BONHOEFFER: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
If you’ve been reading all.things.loss for any amount of time, you’ve seen Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s name littered throughout posts on the site. Ever since partially reading his The Cost of Discipleship a few years ago I have been captivated by the theology he championed in war-torn Germany spanning both World Wars. However, I didn’t fully know his story or what placed him in a position of authority in Germany so I was very excited to read Eric Metaxas’ highly regarded biography, published and released by Thomas Nelson Publishers in 2010.
I was not disappointed. This was a biography that read more like a movie – 542 pages detailing the battle between the forces of good and unimaginable evil. It was so hard to put down I found myself reading even bits and pieces any chance I had. The story itself is tailor made for riveting material and that Metaxas lends his literary prowess to it makes it even better.
This is a bit longer post than I normally write so please forgive me. It was a long book that deserves ample attention. This is my first attempt at a book review although it will be more of an exposition of Bonhoeffer’s life and theoogy than a review of the book itself.
Who is Bonhoeffer and Why You Should Care
If you aren’t familiar with this man and his theology I encourage you to get to know him. What he had to say is still very much applicable to our lives today – even though 75 years and an ocean separate us!
As the fifth of eight children in a well-to-do and very intelligent family, Bonhoeffer was surrounded by siblings who went on to become top lawyers and scientists in their fields (one of which split the atom in a research position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.1 Bonhoeffer, whom his family expected would follow in their footsteps, was a brilliant academic who instead chose to put his mental prowess to work in the field of theology.
From the time I was thirteen years old it was clear to me that I would study theology – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
He, in the vein of the rest of his family, would eventually separate himself from the pack in his chosen field as well, becoming a trusted leader in the resistance against Hitler and the Third Reich. But what drove him to take the stances he is now famous for taking when so many of his counterparts, in the name of nationalist pride and “joyful collaboration” between church and state2, were conceding too much? What did he see that no one else seemed capable of seeing?
The Difference Between Cheap and Costly Grace
Bonhoeffer believed true Christianity necessarily makes certain claims on the lives of believers. To align oneself with Christ is to align oneself with the marginalized, weak, and voiceless of society and when these are threatened it is the role of the believer to stand up and protect them. He didn’t think himself a radical extremist or a zealous fanatic on the fringes of Orthodox Christianity. Rather, he simply read the Bible and acted according to what it and Jesus demands of those who call themselves “Christian.”
Bonhoeffer often spoke of Jesus Christ as the “man for others,” as selflessness incarnate, loving and serving others to the absolute exclusion of his needs and desires. Similarly, the church of Jesus Christ existed for “others.” And since Christ was Lord over the whole world, not just the church, the church existed to reach out beyond itself, to speak out for the voiceless, to defend the weak and fatherless.”
To see that it was against God’s will to persecute the Jews, one must choose to open one’s eyes. And then one would face another uncomfortable choice: whether to act as God required. Bonhoeffer strove to see what God wanted to show and then to do what God asked in response. That was the obedient Christian life, the call of a disciple. And it came with a cost, which explained why so many were afraid to open their eyes in the first place. It was the antithesis of the “cheap grace” that required nothing more than an easy mental assent.4
It was this distinction between cheap grace and costly grace that would lay the foundation for all of his actions in resistance to the Nazis. In one corner was the nominalism (Christian in name only) that characterized much of German Christianity for the several hundred years that followed Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. “After four hundred years of taking for granted that all Germans were Lutheran Christians, no one really knew what Christianity was anymore.”5 It was assumed, accepted, and thus diluted of its strength and vigor.
In the other corner were Bonhoeffer and his idea that faith required action rather than reaction. He believed faith to be living and breathing and the Word of God active and able to speak into the situation in which they found themselves. So what would it say? And what actions would it lead Bonhoeffer to take as the events of the war unfolded?
In the beginning Bonhoeffer was very outspoken against the Fuhrer and his regime. But events had not yet taken a turn for the worse and Hitler had not yet revealed to the world his explicit hatred of Jews and plans to eliminate them. Once Bonhoeffer realized what he was up against, he had tough decisions to make.
It was great to experience this journey and understand the thoughts that drove him to take the actions he did. Most of us desire a Christian faith that is black and white. We would rather avoid the gray areas. Right is right; wrong is wrong; and that’s all there is to it. Easy as pie right? Bonhoeffer was not afraid of the gray areas and would in fact aggressively enter the extremely nuanced corners of the Christian faith into which others were afraid to venture.
Is it OK to act deceitfully towards the government under whose authority you have been placed, knowing that in 1 Peter we are instructed to submit to our authorities? Is lying wrong even if it is done in an attempt to end the suffering of millions at the hand of a ruthless dictator? Doesn’t the Bible command us “Thou shalt not kill” and “Turn the other cheek?” Is it sinful to be an integral part of an assassination attempt on a human being’s life, even if that human being happens to be Adolf Hitler?
These questions and others like them froze many a believer under the affliction of the Nazis…but not Bonhoeffer. He believed Christianity to be an active faith, not a reactive one.
“To delay or fail to make decisions may be more sinful than to make wrong decisions out of faith and love…We must shake off our fear of this world – the cause of Christ is at stake, and are we to be found sleeping?…Christ is looking down at us and asking whether there is anyone left who confess faith in him.” – Bonhoeffer6
“It depends on a God who demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith,” he wrote, “and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture.” Here was the rub: one must be more zealous to please God than to avoid sin. One must sacrifice oneself utterly to God’s purposes, even to the point of possibly making moral mistakes. One’s obedience to God must be forward-oriented and zealous and free, and to be a mere moralist or pietist would make such a life impossible.”
What It All Means
None of us will likely ever be faced with the decision of whether to kill a ruthless tyrant in our lifetimes. Bonhoeffer’s theology is applicable not only to those who faced such a national crisis as the Germans did in the 30’s and 40’s, but to our daily, mundane lives as well.
Will we speak for those without a voice? We will stand for those who cannot stand for themselves? Will we protect the weak and extend our hands to the marginalized? Luckily for us, we’ll never face the situations Bonhoeffer found himself in, but it’s almost harder for us when the consequences aren’t so dire and it doesn’t to be life or death.
I found myself challenged and convicted with every turn of the page. Bonhoeffer confronted my “easy believism” and dared me to embrace true grace, costly grace, and settle for no counterfeits. This book is highly recommended. As far as biographies go it has been my favorite thus far. It has a good word for the cheap grace running rampant through the American church today.
On The Road to Freedom
History tells that Bonhoeffer’s attempt on Hitler’s life, as well as all others, failed as Hitler took his own life in the end. But before that Bonhoeffer would be captured, charged, and convicted for the role he played in the conspiracy and would ultimately be executed for it. On a purely human level, he failed. He was dead, Hitler was still alive and the atrocities towards the Jews and others continued while he was in prison. But on another level He succeeded. As his impending death approached he viewed himself as being “on the road to freedom.”
Success for Bonhoeffer wasn’t measured in tangible results, though he had certainly hoped for those as well. Instead, success was determined by whether he accurately discerned and then humbly submitted himself to the will of God.
He was beginning to understand that he was God’s prisoner, that like the prophets of old, he was called to suffer and to be oppressed – and in that defeat and the acceptance of that defeat, there was victory…”The triumphal procession of truth and justice, the triumphal procession of God and his Scriptures through the world, drags in the wake of the chariot of victory a train of prisoners in chains. May he at last bind us to his triumphal carriage so that, although in bonds oppressed, we may participate in his victory!”8
1Metaxas, p. 41
2Metaxas, p. 185
3Metaxas, p. 315-316
4Metaxas, p. 278-279
5Metaxas, p. 174
6Metaxas, p. 218-219
7Metaxas, p. 446-447
8Metaxas, p. 210