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The Life and Work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 

1906-1945

His Life

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s foreparents were people of much courage and much ability. In 1933, when his paternal grandmother was 91 years old, she walked defiantly through the cordon which nasty stormtroopers had thrown up around Jewish shops as part of the anti-Jewish boycott. His maternal grandmother was a gifted pianist; in fact, she had been a pupil of the incomparable Franz Liszt. Bonhoeffer’s mother was the daughter of a world-renowned historian. His father, a neurologist, was a professor in the University of Berlin, and chief of Neurology and Psychiatry at Berlin’s major hospital.

Bonhoeffer himself was born on 4th February, 1906, in Breslau, then part of Germany, now part of Poland. He and his twin sister, Sabine, were the last of seven children. By age 10 his own musical talent appeared (he was now playing Mozart piano sonatas) as well as his proclivity to do the unusual. (For instance, a special treat on his birthday was an egg beaten with sugar. It tasted so good that the ten year old gathered up his pocket money and bought himself a hen!)

The family was religiously indifferent, the father being an agnostic. Bonhoeffer therefore startled the family when he announced, at age 14, that he was going to be a pastor and a theologian. The response was incomprehension. His older brother, Karl-Friedrich (who later distinguished himself as a physicist) tried to deflect him from this course, arguing that the church was weak, silly, irrelevant, unworthy of any young man’s lifelong commitment. “If the church really is what you say it is”, replied the youngster, “then I shall have to reform it.” Soon he began his university studies in theology in Tuebingen and completed then in Berlin. His doctoral dissertation exposed his brilliance on a wider front and introduced him to internationally-known scholars.

Following ordination Bonhoeffer moved to Barcelona, Spain, where he was the assistant minister to the German-speaking Lutheran congregation there. While he had been born to the aristocracy and therefore knew a social privilege denied most German people (especially the 25% who lived on the edge of starvation) Bonhoeffer yet displayed a remarkable ability to relate genuinely to all sorts and classes and types of people.

In 1930 he went to the United States as a guest of Union Theological Seminary, NYC. There he was dismayed at seeing how frivolous American seminarians were concerning the study of theology. His dismay peaked the day a most moving passage from Luther’s writing on the subject of sin and forgiveness was greeted with derisive laughter. Bonhoeffer retorted, “You students at this liberal seminary sneer at the fundamentalists in America, when all the while the fundamentalists know far more of the truth and grace, mercy and judgement of God than do you.” Quickly he recognized the plight of black people in the US, worked among impoverished blacks in the city, and worshipped regularly at a Baptist church in Harlem. In 1931 he returned to Berlin and resumed his university teaching.

While he was certainly a gifted scholar and professor, Bonhoeffer was always a pastor at heart. Not surprisingly, then, at the same time that he lectured he also instructed a confirmation class of 50 rowdy boys in one of the worst slums of Berlin. His first day with the boys was remarkable. As he walked up the stairs to the second floor room the boys at the top of the stair-well pelted him with garbage and began chanting repeatedly the first syllable of his name, “Bon, Bon, Bon…” He let them continue until they wearied of it. Then he quietly began telling the boys of what he had known in Harlem; how there existed another group of people whose material prospects were as bleak as theirs; how it was that Jesus Christ neither disdained nor abandoned anyone; that no human being, however bleak his circumstances, is ever God-forsaken. Bonhoeffer moved into the boys’ neighbourhood and lived among them until the instruction was over. Many of the youngsters remained his friends for life.

In 1933 Bonhoeffer took a leave of absence from the university and moved to London, England, where he pastored two German-speaking congregations. By now he was immersed in the ecumenical movement, assisted, of course, by his facility in French, Spanish and English (he spoke English flawlessly). The life-and-death struggle for the church in Germany was underway. Did the church live from the gospel only, or could the church lend itself to the state in order to reinforce the ideology of the state? Bonhoeffer argued that the latter would render the church no church at all. An older professor of theology, who conformed to nazi ideology in order to keep his job, commented, “It is a great pity that our best hope in the faculty is being wasted on the church struggle.” As the struggle intensified it was noticed that Bonhoeffer’s sermons became more comforting, more confident of God’s victory, and more defiant. The struggle was between the national church (which supported Hitler) and the confessing church, called such because it confessed that there could be only one Fuehrer or leader for Christians, and it wasn’t Hitler. Lutheran bishops remained silent in the hope of preserving institutional unity. Most ministers refused to support the confessing church, whispering that there was no need to play at being confessing heroes. In the face of such ministerial cowardice Bonhoeffer warned his colleagues that there was no chance of converting Hitler; what they had to ensure was that they were converted themselves. An Anglican bishop who knew him well in England was later to write of him, “He was crystal clear in his convictions; and young as he was, and humble-minded as he was, he saw the truth and spoke it with complete absence of fear.” Bonhoeffer himself wrote to a friend at this time, “Christ is looking down at us and asking whether there is anyone who still confesses him.”

Bonhoeffer was much taken with Gandhi’s non-violent resistance, and planned to go to India to learn more of Gandhi’s pacifism. Before he could get to India, however, he was urged to return to Germany in order to lead an underground seminary at Finkenwald. (This seminary aimed at supplying pastors for the confessing church, since not one of the university faculties of theology sided with the confessing church.) In no time Nazi authorities withdrew his Berlin professorship. Bonhoeffer calmly replied, “I have long ceased to believe in the universities.”

While instructing his students at Finkenwald he became engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer. He was 35 years old, she, 18. (Maria von Wedemeyer married after the war and lives in Germany today.) During the long days of Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment the two were to correspond as often as authorities and censors permitted them. She visited him once a week. He always wanted her to let him know when she was coming. If she surprised him, said Bonhoeffer, he was deprived of the joy of anticipating her visit.

At this time North American and British church leaders were impatient with any discussion of theology, preferring to concentrate on the church’s politics. Bonhoeffer irked them by insisting that they were preoccupied with symptoms only. While the political compromises were dreadful indeed, the root problem, the disease, was theological: the church was infested with heresy. For this reason Bonhoeffer tirelessly addressed the issue of heresy, maintaining that the church can live only by its confession of Jesus Christ as the one Word of God which it must hear and heed and proclaim.

Two American professors coaxed him into returning to the US and to a teaching position in NYC. As soon as the boat docked Bonhoeffer knew he had made a mistake. He knew that Germany would shortly be at war, knew that the devastation of his native land would be indescribable. He was convinced he would have no credibility in assisting with its recovery and restoration unless he himself endured the devastation first-hand. He was in the US only four weeks.

By this time he was forbidden to speak anywhere in the Reich. Visser’t Hooft, the General Secretary of The World Council of Churches, asked him, “What do you pray for in these days?” “If you want to know the truth”, replied Bonhoeffer, “I pray for the defeat of my nation.”

While he had been a pacifist only a few years earlier, Bonhoeffer’s pacifist convictions were receding. He saw that untold suffering among the German people (especially civilians), as well as among the allies, would swell unless Hitler were removed. He quietly met with several high-ranking officers of German military intelligence who were secretly opposed to Hitler. Together they conspired to assassinate Hitler. Unbeknown to them, the intelligence arm of the secret police was spying on the intelligence arm of the army. The conspiracy was discovered. Bonhoeffer was arrested and assigned to a prison in Berlin. It was April, 1943. He was to be in prison for two years. He was allowed to read, and naturally enough spent most of his time perusing literature, science, philosophy, theology, and history. Much of his reading had to do with the 19th century cultural heritage of Germany. He also managed to reread the Bible 2.5 times

In July, 1944, the hidden bomb which was meant for Hitler did explode, but exploded while he was out of the room. The incriminating files which the secret police turned up pointed to Bonhoeffer directly, as well as others like General Oster and Admiral Canaris. Underground plans were being made to help Bonhoeffer escape when it was learned that his brother Klaus, a lawyer, had been arrested. Bonhoeffer declined to escape lest his family be punished. (He was never to know that Klaus was to be executed in any case, along with a brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi.) It was at this time particularly that Bonhoeffer ministered to his fellow-prisoners awaiting execution, among whom was Payne Best, an office in the British Army. His tribute to Bonhoeffer deserves to be heard.

“Bonhoeffer was different, just quite calm and normal, seemingly
perfectly at his ease… his soul really shone in the dark desperation
of our prison. He was one of the very few men I have ever met to whom God was
real and ever close to him.”

Bonhoeffer was removed from prison and taken to Flossenburg, an extermination camp in the Bavarian forest. On the 9th of April, three weeks before American forces liberated Flossenburg, he was executed. The tree from which he was hanged bears a plaque today with only ten words inscribed on it: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a witness to Jesus Christ among his brethren.

The physician who signed his death certificate, Dr. Fischer-Huellstrung, was profoundly impressed by Bonhoeffer, and later wrote of his impression. It is only fitting that we have a physician read such a tribute, and I have asked Dr. Robert Bates of our congregation to acquaint us with Dr. Fischer-Huellstrung’s testimony.

THEMES FROM BONHOEFFER’S WRITING

I have read Bonhoeffer for years and have profited from him unmeasurably. Many themes recur in his writings, and I want to introduce three of them to you at this time.
(i) First the cost of discipleship. In 1937 Bonhoeffer wrote a book with just this title:

COST OF DISCIPLESHIP. It is an extended discussion of the sermon on the mount. The first chapter is called “Costly Grace”. It begins, “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Bonhoeffer goes on to say, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession… . Costly grace is…the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”

Bonhoeffer was always rendered angry and sad upon hearing Luther’s discernment of the gospel falsified and perverted. Such perversion riddled the doctrine of justification. “The justification of the sinner in the world”, said Bonhoeffer, “degenerated into the justification of sin and the world. … The only person who has the right to say he is justified by grace alone is the person who has left all to follow Christ.”

Bonhoeffer knew something that we often prefer not to know, that Jesus Christ certainly invites us to become his follower and companion, even as our Lord insists that we can be a companion of him, the crucified one, only as we willingly shoulder our own cross. In other words, the rewards of the kingdom are for those and those only who embrace the rigours of the kingdom. We are disciples ourselves, and the fellowship we belong to is Christian, only as suffering and sacrifice are gladly taken up for the sake of the kingdom.
(ii) The second theme: Christian community. I have already spoken of the underground seminary which Bonhoeffer operated in Finkenwald. While it was indeed a seminary, ie, a school for the training of ministers, it was also more than a school, since all of the students lived on the premises, eating and sleeping and relaxing together. Not surprisingly the students, under Bonhoeffer’s leadership, learned what it is to exist as a community. His wisdom and insight are available to us through his little book, LIFE TOGETHER.

The book is studded with gems. Bonhoeffer notes on the opening page that the physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to all. It was so in NT times when people like Paul and John craved seeing the faces of those to whom they were writing; it is so today. In fact, says Bonhoeffer, the physical presence of one Christian to another is a sign of the presence of Jesus Christ himself.

Bonhoeffer maintained that in any Christian fellowship we belong to each other only because we first belong to Jesus Christ. We are united to Christ in faith, and because united to him, we are united through him to one another. God has ordained that we be united to one another through Christ inasmuch as every Christian needs other Christians to speak and reflect the Word of God to the Christian herself. None of us is so thoroughly possessed of Christian wisdom and maturity that we no longer need our fellow Christians. I need my sister Christian as a proclaimer and bearer of God’s word. And why do I need her in this way? Bluntly Bonhoeffer states that the Christ in my own heart is never as strong as the Christ in my sister’s presence or my sister’s word. Therefore within the Christian community we shall always need each other as the embodiment of God’s word of grace.

What’s more, since all of us have feet of clay and sin-riddled hearts, it is only as I see my bother or sister through Christ that I am no longer impeded by hear faults, nor she by mine. Bonhoeffer had in his bloodstream Paul’s word to the Christians in Rome: “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.”

Perhaps the pithiest comment Bonhoeffer made on the matter of community is this: “he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing more than prattle in the presence of God too.”

(iii) The last theme I am going to discuss pertains more to me and Joan than to you: it concerns the work of the pastor. Bonhoeffer was a university professor who wanted nothing more than to be a pastor. He esteemed the work of the pastor even as he recognized the spiritual discipline which must surround all pastoral activity. “No pastoral conversation is possible without constant prayer”, he wrote; “other people must know that the pastor stands before God as the pastor stands before them.”

Bonhoeffer, sophisticated as he was in many branches of learning, yet knew that the ministry of the Word is just that: the ministry of the gospel of the crucified one. The pastor may certainly draw on whatever insights he gains from his learning; yet he must never forget that he is spokesperson for that word which is ultimate. For this reason Bonhoeffer never hesitated to say, for instance, “We do not understand sin through our experience of life or the world, but rather through our knowledge of the cross of Christ. The most experienced observer of humanity knows less of the human heart than the Christian who lives at the foot of the cross. No psychology knows that people perish only through sin and are saved only through the cross of Christ.”

Bonhoeffer recognized that the pastor slakes the thirst of his congregation only as the well within the pastor is deep. He wrote, “A parishioner must be able to sense that the pastor’s words overflow out of the fullness of his heart. They can tell if our proclamation is a spiritual reality for us.”

Today is Remembrance Day, a day when we commemorate the departed in a special way. As expected, Bonhoeffer had something to say about commemoration and cemeteries. “The cemetery surrounds the church to show that the place of worship is simultaneously the place of burial. The whole congregation is gathered here, the church militant and the church triumphant, those who are still being tested and those whose trials are over.”

The trials of Dietrich Bonhoeffer are over. May you and I be found as faithful in the midst of ours. Then we, like him, shall move from the church militant to the church triumphant.

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