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.
Last week I introduced Bonhoeffer as youth worker, explaining that these post would focus on Dietrich’s backstory, and how he came to see children and youth as having central importance in the community of the church. Yet before we can go into our exercise in backstory, we need a little bit more on why Bonhoeffer saw children as so important.
At the end of a year-long internship in Barcelona, where most of it was spent leading Sunday school, Dietrich returned to Berlin to write is habilitation (a second dissertation that qualifies you to lecture in the German university system). After month of important children’s and youth ministry in Barcelona, he decided that he’d write the habilitation on the consciousness of children. But his advisor, Seeberg, balked. So Dietrich had to write a more philosophical work called Act and Being. But Dietrich couldn’t let go of his questions around children, so he smuggled the theme into the final pages. While he could not make the whole project revolve around children, as he wished, he could bring children in at the end of this dense academic piece.
Bonhoeffer enters into this discussion on the importance of children by discussing baptism. He says that baptism makes us all children, making our eschatological form that of the child, for the child is through both act and being. He says, “Baptism is the call to the human being into childhood, a call that can be understood only eschatologically.”1 Here Bonhoeffer makes not only a significant theological argument for the essential importance of children but also asserts that it is the very form of the child that is normative. The child must stand at the center of the church-community because child is the eschatological form of humanity; the child is through both divine and human act and being. It may be, following Bonhoeffer, that a sign of a congregation’s faithfulness, its is not big buildings or full membership roles but its willingness to embrace children.
This is as far as Bonhoeffer pushes in Act and Being, leaving us with more questions than answers, leaving us so wishing Seeberg had permitted Bonhoeffer to explore his original desire. But what cannot be missed is the central importance of the child in the thought of Bonhoeffer. And this centrality of the child seems clearly born from Bonhoeffer’s ministry experience. For the thoughts that came together in Act and Being actually had their origins while he was still in Barcelona. The second lecture Bonhoeffer gave to his congregation in Barcelona on December 11, 1928, asserted that Jesus himself is the creator of childhood, making childhood the form and shape of discipleship. Bonhoeffer says:
Once when Jesus is out with his disciples and they are arguing over the rewards they will receive for living in this discipleship, Jesus “called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’” (Matt. 18:2–3), or “if any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42). For Jesus the child is not merely a transitional stage on the way to adulthood, something to be overcome; quite the contrary, he or she is something utterly unique before which the adult should have the utmost respect. For indeed, God is closer to children than to adults. In this sense, Jesus becomes the discoverer of the child. He sees the children and wants to belong to them; who would block his path? God belongs to children, the good news belongs to children, and joy in the kingdom of heaven belongs to children. “Woe to anyone who puts a stumbling block before one of these little ones.” This notion is so utterly alien to the sensibility of antiquity that only one other might seem even more alien, namely, that Jesus, this man of the ruthless either-or, goes not only to children but also to sinners. He traffics with the socially despised, the outcasts, the tax collectors, the deceivers, and the prostitutes.2
These are profound words, ones that those of us in children’s/youth ministry should hear. Bonhoeffer sees the child and childhood not (primarily) as a developmental category but as a theological gift given to the church to live eschatologically through both act and being. The child is not less-than for Bonhoeffer but the very form (the very being) of the followers of Jesus. The child is the one who experiences most fully the act of God in Christ; only the poor and outcast are as dear to Jesus as the child, Bonhoeffer says in the 1928 lecture. It is the child as being that brings the act of God near. And we all are welcomed into this act and being of God’s very eschatological self, for all of us have been children and now are called to care for them. But caring for them not as innocent—an untheological modern idea—but as eschatological, as those who witness to the act and being of God.
It may be, following the logic of Bonhoeffer, that churches that honor children, giving them a place at the center of their life-community, carrying them in love, bear the sign of the true community.
1. Bonhoeffer, Act and Being, 159.
2. Bonhoeffer, Barcelona, Berlin, New York, 352; my italics.
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.