Dietrich Bonhoeffer (4 February 1906 – 9 April 1945): pastor, theologian, martyr
Dietrich was born to a prominent family in Breslau, Germany (now in Poland). His family was not very religious and attending church was rather rare for them. They moved to Berlin in 1912, and Bonhoeffer surprised his family by announcing that he would be going into the ministry. His brother derided his decision, asking why he would waste his life in such a feeble institution as the church. Bonhoeffer replied that, "If what you say is true, I shall reform it!"
He began his studies at Tübingen University, went to Rome, and then went to Berlin University, a centre of liberal theology. He was exposed though to the writings of Karl Barth, whose writings were opposed to liberal theology. Bonhoeffer saw Liberal Theology as minimisng scripture, and blaming it for the lack of relevance by the church. He graduated sume cum laude in 1927, at the age of 21.
Too young to be ordained, he served as a curate in Spain for a year at a German Speaking Lutheran church, and returned to Berlin a year later to begin his thesis. He went to the US in 1930 for post graduate work at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He studied under Rheinhold Niebuhr, and taught Sunday School at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Haarlem. He heard about the Gospel of Social Justice, and became sensitive to the needs of the oppressed, but also to the churches incapability to change segregation and oppression.
Returning to Germany, he became a lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Berlin, and was active in European Ecumenism. His faith had gone from the intellectual to trying to live as the Gospels proclaimed. He was ordained in the Old Prussian United Church, in Berlin in 1931.
In 1933 the NAZIs took over, and within two days Bonhoeffer was condemning the idolatry of der Fuehrer, live on radio. He was one of the first if not the first to criticize the NAZI government on the persecution of the Jews. He said the “church should not only bandage those under the wheels, but jam a spoke in the wheel itself.”
Rigged church elections saw a take over of NAZI Christians over the German Landeskirche, which Bonhoeffer resisted, by forming the Pfarrenmotbund, a predecessor to the confessing churches. While not large the confessing church was a constant source of Christian resistance to the NAZI government. Saddened by the complacency of the German church, Bonhoeffer went to London, where he pastured German churches in London, but also sought help from the Ecumenical movement for the confessing church.
In 1935 he returned to Germany to head Finkenwalde, an underground seminary to train pastors for the confessing church. His license to teach at the University of Berlin was revoked for among other things, being a pacifist. The seminary was shut down by the GESTAPO in 1940. Bonhoeffer left for the USA in part to keep from being conscripted as he could not swear obedience to Hitler. He staid briefly as he felt guilty for those he left behind, feeling that he must suffer with his people in order to be able to rebuild Germany with them.
In 1941 he joined the Abwehr, and was able to use his position to help Jews escape Germany, and was a courier for the German resistance. He was at the very least aware of some or all of the plots against Hitler. He felt guilty for this, but also felt it was necessary to stop a truly evil man.
He was arrested in 1943 because of rivalry between the SS and the Abwehr, and it was only in 1944 that the NAZIs became aware of Bonhoeffer’s complicity in the plots to kill Hitler. After the discovery and reading of Admiral Canaris’s diaries, Hitler, enraged demanded the deaths of the conspirators. Bonhoeffer was hung with Canaris on 9 April 1945, two weeks before the allied liberation of the camp where he was being held. Bonhoeffer’s last words were, "This is the end -- but for me, the beginning -- of life."
Bonhoeffer’s life is not his only legacy. He wrote a great many books, chief among which would be The Cost of Discipleship. In general he is Cristo-centric, but committed to social justice issues. Bonhoeffer recognises God as a suffering God, who is still found in this world through the incarnation. Personal and common piety are important, but so is the imitation of Christ, and that the church must suffer.
Bonhoeffers’s life and teachings influenced many such as Martin Luther King, His life is a challenge to all of us. What should we do in the face of true evil? Will we stand up to it? Will we fight it? Or will we just stand there with our hands in our pockets and pray with out taking action. This is the question that members of the church must always ask. The Deutsche Landeskirche quickly fell into idolatry of the leader and said nothing as close to 6 million died. In our nation, over 50 million have paid for their lives in abortions. Will we do something about it? Likewise in Mexico, are we willing to do something about it?
Heavenly Father, you gave Dietrich the strength and courage to stand against evil. Let your church and its members always be ready to stand against evil, sin and death. This we ask in the name of Yeshuah, who died that we might have salvation. Amen.