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The Challenge of Bonhoeffer

When the 2003 Sundance Film Festival rejected Martin Doblmeier’s feature-length documentary, Bonhoeffer, Doblmeier and the staff of Journey Films decided to seek out Sundance audiences on their own. They called the interfaith council of Park City, Utah (where Sundance is held) and hatched a plan to show the film in local church sanctuaries as the press and Hollywood heavies arrived in Park City for America’s preeminent film festival. All but one showing was sold out, and reporters picked up on Bonhoeffer, as much for its ingenious method of “going to Sundance” as the film itself.

Since Sundance, many churches and synagogues have shown the film. It’s appropriate that the church–the one human institution that Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed above all things was the living incarnation of Christ, of God on earth, and our only hope for salvation–also saved this important documentary from obscurity.

Bonhoeffer is something of a superhero in the Protestant church. His name is dropped frequently in sermons and seminars when the speaker needs to summon the exemplar of someone who gave his life for a just cause. A non-Jewish martyr of the Holocaust, Bonhoeffer gives Protestants a stake in the great tragedy of the 20th century, through the death of one of their own. There is a danger in singling out someone like Bonhoeffer as the ultimate World War II hero, since for every Bonhoeffer scores of Jews died heroically for their people and for God. Still, Bonhoeffer is undeniably and singularly inspiring. His life reads like a thriller crossed with Greek tragedy.

Born on February 4, 1906 in Breslau, Germany into a large, bourgeois family, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a prodigy. His doctoral dissertation, which he submitted to the University of Berlin at the age of 21, was labeled a masterpiece by his professor Karl Barth, himself arguably the greatest Christian theologian of the last 400 years. Ordained a Lutheran minister and taking his own chair at the university, by 28 Bonhoeffer was one of the few voices in Nazi Germany speaking out publicly against Adolph Hitler. At 33, he became a member of the small team assembled by the resistance to assassinate the tyrant. At 39, he was executed after a term in the concentration camps, just as the Nazis were defeated.

That resume obscures Bonhoeffer’s struggle with what seems like an unbroken call to fight evil intellectually and politically. Repeatedly, Bonhoeffer chose to leave his homeland-twice to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he was safe to apply his exceptional intellectual gifts to the crucial theological and ethical questions of the day. Yet twice he returned to Germany, for he felt that if he were going to be a part of the nation’s rebuilding, he had to be present during its darkest days, whether or not he could do anything to save it or himself from doom.

Because of his stature in the church, his close family connections to members of the resistance, and his non-pacifist ethical stance, he was identified as an ideal conspirator to join in the plot to assassinate Hitler. And conspire he did, working in the Nazi’s military intelligence office, while acting as liaison for the plotters to the British. When he was arrested in 1943 and sent to Buchenwald (and later to Flossenbürg), it was for collecting funds to send Jews to safety outside Germany. In the end, Hitler would personally order the death each member of Bonhoeffer’s renegade group, even as the Allies had begun liberating the camps.

The film puts Bonhoeffer’s activism in the direct lineage of 20th-century justice movements. While teaching at Union Seminary, which borders Harlem, Bonhoeffer frequented the Abyssinian Baptist Church, one of the city’s most important historically black congregations. There he was inspired by the theology of liberation that emerged from the African-American slave experience. In turn, the film shows, Bonhoeffer was a source of theological and personal inspiration to Archbishop Tutu and other South Africans in their struggle to defeat apartheid. The stories of most of these 20th-century heroes have been told in every medium imaginable. It is high time Bonhoeffer got his due.Tutu himself crystallizes the power of Bonhoeffer’s inheritance in the film, challenging us to look on him as a model, not an idol. Countering the notion that some, like Bonhoeffer, are destined for greatness while the rest of us can sit back and watch history go by, Tutu observes that we are all called by God to participate in creating a just world. Giving your life to freedom fighting, to God, is not easy, he says. “There is no shaft of light that comes from heaven and says to you, `Okay, you are right.’ You have to hold on to [the call] by the skin of your teeth and hope that there is going to be vindication on the other side.”

The filmmakers use archival footage, interviews, narration and evocative shots of places where Bonhoeffer lived and breathed, packing an enormous amount of historical and intellectual content into the film’s hour and a half. Doblmeier’s direction reflects the best of traditional documentary storytelling, along the lines of Ken and Ric Burns (The Civil War, New York) and Blackside Productions (Eyes on the Prize). This cinematic style isn’t for everyone. It demands a willingness to take in a lot of factual information doled out in slow and steady fashion.

But the payoff is great. The evocative and intimate images, combined with music of Bonhoeffer’s day, bring him to life in a way only documentary film can. It also does an admirable job of representing his theological perspectives, including the proto-liberation theology stance that caused him to side with the oppressed. Like a good lecture or sermon, the film ends with a call to us all to compare our lives to that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. How should we live differently? What does it mean to have faith, to follow God today?

Bonhoeffer would probably answer that question as he did near the end of his life, in writing to his close friend Eberhard Bethge: “It is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this worldliness, I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously not our own sufferings, but those of God and the world. That, I think is faith.”

At screenings at churches and synagogues, according to Doblmeier, the conversations following the film inevitably turned to war in our time. Audiences raise the same questions again and again: Who are the oppressed? Who is acting under the power of evil and death? What is our government telling us that is not true? And what should we do as people of faith in these warring times? How can we most effectively fight for the oppressed?

What more important conversation could be going on right now in faith communities across America? And what an appropriate legacy for professor and radical activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer to leave us with.

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