In The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Burton Nelson and Geffrey Kelly explore the spirituality that animated Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s leadership in opposing Hitler and the Nazi regime. From his first anti-Hitler sermon in 1933, days after Hitler became chancellor, through his leadership in the Confessing Church and his involvement in the conspiracy that resulted in his execution, Bonhoeffer’s political activity was based in trust in God, obedient discipleship to Jesus Christ, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, all expressed in Christian community living in compassionate solidarity with the oppressed.

The book begins with his “Christocentric spirituality,” his close and personal relationship with Christ. And it led, the authors write, to his feeling the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in “speaking truth to political and religious falsehood. One honors the Spirit of love by acts of compassion on behalf of those whom the agents of falsehood hate and oppress.” This produced a spirituality of liberation lived in solidarity with the oppressed.

An important chapter traces the development of Bonhoeffer’s call to pacifism, particularly related to his involvement with the ecumenical movement. In the early 1930s, he became attracted to Gandhi, wanting to learn more about nonviolent resistance. He made plans to visit India, securing letters of introduction and a personal invitation from Gandhi. At about the same time, however, he was called by the Confessing Church to head a seminary at Finkenwalde. This community became a significant experience, about which he was to write in Life Together, yet one cannot help but wonder how his life, and perhaps the resistance in Germany, might have been different had he made that trip to India.

The book ends with an excursus on terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, and U.S. militarism, trying to answer the unanswerable question of how Bonhoeffer would react to 21st-century America. There are no easy answers, only a reminder that whatever else it may be, violence is “still a denial of the gospel teachings of Jesus Christ.”

Duane Shank is issues and policy adviser at Sojourners. This review appeared in Sojourner Magazine (January 2004) and is excerpted here by permission. 

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