For Lent this year I decided to read Eric Metaxas’ recent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Thomas Nelson. $29.00). I figured that its formidable 542 pages would take me from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Instead, I finished it in half that time.
Metaxas has written a curiously suspenseful book. I say “curiously,” because the reader is fully aware how the story will end. Bonhoeffer’s fate is well known. He was a brave Lutheran pastor who joined in the plot to kill Hitler and was executed just weeks before the end of World War II.
The suspense comes from Metaxas’ examination of how Bonhoeffer’s Christian faith led him inexorably to resistance and ultimately to martyrdom. Why did Bonhoeffer and a courageous few like him feel compelled to oppose the Nazis when so many others chose to compromise?
For the bulk of German Lutherans, compromise was easy – even Christian. The Lutheran Church had a long tradition, going back to Luther himself, of being obedient to the civil authority, however repulsive that authority might be. Luther had relied on Scripture, specifically on St. Paul’s injunction in Romans 13:1: “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.”
Bonhoeffer, taking the Scriptures as whole, and perceiving from the first that an attack on Judaism must ultimately end in an attack on Christianity, took his own text from Galatians 6:10: “Do good to all men.” As early as 1933, he preached that it was the duty of the church to stand up for the Jews. When the Nazis co-opted the Lutheran church into a new “Reich church” that would obediently proclaim a Christ who was an “Aryan hero,” Bonhoeffer and other faithful believers organized the “Confessing Church” to stand for true Christianity.
Bonhoeffer’s actions sprang from the fact that he was deeply Bible-centered. In a letter he wrote to his brother-in-law in 1936, he said that the Bible must be read as if it were the voice of God speaking directly to the reader. For him, that voice was often uncomfortably clear and direct. When, for example, Jewish synagogues were set ablaze all over Germany during the infamous Kristallnacht of November 9-10, 1938, Bonhoeffer picked up his Bible a day or two later, and turned to Psalm 74. At verse 8, he was startled to read, “They have burned all of God’s houses in the land.” From the note he made in the margin, it is clear that he felt that God spoke to him in that verse.
As a pastor, Bonhoeffer agonized over whether he could be a party to the murder of anyone, even a man as manifestly evil as Hitler. But he believed that to be a Christian was not to be other-worldly, but to participate fully in the struggles of this life. As he would write in one of his prison letters: “It is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith…I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, success and failures, experiences and perplexities. 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 – watching with Christ in Gethsemane.”
Bonhoeffer lived completely in this world; and he had everything to live for: intelligence, talent, friends, the respect of his peers and a growing reputation as a theologian. He was young; he was only 39 when he was hanged. He was engaged to be married. He spoke English; he had lived and taught in America in the early 1930s and had friends here. He was in America in the summer of 1939, just before Hitler invaded Poland. Had he chosen to do so, he could have spent the war in a safe and comfortable exile. Instead, he returned to his homeland, explaining to Reinhold Niebuhr, “I shall 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.”
Bonhoeffer believed that God could only be found at the foot of the cross of Christ. To seek God there was not in accordance with human nature. Rather, it was entirely contrary to it. But that was the message of the Bible, and Bonhoeffer heeded the call. The doctor at Flossenburg concentration camp, who witnessed Bonhoeffer’s execution, would later write that in his nearly fifty years of practice he had hardly ever seen a man die “so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.