The Spirit at Work Through History, Part 4 - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

December 18, 2018

Picture this: It’s April 9th, 1945. Four weeks before the German surrender. A balding, spectacled man in midlife is led into the courtyard of Flossenburg concentration camp, Germany. He says a prayer, then climbs the steps of the gallows. The trapdoor opens and a few seconds later the man is dead.

His name is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Age: 39. He’s a theologian and trainer of pastors. He’s also a member of a failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

In a written farewell message to fellow prisoners, Bonhoeffer said: “This is the end – for me, the beginning of life.”

In spite of his eventual decision to work with others to overthrow Hitler, young Bonhoeffer was not raised in a particularly radical environment.

Dietrich’s father was a leading neurologist and professor of psychiatry at Berlin University, while his mother the daughter of a chaplain in the Kaiser’s court, and grand-daughter of a renowned church historian. Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer had eight children and nurtured a thoughtful and socio-political awareness, including a belief in the equality of all races. However, it was Paula who was most concerned with the spiritual development of her children.

At the age of 12, Dietrich apparently announced to his dismayed father that he was going to become a theologian. And this precocious young man was true to his word, earning the first of his two doctorates before he turned 21!

In 1930 the young theologian went to New York for a year’s post-doctoral fellowship. This proved to be a critical time for the development of his faith. He was disturbed by the liberal theology dominant at Union Seminary, where he was based. However, his interactions with Reinhold Niebuhr and others drew him into a strong interest in the Sermon on the Mount and he experienced firsthand the oppressive racism of Harlem. He developed a commitment to non-violent resistance and peace and discovered a very personal faith.

Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in 1931 to teach theology at the University of Berlin. The Berlin of the early 1930’s was a hotbed of political ferment. The Nazi Party and their brand of German nationalism and anti-Semitism was on the rise, tapping into the great discontent of proud Germans who had seen their country humiliated following the world war, and struggle economically for more than a decade. The Nazi message was one of hope – but unlike most, Dietrich Bonhoeffer could already see that the future Hitler proposed for Germany would come at great cost to everyone.

The majority of church leaders in Germany were caught up in this growing mass hysteria and strident nationalism. Typical of many, one pastor said, “Hitler is the way of the Spirit and the will of God for the German people to enter the Church of Christ.” Another pastor simply stated, “Christ has come to us through Adolph Hitler.” Bonhoeffer was horrified. The Church was being co-opted into supporting a political party with deeply suspect beliefs and intentions.

On the 30th January, 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany.

Two days later, Bonhoeffer gave a radio lecture entitled “The Leadership Principle”, arguing vigorously against allegiance to the Fuhrer. Ominously, his address was cut from the air.

Some months later the young Bonhoeffer wrote an article on “The Church and the Jewish Question”, challenging the government to justify such blatantly immoral laws. Then, with other leaders, he organized a pastors’ conference to elicit opposition to the “Aryan Clause” which proposed excluding Jews from ordained ministry. This conference was the precursor to the formation of “the Confessing Church” – a collection of dissenting churches and church leaders who were to become increasingly opposed to the Nazi regime as the years rolled on.

In early 1935, Dietrich took on the leadership of one of the Confessing Church’s alternative seminaries (their students were excluded from the universities). Here, Bonhoeffer not only taught theology, but also practiced community with his students. They lived, ate, studied, and played together. It was a formative time.

In 1937, Bonhoeffer’s classic book, Discipleship, was published. Using the Sermon on the Mount as the central text, the book outlines Dietrich’s understanding of what it means to follow Christ, and it demonstrates his strong commitment to personal discipleship. But “…it also captures the struggle of Christians in Germany to remain faithful, rather than become followers of a religion that legitimized Hitler.”

In the book, Bonhoeffer contrasts two different types of grace – cheap grace and costly grace. He writes:

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living incarnate Jesus Christ.” On the other hand,

“[Costly grace] comes to us as a gracious call to follow Jesus; it comes as a forgiving word to the fearful spirit and the broken heart. Grace is costly because it forces people under the yoke of following Jesus; it is grace when Jesus says, ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’”

For Bonhoeffer, this costly grace had already had very personal implications. The year before, his authorization to teach at Berlin University was terminated and he was declared “a Pacifist and enemy of the State” by the Nazis.

Then, just two months before the book’s publication, the unofficial “seminary” he had been running, was closed down by the Gestapo.

However, Bonhoeffer appeared undeterred. His training of students simply went “underground”. And his resistance to the Nazi regime stepped up a notch when he made contact with leaders of the political resistance, which included Admiral Canaris, chief of the German military intelligence agency.

In 1939 Bonhoeffer was invited to tour the US to lecture over the summer. Good friends of his had intended that he remain in America, given the dangers of going back to Nazi Germany. Yet Dietrich was troubled. How could he, in all conscience, live in safety and freedom when his own people were suffering? He knew the Spirit was calling him to go back and stand in solidarity with brothers and sisters seeking to be faithful to Jesus. So within five weeks Bonhoeffer returned home. A short time later Germany was at war.

As he continued to write and teach (in secret), Dietrich’s involvement with the internal political resistance movement grew. He became a civilian agent in the military intelligence. This enabled him to utilize his international contacts by travelling abroad and increasing communication between the resistance and the Allies, as well as being able to smuggle Jews into Switzerland as alleged intelligence agents.

Bonhoeffer wrestled time and time again with what he felt compelled to do. In one letter, he stated, “If we claim to be Christians, there is no room for expediency. Hitler is anti-Christ. Therefore we must go on with our work and eliminate him whether he is successful or not.”

In a Christmas, 1942 letter to his family and friends involved in the assassination plot, Bonhoeffer reminded them of the ideals they were willing to give their lives for: “We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.”

However, the net was fast closing in. On April 5th, 1943, Bonhoeffer was finally arrested and a few days later charged with “subversion of the armed forces.”

Even within the walls of a prison, the pastor-theologian continued to write and to pastor. He had been working on another book for several years. Dietrich also penned numerous letters to friends and his fiancé, Maria, reflecting on a wide range of matters. And his counsel and care was in great demand from both fellow prisoners and guards.

Not long after D-Day, the assassination attempt on Hitler finally occurred, but it was unsuccessful. Soon after, the Gestapo discovered incriminating evidence among intelligence files that Bonhoeffer had been a part (or at least known) of the plot. His brother and brother-in-law were also arrested, along with other co-conspirators. Unsurprisingly, Bonhoeffer was moved to a prison under the Gestapo headquarters, for “further interrogation”.

Finally, with Germany only weeks away from capitulation to the Allies, the Fuhrer gave the order to annihilate the Canaris resistance group.

It was not until weeks later that Bonhoeffer’s parents learnt of their son’s death, via the London broadcast of a memorial service.

Some observations about Bonhoeffer’s faith

One of the reasons we know so much about Dietrich Bonhoeffer is because he wrote so much. Not so much his books – though they reveal alot about him – but more particularly the hundreds of letters he wrote. Here’s where we get real insights into his thoughts, motivations, friendships, and his faith.

Bonhoeffer had to grapple with difficult ethical decisions. And these became more and more complex as time went by.

Early on in the Nazi rule, it was very clear to Bonhoeffer that he should speak and write against them. But as Germany moved into the war years, discerning what God wanted him and his colleagues and family to do, was not easy.

For example, he was of conscription age and sooner or later he was going to be called up. What would he do? He could declare himself a conscientous objector. But in Nazi Germany there was only one response to such declarations. You would be shot.

Then when he chose to be co-opted into the intelligence agency, he had to learn to live a life of deception – pretending that he was working with the war effort, when in fact he was undermining it, doing everything he could to work against the government.

I sometimes wonder what I would have done if I was in his situation.

However, the thing that impacts me the most about Dietrich Bonhoeffer is his absolute commitment to discerning what God was asking of him and doing it. This led him into a life of risk and danger.

Many times he had the opportunity to leave Germany, but he felt compelled to take the more challenging route.

My church email last week included a quote from Parker Palmer, writing as a 79 year old:

For people like me, the notion that old age is a time to dial it down and play it safe is a cop-out. Those of us who are able should be raising hell on behalf of whatever we care about: freedom's just another word for not needing to count the cost.

I find that deeply challenging, because there’s a strong cultural expectation that the older you get the safer you play life. That risk taking and putting your life on the line is for the young. I know personally the struggle to resist just keeping to the things I know I can do – the things I can manage just by myself.

Over the past couple of months we’ve reflected on a number of people and communities through the history of the church:

  • Patrick and the Celtic Christian movement
  • Josephine Butler
  • Benedict, and
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We could have added numerous others:

  • Francis and Clare of Assisi
  • Martin Luther
  • John Wesley and the early Methodists
  • The Moravians
  • The Clapham Sect
  • Elizabeth Fry
  • Te Whiti and Tohu, and the village of Parihaka
  • Kate Shephard

The list is endless. They are the pioneers and veterans of faith.

As I reflect on each of these people, their commitment to follow Jesus and to be led by the Spirit inevitably led them to take steps out of comfort and security, to take risks, to find themselves “in over their heads” – forced to rely on God.

But these weren’t just activists. Without exception they were committed to a life of prayer. This was the engine room for their activity. This is where, in the intimacy of relationship with God and with each other, they learnt to hear the voice of the Spirit – guiding them, shaping them, and then sending them out to serve.

It was God’s empowering presence that enabled them to take on challenges that were well beyond their own resources.

The words of Jesus ring in my ears: “You are blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

What about us? What about me? What about you?

Where is God’s Spirit calling us at the moment to step out of our comfort zones?

Let’s take some time now to reflect on this. Here’s a couple of questions to help us.

  • Is prayer the engine room for our activity?

  • Where are we being challenged and led by God’s Spirit, at the moment. What is God asking of us? Individually. And as a church. And can we trust God that he will give us the resources to do what he is asking us to do?

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