Monday, April 9 – today’s date – in 1945, was the morning of the hanging of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the Flossenburg Concentration Camp. German pastor, writer, dissident, and martyr. A great force behind the German Resistance to Hitler’s Nazi regime. Sadly, ironically, but perhaps most profound, is the fact that just a few days later, Allied troops liberated the camp. Three weeks following, Adolf Hitler had committed suicide, and within a month, Germany had surrendered unconditionally. But I believe that Bonhoeffer speaks to us through his sacrifice more clearly today than he did in his life.
I was in my early 20s when I was given Bonhoeffer’s great book, The Cost of Discipleship, which he wrote in 1937 – quite prophetically, I must say, as he paid the ultimate price. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die,” said Bonhoeffer.
Just as a prophet is not accepted in his own town (Matthew 13:57), Bonhoeffer was speaking so far ahead of his time that I believe most of his contemporaries benefited little from his life. Many of his fellow pastors and churchpeople supported Hitler’s policies. The true beneficiaries of Dietrich Bonhoeffer are those of us living today.
As he explained his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler, Bonhoeffer said: “If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” A further glimpse into the action-oriented Bonhoeffer was his collaboration in an effort to help a group of Jews escape to Switzerland that led to his arrest and imprisonment in April 1943, two years prior to his execution.
So, I’m trying to lay the framework of all of this history onto life today. Here’s a Bonhoeffer quote that helps his death bring some benefit to me today: “Nothing is fixed, and nothing holds us. The film, vanishing from memory as soon as it ends, symbolizes the profound amnesia of our time. Events of world-historical significance, along with the most terrible crimes, leave no trace behind in the forgetful soul.”
Can we please not suffer from profound amnesia? Can we please not be illiterate regarding church history? Bonhoeffer displayed the most admirable resistance to tyranny you can hope for; yet this was too late for his own age – we are the recipients, and our call is to respond to the conditions that make tyranny possible. We are offered the opportunity, if we would educated ourselves with this history, to direct action at the root of the problem, instead of being forced into a violent struggle with the full-blown fuhrer.
So, The Cost of Discipleship teaches me that believing in Jesus isn’t enough – there is a call to action, and Bonhoeffer sets a real-life example of sometimes radical action. Bonhoeffer warns against the “cheap grace” that advocates belief without obedience. “Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth.”
Here are some issues I’ll be exploring in more detail in another post – this is an excerpt from the 2003 documentary film, Bonhoeffer:
The church has three possible ways it can act against the state. First, it can ask the state if its actions are legitimate. Second, it can aid the victims of the state action. The church has the unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering society even if they do not belong to the Christian society. The third possibility is not just [to] bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.
Do you think the church has any reason today to act against the state? Ahh, now we’re getting to the heart of this, and we must examine this closer if Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom is to have been of any profit.