Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
Bonhoeffer’s last words: “This is the end — for me the beginning of life.”
We conclude our profile of saints, focusing on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer would be a saint by now if Protestants (Lutherans, in his case) sanctified their best. The historian Martin Marty crystallized Bonhoeffer’s wide relevance today in a world where church life withers here and abounds elsewhere. He writes he was “strictly orthodox at the same time he was blithely, instinctively informal, Bonhoeffer preached both the death of religion and Christian renewal.” A defiant Lutheran priest who became involved in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, he was imprisoned and eventually was executed by a personal decree of Adolf Hitler on April 9, 1945. His writings were deeply influential to young men studying for ministry in a seminary in a time when one had to confess one’s allegiance to Adolf Hitler (Life Together). Years later, Bonhoeffer’s writings Letters and Papers from Prison and Ethics would serve as a clarion voice among pastors and activists in apartheid South Africa. What was Bonhoeffer’s appeal during the tumultuous rise of the Third Reich in Germany, in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s and among Christians today? He possessed a very original mind. His writings were deeply intellectual and at the same time people read his work devotionally. People read him for his activism and insights into social renewal.
The case for Bonhoeffer’s sainthood is easy on the grounds of his activism. He was a sweet-spirited martyr who’d returned to Germany from America in the summer of 1939, on the last free trans-Atlantic oceanliner before the War, knowing full well that he was sailing to his death, but having decided that the choice was between bringing down the Third Reich or bringing down Christian civilization. He said at the time: “I know which of those alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.” For his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned at Buchenwald, then Flossenburg, and hung on April 9, 1945, three weeks before Hitler killed himself. Bonhoeffer’s last words were “This is the end — for me the beginning of life.”
Other interesting facts:
- Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, Germany, in 1906. His family were not religious, but had a strong musical and artistic heritage. From an early age, Bonhoeffer display great musical talent, and music was important throughout his life. His family were quite taken aback when, at the age of 14, he announced he wanted to train and become a priest.
- In April 1933, Bonhoeffer raised his opposition to the persecution of Jews, and argued that the Church had a responsibility to act against this kind of policy. Bonhoeffer sought to organize the Protestant Church to firmly reject Nazi ideology from infiltrating the church. This led to a breakaway church – The Confessing Church which Bonhoeffer helped form with Martin Niemoller. The Confessing church sought to stand in opposition to the Nazi supported, German Christian movement.
- On his return to Germany from America, Bonhoeffer was denied the right to speak in public or publish any article. However, he managed to join the Abwehr, the German military intelligence agency. Before his visit to the US, Bonhoeffer had already made contacts with some military officers who were opposed to Hitler. It was within the Abwehr that the strongest opposition to Hitler occurred. Bonhoeffer was aware of various assassination plots to kill Hitler. It was during the darkest hours of the Second World War that he began to question his pacifism, as he saw the need for violent opposition to a regime such as Hitler. Within the cover of the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer, served as a messenger for the small German resistance movement. He made contact with associates of the British government – though the feelers of the German resistance were ignored as the Allies pursued a policy of requiring ‘unconditional surrender.’
- Within the Abwehr, efforts were made to help some German Jews escape to neutral Switzerland. It was Bonhoeffer’s involvement in this activity, that led to his arrest in April 1943. As the Gestapo sought to take over responsibilities of the Abwehr, they uncovered Bonhoeffer’s involvement in escape plans. For a year and a half, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned at Tegel Military prison. Here he continued his writings such as ‘Ethics‘. Helped by sympathetic guards, his writings were smuggled out. After the failed bomb plot of July 20 1944, Bonhoeffer was moved to the Gestapo’s high security prison, before being transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp and finally Flossenburg concentration camp.
A characteristic belief/quote:
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” (The Cost of Discipleship)
For further reading: