His experiences at Union introduced him to political/social activism. It is important to note that his early letter complaining about that focus at Union would be tempered with time. This is seen in the influence that Reinhold Niebuhr had on him. While he considered Niebuhr to be deficient as a theologian, especially compared to Karl Barth, whose influence was being deeply felt by Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr was able to imprint on Bonhoeffer the need for theology to be vital and lived. Marsh recounts a lively exchange between Bonhoeffer and Barth after his return from America. Marsh notes that while Bonhoeffer agreed with Barth on most of the theological elements, he had come to believe – via Niebuhr – that theologians need to “have a personal stake in their claims.” In this regard, he “found Barth impervious to the ethical and social dimensions of doctrine – in fact, irritatingly so” (p. 139). Whereas Barth – at least at this point seems not to have embraced the idea that theology had a responsibility to change society, Bonhoeffer due to Niebuhr’s influence believed it must – especially in light of the challenges of National Socialism on the church and state. While Barth shared his views of the Jewishness of Jesus and the early Christian scriptures, he wasn’t as ready as his young colleague to push the envelope.
Two of his most influential books emerged from his work training pastors for the Confessing Church. Cost of Discipleship and Life Together were essentially the textbooks that he created to help form strong pastors who could resist the temptations of the Nazi’s. As Marsh helpfully details, these books also express Bonhoeffer’s increasing embrace of monastic principles – seeing the community at Finkenwalde as an expression of that historic practice of living in close community. It was during this time that Bonhoeffer met Eberhard Bethge. Although Bethge was his student, the two became intimate friends. Bonhoeffer chose Bethge as his confessor. They were, in almost every way, soul mates. They lived together, traveled together, gave gifts together, and even shared a bank account. Marsh introduces us to a person who seems deeply insecure about his sexuality and how to be in a close relationship with another person. It is clear that Bonhoeffer never had a close relationship with a woman, with the exception of his twin sister Sabine, but that relationship had been circumscribed by her marriage. Marsh takes us tantalizingly close to the conclusion that Bonhoeffer was gay. That said, he makes it clear that Bonhoeffer was never sexually involved with Bethge – and remained a virgin to his death. This part of the story has never been truly revealed before, but it does go a long way to humanizing Bonhoeffer. He wasn’t a saint. He could be petulant and demanding. He would write Bethge almost daily when they were apart and would upbraid his friend for not being as productive in writing. But Bonhoeffer also could be extravagant in the gifts he gave to his friend.
As Germany launched its wars of expansion, something that at least some in the German military opposed, he was drawn into the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler. In many ways his involvement in the assassination plot was minimal. At the same time, Bonhoeffer came to believe that despite a deeply held pacifism that caused him significant concerns about being drafted. It is important to remember, as Marsh points out, that Germany didn’t recognize conscientious objectors. To refuse to take up arms was tantamount to treason and could get you a death sentence (as happened to a number of Bonhoeffer’s clergy colleagues). His brother-in-law Hans Von Dohnanyi, was affiliated with the Abwehr, the German military intelligence unity, which was deeply involved in the plots to overthrow Hitler. Bonhoeffer was brought into the unit and the plot because of his significant ecumenical contacts. While he knew of the plots and hoped they would succeed, it is true that he was only minimally involved. Nonetheless, as Marsh reveals clearly enough, Bonhoeffer believed that if given the opportunity he would kill Hitler. Although he understood that such an act stood contrary to the commandments and the teachings of Jesus, he concluded that if he were to act responsibly, then given the chance he would kill the madman who had taken control of his homeland. I think that Marsh has effectively answered those who are arguing that he wasn’t involved in the plot, and therefore remained true to his pacifism. He didn’t try to justify his decisions – but the moment demanded this action.