Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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1906 – 1945


When his paternal grandmother was ninety-one years old she walked defiantly through the cordon that brutal stormtroopers had thrown up around Jewish shops. His maternal grandmother, a gifted pianist, had been a pupil of the incomparable Franz Liszt. His mother was the daughter of a world-renowned historian; his father, a physician, was chief of Neurology and Psychiatry at Berlin’s major hospital. All of these currents – courage in the face of terrible danger, rare musical talents, and world-class scholarship – flowed together in Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Since his family was religiously indifferent, family members were startled and amused – then incredulous – when Bonhoeffer announced at the age of fourteen that he was going to be a pastor and theologian. His older brother (soon to be a distinguished physicist) tried to deflect him, arguing that the church was weak, silly, irrelevant and unworthy of any young man’s lifelong commitment. "If the church is really what you say it is," replied the youngster soberly, "then I shall have to reform it." Soon he began his university studies in theology at Tuebingen and completed them at Berlin. His doctoral dissertation exposed his brilliance on a wider front and introduced him to internationally-known scholars.

In 1930 Bonhoeffer went to the United States as a guest of its best-known seminary. He was dismayed at the frivolity with which American students approached theology. Unable to remain silent any longer, he informed the pastors-to-be, "At this liberal seminary the students sneer at the fundamentalists in America, when all the while the fundamentalists know far more of the truth and grace, mercy and judgement of God."

A gifted scholar and professor, Bonhoeffer remained a pastor at heart. By 1933 he had left university teaching behind and was a pastor to two German-speaking congregations in London, England. By now the life-and-death struggle for the church in Germany was under way. Did the church live from the gospel only, or could the church lend itself to the state in order to reinforce the ideology of the state? Bonhoeffer argued that the latter would render the church no church at all. An older professor of theology who had conformed to Nazi ideology in order to keep his job commented, "It is a great pity that our best hope in the faculty is being wasted on the church struggle." As the struggle intensified, it was noticed that Bonhoeffer’s sermons became more comforting, more confident of God’s victory, and more defiant. The struggle was between the national church (which supported Hitler) and the "confessing" church, called such because it confessed that there could be only one Fuehrer or leader for Christians, and it was not Hitler. Lutheran bishops remained silent in the hope of preserving institutional unity, while most pastors fearfully whispered that there was no need to play at being confessing heroes. In the face of such ministerial cowardice Bonhoeffer warned his colleagues that they ought not to pursue converting Hitler; what they had to ensure was that they were converted themselves. An Anglican bishop who know him well in England was later to write of him, "He was crystal-clear in his convictions; and young as he was, and humble-minded as he was, he saw the truth and spoke it with complete absence of fear." Bonhoeffer himself wrote to a friend about this time, "Christ is looking down at us and asking whether there is anyone who still confesses him."

Leadership in the confessing church was desperately needed. Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in order to teach at an underground seminary at Finkenwald, near Berlin. Not one of the university faculties of theology had sided with the confessing church. Bonhoeffer commented tersely, "I have long ceased to believe in the universities."

A pacifist early in the war, Bonhoeffer came to see that Hitler would have to be removed. He joined with several high-ranking military officers who were secretly opposed to Hitler and who planned to assassinate him. The plot was discovered in April, 1943. Bonhoeffer would spend the rest of his life – the next two years – in prison. Underground plans were in place to help him escape when it was learned that his brother Klaus, a lawyer, had been arrested. Bonhoeffer declined to escape lest his family be punished. (He was never to know that his brother was executed in any case, along with Hans von Dohnanyi, his brother-in-law.)

Bonhoeffer always knew that it is where we are, by God’s providence, that we are to exercise the ministry God has given us. His ministry henceforth was an articulation and embodiment of gospel-comfort to fellow-prisoners awaiting execution. Captain Payne Best, an Englishman, survived to bear tribute to the prison-camp pastor: "Bonhoeffer was different, just quite calm and normal, seemingly perfectly at his ease. . . . His soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison. He was one of the very few men I have ever met to whom God was real and ever close to him."

Bonhoeffer was removed from the prison and taken to Flossenburg, an extermination camp in the Bavarian forest. On April 9, three weeks before American forces liberated Flossenburg, he was executed. Today the tree from which he was hanged bears a plaque with only ten words inscribed on it: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a witness to Jesus Christ among his brethren.

Victor Shepherd