He hardly finished his last prayer when the door was opened and two evil-looking men in civilian clothes came in and said, ‘Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready to come with us.’ Those words, ‘come with us,’ for all prisoners had come to mean only one thing — the scaffold. We bade him good-bye. ...
‘This is the end,’ he said, ‘For me the beginning of life ...’ Next day, at Flossenburg, he was hanged!”
Those were the last cold days before the Allied liberation of Nazi Germany. The executed prisoner was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Protestant minister and theologian who died April 9, 1945 — 60 years ago this month — and whose influence has grown ever since.
Bonhoeffer was born in 1906, the son of a notable psychiatrist. He surprised his non-religious family when, at an early age, he announced that he would study theology. But it was no empty dream. At age 21 he completed his doctoral dissertation and quickly was becoming one of the brightest theological thinkers of his day.
As war approached in June of 1939, he traveled to New York to be a guest teacher at Union Theological Seminary. But within days after his arrival, he realized he could not stay. He wrote to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, his American sponsor, just before he returned, “I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”
His homecoming began several years of tension and intrigue. Bonhoeffer had been one of the first to openly question the idolatry of nationalism and the new concept of “fuehrer.”
Naturally, leaders of the Third Reich mistrusted him. But they also recognized his usefulness. At international church conferences, he could put a good face on Nazism — even conduct espionage.
Bonhoeffer had different goals. In a 1937 book, The Cost of Discipleship, he had built a strong case for Christian pacifism. But his stance was never unconditional, and the conditions of a godless, bloodthirsty regime compelled him to join an underground resistance movement that planned to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
Suspected by the Gestapo all along, he was arrested in April 1943. The two years that followed included ruthless interrogations and the harsh life inside Berlin’s Tegel prison, a frequent target of Allied bombers. Through such hardship, even to several of his captors Bonhoeffer was known for being likable, warm and calm.
It was during those years that his thought began to flourish. From his cell he wrote dozens of letters, poems and essays. Some were eventually collected by his best friend and biographer, Eberhard Bethge. Later, they were published as Letters and Papers from Prison, which has since become a modern Christian classic.
Bonhoeffer’s legacy contains many strands. He coined a term to describe any doctrine of justification that offers an excuse for disobedience. He called it “cheap grace.” Obedience to the Lord is a necessary consequence of faith. And it must be resolute.
Prophetically he wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
During his two visits to the United States, he saw the results of the multiplication of feuding churches. To him it seemed that, having fled to a land of freedom, the refugees never learned how to stop struggling and had abused their new political privilege. Instead of probing questions of ultimate truth, they pitted the system of one denomination against that of another. He called that, “Protestantism without reformation.”
In his homeland, Bonhoeffer lamented that the churches of Germany had reduced the Christian faith to an individual’s right relationship with God. Such a narrow definition invited believers to forsake the body of Christ and neglect the vital responsibilities and blessings of fellowship in the family of God.
In 1938, he published Life Together, a series of meditations on Christian fellowship. The book grew out of his experiences as the leader of an illegal seminary where students and teachers lived, studied and worshipped together. Their focus was on mutual acceptance and forgiveness, reflecting the grace by which Christ receives each of us.
Thinking back to those days, he wrote, “Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Into community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray.
“You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be a member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ.”
In time, Bonhoeffer came to realize that the Protestantism of Germany had long been irrelevant to almost every sphere of life. Content to promote inward piety and to preside over ritual, the churches existed at the narrow margins of society. Consequently, they failed to answer the questions raised by the first Great War and lacked the strength to counter the rise of Nazism.
Considering those realities while studying his Bible, he proposed a “religionless” and “worldly” Christianity. If being “religious” means being preoccupied with pious occasions and the inner life, then the believer should outgrow and throw off religion.
“To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way,” he said.
“It is not some religious act that makes a Christian what he is.” By “worldly,” he did not mean “lascivious.” Instead, he meant the kind of faith that would lead a person to plunge himself “into the life of a godless world.” To be “worldly” in a Christian sense means to participate “in the suffering of God in the life of the world.”
Sixty years after Bonhoeffer’s death, little has changed. Idolatry continues to flourish as self-centeredness, allegiance to human power, ethnic delusions of grandeur and political states that resist all correction. The results are hatred, fear, terrorism and genocide. At the same time, we witness the growth of religion that often bears a form of godliness, while denying its power (2 Timothy 3:5).
In the face of such challenges, may the body of Christ never be content with a faith that leaves us to ourselves and our ways. Instead, let us expect real discipleship, enter into true fellowship, resist superficial forms, and live in gracious solidarity with a suffering world dearly loved by God.
FRANK BELLIZZI is minister for the South Road Church of Christ, Farmington, Conn. He may be reached at email@example.com.