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  • The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Lisa Dahill (bio)
The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. By Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson. Foreword by Renate Bethge. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003. 300pp. $25.00.

How is a Christian theologian, teacher, and clergyperson to speak and act in the context of chaos: one's supposedly "Christian" nation pursuing a racially and religiously tinged war of aggression, accompanied by unspeakable human rights violations? How does one grow in faith, hope, and love—not to mention courage and discernment—in a nation whose leader often blurs imperialistic patriotism with the symbols and trappings of religion, his staff masterful in the arts of fear-mongering, the techniques of manipulation? How does a person learn to abide in the truth, in the One who is Truth, in the midst of bewildering layers of deceit, of mounting global violence? As Christians in the United States of 2004 face these ominous questions from within our own nation's struggles in Iraq and beyond, many who have long turned to Dietrich Bonhoeffer for insight on spiritual, theological, and ethical/political matters may find his witness resonating even more powerfully out of his own struggle for orientation in the face of chaos.

Those who consider such parallels offensive or unthinkable may find much to contest in Geffrey Kelly and F. Burton Nelson's recent study of the spiritual rooting of Bonhoeffer's moral leadership. But those who perceive the priorities, reasoning, and rhetoric of present U.S. leadership to be profoundly disturbing may well applaud these prominent Bonhoeffer scholars' intentions in The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For in this final published collaboration of their decades of immersion in Bonhoeffer, Nelson (who died in March, 2004) and Kelly have written a volume designed not merely to track Bonhoeffer's significance within his own time but quite explicitly to invite reflection on Christian response to comparable injustices, deceptions, and fear today. Whether the book quite succeeds as a study of Bonhoeffer's spirituality in and of itself is open to debate (see below). But that it succeeds not only in tracing his thought and action with remarkable facility and depth in light of complex biographical and historical factors, but also in provoking discussion about contemporary implications of his legacy, is cause for gratitude from all those who read and (especially) teach Bonhoeffer.

The book is organized broadly chronologically. Beginning with a biographical overview in chapter one, it moves in the subsequent nine chapters through major motifs and writings of Bonhoeffer's academic and pastoral career, culminating in an extended treatment of his prison prayers and poems in chapter ten. Yet, within this broadly chronological framework, the individual chapters are structured thematically rather than biographically; most include citations from a range of books, essays, sermons, letters, and other primary sources spanning Bonhoeffer's life, as well as occasional secondary citations. Along the way, we encounter not only themes echoing major published works (e.g., chapter six on Bonhoeffer's cruciform spirituality, exploring Discipleship, and chapter seven on Christian community, treating Life Together),but chapters also on Bonhoeffer's persistent call for solidarity with the marginalized echoing into contemporary liberation spirituality (chapter four), his leadership in the early ecumenical and peace movements (chapter five), Bonhoeffer's solidarity with God's vulnerability unto death (chapter eight), and his preaching as a window into his spirituality of the Word [End Page 239] (chapter nine). The breadth and wealth of the chapters' citations, mining the authors' encompassing knowledge of the corpus, gives the book an impressive, fine-grained grounding in Bonhoeffer's thought around each of these themes.

One particular jewel is the chapter on the Holy Spirit (chapter three, subtitled "The Prophetic Dimension of Moral Leadership"). Emerging from a paper the authors presented to the Eighth International Bonhoeffer Conference in August, 2000, this essay will be worth the cost of the volume to Bonhoeffer scholars. Unlike most of the rest of the book, which is primarily descriptive, exhortatory, and synthetic, this chapter presents original scholarship on a subject long neglected in Bonhoeffer studies. It documents how...


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