If we are not in God’s grace, may he put us there. If we are in God’s grace, may he keep us there. Amen. +
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 to a middle-class family in Breslau, Germany. His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a famous neurologist and psychiatrist and Dietrich was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps.
The Bonhoeffer family wasn’t known to be religious. So his family was unpleasantly surprised when Dietrich told them he planned to become a pastor. His older brother told Dietrich not to waste his life in such a "poor, feeble, boring, petty, bourgeois institution as the church", fourteen-year-old Dietrich replied, "If what you say is true, I shall reform it!"
Dietrich attended several different seminaries, in different countries. We get the impression that as a student, he was all brain and little heart, out of touch with the nature of the daily life of ordinary people, an aloof intellectual walking on imported air. When Dietrich came to the U.S., in 1930, to do some postgraduate study, he found the program and professors lacking. He said, contemptuously; “there is no theology here.”… little did he know, he was in for the surprise of his life.
While Dietrich was studying here, in New York, a friend named Frank Fisher took him to a Baptist Church in Harlem. Can you imagine? This stuck up, white, German intellectual in a black, Baptist Church with its swinging choir and out-cries of “Amen!”, “You preach it, Brother!” Talk about culture shock, it’s a wonder the man didn’t die of a heart-attack! But that’s not what happened. Dietrich fell in love with we what used to call the Negro Spirituals of the Old American South and through these songs he was captured by the rhythm and the passion, it made him feel alive! He began to see Jesus with new eyes. Instead of seeing Jesus as a lofty idea, Dietrich found him in the faces of the singers.
The preachers of this Baptist church introduced Dietrich to the gospel of social justice. Teaching him to see things “from below” – from the point of view of the oppressed. Dietrich’s heart was broken and he was set aflame with passion, all at once. He said; this was the point at which “I turned away from ideas to reality, turned away from a love of words to a love for God and neighbor.” It was in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem that Jesus resurrected and came fully alive in Dietrich’s heart.
Dietrich’s university days in the U.S. came to an end and he returned to Germany. His career was full of promise, but this was to change when the Nazis came to power in 1933.
Dietrich clearly saw the dangers of nationalism and the Nazi party. He spoke out against them at every opportunity, in Church, on the radio, at meetings with his colleagues. Once, his radio address was even cut off in mid-speech. At this time, Dietrich was the first voice crying for resistance to Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, and his was a lone voice with no one to back him…
In July of 1933, an unthinkable, frightening thing happened, Hitler unconstitutionally imposed church elections. Of course, the elections were rigged and Hitler installed Nazi-theologians into the positions of leadership. For some pastors and theologians, this would have been frightening enough for them to shut up, hunker down and wait till the threats had passed. But not Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he stood up in resistance to this hostile take-over of the Church and called for all pastors to refuse to conduct baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc. Dietrich said;
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer
But his colleagues refused to go on strike with him.
Some of his colleagues did, however, stand with Dietrich in opposing Nazism in the form of the Confessing Church. Karl Barth, for example, drafted a declaration which made it clear that Jesus Christ, not Adolf Hitler was the head of the Church… Still the hostile Nazi take over of the Church continued. Their next move was to forbid any non-Aryan from taking parish posts. Dietrich’s heart was broken, he felt helpless and when he looked around, there was not enough help to be found.
In the autumn of 1933, Dietrich left Germany, not out of fear, but out of hope. He hoped to convince the pastors of Churches outside of Germany to join him and the Confessing Church in denouncing the Nazi party and put an end to the take-over of the Christian church and an end to the persecution of the Jews.
In 1935, however, Dietrich Bonhoeffer returned to Germany, where he worked leading an underground seminary, training pastors. Still, the Nazi party knew who Dietrich was, they understood he was a threat. So, he was forbidden to speak in public, he was not permitted to publish his books and constantly had to report his whereabouts to local police.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was so alarmed by the evil of the Nazi regime that he joined the Abwehr, which was a military intelligence organization in resistance of the Nazi party. Through Abwehr, Dietrich was involved in several plots to assassinate Adolph Hitler. He did this because he believed;
“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer
This was not a justification, Dietrich sti ll felt that murder was evil, that it was a sin, regardless of the circumstances. But he felt he was in an evil situation where there were no good answers that he had to choose between the lesser of two evils. Killing Adolph Hitler and putting an end to the carnage, or letting Hitler live and the carnage continue. Ultimately, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was willing to stand up, take responsibility before God and say; “I am a murderer.” He said; “before God I can hope only for grace.”
On April 6, 1943 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested. He spent two years, nearly to the day, in Nazi concentration camps, where he continued to pastor and to write letters, some of which have reached us.
Dietrich once wrote; “Music... will help dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and sensibilities, and in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I can see him, too, in the concentration camp; thin, cold, ravaged and taking his comfort in singing Negro spirituals like this one;
"Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus Steal away, steal away home I ain't got long to stay here
My Lord, He calls me He calls me by the thunder The trumpet sounds within-a my soul I ain't got long to stay here".
On April 9, 1945, the Nazis hung Dietrich Bonhoeffer at dawn, less than 2 weeks before soldiers from the United States liberated the camp.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer still lives, though, through the amazing writing he left us. And to give you a feel for who the man is, to make him come alive for you, I’d like to leave you with a couple of quotes.
“Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.”
“Being a Christan is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God's will.”
“To deal with the word of Jesus other than by doing it is to lie to him. It is to deny the Sermon on the Mount and to say No to his word. That is why as soon as trouble begins we lose the word, and find that we have never really believed it. The word we had was not Christ's, but a word we had wrested from him and made our own by reflecting on it instead of doing it.”