Online Conversation | At Home with Bonhoeffer
with Laura Fabrycky
One Friday, June 19 we welcomed author Laura Fabrycky to discuss her luminous book Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus: Exploring the World and Wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on how Bonhoeffer’s sense of civic and political “housekeeping” began in his home.
The painting is “Peasant family at the table” by Jozef Israëls, 1882.
The opening song is Jewish composer Gustav Mahler’s 5th Symphony which was banned as “degenerate” during the Nazi Era.
Transcript of “At Home with Bonhoeffer” with Laura Fabrycky
Cherie Harder: For the last three months, amidst a pandemic, a recession, and civil unrest, almost all of us have spent more time at home than we would ever have imagined. We’ve bumped up against the ways that our homes constrain and limit us, and perhaps we’ve even had a chance to reflect on the way that our homes shape and form us. Today, we’ll hear from a guest whose recent and luminous book, “Keys to Bonhoeffer’s House,” welcomes us into the home of theologian, scholar, spy, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer and invites us to consider the way in which his rootedness in his home, neighborhood, habits, relationships, and disciplines shaped his life, work, and thought, and developed what our guest today calls his sense of ‘civic housekeeping.’ Laura Fabrycky is a writer and poet whose works have appeared in Books and Culture, Christianity Today, The Review of Faith & International Affairs, Comment Magazine, Plough, Good Housekeeping Middle East, Fathom, and Foreign Service Journal, and whose poetry has been published in Glass and Dappled Things, as well as her collection entitled “Give Me the Word: Advent and Other Poems.” She previously worked at the Ethics & Public Policy Center here in D.C. before moving abroad with her husband in the Foreign Service. Her book, “Keys to Bonhoeffer’s House: Exploring the World and Wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” is a historically-grounded memoir about her time as a volunteer guide at the Bonhoeffer House in Berlin. Laura, welcome.
Laura Fabrycky: Thank you so much, Cherie. It’s a real joy to be with you.
Cherie Harder: Laura, I was so taken with the way that you described your first visits to the Bonhoeffer House, which ultimately led to you volunteering as a docent. You wrote this: “I wanted this place—full of the ordinary objects of life—to fertilize my moral imagination, the secret realm where metaphors, images, and ideas disclose possibilities for what is good, true, and right.” What was it that so drew you in and then led from your initial discovery to writing the memoir?
Laura Fabrycky: I was certainly hungering to explore my neighborhood. When we learned that we were so close to the home of Dietrich Bonhoeffer from our permanent residence in Berlin, it seemed such an opportune place and time for us to explore. When we actually got there, I was also hungering for inspiration for a witness of how to live wisely and well in times of trouble and times where it feels as though the foundations are shifting and shaking. Walking into that home as we did that first day, I was also presented, though, with a story of Bonhoeffer that surprised me. I thought I knew him. I thought I knew his story. It was instructive to me and surprising to hear a German narrating his life, and to do so within the home that [Bonhoeffer] called his home as an adult and then from which he was arrested in 1943.
Cherie Harder: You wrote this book, a memoir of sorts, as a sojourner and an expat, an American living abroad in a strange land. Do you think being an American affected your interpretation of his story? Related to that, in your experience as a docent, did other international visitors have different takeaways or different interpretations?
Laura Fabrycky: I definitely knew an American telling of Bonhoeffer’s life. I think it’s natural—we all come from seeing the world and seeing history from our perspective. So I had always looked at the Nazi era, and World War II history in particular, from an American lens: it’s largely and understandably a morality tale. It’s good versus evil, and the good won. That’s how we understood it. But to be living in Germany and then to be hearing Bonhoeffer’s life told from Germans who had to make sense of what had happened in their home was an important corrective to the way that I understood his life. It was also an important corrective to the way that I understood my own life. I realized that I actually needed the witness of other cultures and even other nations, even in their moments of national failure, to help me to better understand my own. In terms of the way that different international visitors experience the House, there were so many, especially in my first months as a volunteer guide—it was in 2017 and it was the celebration of the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, so there were many tour groups that were coming through. That year, it was really hopping with visitors at the Bonhoeffer House. [The Bonhoeffer House staff] is a volunteer staff with lots of different people from different backgrounds—mostly German, but I was an American, and there was a British volunteer. My very first tour, as I describe in the book, was a surprise tour. I was not quite ready for it. It was for a group of Korean seminarians and pastors that were traveling on a Reformation tour. I think different groups have different responses to the place. I think Americans like me tend to feel a kind of magic in the house. I will humbly say that Germans often did not experience that kind of magic. If an American group would walk into his bedroom, we would all get hushed and it would feel intense. But sometimes if I took Germans in there, they would be like, “OK, sounds good, looks good.” They weren’t quite as overcome with the romance of it. So, different groups.
Cherie Harder: You mentioned earlier that the Germans had to make sense of what had happened in their country. You note in your book that Bonhoeffer was not immediately recognized as a hero after World War II at all. In fact, for basically a generation, he was regarded much more ambiguously—even as a traitor by many. What was the metamorphosis in terms of the minds of post-war Germans regarding his transition from traitor to hero?
Laura Fabrycky: In my second visit to the house, the guide that day was Reverend Gottfried Brezger. He continues to serve at the house. If you have the chance to travel there, you could ask for him; he’s a lovely human being and I learned so much from him. He was the one who first disabused me of the idea that Dietrich was simply a hero, as were the other conspirators—that their being regarded as heroes was simply their moral manifest destiny. He narrates that it took at least a generation before Germans could even begin to talk about what had happened. I think there was such a hunger to return to normalcy and to simply not have to face the levels of complicity. People didn’t even want to think about having an alibi. But eventually, people did need one. It took some cultural tools, including the broadcast of a TV series that was actually produced by Americans. It was the first time—and this was in the late seventies—that families tuning in, sometimes with their children, actually started talking about what happened. It really was a generational conversation of young people turning to their parents to say, Well, what did you do? The Bonhoeffer House then was inaugurated in the wake of that coming-to-grips. It was not inaugurated until the late eighties, and it’s been a long sojourn of sifting and making sense. It was true or the Bonhoeffer family, but for others as well—the Schaufenberg family and other families that were part of that larger plot. They lived, I think, with a great deal of quite silent suffering. Even though these martyrs and these conspirators were actually officially recognized within the decade of the 40s, there was not a rush to affiliate with them. There were no politicians lining up to take photos at their gravesites. There was not a strong interest in affiliating. So it took a long time.
Cherie Harder: You pointed out in your book that we may never have heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer—at least very few of us would have heard of him—were it not for his friend Eberhard Bethge, who lived to the age of ninety and devoted much of his life to telling the story of Bonhoeffer. I’d love for you to tell us a little bit more about their friendship: how their friendship affected both Dietrich and Eberhard, and why it would propel Eberhard to work so tirelessly to preserve the record and memory of Bonhoeffer’s work and life.
Laura Fabrycky: Eberhard Bethge is a very interesting person. His fingerprints are actually all over this story that we’re accustomed to telling about Dietrich’s life. But he was clearly a very humble man as well, and interested in casting a very bright spotlight onto his friend Dietrich. Dietrich came from a fairly prominent family, and he was also published. He was a fairly recognized person in Germany. It’s not like he was a hidden secret. During his days with the Abwehr, the German military intelligence, he stayed at a Benedictine abbey in the town of Ettal. The brothers there had read some of his books and were quite taken with him. So Dietrich definitely was aware of his own fame, which sometimes caused him a bit of danger—but he also tried to use it for the good. But in terms of his global recognition, Eberhard was the one who really helped to bring out his legacy. Of course, there are many that then stand downstream of that who have inherited the task of telling Dietrich’s story. Eberhard and Dietrich were quite different. I think one of the things that I was quite taken with as I learned about their friendship was how much Dietrich really needed Eberhard, and how Eberhard provided a wonderful counterbalance to his friend. [Eberhard] encouraged him, especially when he was tempted to despair and get discouraged. He served as his confessor. In many ways, Eberhard was a kind of spiritual conspirator with Dietrich as well. Dietrich, however, had a very strong personality, and he could be kind of overwhelming, I think. I’ve often asked myself if I actually knew him in real life if I would really like him or if I would [unintelligible]. But I think Eberhard had a quiet strength, and he knew how to push back on his friend. I think that’s what’s so interesting. Even though he does cast a very bright light, even in some ways offering a defense of Dietrich—he was one of his early defenders, especially when people weren’t sure how to understand Dietrich—Eberhard also never cast him with a halo. He understood him as a human, and I think he also defended his friend’s humanity for as long as he was alive.
Cherie Harder: Eberhard and Dietrich worked together in the Confessing Church and in founding one of the early seminaries. One of the ways you described that little seminary I thought was so poignant. You compared it to a wildflower growing in a field of wreckage, saying the Bonhoeffer seminary looked so small and ineffective compared to the rapacious juggernaut of the regime and the nauseatingly obedient support it received from the Nazi-affiliated church. You have these two incredibly gifted and, in many ways, very privileged men—Dietrich in particular, but certainly Eberhard as well (perhaps [Eberhard was] not quite as privileged). There had to be so many small deaths on the way to Dietrich’s final death: so much letting go of natural hopes, ambitions, and aspirations, letting go of comforts and privileges and reputation. How did they do it? How important was friendship to it? And how does one let it all go when they don’t need to?
Laura Fabrycky: I deliberately used the word ‘wildflower’ in that passage because Dietrich actually wrote a poem about Eberhard, and it’s called “The Friend,” but he compares their friendship to a cornflower on the edge of a field. It’s a very moving poem. It’s a poem in tribute to their friendship and also to the love of friendship itself and to how important friendship is. Both of them had already paid certain prices. They had already paid some of the cost of discipleship when they had come together at the seminary, which is, of course, where they met. I don’t know for Eberhard exactly, because I haven’t deeply studied his life, what it was that caused him to take a stand early on—outside of a strong sense of his authority as someone called by God to the ministry. He would not surrender that authority, and he wouldn’t surrender the heritage of the church to the Nazis, who were quite keen to capitalize on it. For Dietrich, he was formed in a family that had a very strong sense of a kind of nobility that was also tethered to responsibility. Neither of them, and no one that was part of the Confessing Church, was guaranteed that their efforts would be successful. I think that these were just people that had a firm grasp on the truth and then were willing, in some ways, to stake their life on it. But as you note, those stakes were small deaths prior to big ones. From our place in history, it’s easy for us, again, to look back and to think, They win in the end! And I don’t think that’s accurate. I think it’s important for us to stand with them and to experience what it must have been like to see threats to the church and threats to society, and to recognize that they did not have any more guarantees to the outcomes than we would have had standing there. They had to believe that what they knew was true and they had to then live in it. And some of that [had a] cost. So I think in many respects, Dietrich certainly wasn’t owed a more comfortable life necessarily, but he was absolutely in a path where he could have been a prominent public intellectual and an acclaimed theologian. Of course, those things are now true. But that was not how he experienced it. I don’t think he tasted many of those experiences that we would think of as being part of the normal course.
Cherie Harder: As a docent at the Bonhoeffer house, you were constantly confronted with the fact that Germany, a supposedly Christian nation at the time and at the apex of civilization in its arts and humanities and sciences, perpetrated an utterly horrifying mass-scale evil—and that the German church at the time was not only complicit and co-opted, but even at times boosterish of the regime. I will acknowledge at the outset that in many ways this question is unanswerable, but you had to wrestle with it on an almost-daily level when you were a docent. I’d be interested in how you wrestled with that question and sought to explain the horror [and make] sense of it, and what lessons, if any, you drew to inform the thinking of the church in the aftermath.
Laura Fabrycky: Germany had to wrestle with itself and what it actually believed. It’s always easy, and it was easy for me as an American, to judge quickly what the German experience was and to think, This is plain as day; it should have been plain to everyone there how wrong things were going. There are many accounts—and I talk about this some in the book—of people who would say, We really didn’t know the depth of it. We really didn’t understand that at that train station just across the street, people were being taken off to camps to be killed. We didn’t really know. And I think for many people, they didn’t. They had closed their eyes, and they went about their business. It didn’t matter to them that they hadn’t seen their Jewish friends in a while. I think just living there, living in that place and imagining, If there were atrocities happening outside of my door, what would I actually do? How would I actually respond?—I suspect I wouldn’t respond much more dramatically or heroically than I do on any given day. I don’t necessarily think of myself as being connected to atrocities happening outside. I don’t see myself as responsible. I think in some ways that’s the muscle that I really learned to develop at the Bonhoeffer House. And [I was] helping then to connect Dietrich’s story to our own stories, to my story. Sometimes, visitors would want to talk about things that were happening in their life and where they saw that they needed to make changes. Many of them weren’t dramatic. They were small. They were sometimes dispositions: a willingness or a longing to pay more attention to their places and the people that they were connected to, and finally to see themselves as actually being implicated in history, to use my friend Steve Garber’s language—to [understand] that we are implicated, that we are actual, responsible agents in history, and to figure out where it is that we can place our agency and what we can do with it. So, you’re right: some of the evils kind of go beyond language. They are hard to explain. But they are not completely incomprehensible. We know human life and human nature. We often long to be deceived, and we long to escape our responsibilities. When we are presented with a model, someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or other members of the resistance, we are caught off guard by their courage and their willingness to live in the truth.
Cherie Harder: You mentioned earlier the ways that Dietrich Bonhoeffer has affected your own life, and I’d love for you to reflect [on that] a little bit more. One of the things that you saw (and not just saw, but sort of immersed yourself in) were the rhythms of his life and what he cultivated as habits and practices, [such as] his practice of meditating on the Psalms and praying them through. I’m curious if there were any habits or practices of Bonhoeffer’s that prompted you to change some of your own habits as a result of being immersed in his life.
Laura Fabrycky: I’ll answer first by saying, I don’t think I’ve changed that much. I think I’ve learned to place a little bit more weight on some of the practices and to see them as actually having much more significance—not just for my own personal and private life, for my neighbors. Prior to Dietrich’s development of his own habits and practices, he was raised in a family that had a robust understanding of themselves, but also of their belonging to other people. Some of the activities that he led in his seminary were an echo of his experience growing up in the large, boisterous, and frankly quite active Bonhoeffer home. I think he took after his parents in many ways—especially his mother, [who] was a real force. She loved having parties and inviting people over and hearing music played. They did puppet shows and they read Scripture. In some ways, that whimsy and play shows up even in the seminary. Dietrich would sometimes chuck everything out the window and [say], Let’s go play tennis or go do something active and sporty! But in terms of the practices and the rhythms from the seminary and the ones that he used in his life, they also were drawn in part from his mother. Paula had been influenced by the Moravian church in her youth. The Moravians have a practice of reading Scripture—there’s a pair of Scriptures that are assigned to the day. Dietrich would often suggest that to people as a way to get into the Word of God, a way to encounter God and to hear God speaking to you. He would say, in “Life Together,” that it was insufficient—but I think he would say it was a good first step if you needed a first step. In times when he felt particularly challenged, he would turn to that simple practice of meditating on the two assigned texts for the day. In terms of my own life, I would say I have paid more attention because of Dietrich and the Bonhoeffer House to my dispositions, my attitudes about how I understand myself and how I belong to other people, and particularly how I narrate life. In this respect, I would say I’m answering as a mother. I’m paying more attention to narrating things to my children that pay attention to our responsibilities to others. I had mentioned in a podcast interview at the beginning of the pandemic, [when] the world had not quite locked down, that I was drilling handwashing when the children were still going to school. I reminded them, Look, you need to wash your hands for yourself, but you also need to wash your hands for other people. Other people are actually depending on you to take care for them. That is something that I think was part of the Bonhoeffer family culture. It’s something that Dietrich obviously took seriously enough to participate as he did in resistance. And it’s something that I think we can practice in our own lives as well.
Cherie Harder: We’re going to turn to viewer questions in just a second, but before we do, one point of commonality I noted between you and Bonhoeffer is that both of you write poetry—and perhaps particularly so during dark moments. I was thinking of Bonhoeffer’s poem “Who Am I?” You asserted in your book that poetry is a robustly practical way of fighting despair. So I wanted to ask, both for you and for Bonhoeffer, why and how does poetry repel despair?
Laura Fabrycky: Such a lovely question. This is not unrelated to the reading of Scripture. Dietrich wrote a really lovely, tiny book about the Psalms, the prayer book of the Bible. He does not expressly talk about the Psalms as poetry, but it just so happens that they are. He does mention that the Psalms are a kind of spiritual dynamite. This is a powerhouse book. I don’t think Bonhoeffer would necessarily call himself a poet, but poets are quite attentive to the use of words and language, and [they] often act as filters when language becomes corroded or misused. We as poets pay attention to meaning. I think when the world gets quite noisy, it’s very easy for us to want to just hide from the noise. But poetry actually asks us and invites us into places of feeling that engage our mind, engage our bodies, and also help us to explore what it is that we’re feeling, in some ways giving us the language that we need when we are beyond words or we don’t know the words to pray. Of course, the Psalms (I commend them to anyone, believers and nonbelievers alike) are an incredible way to engage one’s humanity and then also to turn one’s humanity towards God and to explore with God anger, longings for vengeance—there are so many rich emotions there. To do so in the safety of God’s attentive love is an incredible experience. So in the same way that Bonhoeffer would commend these pairs of Scriptures, I would also commend the Psalms. Take them up as literature; take them up as prayer. And I think for anyone who is attentive to the use of language, to the care of words and the place of words in culture, poetry can be a way to retune the antenna and to recalibrate. So, yes, it’s not insignificant that [Bonhoeffer] wrote poetry.
Cherie Harder: Thanks, Laura. During the second half of our program, we’re going to turn to your questions. Our first question is from Leecy Barnett, who asks, “It seems the Germans took a while to deal with their complicity with the Nazis. How would you compare this to white Americans being so hesitant to talk about the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination?”
Laura Fabrycky: I address this in my book. There is a scene in my book where I describe us on a family vacation. We’re driving through part of the Black Forest, and I see a roadside shrine where there’s a crucifix. In the Bonhoeffer House, one of the very prominent images when you walk into the house is a shrine like that with a sign next to it that says, “Jews are not desired here.” Of course, Jesus the Jew would would fall under that. “Jesus is not wanted here.” On that trip—I describe it in the book—I talk about how easy it was for me to judge this and how smug and self-satisfied and self-righteous I felt, seeing plainly the clear moral problem. But we have our own shrines in America. We have lynching trees and lynching postcards. We have statues that confer honor on the dishonorable. We have countertops and water fountains. We have places where we have not wrestled, not only with slavery, but then with our failure to actually address the injustices and the sins that slavery wrought on our nation. I think that we are still in a time where we are obviously having to deal with that. And I think it is very easy to use how we look at Nazi Germany as a way of escaping our responsibilities as Americans to our story. You can read more about that in my book.
Cherie Harder: Rich Tafel, who is a friend and a relative of Bonhoeffer’s, asks, “Both sides in America’s partisan battles quote Bonhoeffer in criticism of the other side. Any thoughts on why?”
Laura Fabrycky: This is another thing I address a little bit in my book. One of the things that I felt I needed to be clear about was that I was not Dietrich Bonhoeffer and that I could not pretend to be. I think it’s clear that Bonhoeffer is a hero, and he is a hero to Germans, although I know plenty of Germans who would say, We need to be careful about this. We need to be careful about how much we make about Bonhoeffer without addressing how much participation there was and complicity in sin and injustice. I think some of our hope in using Bonhoeffer in political language is attempting to confer something that Bonhoeffer earned on ourselves. That being said, I don’t think that Bonhoeffer is unknowable. If you spend enough time in his mind, I do think that Bonhoeffer would say some things about our moment. He was quite clear, and he saw with an expat’s clarity, the problems of what he described as ‘the color line,’ using language from material that he had read. He was aghast at America’s racial injustices. I think Bonhoeffer would be quite clear about the misuse of language and about understanding finally who we give worshipful awe to—who do we actually fear?—and being willing to disobey anyone outside of God.
Cherie Harder: Our next question is related to the last one. Michael Lundy asks, “What sort of mundane but heroic actions and attitudes are lacking but needed in American families and churches of which Bonhoeffer might have approved?”
Laura Fabrycky: Just from having understood the way that his family operated—it’s easy for us to paint them as simply resisters, but I think they resisted out of a well of togetherness and belonging and culture and joy. There was a defiance that they had that actually grew out of a deeper well of joy and belonging to one another. That’s not to say that political work is not important; I think it’s quite important. I think it ideally should be boring and mundane. I think offering a place of belonging to others, not simply to our own families, but to our neighbors, to people that might not belong to nuclear families—the joy of that belonging is really expressed through culture. It’s expressed in music and food and play and making memories together. I think that can be a very powerful form of resistance. But prior to that, it’s just a powerful way of being human. I think that the Bonhoeffer family was quite skilled in that. I would love to see a rediscovery of what makes being human good in the world. It’s something that I think we can all keep practicing.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Richard Miles, who writes, “Germany today has one of the lowest church participation rates in the world. In the last few decades, has Bonhoeffer served as a positive role model for the German church?”
Laura Fabrycky: I don’t think I have enough knowledge and authority to answer fully. I will say from what I’ve observed, yes, Bonhoeffer is quite respected. I’m going to read a portion of a poem of his right at the end—you’ll see [that poem] on greeting cards in dollar stores in Germany. He is known and respected there. I do think, having gotten to know some people that work in it, that the church in Germany takes very seriously that their witness in that time was a profound failure. It wasn’t all failure. There were people that pushed back. But I think obviously there was great regret that more hadn’t been done. I don’t know if I could address the growing secularism of Germany as [related] directly to Bonhoeffer, but he is respected. He’s respected both among those who would identify as Christian and among those who say, I no longer believe.
Cherie Harder: Fritz Heinzen asks, “There is such a rich assortment of Bonhoeffer writings to choose from. What do you suggest for others to read, especially as democracies around the world are under siege and a Christian response, both public and private, is necessary?”
Laura Fabrycky: I agree, first of all, that [within] Bonhoeffer scholarship there’s so many wonderful books to read. The Bonhoeffer community of scholars has been insanely generous, kind, and thoughtful to me. I think it is out of stock right now on Amazon, so you’ll need to find a local bookseller to purchase it from, but Reggie Williams’ “Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus” would be a really valuable start into Bonhoeffer’s life and the influence of black churches in his life when he was in New York City. I commend that to you. There’s so many interesting biographies. I would definitely recommend Renate Wind’s biography and Ferdinand Schlingensiepen’s [biography]—you can read him in English. I encourage a varied diet in Bonhoeffer reading. There’s so much good stuff out there.
Cherie Harder: We have a question from an anonymous attendee who quotes Albert Einstein by saying, “‘The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it,’ which speaks to a spirit of apathy. How can our Christian faith help us to overcome apathy for the sake of others?”
Laura Fabrycky: I do not use the term ‘apathy,’ but it’s quite apt. I do talk in the book about another concept called ‘acedia,’ and I think it’s not unrelated to apathy. I apologize to the anonymous questioner that I will be slightly tinkering with the word. Acedia is a sin that is closely connected to sloth and pride, and it’s a marked indifference to life. Sometimes it’s described as depression, but it’s a much more sinister sin and condition to fall into. It’s something that monks were familiar with. Dietrich himself identified acedia as one of his sins—he did not call it ‘acedia,’ but it was the same term. I think one of the tasks of being human is fighting to stay human. And part of our humanity involves attentive care to others. That is probably our biggest challenge right now, today: maintaining a willingness to regard other people and to regard their good as intricately connected to our good and to not simply be inert or indifferent to their lives. Using the tools that we have available, certainly prayer—asking God to change our stony hearts to flesh—is a great start. But then [we should be] engaging with real people, and engaging ideally with people that are different than us, so that we can constantly work on getting rid of stereotypes that may grow like weeds in our mind. I think practices like this can be really powerful.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Timothy Snow. Timothy writes, “What are some lessons that can be learned from Bonhoeffer that can be applied to the American church? In what ways can these lessons prevent us from repeating the mistakes of the German church?”
Laura Fabrycky: I think my book answers that in different ways, but not specifically for the church. One of the challenges of the church in Bonhoeffer’s time, and I think it can be true in today’s time, is to imagine ourselves as somewhat removed from political or civic challenges. We might not have political answers. But cultivating attentive care, being able to be conversant on very boring matters in your locality, and then making sure that we are doing the work of preserving this world, literally expressing care for its physical places and for the people that live in it—I think those are good [practices]. Just being attentive and asking questions can be really good practices to take up. And I think that they were practices that Jesus practiced. He paid attention to people that the world often didn’t pay attention to. He did so with care, offering them dignity. I think simply looking at what Jesus did and doing it is a good thing to do.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Thomas Leonard. Thomas asks, “I would be interested to hear about [Bonhoeffer’s] time with the black church in Harlem, New York City, and how it influenced his life. Do you see any relevancy in that to race relations today?”
Laura Fabrycky: Yes. I mentioned Reggie Williams’ book “Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus”—I highly commend it to you. I would also add, too, [that] Charles Marsh’s “Strange Glory” has some really lovely and important explorations of this time in Dietrich’s life. I commend that book to you as well. I’m just offering a book report from some of these scholars. Dietrich was really taken with the intellectual energy of Harlem. Harlem was in the midst of a renaissance. Some of the leading cultural lights of that time (this would have been in the early 1930s), people that we look to and say, What a treasure trove for American culture—Dietrich walked into that world. He was embraced by the Abyssinian Baptist Church and really allowed to enter into its life. What he saw there was very, very different. He met a different understanding of Jesus: a Jesus who was acquainted with suffering and who suffered with others in their suffering. That radically redefined his understanding of Jesus. This was a theology of the cross. Jesus was someone who suffered with us and who suffered with those who suffer injustice and sin or the effects of others’ sin on their lives. He spent so much time there that actually one of his friends said, I think you’re spending too much time in Harlem. Dietrich really did give a lot of attention to it. And the experiences that he had there he brought back with him to Berlin. I know that there are many people in Berlin that cherish the witness of African-Americans, whether it’s through jazz or through these theological treasures. They would point to them and say, These were tools that sustained us. We needed this, especially during the Cold War—and then obviously, prior to that, in the German resistance in World War II.
Cherie Harder: Our next question is from an anonymous attendee who asks something that I think has probably weighed on many people’s minds, and certainly on many of Bonhoeffer’s contemporaries’ minds. He says, “Bonhoeffer felt he had to return home. I believe he could have remained and led a highly ethical life if he had not put his life on the line. I wish he had stayed in America. Can you please address that issue?”
Laura Fabrycky: That’s a really sweet sentiment. I fully agree with that assessment. I think he could have come and stayed for a second time in America, and we would have still lauded him very much as a hero. This is not unrelated to the figure of Jesus that he met in Harlem. I don’t think Dietrich returned to Germany to be a martyr or to lay down his life. He returned to Germany to stand, in some ways, in the guilt and in the suffering that Germany was going through. He returned to Germany as a German, knowing that he needed to be with his people and to do what he could in Germany. But I absolutely agree with the point that he could have stayed in New York, he could have traveled in the United States, and we would still see him as being a remarkable figure. He could have achieved a lot of good. He could have talked about what was happening in Germany; he could have raised funds for the Confessing Church; he could have done all kinds of things. And he decided against it. That is in some ways a deep mystery, and one that I hold in great honor.
Cherie Harder: Gordon Stiratt asks, “Can you comment on the importance of Dietrich to the friendship of Karl Barth and George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester in England?”
Laura Fabrycky: This is where I will be exposed as not a Bonhoeffer scholar, because I actually cannot comment a lot about them. I do know that Dietrich identified himself early on to Barth as clearly someone with great theological skill and intellectual skill, and he paid attention to Barth. But he definitely deviated in some ways from how Barth did things. Professor Barth actually gave some oblique criticism to Dietrich, saying that he thought some of his experiments in the seminary were a little Roman Catholic, a little iffy. He wasn’t super thrilled with it. In terms of Bishop Bell, I also can’t say a lot. I have not exhaustively studied their relationship, other than that I think they had a real friendship. Obviously, it was a strong enough friendship that the conspirators thought it could sustain conspiratorial intrigue, because Bell was the primary conduit for these conspirators to communicate with the British government.
Cherie Harder: Carla Gray asks, “In light of recent events, is there anything you think you would like to go back and add to the book? More wisdom of Bonhoeffer that could help us today?”
Laura Fabrycky: I’m sure every author thinks they should probably go back and change things and redo stuff. At this point, no, but the book is young—it’s been out for three months. Because it’s a memoir, I’m also having to just give an account of what I experienced. I am not going to be able to change my experiences there. There are always things that I can be learning and growing in, but alas, I had to cut the umbilical cord at some point. So at this point, I’m happy with it.
Cherie Harder: Nancy Macky asks, “What besides the Jewish treatment did Bonhoeffer try to challenge in the German government? What did he think the church should be doing on a practical level?”
Laura Fabrycky: I can’t speak a lot outside of his role. I don’t know some of his interior thoughts about it. I think he definitely saw the need for the church to be involved in social issues. There were people that he was connected to that set to connect with youth, that were attentive to making sure that people were getting food. Dietrich did do a handful of operations to help get Jews out of Germany. But I think he saw his role primarily and personally as goading Christians into greater levels of action. It was immensely practical, abstract work: organizing pastors and ensuring that the pastors would stay pastors, that they would be able to function in prisons and on battlefields, and that they would continue to preach the Word of God and pray. I think he saw those as being immensely practical as well—which, of course, they are. They don’t always feel practical to everybody, but they are.
Cherie Harder: We have many more questions, but not much more time. We’ll ask one final question, which comes from Paul Madtes, who writes, “‘The Cost of Discipleship’ and the concept of cheap grace have deeply influenced my own spiritual journey. How do you see these elements as impacting the church today?”
Laura Fabrycky: Paul, you’re not alone in that. I think many, many people come to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and thought through “The Cost of Discipleship.” There are many people that have sought to combat cheap grace. I would say probably chiefly for me, the person that I would identify as thwacking at that weed is Dallas Willard, in terms of a more recent theologian/pastor/teacher. I do think at all times we try to avoid our responsibilities to our Lord. We would really like to be saved and not have to do the obedient work of following him. The German title of “The Cost of Discipleship” is “Nachfolge,” which was a deliberate skewer on a Nazi hymn that was sung to Hitler. People would sing, “Führer wir folgen Dir”—”We follow you.” Dietrich wrote “Nachfolge” in some ways as a skewer to say, We need to check who we are following. Who primarily disciples us? We will know that we are being discipled by Jesus if we’re paying attention to Him in His word and then actively seeking to obey Him in our lives. We need the community of the saints to help us do that, too. This isn’t lone ranger stuff. This is being connected to others. But I think this is a perennial question for the church. We who are Christians know that we would much prefer a wide, straight path and not a narrow gate. We need one another to make sure that we’re actually following the narrow path.
Laura Fabrycky: I’d like to give the final word to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’m going to read from the last stanza from his poem “By Powers of Good,” which I would encourage you all to read. The English translation is by Nancy Lukens, and this is in “The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works,” the English edition. The final stanza: “By powers of good so wondrously protected / we wait with confidence, befall what may. / God is with us at night and in the morning / and oh, most certainly on each new day.”
Cherie Harder: Laura, thank you so much. It’s been a delight to talk with you. Thank you to each of you for joining us and for the honor of your attention and time. Have a great weekend.