“Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God – the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God.”
Despite the overgrowth of cluttered prose, Eric Metaxas, in his biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, brings to life Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the thirty-nine year old German pastor who was executed only three weeks before the suicide of Hitler at the end of the Second World War.
Bonhoeffer was born into cultured German family: because his intelligence was keen, everyone imagined he was headed into academic life. Much to the surprise of his family (and perhaps dismay of his agnostic father), he chose theology as his field of study. Earning a doctorate from Berlin University, Bonhoeffer then came to the United States to study at Union Theological Seminary. There, he discovered the spiritual anemia of Liberal Protestantism. “In New York they preach about virtually everything: only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.” The only real vibrant faith he witnessed was in the African American churches he visited, although he couldn’t help but be struck by the injustices blacks suffered at that time (1930-1931). It is not hard to imagine that Bonhoeffer’s time in the United States seeded his later convictions to proclaim the gospel and defend the Jews.
As historical review: Following World War I, the Allies had demanded Germans surrender territory and decimate their military. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Germans cast upon him their hopes of a resurrected national dignity. Hitler became a kind of Messianic figure and worked to consolidate his power and silence his opposition. In the name of necessity and patriotism, Hitler shredded normal legal and judicial processes, imprisoning and even killing dissidents. Many Germans turned a blind eye. At the same time, the slow disenfranchisement of German Jews began. They were barred from civil service, stripped of their right to practice medicine or law. Their stores were boycotted, and their citizenship eventually revoked. As Hitler moved to bring the German church more fully under his control, ethnic Jews who were baptized Christians were now forbidden membership in German churches.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as early as the spring of 1933, stood against all these policies of the Third Reich. Gifted with a prescient wisdom, Bonhoeffer saw the threat Hilter posed to Germany, to the German church, and most certainly to German Jews. Unlike other Germans, he was never mesmerized by Hitler’s empty promises and early military successes. “In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things, the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and is at best the object of pity. The world will allow itself to be subdued only by success.”
Bonhoeffer could never be persuaded that a man such as Hitler was anything but evil incarnate, nor could he stomach the German church’s compromises with Hitler. Bonhoeffer led a movement of evangelical churches willing to officially break its ties with the German church. Bonhoeffer spoke persuasively to convince pastors and church leaders across Germany that, “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.”
Bonhoeffer’s clear theological thinking was the foundation of his refusal to ever join ranks with the German church. When the Confessing Church (the name by which this evangelical movement was called) used muted rather than forceful language regarding Hitler’s political agenda (despite Bonhoeffer’s public objections), he eventually moved beyond protest to conspiracy. Bonhoeffer joined a plot to assassinate Hitler. “It became clear where the problem lay for the Confessing Church: we were resisting by way of confession, but we were not confessing by way of resistance.”
This was not a decision Bonhoeffer made easily. He, like many of his friends and colleagues, felt a patriotic impulse. Indeed, it was only by divine providence that he was never drafted into military service. And while he may have felt a moral reluctance towards participating in an assassination plot, Bonhoeffer eventually resolved his inner conflict by again, retreating to his understanding of the gospel. “When the confusion of accusations and excuses, of desires and fears, makes everything within us so obscure, he sees quite clearly into all our secrets. And at the heart of them all he finds a name, which he himself has inscribed: Jesus Christ.”
Bonhoeffer had the foresight, it seemed, that so many others lacked at the time. What’s become clear with historical hindsight is that all of Bonhoeffer’s fears (both for the Jews as well as for the German church) were warranted. We know the horrible fate with which million of Jews met under Hitler’s watch, and the German Church would have fared no better. Hitler was moving to remove the cross from all German churches, replacing it with the symbol of the swastika. He planned to forbid the publication and dissemination of the Bible: Mein Kampf would become the sacred text of the Germans. Bonhoeffer saw the fateful writing on the wall, and his Christian faith did not permit him to stand idly.
The assassination plot would eventually fail, and papers were soon thereafter discovered implicating Bonhoeffer and many more. All those involved were detained on charges of treason and were executed within weeks of the Allied Victory. The camp doctor who witnessed Bonhoeffer’s hanging at the gallows said, “I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
Metaxas includes much of Bonhoeffer’s writings from his prison cell: we find in them a man whose spirit never flagged during his more than eighteen months of imprisonment. He exercised pastoral duties in the Gestapo prison. Always he spoke words of encouragement and comfort to other prisoners who were often beset by fear. And for a man who had previously suffered with bouts of depression, it was God’s good grace that allowed him his inner fortitude by which he continued to give to his fellow prisoners. Only moments after having concluded a sermon preached in their confinement, he was taken by guards and executed.
There’s much to learn from Bonhoeffer’s life, which is one of the reasons biography is perhaps my favorite genre. First, you see in Bonhoeffer a committed participation to life here and now. The gospel was clearly not for him a pie-in-the-sky reality. The gospel demanded the embrace of earth as much as heaven. In his words,
“God wants to see human beings, not ghosts who shun the world.”
“In the whole of world history there is always only one really significant hour – the present. . . .If you want to find eternity, you must serve the times.”
“[We need] the faith that endures in the world and loves and remains true to that world in spite of all the hardships it brings us. Our marriage [he’s talking here of his engagement to his fiancé] must be a ‘yes’ to God’s earth. It must strengthen our resolve to do and accomplish something on earth. I fear that Christians who venture to stand on earth on only one leg will stand in heaven on only one leg too.”
Also, Bonhoeffer had such a clear-headed courage about him. It wasn’t wildly fanatic. For example, when France surrendered to Germany, there was public celebration in Germany. Bonhoeffer stood to salute Hilter when the news was announced on the radio at a public café, causing his friend to grab his arm and question him. Bonhoeffer’s reply: “Are you crazy? Raise your arm! We’ll have to run risks for many different things, but this silly salute is not one of them.” He knew when and how to act courageously, not foolishly, and he was always prepared to sacrifice himself for Christ and the gospel.
But courage didn’t preclude confusion. He did struggle to understand the will of God. He questioned his motives, felt unsure at times of the way forward. He was like you, like me, and he cast these doubts we all share to God who receives sinful men and women. “It is remarkable how I am never quite clear about the motives for any of my decisions. Is that a sign of confusion, of inner dishonesty, or is it a sign that we are guided without our knowing, or is it both? . . . In the last resort one acts from a level which remains hidden from us. So one can only asked God to judge us and to forgive us . . . At the end of the day I can only ask God to give a merciful judgment on today and all its decisions. It is now in his hand.”
Bonhoeffer teaches us to live and die well. As he was taken for execution, he said serenely, ‘This is the end. For me the beginning of life.”