Today the Episcopal Church celebrates Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian, a founder of Germany’s Confessing Church movement, and forceful resister to Nazi dictatorship. From among his theological writings, his book The Cost of Discipleship has become a classic partly because of his description of ‘cheap grace’ as ‘grace without discipleship,’ contrasting it with the ‘costly grace’ that compels Christians to take up the yoke of Christ and courageously face the evils of the world.
Bonhoeffer wrote this book while reflecting on the rise of the Nazi regime, and it was ultimately his belief in ‘costly grace’ that led him to leave the safety and security of New York to return to Germany to be a more active part of the resistance movement. For this, Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging on April 9th, 1945, by the Nazi regime, for his association with a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
In light of Bonhoeffer’s life, death, and reflection on ‘costly grace,’ I have to wonder what the cost of discipleship looks like today. Tragically, 74 years after Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death at the hands of Nazi executioners, white supremacist nationalism has resurged as a growing global and violent threat. Whether we are ready or not, whether we ever wanted it to be part of our ministries or not – I believe that one of the ‘costs of discipleship’ today still entails joining with others to struggle mightily against the rise of white supremacy.
This reality hit home three weeks ago when many of us woke up to the news that an armed white supremacist had attacked two mosques in New Zealand. News reports over the following weeks dissected the murderer’s motivations and tracked how he was fueled by white supremacist websites and social media celebrities who traffic in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hate. It has since become apparent the extent to which his own evil act was aimed at going viral, with his Facebook live video of the murder of 50 people now accessible to all – including children – at the touch of a keyboard.
These are the times that we are living in and our time demands a costly response.
For me, one of the most moving aspects of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s story has to do with his decision to return home to Germany after a brief period of time in New York at Union Theological Seminary. Writing to Reinhold Niebuhr, he said “I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”
As many others (rightly) fled and sought refuge, Bonhoeffer came to believe that the crucified Christ was calling him home. In leaving behind the safety and security of a professorship in New York, he would return home to struggle mightily against white supremacist nationalism and, ultimately, to die.
Christchurch. Charlottesville. Charleston… All of us have to consider the way these events interrupt our own lives. What version of safety and security do we have to step outside of to speak more forcefully against white supremacy? What positive vision of our world do we have to advocate more forcefully for to counter white supremacists’ power and allure on social media?
Around the dinner table, what challenging conversations do we have to have with our kids and extended family, to counter the ways white supremacy – which is soaked into the very founding and history of this country – shows up again and again?
Occasionally, I hear people say that these matters aren’t really why they decided to go into the ministry. And yet, whether we are ready or not, whether we ever wanted it to be a focus of our ministries or not, this is the work that God has given us to do and part of the cost of discipleship today.
[Image credit: Sludge G via Flickr]