Dietrich Bonhoeffer on belonging: The refugee crisis in perspective

Jacob Phillips

Europe is facing a humanitarian crisis reminiscent in some respects of the darkest days of the twentieth century, and differing options for responding to this crisis are being voiced from within the Church. This article argues that the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer offer unique theological responses to the refugee crisis, which might promise to make room for the different concerns at play. Jacob Phillips is a lecturer in theology at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.

The writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer may not seem the most obvious place to look for resources to reflect on the refugee crisis. Giving some consideration to his life, however, suggests otherwise. Bonhoeffer lived in a time of unparalleled forced migration, and was himself an emigré to London between 1933-35. In London he devoted himself to helping those arriving from Germany, arranging accommodation and donations for refugees from his congregations. But some years after he returned home, once war had broken out in 1939, an academic post was arranged for him in the USA to protect him from the threat of conscription. In the US, Bonhoeffer underwent a significant personal battle, in which, after much agonising, he decided he simply could not flee but had to return home, at considerable personal risk. We can detect from this why Bonhoeffer’s writings include consideration on what it is to belong.

Although drawing parallels to the Europe of the 1930s is always dubious, let us remember that already by June 2014, the UN announced that the number of displaced people had exceeded 50 million worldwide for the first time since the Second World War.

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