But what an unappealing character he seems to have been! Charles Marsh's Strange Glory is a thorough biography which hides none of the man's quirks which were many and largely unattractive, as was the German Evangelical Church (Lutheran), a state institution, in which he was formed.
- Born into the professional bourgeoisie of imperial (pre-World War I) Germany, he announced at 13 he would become a theologian.
- Throughout his stellar university career and first pastorates, Marsh describes the man as more concerned with his clothes than just about anything else. Off to Barcelona for an assistant pastorate,
These sartorial concerns seem never to have left Bonhoeffer. In a Nazi prison, just before his execution, he wrote a detailed message disposing of his clothes.
- Nothing in Marsh's telling suggests that he had given any thought to the implications of the collapsing German democratic order (which his class despised) or to the desperation of most Germans as the Depression ground on. His Church (the Lutheran state church) preached German nationalism and submission to authority -- "blood, soil, and fatherland" -- and not much more. No wonder most of its leadership rapidly succumbed to the Nazis. They had paid no attention during the tumultuous moments when Nazi ascendancy might have been stopped and then rolled over once Hitler won state power.
- The Confessing Protestant (anti-Nazi) church which Bonhoeffer sought to build balked at being required by the Nazis to exclude baptized Jewish Christians -- but displayed no particular sense of responsibility for other, unconverted, German Jews. It did however preach an absolute pacifism, a conviction for which some members died when they refused military service.
- Marsh portrays Bonhoeffer as obsessed with a long homoerotic relationship with another pastor, Eberhard Bethge, who worked with him in the Confessing Church. It's unfair to project backward today's understanding of healthy homosexual relationships onto this pair; they certainly had no option but concealment, even in some ways from themselves. When Bethge broke away from Bonhoeffer and married a woman, the theologian rebounded into a quick engagement of his own. He had given Maria von Wedemeyer religious instruction as an eleven year old.
When the delay expired, Bonhoeffer continued to treat her as an unformed child. She called him "Pastor Bonhoeffer." If Bonhoeffer had survived the Nazi defeat (this could have happened in the chaos of the war's end), one can imagine that the marriage might have been extremely hard on both parties. It is hard to imagine Maria having much of a life with this man.
The choices available to Bonhoeffer are certainly something all of us can pray -- and work -- to be spared.