I just finished reading the book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. Though a New York Times bestseller, the book is not an easy read. First of all, it’s 608 pages. Secondly it takes you into the heart of Nazi Germany where Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian, took a stand against Adolf Hitler and his policies, a decision that eventually led to his death in a concentration camp.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, born February 4, 1906, was the sixth of eight children of a prominent German family. His father Karl was a well-known neurologist and psychiatrist in Berlin. His mother Paula came from a distinguished family that included a lady-of-the-court, a military chaplain, and a renowned theologian. Dietrich was a skilled pianist, so many assumed he would become a musician. But Dietrich surprised everybody by going into theology. At a young age he became an effective pastor, preacher, writer, and seminary professor.
Before World War II broke out, Bonhoeffer traveled extensively. In England he worked for ecumenism, in Harlem he became enamored with African-American spirituals and preaching, in India he met with Gandhi to learn more about passive resistance, in Rome he was deeply impressed with the internationality of the Catholic Church, and in Spain he served humbly as a pastor of a small parish. In June 1939 he accepted an invitation to return to the United States to teach theology, but as soon as he arrived, he regretted his decision. He became convinced that his place was back in Germany with his people. Though many of his American friends tried to convince him to stay in the U.S. for his own safety, Bonhoeffer left the country on July 27, 1939 on the last steamer to cross the Atlantic.
From the very beginning of Hitler’s rise to power, Bonhoeffer had opposed him. While many in Germany and in the world were fooled by Hitler’s speeches and promises, Bonhoeffer saw into the diabolical nature of Nazism. He was appalled that most of the Christian Churches in Germany were not speaking out against Hitler. After returning to Germany in 1939, he joined the resistance movement that not only smuggled Jews out of Germany, but also were planning to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer, a conscientious objector, agonized over the decision to become part of the resistance. He did so , firmly convinced of the innate evil of Nazism. He wrote: “We must not bandage the victims under the wheel of injustice, but jam the spoke of the wheel itself.”
In 1938 the Nazis banned Bonhoeffer from Berlin. In 1941 he was forbidden to preach or publish anything. In the midst of all the horrors of the war, however, there was one bright spot for Bonhoeffer: he fell in love with Maria von Wedemeyer, the granddaughter of a good friend of his. They were engaged in January 1943, but three months later the Gestapo arrested him for his alleged role in smuggling Jews out of the country. The Gestapo did not yet know of his ties to the assassination conspiracy. Bonhoeffer would spend the rest of his life in several prisons and eventually in Flossenberg, a concentration camp. While imprisoned Bonhoeffer ministered to his fellow prisoners, held services, and continued to write letters, theological essays, and poetry–until even his writing was taken away.
During the war, the German resistance movement had tried twice to assassinate Hitler. The first time the bomb planted in Hitler’s plane failed to detonate. The second time Hitler changed his travel plans. The third time was July 20, 1944. One of Hitler’s own military leaders placed the bomb in the room where Hitler was meeting with his staff. The bomb went off killing several of the people in the room, but not injuring Hitler. Everyone directly associated with the plot was rounded up and executed. But it would take many months before Bonhoeffer’s name became linked to the conspiracy. When Hitler learned of Bonhoeffer’s ties, he angrily ordered Bonhoeffer and several others to be executed immediately. Bonhoeffer was hanged at dawn on April 9, 1945, two weeks before the U.S. forces liberated the concentration camp where he was being held. And three weeks before Hitler himself committed suicide in his underground bunker.
A few miscellaneous thoughts:
* Bonhoeffer was a man of deep, personal prayer. Daily he poured over the scriptures looking for direction for his life.
* Bonhoeffer had a great influence on Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., the anti-communist movement in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
* Bonhoeffer’s most famous book is The Cost of Discipleship. He was only 39 when he was executed. What a loss! Imagine the sermons he might have delivered, the classes he might have taught, the books he might have written.
* In one of his poems, Bonhoeffer explores the question “Who Am I?” He suggests several different answers and then concludes with: “Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!”
* The official website for him is: www.dbonhoeffer.org.
What impression does Bonhoeffer make on you?
Who are today’s prophets? What are they standing up for?