James the Apostle vs. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Today we get another one of these intriguing match-ups between a Biblical figure and a 20th-century theologian and martyr. The last time one of Jesus' inner circle appeared in Lent Madness, Thomas went down to defeat at the hands of Enmegahbowh. Will James, this "Son of Thunder," survive or will he be struck down by Bonhoefer's lightning?

In yesterday's oedipal action, Monnica (mom) defeated Augustine (son) 56% to 44%. Therapy will ensue. Check out the updated bracket and, if you're wondering about upcoming matches, view the complete calendar.

James was one of Jesus’ three disciples who formed the inner circle within the twelve. Along with his (probably younger) brother John and Peter, James witnessed the Transfiguration and the raising of Jairus’s daughter. He also fell asleep several times when he was supposed to be up watching and waiting while Jesus was agonizing in the garden before his arrest.

Jesus gave this inner circle of disciples names that would now be appropriate for modern wrestlers. Peter was nicknamed “The Rock,” and James and John were “The Sons of Thunder” (good for a tag team bout, yes?). This nickname probably came from their quick tempers, which may have led to James being the first of the twelve to be martyred. The Acts of the Apostles records: “About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword” (12:1-2).

While James (known as “the Greater” to distinguish him from the other men named James), has a prime place among the disciples, he has very little dialogue in the Gospel to show for it. Nowhere does James say anything by himself, and only in a few places do he and John speak together. Rather than taking the role of voice as does Peter, James’ primary role seems to be one of witness and friend. One of the four original fishermen, James was among the first to leave the fishing nets and follow Jesus, meaning he was around for the entirety of Jesus’ public ministry.

The tradition surrounding James says that his body found its way to Spain (where some dubious accounts say he ministered before his beheading), where he became a patron saint. In Spain, he is known as Saint Iago, whence comes the name “Santiago.” Saint James’ shrine in Compostela has been one of Christendom’s most important sites of pilgrimage for well over a thousand years.

Collect for James the Apostle: O gracious God, we remember before you today your servant and apostle James, first among the Twelve to suffer martyrdom for the Name of Jesus Christ; and we pray that you will pour out upon the leaders of your Church that spirit of self-denying service by which alone they may have true authority among your people; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

-- Adam Thomas

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) studied at the universities of Berlin and Tübingen and earned his doctorate in theology at the age of 21. He did postdoctoral work at Union Theological Seminary in New York City (1930-1931), arriving there one year after the stock market crash that signaled the beginning of the Great Depression. At the same time that he was seeing long lines of unemployed workers and the cardboard shacks of the homeless, his family was writing letters to him with news from Germany about growing unemployment and gains by the Nazi Party in recent elections.

Bonhoeffer became good friends with an African-American seminarian named Frank Fisher, who introduced him to the African-American community in Harlem and the vibrant worship of its churches. The extent of racial discrimination and segregation in the United States was shocking to Bonhoeffer, whose oldest brother had declined an offer to teach at Harvard University because of it. Seeing things from below, from the perspective of those who suffer, would prove to be more relevant to his future at home than he could possibly have imagined at the time.

He was ordained and eventually became a leader of the Confessing Church, comprised of German Christians opposed to the attempt of the Nazi Party to reshape Protestant Christianity in its own racist image. His books Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship, which have become spiritual classics, arose out of his experiences as the leader of an underground seminary from 1935 until the Gestapo closed it in 1937.

Bonhoeffer was also a member of the failed conspiracy to assassinate the Nazi Führer Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944. Bonhoeffer had struggled not only with the obligation “to bandage the victims under the wheel” of injustice but also with the possible necessity to jam “the wheel itself.” One biography of him described this as “a long and lonely road.”

He was executed at the Flossenbürg concentration camp only a month before Germany’s unconditional surrender at the end of Word War II. His final words to a fellow prisoner, “This is the end – for me the beginning of life,” were meant as a message to his dear friend George Bell, a bishop in the Church of England, who had received from Bonhoeffer the names of those involved in the plot to overthrow the Nazi regime in order to pass that information to the British government.

Collect for Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Gracious God, the Beyond in the midst of our life, you gave grace to your servant Dietrich Bonhoeffer to know and to teach the truth as it is in Jesus Christ, and to bear the cost of following him: Grant that we, strengthened by his teaching and example, may receive your word and embrace its call with an undivided heart; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 -- Neil Alan Willard


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96 comments on “James the Apostle vs. Dietrich Bonhoeffer”

  1. Okay, anyone with a blog called Prozac Monologues has to love the stone boat story, and even plan to walk 500 miles across northern Spain to see the dubious relics. But when Lent Madness is a fading memory, we will need the witness of Bonhoeffer for the spiritual crisis of our own age. We have NOT been saved from the time of trial. God grant that we meet it with such clarity and such discipleship.

  2. A striking comparison--that strange and mystical painting by El Greco and the picture of Bonhoefer looking like a self satisfied German burgher. I lean toward James because of the El Greco which seems to capture what we do not know about him but Bonhoefer seems more of a saint of our times.

    1. Good point about the images and I agree with what you say about the contrast.
      So after thinking about this now I wonder -- is it more saintly to be/look miserable? Any points for joy?

  3. I struggle with Bonhoeffer's attempted assassination of Hitler, and while I admire the call to costly discipleship and the need to face the really tough ethical questions, I keep hearing, 'Those who take up the sword will die by the sword.' I'm going to follow the thousands of Christians who have voted with their feet over the centuries on the way to Santiago de Compostela.

  4. It took as much courage for James to stand with Jesus - son of a carpenter, the strange prophet not accepted in his own hometown, who dined with outcasts, offended the powerful, and broke the Law as he deemed necessary - as is did for Bonhoeffer to stand up against the Nazi regime. And it was actually harder, I think, to be one of the first to say "I believe" than it was to hold fast to faith and Christian principles with 2000 years of scripture, history, and doctrine to support that belief - and in the face of such obvious evil. Both men today are inspiring witnesses to Christ, but since I can vote for only one, I chose James.

    1. Janet, you said it so well! Bonhoeffer was supported by centuries of Christianity in his valiant effort against evil, while James (good old James) threw everything into his choice to believe Jesus and serve God. Many of us today can really taste the vileness of the Nazis, and that makes us appreciate Bonhoeffer's saintliness more easily; but centuries of pilgrims to Santiago attest to the goodness of James.

  5. This is the first contest that has stopped me in my tracks. As I scan down all the wonderful thoughtful replies, my choice bounces back and forth like a marble falling thru a Pachinko machine. There is more at play here in LM than a game. (Thank you Tim and Scott)
    James must not have known when he first joined with Jesus, he was at the foothills of his eternal life. The discovery of Resurrection came as he traveled with Christ.
    Bonhoeffer, however, lived with a face full of horror. Somehow, he was able to live and act knowing full well, these actions would certainly result in his mortal death. He gets my vote.

  6. Janet certainly makes an important point. While both of today's candidates lived out their faith and ultimately gave their lives because of their faith and beliefs there is an important difference between them. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had 2000 years of christianity to base his beliefs and faith upon. James only had faith. For that reason James gets my vote.

    1. "Only faith"??!! What about being a first-hand witness to Jesus' teachings and miracles??And James had an in-his-face experience of the Risen Christ!!
      I hope and expect Bonhoeffer did too, finally..but not before he had to stake his life on it. For that, it has to be Bonhoeffer.

  7. I voted for Dietrich... then, I began to wonder if I had voted for him just because of his martyrdom in my own personal history. We have so much more a completed picture of the person in Bonhoeffer. James was however a pivotal instrument of the earthly mission Jesus of Nazareth.

  8. It seems a wee bit easier to vote for the one we know more about; where there is more historical fact than urban legend.

  9. I understand complexity, but in the end I couldn't reconcile the decision to join in an assassination plot with Christianity. It's hard, but non-violent opposition to evil is less likely to provoke violence in response, and even if it does, non-violence is the more Christ-like response.

  10. DB. Changed my life. Wish I had known him in real life. If I hadn't already voted for him Don Cardwell's post would have convinced me.

  11. These two would be two of my top four for Lent Madness, but ultimately it's an easy decision. James is an APOSTLE! And I still don't believe Jesus would have his disciples strike out.

  12. “I discovered later, and I'm still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith.”
    ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  13. Bonhoeffer. Because he showed that ethical decision-making is often very, very hard. The problem is not following the rules in a particular situation. The problem is that in a particular situation there are rules that conflict. If I follow one, some good and some evil will happen. If I follow the other, the same thing. No matter what I do, something good will happen but something evil will also happen. Or I can sit in paralysis and do nothing at all. Which may result in more evil than choosing one way or the other.
    The “Bonhoeffer and Hitler” issue is probably one of the worst ethical decision-making places for anyone to ever be placed in. If Bonhoeffer participates in killing Hitler, he has violated the commandment against murder. He may also encourage others to commit murder where the ethical considerations are not so severe. On the other hand, thousands of lives will be saved.
    If he does not particulate in killing Hitler, he has not committed murder or “lived by the sword.” But thousands of people will die.
    He does evil either way – people will die.
    In his Ethics, I think he realizes that in this type of situation, he has to accept guilt for the evil that results from whatever decision he makes and to ask God for forgiveness.
    Would I have made the same decision? I don’t know. What I have learned from Bonhoeffer, however, is that moral decision making is oftentimes not easy because there’s no clear black and white answer. Instead, I have to choose between the lesser of two evils. And I have to accept that a choice of a lesser evil is still a choice of evil, for which I must accept guilt and ask for forgiveness.

  14. Metaxis book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy; is just an excellent book on his family life, education, engagement to marry, ministry, theology and his dedication to God's will is a good read.

  15. Wow! This kind of dilemma is what Lent is all about! Since I was confirmed in a church honoring St. James, and sponsored for ordination by another honoring St. James, the choice would seem obvious. However, to my mind this isn't a competition between degrees of saintliness, but of influence in daily life. St. James is a misty figure, human-yes, but part of such a different world. Bonhoeffer, of whom I learned in my thirties, lived in a world very much like ours. He struggled with dilemmas that many of us struggle with, and though a modern person, he still died like an ancient saint. He gets my vote simply because I see him more clearly, and he always points to Christ.

  16. We have much more history written on Bonhoeffer, theologian and martyr, as well as his own writings. I think that's why he's so far ahead. Have you not considered that James, Son of Thunder, left his life and livelihood to follow Jesus, gave up self in every sense of the word. I vote for James the apostle.

  17. You don't have to be a genius to project a Bonhoeffer win. The original 12 are not doing well this season. Bonhoeffer is such a massive voice of conscience for us modern Christians. I think he'd beat out just about anybody...maybe even Philander Chase. Well, we'll see, won't we. #saintly16

    1. '@Marguerite -- Yeah, I am posting my picks on Facebook for the winners in the saintly sixteen and going forward rounds, on March 15 -- and encourage others to do the same. I mean, let's really get into the bracket thing. I've got Dietrich vs. Mary Magdalene for the final. Paul could pull an upset, but my money says this is too Anglican a crowd.

  18. DECISIONS decisions decisions, This is a tough one, My first thought was James of course. I married James, My first Episcopal Church was St. James. My daughter was baptized at St. James Church. THen I did more research on this Bonhoeffer dude. To make the choices he made at such a time of turmoil. TO witness what he witnessed. But it comes right down to my faith in the beginning, James was there for so much. A first follower of Christ what that was the very unpopular stand to take and to die for it. I am going with James. I went with Thomas for the same beliefs. Is that right?

  19. After some deliberation, I cast my vote for David Donofrio, the 25 year old Democratic candidate for my State Rep, a real underdog, then went with the majority in Lent Madness today. I so love participating in the electoral process!

  20. What I also find very powerful about Bonhoeffer's witness is his refusal to let Christianity be claimed and defined by those who would use it for destructive, exclusionary purposes.

  21. You can't top being handpicked by Jesus. James was just an ordinary guy...a fisherman...one of twelve known mostly because of his appearance at the Transfiguration and for falling asleep at a most inappropriate time. Most of us are like him. We did not get(and probably will not) be getting a PhD at the age of 21 and won't be plotting an assassination, no matter the target. Too bad James is losing in this contest but remember, he won the one that counts !

  22. I cast my vote as a 21st century Christian for Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I find it difficult to vote against one of Jesus' inner circle, but if one of the points of saintly living is to encourage others on the path, Bonhoeffer's address to the circumstances of the 20th century provide me quite the vivid path to follow.

  23. My admiration, such a weak word it seems, for Bonhoeffer, will allow me to vote for no other. I'm sorry he wasn't successful in his attempt on Hitler's life. The world would have been a better place and less lives lost.

  24. Yes, Bonhoeffer was wonderful in many ways, though not all. But hey, I hiked 500 miles for Saint Jim! He gets my vote, even if he is way behind at this point in time!

  25. Dr primrose, thank you for naming so well the heart of the matter. I served at St. James' and have always loved the arrogant impulsiveness (how very human!) of Zebedee's thunderous sons...their mama, too...but DB has a different kind of intensity. May the Santiago pilgrims have safe, rich journeys, all, but my vote is for Bonhoeffer. Thanks to all of you for your depth and breadth of observation.

  26. I think that Bonhoeffer would have voted for James, and so would Spain. St. James certainly has my vote for his contribution as an Apostle of the early church. How long would it have taken for Christianity to travel if some of the Apostles had gone nowhere?