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In the chain of command, there were orders given that were morally wrong. On June 6, 1941, Hitler gave the “notorious Commissar Order” when he launched his campaign against Russia on the eastern front.[1] This order “instructed the army to shoot and kill all captured Soviet military leaders.”[2] Warfare is always brutal, but there were codes that limited the brutality.

Hitler had allowed the army to avoid the most gruesome horrors in Poland. He knew that didn’t have the stomach for it, and the soulless SS Einsatzgruppen had done the foulest and most inhuman deeds. But now he ordered the army itself to carry out the butchery and sadism in contravention of all military codes going back for centuries. The generals took notice. Even the weakest-willed among them saw that they had been gaily riding along the back of a tiger.[3]

Major General Hennung von Tresckow reacted to the Commissar Order: “the German people will be burdened with a guilt the world will not forget in a hundred years.”[4] Metaxas writes that “as Germany’s armies moved toward Moscow, the barbarism of the SS had been given the freedom to express itself. It was as if the devil and his hordes had crawled out of hell and walked the earth.”[5] This “barbarism of the SS” brought out the very worst of human nature:

In Lithusnia, SS squads gathered defenseless Jews together and beat them to death with truncheons, afterward dancing to music on the dead bodies. The victims were cleared away, a second group was brought in, and the macabre exercise was repeated. As a result of such things, many more in the army leadership were driven to the conspiracy.

At one point officers came to Field Marshall Bock and begged him with tears in their eyes to stop “the orgy of executions” in Borisov. But even Bock was powerless. When demanded that the SS commander in charge of the massacres be brought to him, the civilian commissioner, Wilhelm Kube, laughed defiantly. Hitler had given the SS free rein, and even a field marshal could do nothing about it.[6]


[1] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy 381.

[2] Metaxas, 381.

[3] Metaxas, 381.

[4] Metaxas, 382.

[5] Metaxas, 387.

[6] Metaxas, 387.

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Costly Grace

Talk is cheap. It is easy to speak well-worn religious platitudes in front of audiences that want to her such God talk. It is easy to genuflect deeply before a grotesque hybrid of reactionary politics and the American civil religion called by the proper name Christian. Politics of this kind is an example of cheap grace. The role of faith so far in the 2012 election ought not to be measured according to cheap, easy God talk, but rather it ought to be measured by policy positions. If candidates choose to make their religious beliefs part of the public discourse, then they hand us a measuring stick by which to assess their sincerity. The question becomes: how do a politician’s positions reflect a spiritual morality informed by h/er profession of faith?

The idea of cheap grace is a concept expounded by Christian pastor and thinker Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a pacifist turned conspirator against Hitler in Nazi Germany who was executed April 9, 1945. He chose to side with the oppressed while his nation and its sense of patriotism and national unity demanded lock-step allegiance to itself. Bonhoeffer made a decision to follow the teachings of Jesus as he understood them rather than follow the prevailing social and political currents of his time.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer learned the importance of the social gospel, the responsibility of Christians to insist upon social justice in a realistic way, from Reinhold Niebuhr while a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. While in New York, he taught and learned from African Americans at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. He learned a theology of liberation through African-American spirituals. His time in the United States fueled Bonhoeffer’s passion for social justice. He came to understand that theology, political/economy, social concerns and ethics were inextricably interconnected. He reasoned that to be a true Christian—one who follows the teachings of Jesus—one was obligated to stand with the least, the weak, the oppressed of a society.

For the rest of the article…

The fellowship between Jesus and his disciples covered every aspect of their daily life. Within the fellowship of Christ’s disciples the life of each individual was part of the fellowship. The common life bears living testimony to the concrete humanity of the Son of God…In the Christian life the individual disciple and the body of Jesus belong inseparably together. 

(The Cost of Discipleship254).

On October 14 and 15, I will be in Manhattan, KS for the Sixth Annual Western Professors and Scholars. It is sponsored by Manhattan Christian College. I was there two years ago and presented my Doctor of Ministry Thesis on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This year’s conference is focused on Bonhoeffer. I was asked to present a research paper how the pastoral side of Bonhoeffer can be seen in his circular letters to his former Finkenwalde students.

The Preacher’s Seminary of Finkenwalde was one of the five Confessing Church seminaries.[1] Bonhoeffer was the director of the Finkenwalde seminary from 1935 to 1937.[2] In September of 1937, all the Confessing Church seminaries were closed by the Gestapo.[3] Bonhoeffer continued to correspond with his students through these circular letters. The pastoral heart of Bonhoeffer is seen in these letters.

This was especially evident when he wrote of former students who were killed in battle. His August 15, 1941 circular letter is an example of this. He gave the names of four former students who were killed on the eastern front: Konrad Bojack, F.A. Preub, Ulruch Nithack, and Gerhard Schulze.[4] Bonhoeffer then went into great detail about their faith and ministries:

Konrad Bojack was with us in the summer of 1935. He became a pastor in Lyck (East Prussia), where he leaves behind his wife and two small children. With the earnestness and joy of Christianity, his sermons emerging completely from the Word of God, and his love for the church, the ministry, and the congregation, he was a fine witness of Jesus Christ for us all. As a native of Silesia who chose to make his home his home in East Prussia, he had allowed the questions and needs of the German border region to grow dear to his heart. He proved his love for this new homeland as a faithful pastor of his congregation. He found his mission and his congregation’s salvation in the authentic preaching of Jesus Christ. He was killed on June 22 close to the East Prussian border. We grieve the loss of this quiet, honest brother. In this life, he trusted in Word and sacrament. Now he may behold in which believed.

F.A. Preub was with us the same time as Konrad Bojack. He became a pastor in Landsberger Hollander in Neumark, where he leaves behind his wife and two children. In him we had a brother who was always friendly and joyful, whose faith in Jesus Christ was secure, who attended faithfully to the office entrusted to him even under difficult conditions, and who served his congregation with great love and devotion. Now Christ has called him to his own heavenly congregation.

Ulrich Nithack was with us in the summer of 1938. No one who met him could have failed to experience his radiant happiness and inner confidence, rooted his faith in Christ. His never-failing readiness to serve other members of the community and his thankfulness for the smallest things brought him the love of all the brothers. His pursuit of a personal life of sanctification through Jesus Christ emerged from a faith that was in the best sense childlike. For him, prayer was at the center. In a certitude that strengthened all of us, he saw his path and calling to be entirely within the Confessing Church, which he loved with all his heart. He gave himself completely to every task assigned to him. With his death some of the light of Jesus Christ, which we are given to glimpse here and there through one another, has gone out for us—but only so as to shine all the more brightly in the eternal sun of Jesus Christ.

Like Ulrich Nithack, Gerhard Schulze was with us in the summer of 1938. He came from a conflict-ridden congregational post in which he represented the concerns of a church bravely and clearly. With his lively, cheerful, winning manner he quickly found friends and community wherever he went. He desired to devote his life completely to the Confessing Church’s struggle. God led him in a special way through depths and heights; he was allowed to experience the power of the grace of God in his life more powerfully than others. He wished to proceed in his future ministry from within this experience. His death affects many friends who accompanied him through his life. Yet a life so rich in grace fills us anew with the certainty that the mercy of God has no end.[5]

Bonhoeffer must have spent significant time with his students to know their backgrounds and families. His relationship with his students also went beyond their years together at Finkenwalde since he also was aware of certain details of their lives after the seminary was closed. In an era long before e-mail, Facebook, Skype, cell phones and text-messaging, Bonhoeffer invested the time through good-old-fashioned face-to-face conversations and letter writing in order to get to know his students


[1] Mark S. Brocker, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 4.

[2] Brocker, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945, 4.

[3] Brocker, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945, 4.

[4] Brocker, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945, 44.

[5] Brocker, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945, 206.

 

Circular letters were not permitted. On July 12, 1940, it was decreed that forbid civilians “to send publications of any kind to members of the armed forces.”[1] Bonhoeffer and his close friend, Eberhard Bethge produced all the Finkenwalde circular letters on a typewriter, “circumventing the decree by sending them as personal letters. By using carbon copies, they were able to speed the process along. The name of each addressee was written by hand at the beginning, and Bonhoeffer signed each letter.”[2]


[1] Brocker, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945, 8

[2] Brocker, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945, 4.

 

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer heard that a very good friend, Gerhard Vibrans had been killed in the war, he said…

I think the pain and feeling of emptiness that his death leaves in me could scarcely be different if he had been my own brother!

(Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, 385).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote letters to his former students of Finkenwalde. But not all of them were circular letters.

Bonhoeffer corresponded with the brethren individually too. He received one letter from one Finkenwaldian who had resisted meditating on the biblical texts. But in the midst of war, he told Bonhoeffer that he kept up the practice on his own. When it was too difficult to meditate on the verses, he simply memorized them, which had a similar effect.

(Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, 384).

The heart of a spiritual shepherd will reflect the heart of Jesus, the Chief Shepherd. Jesus said in John 10:14 that he was the good shepherd who knows his sheep and the sheep know him. Jesus’ care for his sheep is a template for pastors and their congregation. Bonhoeffer followed in the steps of Jesus. The seminary at Finkenwalde was not a church. Nevertheless, Dietrich Bonhoeffer cared for his students as the spiritual shepherd of his student.

This care and love for his students was expressed in the Finkenwalde circular letters. For example, in the May 1940 letter, Bonhoeffer wrote of his “pleasure” when he received letters from his students.

Dear Brothers,

Today I must thank all of you collectively for the recent greetings and letters that I have received from you. Otherwise I shall be unable to work through all my correspondence, and I do not want you to wait even longer for my thanks. Every greeting and longer letter has given me pleasure and made it possible for me to focus again on each of you.[1] 

Each letter began with either “Dear Brothers” or “Dear Brother…” His simple salutations reflected Bonhoeffer’s closeness with his students. The circular letters make it clear that at Finkenwalde, he took to the time to get to know his students. This was especially evident when he wrote of former students who were killed in battle. His August 15, 1941 circular letter is an example of this. He gave the names of four former students who were killed on the eastern front: Konrad Bojack, F.A. Preub, Ulruch Nithack, and Gerhard Schulze.[2] Bonhoeffer then went into great detail about their lives:

Konrad Bojack was with us in the summer of 1935. He became a pastor in Lyck (East Prussia), where he leaves behind his wife and two small children. With the earnestness and joy of Christianity, his sermons emerging completely from the Word of God, and his love for the church, the ministry, and the congregation, he was a fine witness of Jesus Christ for us all. As a native of Silesia who chose to make his home his home in East Prussia, he had allowed the questions and needs of the German border region to grow dear to his heart. He proved his love for this new homeland as a faithful pastor of his congregation. He found his mission and his congregation’s salvation in the authentic preaching of Jesus Christ. He was killed on June 22 close to the East Prussian border. We grieve the loss of this quiet, honest brother. In this life, he trusted in Word and sacrament. Now he may behold in which believed.

F.A. Preub was with us the same time as Konrad Bojack. He became a pastor in Landsberger Hollander in Neumark, where he leaves behind his wife and two children. In him we had a brother who was always friendly and joyful, whose faith in Jesus Christ was secure, who attended faithfully to the office entrusted to him even under difficult conditions, and who served his congregation with great love and devotion. Now Christ has called him to his own heavenly congregation.

Ulrich Nithack was with us in the summer of 1938. No one who met him could have failed to experience his radiant happiness and inner confidence, rooted his faith in Christ. His never-failing readiness to serve other members of the community and his thankfulness for the smallest things brought him the love of all the brothers. His pursuit of a personal life of sanctification through Jesus Christ emerged from a faith that was in the best sense childlike. For him, prayer was at the center. In a certitude that strengthened all of us, he saw his path and calling to be entirely within the Confessing Church, which he loved with all his heart. He gave himself completely to every task assigned to him. With his death some of the light of Jesus Christ, which we are given to glimpse here and there through one another, has gone out for us—but only so as to shine all the more brightly in the eternal sun of Jesus Christ.

Like Ulrich Nithack, Gerhard Schulze was with us in the summer of 1938. He came from a conflict-ridden congregational post in which he represented the concerns of a church bravely and clearly. With his lively, cheerful, winning manner he quickly found friends and community wherever he went. He desired to devote his life completely to the Confessing Church’s struggle. God led him in a special way through depths and heights; he was allowed to experience the power of the grace of God in his life more powerfully than others. He wished to proceed in his future ministry from within this experience. His death affects many friends who accompanied him through his life. Yet a life so rich in grace fills us anew with the certainty that the mercy of God has no end.[3]

Bonhoeffer must have spent significant time with his students to know their backgrounds and families. His relationship with his students also went beyond their years together at Finkenwalde since he also was aware of certain details of their lives after the seminary was closed. In an era long before e-mail, Facebook, Skype, cell phones and text-messaging, Bonhoeffer invested the time through good-old-fashioned face-to-face conversations and letter writing in order to get to know his students.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not that aloof theologian who put up walls between his students and him. The Preacher’s Seminary was not your typical seminary where students went to class and heard a lecture and then went to their dorm room, library or to the cafeteria. Finkenwalde was an opportunity for Bonhoeffer to put into the practice his thoughts on authentic fellowship.


[1] Brocker, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945, 44.

[2] Brocker, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945, 44.

[3] Brocker, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945, 206.

 

On the morning of April 9, 1945, German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at Flossenburg concentration camp. The camp doctor, H. Fischer-Hullstrung, later remembered: [Just before the execution] I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer kneeling on the floor, praying fervently to God…so certain that God heard his prayer…I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.

Others testified that, up to his last day, the 39 year-old Bonhoeffer remained cheerful. He knew what he had to do, was reconciled to God’s will, and was able to climb the steps to the gallows “brave and composed.”

Who was this man who died so bravely—who Hitler himself, from his bunker beneath Berlin just three weeks before his suicide, ordered to be “destroyed?” He is the subject of best-selling author Eric Metaxas’ new biography: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

For the rest of the post…

The pastoral side of Dietrich Bonhoeffer can be seen in his circular letters to his former Finkenwalde students. The Preacher’s Seminary of Finkenwalde was one of the five Confessing Church seminaries.[1] Bonhoeffer was the director of the Finkenwalde seminary from 1935 to 1937.[2] In September of 1937, all the Confessing Church seminaries were closed by the Gestapo.[3]

After the seminaries were closed down, Bonhoeffer continued to correspond with “his Finkenwalde seminarians, many of whom had been conscripted into the German military. The others were serving in a variety of contexts on behalf of the Confessing Church.”[4] Bonhoeffer not only sent letters to his former students. He also mailed books to them.[5] In December of 1940, Bonhoeffer sent out “ninety such packages and letters; it seems that he had to type the letter over many times, using carbon copies to make it a bit less draining.”[6]

Pastoral ministry does involve the ministry of the Word and prayer, but a true spiritual shepherd will invest time to the sheep under his care. Bonhoeffer committed much time to not only type out letters but also to address and stamp envelops and then mail them. Mark S. Broker, the editor of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16: Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940-1945 writes:

These seven Finkenwalde circular letters are some of the most moving writings and a testimony to his pastoral sensitivity. Here we witness him caring for his seminary students in a profound way as they struggle with the challenges of living a faithful life during the war, whether on the front lines or at home. At the beginning of several of these letters, he lists the names of those who have fallen in battle and offers heartfelt reflections on their life and ministry. Although the brothers were scattered and unable to gather, it was almost as if Bonhoeffer were speaking at a memorial service for each fallen brother.[7]  

In Volume 16 of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, the seven circular letters are included.[8] These letters clearly reveal the shepherd’s heart of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Eric Metaxas writes in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy that Bonhoeffer’s “correspondence with so many is a testament to his faithfulness as a pastor.”[9]


[1] Mark S. Brocker, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 4.

[2] Brocker, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945, 4.

[3] Brocker, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945, 4.

[4] Brocker, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945,  7.

[5] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 373.

[6] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, 379.

[7] Brocker, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945, 7.

[8] Brocker, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945, 7.

[9] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, 384.

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