A Man of Integrity, Faith, and Suffering
Had Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived until now, he would be one hundred years old this week (February 4th). But, his life came to an early and abrupt end on April 13, 1945, in a German concentration camp at the hands of SS Black Guards, only days before the camp’s liberation by Allied Forces.
Bonhoeffer was not a Jew, nor a Gypsy, nor Communist. That is not why he was executed. He was a German Christian theologian and writer. His independence, courage, and resistance sealed his fate. It is through his writings and his witness, and the testimony of friends who survived him that Bonhoeffer is remembered today and will be remembered long into the future.
If one were to list the most noted Christian martyrs of the twentieth century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer surely would be in that number.
Following the Great War (WWI), Germany experienced financial collapse and unimaginable monitory inflation. During the 1920s German inflation ran so rampant that it is reported that a man once went to market with a wheelbarrow filled with German money. While shopping, someone absconded with his wheelbarrow, leaving the worthless currency strewn about the floor.
Much of Germany’s fiscal woes, it was thought by Germans, were created by the heavy reparations demanded by the victors of the Great War – France, UK, USA, and others. Germans were a proud people with a grand history. Surely, they thought, their problems were caused by others, not by themselves. So, it is not surprising that they found others to blame. The Jews were a target, as were the French and British. Eventually, the National Socialist Party ascended to power, through elections, with Adolph Hitler as leader, their Fuhrer.
It is written that “Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a great realist. He was one of the few who quickly understood, even before Hitler came to power, that National Socialism (NAZI party) was a brutal attempt to make history without God and to found it on the strength of man alone. In February 1933, he denounced on the wireless a political system which corrupts and grossly misled a nation and made the Fuhrer its idol and god.”
In 1930-31, while studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Bonhoeffer befriended a fellow student, Jean Lasserre, a French advocate of the ecumenical movement, who argued, “Do we believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, or do we believe in the eternal mission of France? One cannot be a Christian and a nationalist at the same time.” From Lasserre, Bonhoeffer learned to delineate his love of and responsibilities to his government, and his love of and responsibilities to his God.
Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, the German church, in the main, was unable to recognize and acknowledge what Bonhoeffer saw. One might say that the German church suffered from having a log in its eye.
Early in his career Bonhoeffer wrote and taught about costly grace v. cheap grace. “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession.” In contrast, he said, “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price for which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble. It is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”
By 1943, Bonhoeffer completed his After Ten Years, a Reckoning made at New Year 1943, in which he confides to the reader the awesome dilemmas faced by the German people and the German church during that period. Suffering was real to them. Not physical suffering, but suffering of the mind and soul. What Bonhoeffer learned about human existence and mental anguish is applicable to every generation and every culture. Yet, one rarely stops to consider life’s ordeals and opportunities as Bonhoffer did.
In April 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested without charge and confined in various prisons and concentration camps for two years. His renowned Letters & Papers from Prison were written at that time, compiled later by friends. Eventually, Bonhoeffer was charged, tried, and executed all in a single day.
Bonhoffer experienced first-hand the cost of costly grace of which he previously wrote and taught in such a profound manner. Among his writings is this thought, “A man throws himself into the arms of God… then wakes with Christ in Gethsemane.”
By his actions, it is certain that Bonhoeffer did not confuse, commingle, and entwine into a single strain his love of and devotion to his nation and his God. He loved them both immensely and was duty-bound to them both. In the end, Bonhoeffer sacrificed his life for both, and gained his soul.
Let us remember, with reverence, Dietrich Bonhoeffer on this his one hundredth birthday.
Published in the Stanly News & Press, Albemarle, North Carolina, February 2, 2006.