The Staggering Relevance of Bonhoeffer

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.

Eric Metaxas has recently written an award winning biography of Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. I liked it better than the massive volume by Eberhard Bethge simply for its readability and style. Metaxas explains why we should care about Bonhoeffer:

Bonhoeffer’s relevance to us today is staggering, and I confess that when I began writing the book I had no idea I would stumble over so many powerful parallels to our own situation. For one thing, the story of Bonhoeffer is a primer on the burning issue of what the limits of the state are.

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:

The church must confess that she has not proclaimed often or clearly enough her message of the one God who has revealed Himself for all time in Jesus Christ and who will tolerate no other gods beside Himself. She must confess her timidity, her evasiveness, her dangerous concessions…She was silent when she should have cried out because the blood of the innocent was crying aloud to heaven…She has not raised her voice on behalf of the victims and has not found ways to hasten to their aid. She is guilty of the deaths of the weakest and most defenseless brothers of the lord Jesus Christ…The church must confess that she has desired security, peace and quiet, possessions and honor…She has not borne witness to the truth of God…By her own silence she has rendered herself guilty of a failure to accept responsibility and to bravely defend a just cause. She has been unwilling to suffer for what she knows to be right. Thus the church is guilty of becoming a traitor to the Lordship of Christ. [Ethics, p.117]

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.

Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder. [Ethics, pp 175-6]

Bonhoeffer considered many facets of abortion, including the pastoral care that necessarily should be involved:

A great many motives may lead to an action of this kind; indeed in cases where it is an act of despair, performed in circumstances of extreme human or economic destitution and misery, the guilt may often lie rather with the community than with the individual. Precisely in this connection money may conceal many a wanton deed, while the poor man’s more reluctant lapse may far more easily be disclosed. All these considerations must no doubt have a quite decisive influence on our personal and pastoral attitude towards the person concerned, but they cannot in any way alter the fact of murder. [Ethics, p 176]

He further speaks to extreme cases:

…with regard to the killing of the fetus in cases where the mother is in danger of losing her life. If the child has its right to life from God, and is perhaps already capable of life, then the killing of the child, as an alternative to the presumed natural death of the mother, is surely a highly questionable action. The life of the mother is in the hand of God, but the life of the child is arbitrarily extinguished. The question whether the life of the mother or the life of the child is of greater value can hardly be a matter for a human decision. [Ethics, p 176 n. 12]

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.

Life, created and preserved by God, possesses an inherent right, which is wholly independent of its social utility. The right to live is a matter of the essence and not of any values. In the sight of God there is no life that is not worth living. [Ethics, p. 163]

The distinction between life that is worth living and life that is not worth living must sooner or later destroy life itself. [Ethics, p. 164]

It would…be intolerably pharisaical if society were to treat the sick man as though he were a guilty man in order to put itself in the right at his expense. To kill the innocent would be, in the extreme sense, arbitrary. [Ethics, p. 165]

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.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. [Cost of Discipleship]

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God. [Cost of Discipleship]

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:

She was silent when she should have cried out because the blood of the innocent was crying aloud to heaven…She has not raised her voice on behalf of the victims and has not found ways to hasten to their aid. She is guilty of the deaths of the weakest and most defenseless brothers of the lord Jesus Christ. [Ethics]

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.

If we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and which fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, then we cannot help regarding the cross as an ordinary everyday calamity… We have then forgotten that the cross means rejection and shame as well as suffering.

The Psalmist was lamenting that he was despised and rejected of men, and that is an essential quality of the suffering of the cross. But this notion has ceased to be intelligible to a Christianity which can no longer see any difference between an ordinary human life and life committed to Christ. The cross means sharing the suffering of Christ to the last and to the fullest. [Cost of Discipleship]

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
National Prayer Breakfast, 2012, with Eric Metaxas (begin at 35 min. in)
Marco Rubio Pro-Life Speech at SBA event
Catholic Leaders Urge Parishioners to Denounce Mandate
Bonhoeffer Blog
Bonhoeffer Timeline
Dietrich Bonhoeffer Reading Room (links to all of Bonhoeffer’s works as well as books/writings about him)
God & Caesar by Dr. Laurence White
Bonhoeffer Blog Discussion Group @ Pebblechaser
Bonhoeffer Documentary
Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace – DVD
Hanged on a Twisted Cross – film

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9 Responses to The Staggering Relevance of Bonhoeffer

  1. julia says:

    How relevant – how timeless! Thank you for posting this wealth of information and thank you for taking the TIME to share it. Becoming informed through historical events and strong people of character should bring influence into our lives today. i am still mulling over the concept of “cheap grace” ~ so grateful ~
    God bless you, Jen!

  2. Jen says:

    Hello dear Julia! You were with me when I bought this book, do you remember? Thanks for taking the time to read this and comment, and you summed up why I invest time in the past – “Becoming informed through historical events and strong people of character should bring influence into our lives today..” Well said. Love to you!

  3. Reagan says:

    Ok, I saw “Bonhoeffer” come up on my blog feed a few days ago and it has taken me until now to read this. He convicts me. This post convicts me. Do I have the makings for that kind of passion, that faith?

    This was beautifully written. You have chosen a remarkable hero. May we never forget him.

  4. Jen, I love that you read and challenge yourself and others, including myself. Thank you for sharing this resource on Bonhoeffer. I am inspired. :) I just heard a high schooler give a biographical narrative speech on Bonhoeffer last week, and it reminded me that I have yet to read his book, The Cost of Discipleship, and today I read your post. Love your post, love this, thanks for sharing all of this, and your heart.

    I too have been slow on reading blogs the past few months. It is challenging to balance the reading and writing, along with so many other things happening in life. So glad I found your blog. :)

  5. Jen says:

    Reagan, I wonder that, too! Whether I’d have had Bonhoeffer’s courage, whether I would have dropped everything around 27 AD and followed a man claiming to be the Messiah, whether I would have harbored slaves on the underground railroad, … and so many other questions about my own courage. It’s good to ponder these questions, though.

  6. Jen says:

    path of treasure, so good to visit here, thank you for sharing! That’s great that a high school student studied an impressive man like Bonhoeffer; what a great time in life to begin forming your core beliefs about freedom, human rights, ethics, and having to formulate those ideas into a speech. Kudos to his teacher (probably his mother). ;-)

  7. Reagan says:

    Can I link to this on my blog? Everybody needs to read this.

  8. Pingback:   It’s Lent and I’m Tired

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