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Symposium to explore anti-Nazi theologian's life and work
By David J. Craig
When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis in April 1945 for allegedly conspiring to assassinate Adolf Hitler, his legacy as a Christian martyr and a theologian who bravely cut against the grain of traditional religious thinking was sealed. But what exactly is the relevance of Bonhoeffer's writings and actions, both in his own time and today?
Scholars of theology, history, philosophy, and literature will address that question and others during a symposium dedicated to the Lutheran theologian's life and works at the School of Management on Monday, April 23.
A panel discussing Bonhoeffer's historical and political relevance will be moderated by radio journalist and former WBUR Connection host Christopher Lydon. Panelists will include BU Chancellor John Silber, Geoffrey Hill, a UNI professor of literature and religion, Dietrich Orlow, ad interim chairman of the CAS history department, and Charles R. Stith, the former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, a special assistant to BU President Jon Westling, and author of the 1995 book Political Religion.
Robert C. Neville, dean of BU's School of Theology, will moderate a second panel, which will explore the importance of Bonhoeffer's writings for modern theology. The panel will feature Clifford Green, a professor emeritus at the Hartford Seminary, Wayne Witson Floyd, a visiting professor of theology and director of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Center at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pa., Victoria Barnett, author of the 1992 book For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Against Hitler, Horace T. Allen, Jr., an STH professor of worship, and Robert Daly, S. J., a Boston College theology professor.
"Anyone interested in the critical study of theology and the validity of religious ideas or in the history of modern Europe and the Nazis will find this conference extremely helpful," says Neville. "Christian opposition to the Nazis was epitomized by Bonhoeffer, so he is very important for understanding how religion relates to secular public events."
Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, Germany, in 1906. He taught theology at the University of Berlin and at a number of Lutheran seminaries in Germany while in his 20s, and in the late 1930s became one of the nation's most prominent resistance activists. He was a leader in the anti-Nazi Confessing Church, publicly denounced Hitler as the "Antichrist," and garnered support for a coup both within Germany and in other countries.
He was arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1943, in part for helping a group of Jews escape to Switzerland. Bonhoeffer's connections to perpetrators of the failed 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler were discovered while he was at Buchenwald, and an SS tribunal subsequently sentenced him to death. He was hung at age 39 in a Flossenburg, Bavaria, concentration camp. While awaiting execution, he penned what would become one of his most widely read works, Letters and Papers from Prison.
According to Orlow, Bonhoeffer's strongly ecumenical teachings, which stress the need for individuals and for churches as institutions to speak out against evil in the public realm, were crucial during his lifetime because "there was a trend toward secularization in Europe that long preceded the Nazis and that placed the church in a seemingly irrelevant position. His attempt to give religious answers to dilemmas faced by society was also important because the Nazis considered their ideology a substitute religion."
Bonhoeffer remains an important figure, Orlow says, because his life demonstrates the need for a separation between church and state. "His legacy is really about what one is morally obligated to do to combat evil, which in his case culminated in his affirmation of the righteousness of tyrannicide. There is an old Lutheran notion that says that because the prince was put in power by God, you should obey the prince, but Bonhoeffer completely changed the attitude of the German Protestant church toward its own institutional life in society."
In 1996, a Berlin court exonerated Bonhoeffer and four other resistance figures executed by the Nazis in the last days of World War II. The court proclaimed that in plotting against Hitler, Bonhoeffer and the others were motivated "not by destruction, but by love of the fatherland and involvement on the side of humanity."
The Bonhoeffer Symposium is free and open to the public. For more information, see calendar listing or call 353-3052.