As a pastor, author and activist, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s legacy continues to loom large over modern Christianity. The Bonhoeffer Society has done its level best to preserve and study that legacy, and the group of scholars is still making new discoveries about Bonhoeffer’s work. Of particular note is a newly unearthed letter that Bonhoeffer wrote to Indian activist and pacifist icon Mahatma Gandhi. The letter was presented by Clifford Green.
In the letter, Bonhoeffer expresses his deep admiration for Gandhi and asks for permission to stay with him and study his movement.
“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,” Bonhoeffer says in the letter, translated to English from the original German.
Gandhi’s own religious identification evolved throughout his life. Though he declared himself to be an Advaitist Hindu, he was also influenced by Christian, Islam and Buddhist thought — along with writers like Tolstoy, Thoreau and Ruskin. Gandhi championed religious pluralism throughout his life, much to his critics’ consternation.
“I know, of course, you are not a baptized Christian,” wrote Bonhoeffer. “But the people whose faith Jesus praised mostly did not belong to the official Church at that time either.”
In the letter, Bonhoeffer writes of how discouraged he’s been by the lack of other examples of people who live up to the call of Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in Matthew 5 through 7.
“We are having great theologians in Germany,” Bonhoeffer wrote, citing his friend and colleague Karl Barth in particular. “They are teaching us great theological thoughts of the Reformation anew. But there is no one to show us the way towards a new Christian life in uncompromising accordance with the Sermon on the Mount. It is in this respect that I am looking to you for help.”
Bonhoeffer notes that “I went to the USA to find I was looking for — but 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 life, of truth and love in reality.”
It isn’t clear whether or not Gandhi ever responded to Bonhoeffer, who was imprisoned by Nazi Germany and executed for conspiring against Hitler. Likewise, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist three years after Bonhoeffer’s death.
Bonhoeffer is far from the only Christian to be moved by Gandhi’s non-violent principles. Christian author Phillip Yancey has written movingly of his love of Gandhi in his book Soul Survivor.