April 7, 2006

Palm Sunday, April 9, will mark the 61st anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death. Bonhoeffer, a 20th century German Lutheran pastor who was executed for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, wrote The Cost of Discipleship, among other volumes, on the demands of Christian calling and witness. His faith and theology continue to inform us as to the meaning of the cross: both suffering and hope.

Recently the Minnesota Public Radio series Speaking of Faith dealt with Bonhoeffer, and I downloaded a podcast of the program. The show’s host, Krista Tippett, interviewed Martin Doblmeier, the producer of the film Bonhoeffer. The documentary, which was shown in small theatres across the country, had its public television premiere in February of this year, the 100th anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s birth. I’ve listened to the podcast several times. When my daily runs have taken me through wind and snow or rain, I’ve found them easier when I’ve been totally absorbed in something as profound and challenging as Bonhoeffer’s life and faith. The podcast inspired me to view Doblmeier’s movie. All that is to say that I’ve been immersed in Bonhoeffer of late.

Bonhoeffer’s decision to assassinate Hitler has always challenged me. Bonhoeffer entered that conspiracy even as he continued to espouse a pacifist position and insist that violence is inconsistent with the gospel. Seeing the documentary helped me to place his decision in a historical context. We know that Jews and others were rounded up and forced in concentration camps. It is chilling to hear in the documentary Hitler’s use of religious imagery and Christian symbolism and his screaming prayers to God, to rally “good” people to his cause. The stakes were very high for those who claimed to follow Jesus, who resisted the established Church’s acquiescence to Hitler’s brand of Christianity.

In his interview with Tippett, Doblmeier describes how he learned in high school about Bonhoeffer. His religion teacher gave Doblmeier’s class a copy of Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. Doblmeier says, “I fell in love with the book. I took it to the baseball field; I read it in the dugout. I couldn’t put it down. I read it again and again, and within a couple of weeks, I was offering myself to go to social justice programs, to get involved in soup kitchens that the school was doing, and I think, in part, it’s part of the reason why I decided that I wanted to study religion when I went to the university.” Bonhoeffer’s witness of faith changed Doblmeier’s life.

The book I was reading at the time is Diana Butler Bass’s The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church (Alban, 2004). At one point she describes how she would never “forget the first time I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” She was a college student at the time and The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together had a tremendous impact upon her and her faith, as Bonhoeffer had on Doblmeier’s. (Neither Butler Bass nor Doblmeier are ordained clergy.)

Like Doblmeier, she says, “I realized that as a young adult I wanted authentic Christianity, coherence of message and practice, and the transforming power of God in community.” She goes on to reflect that she has been surprised at how many people have been affected by Bonhoeffer.

In this Holy Week, as we live out of the passion narrative, let us all renew our own need for authentic and challenging discipleship. Young people, the “nones” (who have no religious affiliation), longtime Christians, clergy, and laity hunger and thirst for a discipleship that matters as much in our historical context as it did to Bonhoeffer in his. We all have a responsibility to make that kind of discipleship a part of our faith as well as the witness of our church and its ministry.

The closing days of Bonhoeffer’s life are like the Garden of Gethsemane and Good Friday brought forward 1,900 years in another politically and religiously charged time. On the morning of April 9, Bonhoeffer led prayers with his fellow prisoners. The guards came and said, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready and come with us.” He hastily wrote a message to his family and friends: “This is the end, for me the beginning of life. . . .” He walked to his execution, where he was killed with five other members of the resistance group—some of them his own relatives.

Yet there’s an Easter image in his final days. The film depicts that shortly before his last week, Bonhoeffer’s fiancée, Maria, came to visit him. They were made to sit side by side on a sofa, talking loudly enough for the guards to hear their every word, and not touching. When the visit was declared over, Maria went to the door at one end of the room and Bonhoeffer was taken to the door at the other end. Just as Maria was about to go out of the room, she turned and ran across the room, away from the reach of the guards, and rushed into Bonhoeffer’s arms—an image of human love.

Bonhoeffer said that living a Christian life is to be engaged in this world, “living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God”—an image of trust in divine love.

When the time came, Bonhoeffer threw himself completely into the arms of God, as Jesus did on the cross.

May the passion narrative of this Holy Week enliven your passion for an authentic faith and a life of discipleship.

May the hope of Easter allow you to throw yourself unreservedly into the arms of God.