Pretend it’s 1934? Living in Nazi Germany, you’re 28 and a rare Christian leader who is against the rise of a murderous, authoritarian regime. Where do you go to learn how to oppose Hitler, defeat an empire, and re-start your own religion? For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it meant going to India to meet Ghandi. He writes to him, asking if he can.
The letter has been noted in biographies, but never available—until today! It’s posted on Twitter! A remarkable moment between two 20th century icons. Bonhoeffer needs a mentor and model of political resistance, and there isn’t one anywhere in Christianity.
Except, perhaps, Jesus. He hopes Ghandi can teach him about that.
His approach isn’t that smooth.
From all I know about you and your work after having studied your books and your movement for a few years, I feel we Western Christians should try to learn from you, what realization of faith means, what a life devoted to political and racial peace can attain. If there is anywhere a visible outline towards such attainments, then I see it in your movement. I know, of course, you are not a baptized Christian, but the people whose faith Jesus praised mostly did not belong to the official Church at that time either.
Bonhoeffer went on to become a Christian icon, helping to forge a new path toward an engagement to other people based on love, not “religion.” But his interest in Ghandi has been a bit of a secret. If lurking around the edges of scholarly discussions, it may first be noted to the general public in 2010, in Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.
But Ramachandra Guha’s 2018 biography, Gandhi 1914–1948: The Years That Changed the World, has a fuller story. As he narrates:
Bonhoeffer first heard of Gandhi as a teenager, from his grandmother, herself a pioneer in the fight for greater rights for women. This was in 1924, when he was seventeen. As he grew older, he read more about Gandhi, and was attracted both to his religious pluralism and his practice of non-violent resistance. In 1931 — shortly before he was ordained as a priest — Bonhoeffer wrote to his twin sister Sabine that he wanted to travel to India to meet with Gandhi. As he told a friend, he believed that Germans had much to learn from other cultures, and it was from the East in particular that the ‘great solution would come’.
The 1931 trip had to be called off, but Bonhoeffer tried again in 1934, planning to travel to India with a friend.
By that time, Christianity worldwide, especially in Germany, was resolutely anti-Semitic, and mostly on board with Nazism—the reality that is documented in books like Robert P. Erickson’s Complicity in the Holocaust and Christopher J. Probst’s Demonizing the Jews: Luther and the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany.
Bonhoeffer was trying to figure out how to start a movement, to somehow change the tide of history. With Christianity failing to provide those resources, Ghandi was an obvious mentor.
There is, Bonhoeffer’s letter continues, “no one to show us the way toward a new Christian life in uncompromising accordance with the Sermon on the Mount. It is in this respect that I am looking up to you for help.”
He tells his story of his effort. “I went to the U.S.A. to find what I was looking for — but I did not find it. I do not want to accuse myself of having missed the one great occasion in my life to learn the meaning of Christian life, of real community, of truth and love in reality.”
For that, he’ll try Ghandi’s ashram in India.
He continues: “The question which I beg to put before you is, whether I would be allowed to stay with you in your ashram for a while to study your movement. I do not believe in short interviews, I do think one should live with one another to know each other.”
He signs his letter: “I remain, revered Mahatmaji, very respectfully, yours in the Fellowship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”
A model of inter-faith communication? Or maybe just . . . communication.
Guha continues the story:
Gandhi wrote back, inviting the duo to come ‘whenever you like’ to ‘share my daily life’. They could stay in the ashram, contributing Rs 100 per month each to its expenses (apart from paying for their own travel). Gandhi added two warnings: that the food would be vegetarian; and that he himself might have to go to prison, in which case Bonhoeffer would ‘have to be satisfied with remaining in or near one of the institutions that are being conducted under my supervision’.
Bonhoeffer never went, and embarked on his crazy plan to assassinate Hitler. Which set him up, through his own execution and the legend it created, to speak to all Christianity through his prison letters, speaking to the future he predicts would have “no religion at all: men as they are now simply cannot be religious any more.”
Life is funny like that?
Guha’s conclusion is apt.
But it remains an intriguing thought — what if Bonhoeffer had spent several months with Gandhi in 1934–35, and, on his return, had conducted or led a non-violent campaign against the Nazis?
I’m afraid, however, we know the answer to that. Christians just weren’t ready for resistance to evil.
But Ghandi was surely interested in the effort. It brings back all the interesting stories of his own early efforts to learn about Jesus—from Christians?
One Sunday morning Gandhi decided that he would visit one of the Christian churches in Calcutta. Upon seeking entrance to the church sanctuary, he was stopped at the door by the ushers.
He was told he was not welcome, nor would he be permitted to attend this particular church as it was for high-caste Indians and whites only. He was neither high caste, nor was he white. Because of the rejection, the Mahatma turned his back on Christianity.
Ghandi’s famous line was: “I’d be a Christian if it were not for the Christians.”
A better reading might be that he went and found Jesus himself.