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.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was deeply connected to his family. I believe it was his experience as a twin and the close-knit connection with his siblings that not only led him deeper into children and youth ministry, but also shaped his practice as youth worker.
The Bonhoeffer children were quite a successful group. The oldest, Karl-Friedrich, became a world-renowned physicist, and Klaus became a lawyer. Dietrich would always feel close to them, but like almost every younger brother, a spirit of competitiveness also fueled their relationship, especially for Dietrich, for not only was he the youngest brother, he was a great deal younger, just a small child in their own adolescence and a budding adolescent as they entered adulthood and married. Dietrich hovered around the edges of his older brothers’ lives, treated with respect by them but always as the younger one. This experience of being always treated as young in his family, of having his familial identity as one of the young ones (as the only boy of the younger half of the family), solidified in Dietrich a kind of sensitivity to the experience of fellow young ones, of children. Dietrich’s role in his own family system was as the gifted, adventurous young one; this was how the family viewed him, even into his thirties. This was a role that he, for the most part, would never shed. Unlike all of his other siblings, Dietrich remained single, even living at his parents’ home throughout most of his life.
The two oldest daughters, Ursula and Christine, married important men in their own right. Ursula married lawyer Rudiger Schleicher, and Christine married a playmate of Klaus’s named Hans von Dohnanyi. Dohnanyi became a high-ranking government official, and it was eventually Dohnanyi who not only filled in the Bonhoeffer family on the barbarism of the Nazis but also made way for Dietrich to enter the Abwehr (the German intelligence agency of which Dohnanyi was a high-ranking member) and become a double-agent spy.
These two men officially entered into the family in Dietrich’s own adolescence. Both of these men gave great attention to young Dietrich, debating issues with him and taking him places. It may be that the origins of Dietrich’s own giftedness with young people rests with these two men and their attention to him. Both Schleicher and Dohnanyi listened intently to Dietrich, respected his opinion, asked him many questions, and, even at a young age, treated him like a young friend. These relationships became a kind of model for Dietrich in his own youth ministry. Schleicher and Dohnanyi loved to enter into deep conversation with Dietrich about issues of the day or his own hopes and struggles; Dietrich was known for doing the same with his confirmands, even starting youth groups to have such conversations.
But it wasn’t only this attention in conversation that shaped young Dietrich’s relationships with Schleicher and Dohnanyi; these brothers-in-law also invited Dietrich to plays, operas, and other cultural outings in Berlin. This, too, became a major staple of Dietrich’s own youth ministry, as he paid out of his own pocket for the young people to join him in hearing an orchestra or enjoying the countryside.
Dietrich’s very location within the family gave him the unique opportunities to have adults take interest in him and mentor him. It was both these relationships and his role as young (as always a young one) in his family that I believe directed his own interests and forged his gifts in youth ministry.
But there may be more that solidified this sensitivity toward young people for Dietrich, this sensitivity that was born from his own childhood experience. Not only was Dietrich seen always as a young one within his family system but also, as one of the young ones, he was the leader of the young ones. So along with the privilege of the upper-middle-class intellectual family with its multiple older-sibling mentors, within his environment Dietrich was still able to flex muscles of leadership. Both his twin sister, Sabin, and his youngest sister, Susanne, report that Dietrich was their hero, always protecting and leading them as these young ones were shuttled away from the activities of the older children and parents, spending many hours alone playing, dreaming, and contemplating. It was Dietrich who was the leader of these games and existential journeys.
Young Dietrich led his sisters in prayer, played church with them, created secret codes for them to communicate, and led them into times of contemplating death. These three young ones were often alone to wrestle together with the mysterious questions of childhood—the mysteries of transcendence, connection, and loss—and Dietrich was their guide into such contemplation. So not only was Dietrich always seen as young in the family system and embraced by his brothers-in-law, being taught the intrinsic value of childhood, but with his younger sisters he was taken into the depth and mystery with which children must wrestle, mysteries like death and attachment. With his younger sisters, Dietrich explored these mysteries, pretending—even wishing—that he would die, imagining with them what it would be like at his funeral.
And these questions may have sat near the surface for Dietrich not only because he was attached to a close-knit family and allowed to embrace his childhood but also because his own being was bound to Sabine’s as her twin. This wrestling with attachment and yet difference seemed to engender questions that Dietrich would wrestle with his whole life. It is interesting to think that the very social orientation of his theology, the deep place of relationship and community (“Christ as existing as church community,” the thesis of his first theological work, Sanctorum Communio), had its origins in his childhood experience of being a twin, of grappling with the mysteries of existence as a child with his younger sisters, and of always being respected and heard in friendship by the husbands of his older sisters.
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.