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Bonhoeffer and the Politics of Friendship

. . . Here, I focus on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology of friendship. My underlying proposal is that Bonhoeffer’s particular approach to friendship which emphasizes concrete, personal encounter with “the other” in community is uniquely suitable for Christians in an increasingly pluralistic, politically polarized, and techno-social world. My hope is that Bonhoeffers theology and praxis can challenge us to think more deeply and comprehensively about what is required for Christian witness in the 21st century.

“When men are friends there is no need for justice.” – Aristotle

“Not from the hard ground,
where blood and race and binding oath
are sacred and powerful;
where the very earth itself
keeps guard and defends
the consecrated orders of creation
against the madness and frenzy of disorder;
not from the hard ground of the earth,
but freely chosen and desired,
the longing of the spirit,
which neither duty nor law requires,
the friend will offer to the friend.”

–        From “The Friend,”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Recently I had the privilege of speaking to a group of young adults in Chattanooga on the theme of racism and the church. In preparation, I picked up Peter Slade’s Open Friendship in a Closed Society, primarily because I am interested in the ecumenical racial reconciliation efforts of “Mission Mississippi,” but also because I was looking for a new angle for addressing the topic. Though the themes of race and racism have figured prominently in my theological and pastoral development over the last decade, I’ve never been quite sure of the best way to approach these themes in a focused, effective manner. I came away from Slade’s study not only with a deepened appreciation for the work of Mission Mississippi, but also – and perhaps more significantly – with my new “angle” for addressing race and racism in the church. In short, what we need is a more incisive and comprehensive theology of friendship.

Friendship as a theological category will prove fruitful because it has such broad implications (well beyond concerns associated with race and racism). Wesley Hill, for example, employs Saint Aelred of Rievaulx’s “Spiritual Friendship” as a title for his ongoing project which continues to advance charitable dialogue about the church and gay Christians.[1] So also Jurgen Moltmann and Stanley Hauerwas, whom I’ll be drawing from here, are among those who have sought to deepen our “theology of friendship” in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons.

Here, I focus on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology of friendship. My underlying proposal is that Bonhoeffer’s particular approach to friendship which emphasizes concrete, personal encounter with “the other” in community is uniquely suitable for Christians in an increasingly pluralistic, politically polarized, and techno-social world. My hope is that Bonhoeffers theology and praxis can challenge us to think more deeply and comprehensively about what is required for Christian witness in the 21st century.

Bonhoeffer drew in part from a theological tradition emphasizing dialectic, alterity, contradiction, and the “other.”[2] The approach attempts to take seriously the apparent paradox of what God has done in the cross of Christ, where God is mysteriously revealed as God in the midst of seeming Godlessness.[3] Along these lines, for Bonoeffer the I-Thou relationship between the subject and the divine is analogous to the relationship of the neighbor, the friend, the stranger. He writes, “The individual becomes a person ever and again through the other; in the ‘moment’. The other person presents us with the same challenge to our knowing as does God. My real relationship to another person is oriented to my relationship with God.”[4] Thus in standing with and for the other person whom Jesus stands beside, one encounters Christ as they see they mystery of the other’s humanity. In one’s encounter with the other, one encounters the presence of the God who is for and with him.[5] This theological conviction was fundamental for Bonhoeffer as he came to believe that to love the neighbor is to enter into the life of the other and accept some responsibility for the neighbor’s history. In New York, Bonhoeffer put this theology to work.[6]

Beginning in 1930, while at post-doctoral student at Union Seminary in New York, Bonhoeffer theologized in conversation with James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks, and the collected poetry of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Reflecting years later on the poetry of Cullen, Bonhoeffer commented on “the black Christ” being led into the field against “a white Christ” by a y­oung Negro poet revealing to us the deep cleft in the church of Jesus Christ.[7]

But the encounter was not merely academic. It was also during his time at Union that Bonhoeffer formed a close friendship with Franklin Fisher, a young African American from Birmingham, Alabama who had attended Howard University. Accompanying Mr. Fisher, Bonhoeffer became a regular attender of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church and for six months taught the boys Sunday school class and helped with various youth clubs there. Once, Pastor Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. yielded his pulpit to this young, German Lutheran pastor. Bonhoeffers notion of “cheap grace,” so well known by theological students to this day, was likely borrowed from Rev Powell, who used it to describe the Euro-American church.[8]

The connection between Bonhoeffer’s experience in Harlem and his later resistance to Hitler is unmistakable. As Holland writes, “Bonhoeffer was intrigued by the music and culture of New York but he hated its racism. He became a smart and sensitive critic of American racism and this attention to racism seemed to deepen his critiques of German anti-Semitism.”[9] Consequently, from 1931 until his execution in 1945, Bonhoeffer helped to advance the struggle against Nazism in Germany. During this time, he served churches, underground seminaries, and ecumenical efforts, before eventually joining the Abwehr, a German military intelligence organization at the forefront of the anti-Hitler resistance.

Bonhoeffer’s encounter with African American thought and Christian practice corresponds with a number of themes found in his theological writings. Such is evident, for instance, in his rejection of idealist versions of history and the “invisible church,” proposing instead a concrete, historical dialectic view of divine revelation and community. As Bonhoeffer scholar Clifford Green comments, “[In Bonhoeffer’s view] We do not deal with an invisible God in an invisible world of our wishful fantasies; God is met and heard only in the real world where human, personal wills encounter one another; God is to be sought in the real experience of historical, social, ethical existence. Furthermore…the purpose of the divine presence is precisely to renew the personal and corporate life of human sociality.”[10]

These encounters are not only concrete and historical, but they are also “open” and free. In this way, Bonhoeffer anticipates the later work of Jurgen Moltman, who points out that this openness stands in contrast to closed friendships, closed societies, and closed churches, which collapse in on themselves because they seek only to preserve themselves and are not open to possibility of truth beyond themselves. This pursuit of the “other” in “open” friendship requires a level of trust and vulnerability that is rooted in the freedom of the gospel. This is what sets friendship apart from other institutions; it is under no obligation or mandate aside from Jesus’ insistence that the servant-master relationship, that is, the hierarchy of relationships, be dismantled. Human beings are created free, but freedom is for relationship, for community.

Stanley Hauerwas takes this line of thought even further by suggesting that for Bonhoeffer, the trust that is born—this freedom unto friendship—constitutes an alternative politics. In his commentary on Bonhoeffer’s poem “The Friend” (written to his friend and former student Eberhard Bethge), Hauerwas writes,

“Without trust life is impoverished. Indeed without trust life is impossible. To trust requires that we put our lives, our very understanding of ourselves, into the hands of others… Trust, the trust made possible by friendship, is for Bonhoeffer not a retreat into the private, but rather an alternative politics to the privatization of the self and friendship that is the natural breeding ground for totalitarian politics.”[11]

Hauerwas goes on to suggest that Bonhoeffer’s poem itself constitutes an alternative politics in which an extraordinary level of trust is enacted in the face of the “terror that was Germany.”[12]  This level of trust demands an empathy for the other that comes about through taking responsibility for the other’s life and history.

Bonhoeffer’s theology of friendship and its accompanying praxis have breadth of implication beyond his experiences in the U.S. and the horrors of Nazi Germany. While the complexities of the modern world are rather different than those Bonhoeffer faced, the need for personal encounter with “the other” cannot be overstated. Contemporary society is fraught with social and political mistrust, anxiety over rapidly changing demographics,[13] the social isolation of virtual relationship,[14] and bias-confirming selective exposure to information.[15] Bonhoeffer’s theology of friendship, both in theory and practice, challenges us to constructively engage these cultural phenomena by intentionally pursuing “the other” in concrete ways, taking responsibility for their history, and deepening trust, even to the point of an alternative politics in which freedom and love trumps the need for justice.


[1] http://spiritualfriendship.org/author/wahill/

[2] Clifford Green, Bonhoeffer: A Theologoy of Sociality, 270.

[3] As Jurgen Moltmann would later put it, “His grace is revealed in sinners. His righteousness is revealed in the unrighteous and in those without rights… Jesus revealed himself amongst those who had lost their identity, amongst the lepers, sick, rejected and despised, and was recognized as the Son of Man amongst those who had been deprived of their humanity.” The Crucified God, 27

[4]Sanctorum Communio, 55-56.

[5] Andrew Root, Revisiting RelationalYouth Ministry, 115.

[6] In the following I am indebted to Scott Holland’s excellent article, “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin: Bonhoeffer’s New York,” Cross Currents.

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Clifford Green, Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality, 35-36.

[11] Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words, 282-83.

[12] Ibid, 283.

[13] http://www.pewresearch.org/packages/the-next-america/

[14] See SherryTurkle, Alone Together

[15] http://youarenotsosmart.com/2011/06/10/the-backfire-effect/

Rev. Adam Borneman is a graduate of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He currently works with Macedonian Ministry, an Atlanta based organization that provides leadership development training for clergy nationwide.

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