On April 9 1945, exactly 70 years ago this month, the Nazis hanged Bonhoeffer in Flossenburg prison, two weeks before it was liberated by the Allied armies and three weeks before Adolf Hitler committed suicide in the bunker. Bonhoeffer was 39, and had been arrested by the Gestapo in April 1943.
A vocal critic of the regime’s euthanasia programme and its genocidal persecution of Jews, he published his most famous book,The Cost of Discipleship (in German, Nachfolge, meaning discipleship), in 1937, at a time of ferocious repression.
I think his words are relevant in South Africa today, if one can consider Bonhoeffer’s Christian concept of “grace” – understood as the highest kind of spiritual and moral behaviour, embodying God’s word in action – in the light of how young people should address themselves to the problems of South Africa, now.
Cheap grace, he wrote, “means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. …Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite.”
Costly grace, by contrast, “is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. . . . It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”
He continued: “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.”
By that, Bonhoeffer meant direct conflict with the Nazi regime.
It is easy to see that “cheap grace” in South Africa today could be represented by the throwing of faeces on the statue of a man who died 113 years ago, and demanding that the statue be removed, or that a university change its name.