Today we are pleased to share the latest post in our weekly series, Beyond the Book. This month Andrew Root will be discussing the backstory to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s passion for working with young people.
In the last post we saw a young Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes an incredibly strong theological push for the importance of the child. And unfortunately, this has been unusual—it is odd for an epoch-making theologian like Bonhoeffer (particularly a modern one) to make children so central. So what is the backstory to Bonhoeffer’s own attention to the experience of children?
When Dietrich was small both his family, and Germany as a whole, lived in an idyllic state. But this would all be punctured in 1914 as the Kaiser announced war. With these words the national ethos of peace and prosperity was lost. But this loss came with little regret; rather, the German populace celebrated the announcement, as if the peace and prosperity had become all too boring and war promised some excitement.
But too soon hell came to earth and swallowed so many of Europe’s young men. The hell of war would touch everyone, even the Bonhoeffers. All three of the oldest Bonhoeffer sons entered the military and went to the front; the oldest two, Karl-Fredrick and Walter, went first. If Karl-Friedrich and Klaus took after their father, then it was Walter (who in age rested between Karl-Friedrich and Klaus) that belonged to his mother. Walter was sensitive and artistic, in many ways his mother’s favorite. As the two older boys departed, the Bonhoeffer family had known only success and happiness and had no reason to worry that such a state would not continue. But it would not, as Walter met his demise, penning a final letter to his parents as he died from injuries, telling them not to worry as he relayed information of his battalions’ advance with his last breaths.
Yet Walter’s letter was no comfort to Dietrich’s parents Karl and Paula, but rather a poisonous pill. Paula, particularly, was broken, howling the deepest wounds of loss as she grieved her vanished boy. The perfect upper-middle-class house had to receive into its walls the screams of godforsaken pain of a mother for her dead child. Twelve-year-old Dietrich could only listen, witnessing his mother’s keening and his father’s silent agony. It would mark his childhood and adolescence.
Both parents could barely stand up under the loss and grief. Paula could not stand being haunted by the house, so in her frantic agony she left and stayed with a neighbor for nearly a year, bedridden and in anguish, grieving the loss of her Walter away from Karl and the children. Karl retreated into his study, to stew in his pain, finding no will to write in the family journal for years to come. The journal was a testimonial to the family’s growth, but now the soil in which the family was planted was soaked with Walter’s blood.
Dietrich was left to contemplate Walter’s loss with only his sisters, turning over and over in his head what this meant. The impact of such an experience in childhood cannot be underestimated. This was, by all accounts, the first great tragedy for the family, and in turn, the first of Dietrich’s young life. Such an experience lived on within him, and having this experience as a child may have further given him sensitivity to the personhood and mystery of children and youth.
The depth of this experience on Dietrich’s own person can be substantiated by the fact that after Walter’s death Dietrich was given Walter’s confirmation Bible as his own. And it was this Bible, with Walter’s name still inscribed in it, that Dietrich used for the rest of his life. This Bible not only reminded him always of his brother but no doubt must have also taken him back to his own childhood.
And this may be true for many of us also; we find ourselves in youth or children’s ministry not because we are immature, unable to escape some Peter Pan Syndrome, but, I would bet, because many of us have had deep childhood experiences that we cannot shake, that make us aware of the depth and mystery of childhood itself. It is this depth and mystery that draws us to minister to young people, to stand beside them and hear their questions and thoughts, knowing that young people may be touching a deep reality where the divine and human collide.
It was this experience with Walter’s death that would be a major part of the backstory that leads the Bonhoeffer of Act and Being to assert that children are the eschatological form of our humanity and therefore must be placed at the center of the church. This experience impressed on Bonhoeffer that children encounter deep realities. But it was his experience of his siblings that would impact directly his ministry.
Andrew Root (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) is Carrie Olson Baalson Chair of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of numerous books, including The Children of Divorce, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, and Relationships Unfiltered, and the coauthor (with Kenda Creasy Dean) of The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry.