He dies at the end — it’s unavoidable.
It’s an historical fact. On Monday, April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the Allies marched into Flossenburg, Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed there. He was 39 years old. I can hardly bear to think of it, and yet I cannot avoid thinking about it.
Last year, a dear friend purchased two copies of BONHOEFFER: PASTOR, MARTYR, PROPHET, SPY by Eric Metaxas, and gave one to me. She said we should both read it before Easter of this year. I started it shortly after she gave it to me, but became sidetracked by life — family responsibilities, moving, a new job, an extended period of unemployment. I didn’t want to tackle a book about something as depressing as a brilliant theologian dying in Nazi Germany until my life was more stable.
I knew from experience that reading about anything related to the atrocities perpetrated by the Third Reich would take an emotional toll. After I saw the movie SOPHIE’S CHOICE with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, I read the book by William Styron and went on to read a number of books about World War II. The same thing happened a decade later when I watched Steven Spielberg’s SCHINDLER’S LIST, which for all practical purposes launched the careers of Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes.
Each time, I have felt baptized by the horror of it, the unspeakable horror of man’s inhumanity to man. Perhaps “baptized” is a strange word to use in this context, but it is the only one which describes the sense of being cleansed of illusions which occurs upon encountering the facts history lays before us. They show us the question “how could this happen?” has a simple answer. It happened — and can happen again –because good people allowed themselves to be manipulated by those who wove threads of truth with propaganda that preyed upon their hopes and fears.
Each time, I have surfaced from an informal study of World War II, I have a more deeply-seated commitment to truth and the common good, because each time it becomes more apparent to me the two are inextricably linked. When decisions are made because they benefit a few at the expense of others — as they too often are today, then truth must be compromised. To recognize the truth of the far-reachhing repercussions of self-centered behavior would make those choices untenable.
I am reminded of that again this weekend. For Lent, I gave up entertainment (movies and television) and junk reading (romances and mysteries). Because I read, on average, between eight and ten junk books a month and have the television set on most evenings, that Lenten sacrifice created a lot of empty hours. Last week, I decided to pick up the 542-page tome that is the Bonhoeffer biography which has been laying on my nightstand for nearly a year.
At 18, Bonhoeffer made an observation that many who are far older do not understand, even today: “Interpreting is generally one of the most difficult problems. Yet, our whole thinking is regulated by it. We have to inerpret and give meaning to things so that we can live and think.” In other words, the way in which we interpret the world shapes the way we think and the way we live. Most of us do not realize this and therefore do not accept the moral responsibility for shaping a worldview which is broader than self-interest.
It was also at that young age, while in Rome, that he began to understand the catholic or universal nature of the church. After finishing his theological studies at Berlin University at the age of 21, he served as the vicar of a German congregation in Barcelona, and then studied in the United States, where he encountered the gospel in a new way at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, a church for African Americans in Harlem. Metaxas decribed it this way: “For the first time, Bonhoeffer saw the gospel preached and lived out in obedience to God’s commands. He was entirely captivated.”
This, it would be fair to say, was a pivotal experience in his life and shaped his destiny. From that time, he would live in obedience to God’s ccommands as discerned through prayer and meditating on Scripture. He expressed it this way in a letter to his brother-in-law when he was 30: “One cannot simply read the Bible, like other books. One must be prepared really to enquire of it. Only thus will it reveal itself.Only if we expect from it the ultimate answer, shall we receive it. That is because in the Bible God speaks to us.” He went on to say the message would not be easy, because it woud lead to the foot of the Cross as demanded by the Sermon on the Mount.
From the beginning, Bonhoeffer was an outspoken opponent to the Nazi regime. He advocated standing with the Jews when the Third Reich began to remove them from government office, teaching positions and positions within the Church. (That his twin sister’s husband was Jewish made this an incredibly personal issue for him and for his whole family.) When the Nazi’s usurped the Church, writing the Jews out of Scripture by eliminating the entire Old Testament and removing references to them in the New Testament, and getting rid of the crucified Christ because it was defeatist and depressing, he pushed Christians to take a stand but they were unwilling to do so.
He worked unceasingly to bring international awareness to conditions in Germany, and to influence the Christian community in Germany to oppose the Third Reich. In 1939, friends in the United States arranged for him to have a teaching position in New York because they feared for his life. However, after traveling to the States, he realized he could not help to rebuild the church in Germany after the war if he did not suffer with the German people. For the next few years, he played cat and mouse with the Gestapo. While supposedly working for military intelligence, he was part of a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler.
It was because of his role in this plot that he was eventually executed, but it was because of his role in helping seven Jews to leave Germany that he was arrested in April 1943, shortly after becoming engaged. By this time, his faith had been so purified he was able to submit himself completely to the will of God and to minister to other prisoners.
Metaxas described Bonhoeffer’s faith at this point in this way: “He had theologically redefined the Christian life as something active, not reactive. . . It had everything to do with living one’s whole life in obedience to God’s call through action. It did not merely require a mind, but a body, too. It was God’s call to be fully human, to live as human beings obedient to the one who had made us, which was the fulfillment of our destiny. it was not a cramped, compromised, circumspect life,but a life lived in a kind of wild, joyful, full-throated freedom — that was what it was to obey God.”
I know how the story ends, though I’ve read no further than this. I am humbled by Bonhoeffer’s faith, and by the way his faith led him to give his life in an effort to avert the evil which was devouring his country.
Christ said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). For Bonhoeffer, the whole universal church was part of his circle of friends, and he was willing to lay down his life for them. It strikes me that it is appropriate to read his biography during Lent, and to embrace the reminder that all of us have a responsibility to submit ourselves completely to God’s will, as Christ did, regardless of where that leads.