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APRIL 9, 2019 BY DEACON GREG KANDRA

German Federal Archives/Wikipedia

The great preacher, writer, theologian and witness to the faith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer,was executed on April 9, 1945, just days before the Nazi camp where he was held, Flossenbürg, was liberated. He was 39.

Here’s what happened: 

On 4 April 1945, the diaries of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, were discovered, and in a rage upon reading them, Hitler ordered that the Abwehr conspirators [those who had plotted for Hitler’s assassination] be destroyed. Bonhoeffer was led away just as he concluded his final Sunday service and asked an English prisoner, Payne Best, to remember him to Bishop George Bell of Chichester if he should ever reach his home: “This is the end—for me the beginning of life.”

Bonhoeffer was condemned to death on 8 April 1945 by SS judge Otto Thorbeck at a drumhead court-martial without witnesses, records of proceedings or a defense in Flossenbürg concentration camp.  He was executed there by hanging at dawn on 9 April 1945, just two weeks before soldiers from the United States 90th and 97th Infantry Divisions liberated the camp,  three weeks before the Soviet capture of Berlin and a month before the surrender of Nazi Germany.

Bonhoeffer was stripped of his clothing and led naked into the execution yard where he was hanged, along with fellow conspirators Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Canaris’s deputy General Hans Oster, military jurist General Karl Sack, General Friedrich von Rabenau, businessman Theodor Strünck, and German resistance fighter Ludwig Gehre.

Eberhard Bethge, a student and friend of Bonhoeffer’s, writes of a man who saw the execution: “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer…In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

For the rest of the post…

Of the Bonhoeffer brothers, Dietrich, the youngest, was the one most drawn to try the Youth movement. His episode in the Boy Scouts was a first attempt advance to move beyond the sphere of family and school, and to discover his own areas of experience not shared by his brothers and sisters. Many of his classmates did the same thing, and he did not want to be different from them in everything. 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 33.

In 1917 Karl-Friedrich and Walter were called up. Because of their numerous contacts, the Bonhoeffers could have influenced the course of their sons’ military career to some extent, but the boys insisted on enlisting in the infantry, where the need was greatest. They joined the Fifth Regiment of Guards at Spandau, with no intention of becoming officers. With a heavy heart their parents let them do so; they did not want “to try to play Providence.”

After a short time of training, they were sent to the front.

…Walter was wounded in the advance on 23 April 1918. (He died from injuries on April 28)

…His death seemed to break his mother’s spirit. She spent weeks in bed at time…

…Karl-Friedrich was wounded in the October battles of 1918, but his injuries proved to be slight.

Seventeen-year-old Klaus was also called up and, after a brief period of training, served as an orderly at General Headquarters in Spa.

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 27-28.

Gradually, however, the war began to have a grim impact on the Bonhoeffer family. In 1914 their uncle Otto Bonhoeffer in Dussedorf and their mother’s sister, Aunt Hanna Countess von der Goltz, received bad news, and the children heard of cousins killed or severely wounded in action. As the war dragged on, the older brothers, who were still in school, approached military age.

At the end of 1916 faint hopes clung to the possibility of peace. 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 26.

Dietrich was eight and a half when the First World War broke out…For the younger (Bonhoeffer) children the outbreak of was was a time of great excitement. At the end of July (1914) they were hurriedly brought home after a month’s holiday in glorious weather in Friedrichsbrunn. When one of the girl’s dashed into the house shouting: “Hurrah, there’s a war,” her face was slapped. The first German successes filled Dietrich with boyish enthusiasm. When he was nine he wrote his parents from Friedrichsbrunn asking them to send him all the newspaper cuttings with news from the front; he had learned from his big brothers and at school how to stick colored pins into a map showing the advance of the front line. 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 25-26.

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Thus in his boyhood and youth it was that gave him a special position at school and among his fellow students. His brothers and sisters allowed him this as well. Only when he came home from a school sports meet with the victor’s laurel wreath around his shoulders did he have to put up with the taunts of his big brothers. 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 25.

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Soon there was no doubt that Dietrich did not share his elder brothers’ scientific inclinations; he preferred thrilling books and made unusual progress in music. Not that his brothers and sisters were unmusical; Klaus later played the cello with great sensitivity, and none of his brothers or sisters ever wanted to miss the family musical evenings. But Dietrich made such musical and technical progress at the piano that for a time both he and his parents thought he might become a professional musician. 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 25.

…Dietrich Bonhoeffer, like his brothers and sisters, grew up to be a citizen of Berlin, despite the Swabian, Thuringian, and Silesian influences. His eventful life cannot be considered apart from this background. All the other places that were important to him in the course of his life–Breslau, Tubingen, New York, London, or Finkenwalde–certainly influenced him. The decisive influence, however, was Berlin and its complex diversity… 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 23.

Sadly, but predictably, finger-pointing abounds as Americans seek answers and assign blame in the wake of the slaughter of 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 27. But the rise of anti-Semitism in our culture is undeniable. According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic attacks increased by almost 60 percent from 2016 to 2017. The ADL also announced that the Pittsburgh massacre was the deadliest assault on a Jewish community in our nation’s history.

While no single factor ever explains the sociological, psychological and spiritual factors which contribute to such evil, the American church should also do some soul searching. Have we (myself included) promulgated a shallow theology, at times confusing and distorting Christianity’s relationship with Judaism?

When I was a boy, a small Baptist church nearby went through a noisy controversy when the Vacation Bible School leader hatched a plan to have an area rabbi visit with the VBS children. “What?!” screamed the deacons, “Exposing our precious children to heresy?” The plan was quickly abandoned, because, after all, they were a Christian church. Why would the branches want to learn anything about the root (Romans 11:16ff)?

The church’s neglect of sound teaching is like failing to pay our bills. We are still required to pay, but now with interest and penalties compounding. One of the tragedies of history is that demagogues and other unstable people rarely grasp the church’s strong, clear teachings. But they almost always gravitate to the doctrines we neglect or muddle.

Adolph Hitler was not the last tyrant to blame the Jews for Jesus’ death. How well have we in the evangelical wing of Protestantism clarified that all of humanity crucified our Lord? A power-crazed Gentile government in league with Judaism’s corrupt church – the execution of Jesus was truly an equal opportunity event.

“Bonhoeffer told his students, ‘Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.’”

I’m embarrassed by the need to point this out, but Jesus was probably not blue-eyed, blonde and fair-skinned; he was a Middle Eastern Jew. And he didn’t come to wipe away Judaism and start over again with some new religion; he came to complete God’s ancient promises through Israel to the world. (Many Bible verses come to mind, but for starters, read Matthew 5:17-18 and the first two chapters of Luke.)

The Apostle Paul did not abandon his Judaism when he turned to Christ. Instead, he fell in love with Jesus Christ precisely because he experienced this Jewish peasant rabbi as the fulfillment of God’s plan for the ages. Don’t forget: the name “Christ” means “Anointed One,” and Paul’s favorite description of himself was a person “in the Anointed One.”

In an interesting coincidence of timing, just days before the Tree of Life murders, I took part in an area pastors’ peer group discussion of recent trends in Pauline theology. David May of Central Baptist Theological Seminary led us in some thoughtful reflection on “Paul, the Judean.” Noted scholars, including N.T. Wright (Paul: A Biography) and Mark Nanos (The Mystery of Romans), have written persuasively of the continuity as well as discontinuity in the Judeo-Christian message.

In these dark days when anti-Semitism is on the increase, some of us have been revisiting the life and writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In the build-up to World War II and the Holocaust, Bonhoeffer was one of the first and the few to call the church to stand with the Jews.

I take some comfort, however, in the fact that not even Bonhoeffer always got it right. His twin sister, Sabine, was married to a Jew, Gerhard Leibholz. When Leibholz’s father died, the family asked Bonhoeffer to officiate the funeral. After agonizing over the invitation, he declined, a decision he almost immediately regretted (Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 209). Bonhoeffer was ashamed and wrote honestly about his failure, a reminder that we are all captives of our culture, struggling to get free.

For the rest of the post…

From his earliest childhood Dietrich Bonhoeffer was accustomed to being privileged, not the underdog. Admittedly, this was true only up to a point in terms of his position among his siblings. This position had some significance for his development, and probably for his choice of career as well. As the three “little ones,” he and his sisters had all the advantages and disadvantages of youngest children. It was natural that the sturdy and gifted boy should sometimes try to rival or even surpass his big brothers and, indeed, in the field of music, he did surpass them. This secret rivalry helped to make theology attractive, since it offered something special of his own. The distance between the two groups of children was increased by the war, which confronted the older children with its terrible realities early, while the younger children remained at home. 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 20.

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