Bonhoeffer: Model of Christian Witness
The church has three possible ways it can act against the state. First, it can ask the state if its actions are legitimate. Second, it can aid the victims of the state action. The church has the unconditional obligation to the victims of any order in society even if they do not belong to the Christian society. The third possibility is not just bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.
‒ Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) is widely considered one of the great models of religious courage and creativity in the 20th century. A pacifist who became a Nazi resister, he was executed in a Nazi prison for his part in a failed conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. His life spanned the rise and fall of Hitler’s Germany, and offers us a model of personal morality and conscience in the most troubled and immoral of times. What made his Christian witness all the more powerful was the courage and faithfulness he possessed while the Protestant Christians’ responses to Hitler’s “seizure of power” in 1933 ranged from cautious hope to giddy enthusiasm.
For many Christians, Hitler’s quirks and lack of refinement were overshadowed by his promises to restore law and order, reassert the church’s cultural relevance, put the country back on par with its international rivals, and generally make Germany powerful again. Christians emerging from the economic and psychological morass of Weimar Germany were so enamored of the Nazi vision that they ignored what appears to us now as flaming red flags, perceiving only the bright dawn of German redemption.
Bonhoeffer saw things differently, of course. He was deeply influenced by the great Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth. Barth observed that in each warring nation in World War I Europe had claimed God for itself, turning the one God into a tribal God, and this was a catastrophe for Christianity. Bonhoeffer saw German nationalism as tribal religion preached by Adolf Hitler.
Bonhoeffer’s early antipathy toward Hitler was regarded with irritation by most Christian leaders in Germany, even among those who opposed the church’s “nazification.” Bonhoeffer’s contemporaries, in fact, viewed him as an unreasonable partisan too uncompromising in church disputes, too quick to criticize the fledgling Nazi state, and too pessimistic about Germany’s auspicious future under Hitler. Bonhoeffer continued though, challenging the church to put Christ back at the center. This led to his forming an underground seminary, beginning the confessional church movement, and eventually led to the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler.
Bonhoeffer was executed at Flossenburg Prison on April 9, 1945, just three weeks before Hitler committed suicide in his bunker as the allies closed in to liberate Berlin. Here is the passage from his book Letters and Papers from Prison, which he wrote to his good friend Eberhard Bethge the day after the plot to assassinate Hitler failed.
“I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith.”
Bonhoeffer has been made popular over the last two years in two documentaries, “Hanged on a Twisted Cross,” and “Bonhoeffer,” as well as the movie “Agent of Grace.” I recommend the “Bonhoeffer” documentary of the three because Martin Doblmeier is an excellent writer, and I find it most closely matches my readings of original Bonhoeffer material.
Bonhoeffer has also gained fame recently due to the bestselling book in 2010 by Eric Metaxas called Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. The Bonhoeffer scholars I know do not respect Metaxas as an interpreter of Bonhoeffer and view Metaxas recent invocation of Bonhoeffer in support of President Trump as an egregious misappropriation of the theologian’s legacy. I do not recommend this book but do encourage everyone to read Bonhoeffer’s original writings, especially Cost of Discipleship, Letters and Papers from Prison, and Life Together.
Rev. Brent Barry is the lead pastor of NorthPark Presbyterian Church. Brent and NorthPark have a deep commitment to working with the poor and hungry in Dallas, helping those with Alzheimer’s disease, and reaching across religious and cultural lines to do their part to bring Dallas together as one.