 2010

By Ted Glick

“Real responsibility toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

65 years ago, on April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis just before the prison where he was incarcerated was liberated by the allies. He was killed because of his active involvement in the underground resistance movement in Germany. This included, for Bonhoeffer, participation in a group which made a nearly-successful effort to assassinate Hitler in 1944. Bonhoeffer took this path despite the fact that he had earlier considered himself to be a pacifist.

Bonhoeffer was a deeply religious person, and his writings reflect that personal reality. But much of what he had to say, and what he did with his life, is relevant to anyone, religious or not, who is striving to live their life, day after day, in a way which advances the struggle for justice, peace and defense of our Mother Earth.

I learned about Bonhoeffer and read his book, Letters and Papers from Prison, during the 11 months in 1970-1971 when I was in prison for my draft resistance activities in opposition to the Vietnam war. I read a number of books in prison, and this is one of the few that I remember. It was tremendously strengthening to feel a connection to this great human being during that very difficult time for me personally.

Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners also “met” Bonhoeffer through his writings around this same time. In a column in the December, 2005 issue of Sojourners magazine, he linked Bonhoeffer with some of the great Christian leaders and martyrs of the 20th century:

“Bonhoeffer rejected the easier options of political withdrawal which were available to him. He returned to Germany from the United States when many warned him against it. ‘I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share in the trials of this time with my people.’ Because he chose the path of risk, went to jail, and gave up his life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, and many others whose faith led them to make the ultimate sacrifice.”

Bonhoeffer spent time in New York City, about a year in 1930-1931 and then a much shorter time in 1939. Both times he was at Union Theological Seminary. While there he was introduced by a friend to the Abyssinian Baptist Church, an African American church, and was deeply moved by his interaction with the people in Harlem, the Black religious experience and the Black Freedom struggle.

One of my favorite quotes from Letters and Papers from Prison has great relevance today. Bonhoeffer reflects on what far too many people in Germany did during the rise and coming to power of Naziism: “We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?”

These are things that could be said, and a question that could be asked, about too many of us older progressives who have tried, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, to make a living while also being true to the best within us as part of the opposition to one part or all aspects of the systemic injustices and oppression of the U.S. empire, the military/industrial/fossil fuel/banking establishment.

Bonhoeffer answers his question in this way: “What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men (and women). Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?”

This view of what is needed is similar to what Albert Einstein said in 1937 in an essay, “Moral Decay:” “I am firmly convinced that the passionate will for justice and truth has done more to improve (the human condition) than calculating political shrewdness which in the long run only breeds general mistrust.”

Sooner or later, a visible, popular, independent, pro-justice people’s movement will come together in the United States, one which figures out how to work together in a consistent, productive, on-going way. I hope that this year’s U.S. Social Forum significantly advances us toward this essential objective. For this to happen, and when it happens, as it must, there are many people whose lives, sacrifices and insights we must remember if we are to be ultimately successful in transforming this country and this world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is without question one of them.

Ted Glick has been active in the U.S. progressive movement since 1968. Past writings and further information can be found at