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Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letter to Mahatma Gandhi

  • CLIFFORD GREEN (a1)

Abstract

This first publication of the newly-found letter to Gandhi from Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a window into his thinking in the early 1930s, a time of personal formation and of resistance to National Socialism. Western Christianity needed ‘a Christian peace movement’, and Bonhoeffer wanted to learn from Gandhi's movement ‘the meaning of Christian life, of real community life, of truth and love in reality’. The letter includes Bonhoeffer's critique of Western culture and the Church in Europe and America, his hopes for a Church regenerated by the Sermon on the Mount, and his appreciation and critique of Karl Barth

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1 Eberhard Bethge cites Bonhoeffer's conversation ‘about Gandhi's personality and work’ with his fellow theological student Hans Ulrich Esche in the winter of 1924–5: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. a biography, rev. edn, Minneapolis, Mn 2000, 105.

2 See Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Reinhold Niebuhr, 13 July 1934, Dietrich Bonhoeffer works (English edn), ed. Whitson-Floyd, Wayne Jr and Barnett, Victoria J., Minneapolis, Mn 1996–2014 (hereinafter cited as DBWE), xiii. 182–4, and Niebuhr's response in a 1968 interview with Larry Rasmussen as reported in his Dietrich Bonhoeffer: reality and resistance, Louisville, Ky 2005, 213.

3 See, for example, George Bell to Mohandas Gandhi, 22 October 1934, commending Bonhoeffer: DBWE xiii. 225.

4 DBWE xiii. 229.

5 The original letter is in the personal correspondence files, Gandhi papers, first and second instalments, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

6 Guha, Ramachandra, Gandhi before India, New York 2013, and Gandhi: the years that changed the world, 1914–1948, New York 2018. For the archival history of the Pyarelal papers and Bonhoeffer's letter see the latter at pp. xiv–xix.

7 Idem, The years that changed the world, 470–2.

8 DBWE x. 451–61; first published in the Journal of Religion xii (1932), 177–85.

9 This is quoted by Guha in The years that changed the world, 470, 948 n.6. This letter from C. F. Andrews to Gandhi may explain why Bonhoeffer, in his July letter to Reinhold Niebuhr, writes that ‘I am just now waiting for a letter and an invitation from him [Gandhi]’: DBWE xiii.184. It seems unlikely that the Andrews letter which Bonhoeffer included with his own in October would only be a copy of the May letter that Andrews mailed directly to Gandhi.

10 DBWE xiii. 225.

11 DBWE x. 583.

12 DBWE xi. 251. In the Jallianwallah massacre of 13 April 1919 over 1,500 people were killed or wounded.

13 DBWE xi. 251–2.

14 DBWE vi. 128–32.

15 DBWE xiii. 392.

16 DBWE xiii. 183–4.

17 DBWE ii. 90–1, 170. It is not far-fetched to recall Bonhoeffer's remark in the prison letters that Barth was the only one to begin to think along the lines of a religionless Christianity, but ‘nevertheless did not pursue these thoughts all the way, did not think them through, and ended up with a positivism of revelation’: DBWE viii. 363–4.

18 Erwin Sutz was his other European companion, with Jean Lasserre, at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1930–1.

19 DBWE xiii. 135.

20Nachfolge Christi’ points to the book that he was working on and published in 1937 with the title Nachfolge; this is now translated as Discipleship, in DBWE iv. Its key ideas were first expressed in Bonhoeffer's 1932 lecture ‘Christ and peace’ (DBWE xii. 258–62), and in the published book, Discipleship, the Sermon on the Mount is its literal centre: DBWE iv. 100–82.

21 DBWE xiii.136.

22 Bonhoeffer to Karl Barth, 29 Sept. 1936, DBWE xiv. 252–5.

23 Gandhi's biographer writes that ‘When it came to politics, Gandhi was uncompromising in his adherence to non-violence . . . Pluralism and non-violence were two core aspects of Gandhi's faith’: Guha, The years that changed the world, 261, 263. For Bonhoeffer see Green, Clifford, ‘Bonhoeffer's Christian peace ethic, conditional pacifism, and resistance’, in Mawson, Michael and Ziegler, Philip G. (eds), The Oxford handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oxford 2019, 344–62.

24 Bonhoeffer to to Helmut Rössler, 11 Dec. 1930, DBWE x. 261.

25 For Bonhoeffer to Erwin Sutz (who is usually omitted from this context), 28 April 1934, see DBWE xiii.134–6; for Lasserre see DBWE viii. 485–6. Probably the Americans Paul Lehman and Franklin Fisher were also involved in these discussions.

26 Gary Dorrien, The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the black social gospel, New Haven, Ct 2015, 437.

27 DBWE xiv. 134.

28 DBWE xii. 258–62.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letter to Mahatma Gandhi

  • CLIFFORD GREEN (a1)

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