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As a small boy he (Dietrich) once a attacked a weaker classmate, whose mother expressed the grace suspicion that perhaps the Bonhoeffer children had been raised to be anti-Semitic. Dietrich’s mother replied that that her son could not have heard of such a thing in her house. As someone capable of such violence, he was later particularly and carefully concerned about treating those in weaker positions considerately, and instilling self-confidence in them.    

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 19.

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The Cost of His Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45)

On July 20, 1944, the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler failed. The very next day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to Eberhard Bethge, his former student and future biographer. Bonhoeffer had been in prison since April 5, 1943. In the wake of the failure of the Valkyrie plot, Hitler led a crackdown on the resistance movement. Hundreds were immediately arrested; many in the movement already held in prison were moved to higher security prisons. Many were put on expedited paths to their execution. Bonhoeffer was one of them.

But on July 21, 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote about a conversation he had in America in 1930. He was in the United States to learn of theological developments. He was to spend the year at the patently theological liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He found it wanting. “No theology here,” he reported back to Germany. But he did find dear friends, and he found adventure on a road trip from New York to Mexico City.

Somewhere along the way, as they camped in pup tents and sat around a fire, they asked each other what they wanted to do with their lives. One of them, a Frenchman named Lasserre, said he wanted to be a saint. Bonhoeffer picks up the story from there in his letter to Bethge the day after the failed plot:

At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. . . . I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous or an unrighteous man, a sick man or a healthy man. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.

As we reflect on that list in that last sentence, there’s only one word we really like, “successes.” We tend to avoid the other things mentioned by Bonhoeffer, but those things are part of life, of “this-worldliness.” Bonhoeffer then adds that by living life in this way, “We throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of the God-man in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith.”

Bonhoeffer learned this in a very short time in a very short life. He died in his thirty-ninth year. While most people are only beginning to make their mark and offer their mature thought as they turn forty, Bonhoeffer never made it to that milestone.

Young Professor in Berlin

He was born into an academic family. His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a renowned psychiatrist at the University of Berlin. One of his brothers, a chemist, would go on to discover the spin isomers of hydrogen. The family home had a large library, a conservatory, and walls lined with very impressive looking oil portraits of his predecessors. Dietrich excelled as a student. He took his first doctorate as he turned twenty-one and a second doctorate three years later. He served in the academy, initially. But he loved the church.

As a young professor at the University of Berlin, he noticed an appeal for a teacher of a confirmation class at a Lutheran church in Berlin, on the other side of the tracks from where the Bonhoeffer family home stood. These were rough kids, who had already chewed through a few prospective teachers. The pastor was hoping to get an idealistic seminary student who didn’t have the better sense to not do this. Instead, the pastor and this band of prepubescent ruffians got a theology professor in wire-rimmed glasses and tailored suits.

Within minutes, Bonhoeffer had won them over. When the day came for their confirmation — a day the pastor was almost sure would never come — Bonhoeffer took them all to his tailor and got them all suits. He was the kind of professor who would just as soon pull out a “football” and hit the soccer pitch with his students as he lectured to them. During the time he spent in America, he got an armload of 78s of blues and negro spirituals. After the soccer games, he would spin records with his students and talk theology. For Bonhoeffer, education was discipleship.

Life Together

When the German Lutheran Church endorsed the Nazi party and became the Reich Kirche, Bonhoeffer quickly became a leader among the Confessing Church, despite his very young age. He lost his license to teach at the University of Berlin, and his books were placed on the banned book list. He was appointed the director of one of the five seminaries for the Confessing Church. At this seminary in Finkenwalde, he taught his students the Bible and theology, and he also taught them how to pray. Bonhoeffer saw these three things — biblical studies, theology, and prayer — as the essential elements of the pastoral office.

Eberhard Bethge, one of his students at Finkenwalde, exemplifies what he was taught by Bonhoeffer. Bethge wrote, “Because I am a preacher of the word, I cannot expound Scripture unless I let it speak to me every day. I will misuse the word in my office if I do not keep meditating on it in prayer.”

The Gestapo found out about the seminary at Finkenwalde and shut it down. Bonheffer spent the next year in his parents’ home. He wrote Life Together, memorializing what he practiced and what he had learned at Finkenwaldeab, and he visited his students and kept them on task with their studies and ministry.

Letters from Prison

The next years of Bonhoeffer’s life, 1940–1943, are debated. He joined the Abwehr at the urging of his brother-in-law. But it does not appear that he is actually much of a spy at all. He used his position to travel freely around the country — a way to keep up with his students and keep up with the churches they were pastoring. Then comes the contested episode of his life as he became part of a group seeking to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s role was not one of providing strategy — that was supplied by the other highly placed military and intelligence agency officials.

Bonhoeffer appears to be the pastor in the room, the one who gives the blessing on the undertaking they were about to embark on. Bonhoeffer wrestled with it, wondering if what they were doing was right and not at all presuming it was right and righteous. It was war, and these Germans were convinced that Hitler was an enemy to the German state and the German people, as well as to the other nations plunged into war. Whatever Bonhoeffer’s contribution was to this group, he did not make it presumptively or rashly.

The plots, like the Valkyrie plot, all failed. On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and sent to Tegel Prison. For the next two years, he would live in a 6’ x 9’ prison cell. He spoke of missing listening to birds. He missed seeing colors. Early in his time at Tegel, he despaired for his life. It was also in Tegel that Bonhoeffer wrote about living a “this-worldly” life. It was at Tegel that he spoke of learning to have faith in life’s failures, difficulties, and perplexities. At Tegel, he wrote poetry. He wrote a novel. He wrote sermons for weddings and baptisms — they were smuggled out and read by others at these occasions. Bonhoeffer’s time at Tegel yielded his classic text Letters and Papers from Prison.

In one of those letters, on June 27, 1944, he wrote, “This world must not be prematurely written off.” He was in a Nazi prison cell while Hitler was unleashing madness upon the world, and Bonhoeffer wrote about being a Christian in the world, in the time and place in which God had put him.

Cost of Discipleship

In 1936, Bonhoeffer published Nachfolge. It would be later published in English as The Cost of Discipleship. In it he declares, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

In Christ, we are dead. The old self and the old way is dead. And, in Christ, we are alive. After the Valkyrie plot, Bonhoeffer could write simply, “Jesus is alive. I have hope.”

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DIETRICH BONHOEFFER was a twin. (He was born just before his twin sister, Sabine.)

Dietrich’s father, Karl, was Berlin’s leading psychiatrist and neurologist from 1912 until his death in 1948.

Dietrich was so skilled at playing the piano that for a time he and his parents thought he might become a professional musician.

At 14, Bonhoeffer announced matter-of-factly that he was going to become a theologian.

Bonhoeffer earned his doctorate in theology when he was only 21.

Though later he was an outspoken advocate of pacifism, Bonhoeffer was an enthusiastic fan of bullfighting. He developed the passion while serving as assistant pastor of a German-speaking congregation in Barcelona, Spain.

By the end of 1930, the year before Bonhoeffer was ordained, church seminaries were complaining that over half the candidates for ordination were followers of Hitler.

In 1933, when the government instigated a one-day boycott of Jewish-owned businesses, Bonhoeffer’s grandmother broke through a cordon of SS officers to buy strawberries from a Jewish store.

In his short lifetime, Bonhoeffer traveled widely. He visited Cuba, Mexico, Italy, Libya, Denmark, and Sweden, among other countries, and he lived for a time in Spain, in England, and in the United States.

Bonhoeffer taught a confirmation class in what he described as “about the worst area of Berlin,” yet he moved into that neighborhood so he could spend more time with the boys.

Bonhoeffer was fascinated by Gandhi’s methods of nonviolent resistance. He asked for—and received—permission to visit Gandhi and live at his ashram. The two never met, however, because the crisis in Germany demanded Bonhoeffer’s attention.

Bonhoeffer served as a member of the Abwehr, the military-intelligence organization under Hitler. (He was actually a double agent. While ostensibly working for the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer helped to smuggle Jews into Switzerland—and do other underground tasks.)

Bonhoeffer studied for a year in New York City.

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“If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”

BY D.G. SCHUMACHER

December 27, 2015 in Column, Opinion

Michael Gerson: Bonhoeffer resisted Nazis, offered hope

Michael Gerson The Washington Post

The current ferment of American politics has brought comparisons to Europe in the 1930s, with echoes of leaders who stoke anger against outsiders and promise a return to greatness through the application of a strong man’s will.

The analogy is hardly exact. Lacking the economic chaos and fragile institutions …

The current ferment of American politics has brought comparisons to Europe in the 1930s, with echoes of leaders who stoke anger against outsiders and promise a return to greatness through the application of a strong man’s will.

The analogy is hardly exact. Lacking the economic chaos and fragile institutions of Weimar Germany, America has fewer footholds for fascism. But the reaction to fascist darkness in the 1930s produced a figure, a bright light, who should guide us.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who resisted the Nazis and the influence of Nazism in his own church. He spoke out on behalf of German Jews, was implicated in a plot against Adolf Hitler’s life, was imprisoned, wrote and ministered for years from confinement, then was led naked to the execution ground and hung with a noose of piano wire, just weeks before the end of World War II.

As a theologian, Bonhoeffer was farsighted. Modern Western societies, he argued, were becoming “radically religionless.” It is not possible to reimpose this consensus, and mere nostalgia is pointless. But religion – in Bonhoeffer’s view, a changeable form of “human self-expression” – is not the same as faith. “If religion is only the garment of Christianity – and even the garment has looked very different at different times – then what is religionless Christianity?”

It is a question that could occupy a theologian’s entire career. Bonhoeffer’s was cut short at age 39. But it is worth noting one thing he did not find outdated. He believed that Advent and the story of Christmas speak directly to the modern world.

The appeal of Christmas to a prisoner, from one perspective, is natural. Christmas upends the normal calculations of power and influence. “He takes what is little and lowly,” said Bonhoeffer, “and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly. … He loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”

This is not merely a sentimental insight. In Bonhoeffer’s view, this revelation about the character of God involves a kind of judgment. “No powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod. For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly. Here the rich come to nothing, because God is with the poor and hungry, but the rich and satisfied he sends away empty. Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope; they are judged.”

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by Michael Hayes

In our day, when divisiveness is coming to be considered a virtue, we face a difficult challenge. Some people relate to others by emphasizing the differences between them while other people relate by emphasizing the commonalities.

I suppose there is a time for each but of this I am sure: Those who live exclusively by the rule that our differences matter more than our commonalities will never receive the blessing Jesus pronounced on the peacemakers. He certainly had his times of clashing with the religious leaders who had so much to lose if they agreed with Jesus, but with the vast majority of people Jesus was amazingly inclusive.

I am convinced — from watching Jesus and history and current events — that our first instincts must always be toward inclusiveness, toward cherishing our commonalities. We must at times be exclusive, of course, but let’s let the other person decide to be our enemy before we consider him to be an enemy.

One of the current areas of great tension is the relation between Jews, Christians and Muslims. There are some very real differences between the three but we dare not neglect the deep commonalities. We who are Christian will never relinquish our center in Jesus Christ. Ours is a lifetime, unconditional commitment to Christ as Lord and Savior. But we must be very careful to avoid defending our borders, our edges as fervently as we do our center.

We have a history, especially in America, of breaking fellowship with anyone who doesn’t share in the whole of our thinking. Conservatives, for instance, often seem convinced that those nasty Liberals aren’t even Christian at all. And those who baptize only adults sometimes look with scorn on those who practice infant baptism. Those who baptize by dunking tend to have little respect for those who drip a bit of water on the head. On and on we go, criticizing and separating from one another to form countless denominations and independent congregations. We seem to think the form of baptism, which distinguishes one group from another, is more important than our common commitment to Christ, which unites us.

No wonder we have trouble getting along with Jews and especially Muslims! If we cannot value our common center with one another, how can we find any commonalities with Jews and Muslims? The fault is ours, not theirs (except for those who want to focus on the differences.)

A Christian who traveled often to Egypt was asked once, “Is Allah the same as God or is Allah a false god?” The answer was emphatic: “Allah is not God.” What a profound misunderstanding! In the first place, the word “Allah” is simply the normal Arabic word for God. And the word “God” is simply the Saxon word for supernatural beings. In the second place, by “Allah” Islam means the Creator and the Lord of Abraham as portrayed in Genesis. Whether we agree with the Islamic interpretation of the story of God and his people, we cannot honestly deny that Christian and Muslim each intend to worship and serve the one Creator.

To see a perfect example of what it looks like when we emphasize commonalities rather than differences, take the time to become acquainted with a group called the Abrahamic Alliance International.    < abrahamicalliance.org  >

Or, to think about the matter from a different perspective, read the story told about Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 7. Jesus has a fascinating exchange with an unclean, Gentile woman, someone about as low as one could get in the eyes of some people. They have a lively exchange in which she shows she is in perfect tune with Jesus. He grants her prayer and sends her on her way. He never once suggested that she should convert to become a Jew or even become his follower. He simply blesses and commends her. If Jesus did not insist that she become like him, who are we to insist that everyone else become like us???

It was very difficult for the Confessing Church in Germany to come to grips with the anti-Semitism fomented by the Nazis. The prejudice was so deeply rooted in the German mentality that even for the Confessing Church, opposed as it was to Hitler, to realize what a clear stand was needed against anti-Semitism. Bonhoeffer, who certainly was one of the first to grasp the full reality of the situation, spoke out but cautiously at first…

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“One act of obedience is better than one hundred sermons”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Quotes

Who was Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Pastor? Theologian? Activist? Professor? Martyr? Conspirator?

He was all of these things, and more.  The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer provides us with an amazingly clear glimpse into the mind of a Christian who was faced with an impossible decision: to whom is loyalty due, Fuhrer or Christ?

Bonhoeffer watched as fellow pastors and theologians bent their knees and proclaimed absolute loyalty to Adolph Hitler, and as the resistance of the church to the Reich in Germany gradually eroded, Bonhoeffer realized he could not stand by and do nothing.  Given the opportunity by a brother-in-law who was an officer of the German military intelligence, the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer agreed to participate in the conspiracy that attempted multiple assassination and coup plots against Hitler.

Ultimately, Bonhoeffer never attempted to justify his actions or the violence that the conspiracy planned.  Instead, he accepted that his actions were condemned and only the grace of God could ever undue their power.  He accepted the possibility of his own damnation in the hopes that millions could be spared the wrath of the mad dictator at the helm of his country.

In the end, the plots failed and Bonhoeffer was imprisoned. For two and a half years he stayed in a series of Gestapo prisons and concentration camps awaiting the final verdict until that fateful April morning when he was marched naked to the gallows and executed.

Bonhoeffer was many things, but his legacy continues to this day.  His life and theology unlocks a dimension of Christianity that many assumed had been forgotten to the ancient past: martyrdom.  Yet he was not simply a passive martyr that unquestioningly accepted his fate; he stood up for what he felt was right even though he could not justify his own actions.

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