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Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Religion-less Christianity, Prophetic Spirituality


What happens when faith communities fail to meet the moral obligations of their unique historical moment? Has the church then, by definition, lost its authority and right to speak or teach on Jesus’ behalf? If so, what are the repercussions of those failings? In what specific ways do the failures of Christian communities call us to reflect on and evolve our theology? These were questions that must have dogged the Lutheran minister and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), as he sat in his German prison cell, awaiting his death sentence. Yet after the initial shock, Bonhoeffer accepted these harsh circumstances, wrestling deeply with his faith and the failings of his church, eventually earning the trust and respect of the guards, some of whom would later risk their lives on his behalf, and engaging in a series of correspondences and reflections that would outline a bold new vision of what it means to be a Christian in the modern era. Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, published six years after his death and carefully edited by his best friend and biographer, Eberhard Bethge, articulates a relevant, prophetic spirituality that strives to separate ethics from dogma in order to meet the actual needs of a suffering world. One of these letters in particular, a baptismal homily written to Bethge’s son and Dietrich’s namesake, offers some powerful insights into what Bonhoeffer’s vision of a “religion-less Christianity” might look like. Whatever the differing social, political, or economic contexts, Bonhoeffer’s core teaching remains a call to stand with and fight for the suffering ones in real time.