Posted February 4th, 2012 by Jen in features, germany, history, persecuted church, politics/world news, religion
Bonhoeffer’s been dogging me for decades and sometimes I do wish he’d back off, because he’s always reminding me that anything of value has a high price. I’m a tight-wad, I don’t like to pay high prices.
Perhaps you’ve not been introduced to Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Today is his birthday, and 106 years ago he entered the world, along with his twin sister, Sabine, in Breslau, Germany, bringing great joy to Paula and Karl Bonhoeffer, and eventually there would be eight children who had the most lovely and nurturing family a child could hope for. Above the west entrance of Westminster Abbey in London are 10 modern martyrs – Bonhoeffer’s statue is among them. In the briefest of words, Bonhoeffer was a theologian, a pastor, a writer, a Christian, a prophet, an anti-Nazi spy. He was executed on April 9, 1945 in a German concentration camp for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler, just days before liberation of that camp.
But I’d like to talk about why we should be concerned about Bonhoeffer in the 21st century.
Exactly why is he relevant to such a degree that people are still writing biographies about him and giving talks and holding congresses? Germany in the 1930s and 40s is challenging to comprehend — the Nazi and Jewish issues, of course, the role of the church, and I wonder how to extrapolate from those times without finding a Nazi behind every overreaching government act.
The state of Bonhoeffer’s world was that the German Christian church looked the other way as Jews were being carted off for “resettlement in the East.” In Bonhoeffer’s last great work, Ethics, though unfinished he considered it his magnum opus, he rebukes the church for her grave offenses against humanity and allowing herself to be subjugated by the Nazi regime:
Could this not have been written ten minutes ago, as Metaxes said in an interview?
What are today’s burning issues? I ask, as I seek to find Bonhoeffer’s relevance.
Abortion is one. I’m not comfortable addressing this contentious subject. Every person I know has been affected by this, either she has personally had an abortion or knows someone who has. And so who wants to go around telling a woman she is a negligent person, a selfish creature, a murderer? Not me.
I vaguely, then rather insistently, wondered if Bonhoeffer ever had an opinion on the topic of abortion or the right to life. I discovered in his book, Ethics, what I was looking for.
Bonhoeffer considered many facets of abortion, including the pastoral care that necessarily should be involved:
He further speaks to extreme cases:
I’m amazed at the specific issues Bonhoeffer addresses with regard to abortion, and it all leaves me little room to wonder what Bonhoeffer would say today in the 21st century. As Eric Metaxas said, Bonhoeffer is staggeringly relevant. He further makes it clear that the right to life is not based on the qualities of the individual.
I read all this from Ethics just yesterday and my head fell into my hands and I wept. I almost didn’t want to know; silly, it’s not like Bonhoeffer’s opinion would change my mind, I had concluded when I was very young that abortion was an injustice. But have you ever experienced knowledge that suddenly unloads responsibility? It was this, and I wept, and I couldn’t even allow myself to grasp the entirety as I would have literally fallen to the ground from the weight of it.
I don’t want to become a radical, oh, at least not any more radical than I already am. It’s dangerous to be radical. It’s so much safer to be non-radical, at least on this side of Heaven. Bonhoeffer was a radical of sorts by all accounts, and he paid for it with his life, with a a piano wire around his neck as he dangled naked in the courtyard of the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp in Germany.
And yet he is my hero, and has been for two decades. Someone gave me The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer when I was in my early twenties, and that was my introduction to this compelling man. I read bits and pieces and the words just sat smoldering in the recesses of my mind for twenty years. I do gravitate to the edge of costliness, but to actually take the leap, like Bonhoeffer, is not fully in my nature.
So from the beginning of my life as a committed Christian, I’ve had in the background of my thinking, always, the cost of discipleship, which is of course clear in the teachings of Jesus, but made so visible to me by Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer was continually accused of being a single-issue fanatic in his time. And why? He vehemently opposed Nazi interference in the church and so was stripped of his pastoral license and forbidden to speak in public or print or publish. He then helped Jews escape to Switzerland which led to his first arrest. Don’t we look back from our vantage point and not see this as fanatical at all? We are not allowed the privilege of seeing our present from a future viewpoint, and that’s why I spend all this time with Bonhoeffer, searching and probing for relevance and truth to help myself, and maybe spare myself from death of conscience.
But I’ve come to realize there are rarely single-issue fanatics. There is a vast underpinning of philosophies and moralities that find expression in a single-issue, and start digging and you will find the true breadth of it all. Bonhoeffer’s extensive writings demonstrate this theory, and the complexity of what appears to be a single-issue begs to be examined.
Five years ago, on the anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s execution, I wrote an essay exploring Bonhoeffer’s call to the church, a call to action for times when the state is involved in illegitimate actions. I said I’d write more later. And here it is, it took me a while. I quote again from Bonhoeffer’s writings in Ethics, scathing words to the church in his day relating to the Jews, but equally applicable and significant for the unborn in our day:
Bonhoeffer, oh, could he have known that he would suffer to the last and to the fullest, with Christ and with the Jews and the undesirables? I do think he knew, and he intentionally chose the way of the cross.
May I leave you with some resources for you to further examine the relevance of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to your world? Following are some links (which have been of immense help to me) to books, essays, videos, blogs, all of which either directly speak of Bonhoeffer, or involve current issues to which his principles could be applied.
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas