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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.”

His legacy has been profound:

Bonhoeffer’s life as a pastor and theologian of great intellect and spirituality who lived as he preached—and his being killed because of his opposition to Nazism—exerted great influence and inspiration for Christians across broad denominations and ideologies, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the anti-communist democratic movement in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.

Bonhoeffer is commemorated in the liturgical calendars of several Christian denominations on the anniversary of his death, 9 April. This includes many parts of the Anglican Communion, where he is sometimes identified as a martyr.

In our own troubled time, Bonhoeffer’s courage in the face of evil, and his suffering in the face of persecution, stand as a testament to true Christian witness — the very essence of what it means to be a “martyr.”

His likeness is preserved in Westminster Abbey, alongside other martyrs, including St. Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King, Jr.

He continues to teach and inspire Christians today.

For the rest of the post…

Kevin Rudd
Cover: October 2006

Above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey are arrayed ten great statues of the martyrs of the Church. Not Peter, Stephen, James or the familiar names of the saints sacrificed during the great Roman persecution before Constantine’s conversion. No: these are martyrs of the twentieth century, when the age of faith was, in the minds of many in the West, already tottering towards its collapse.

One of those honoured above the Great West Door is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, pastor and peace activist. Bonhoeffer is, without doubt, the man I admire most in the history of the twentieth century. He was a man of faith. He was a man of reason. He was a man of letters who was as well read in history and literature as he was in the intensely academic Lutheran theology of the German university tradition. He was never a nationalist, always an internationalist. And above all, he was a man of action who wrote prophetically in 1937 that “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” For Bonhoeffer, whatever the personal cost, there was no moral alternative other than to fight the Nazi state with whatever weapons were at his disposal.

Three weeks before the end of World War II, Bonhoeffer was hanged by the SS because of his complicity in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. This year marks the centenary of his birth. This essay seeks both to honour Bonhoeffer and to examine what his life, example and writings might have to say to us, 60 years after his death, on the proper relationship between Christianity and politics in the modern world.

In both George Bush’s America and John Howard’s Australia, we see today the political orchestration of various forms of organised Christianity in support of the conservative incumbency. In the US, the book God’s Politics, by Reverend Jim Wallis, has dragged this phenomenon out of the shadows (where it is so effectively manipulated by the pollsters and spin-doctors) and into the searching light of proper public debate. US Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians are now engaged in a national discussion on the role of the religious Right. The same debate must now occur here in Australia. As Wallis notes in his introduction:

God is not partisan: God is not a Republican or a Democrat. When either party tries to politicize God, or co-opt religious communities for their political agendas, they make a terrible mistake. The best contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable nor loyally partisan. Both parties, and the nation, must let the prophetic voice of religion be heard. Faith must be free to challenge both right and left from a consistent moral ground.


Had Dietrich Bonhoeffer been at Oxford, he would have been one of the gods. He was at 21 a doctoral graduate and at 23 the youngest person ever appointed to a lectureship in systematic theology at the University of Berlin, in 1929. His contemporaries saw his career as made in heaven. Along Unter den Linden, just beyond the faculty walls, however, the living hell of the Nazi storm-troopers was being born.

At the core of Bonhoeffer’s theological and therefore political life was a repudiation of the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. As James Woelfel has noted:

According to this doctrine, the proper concern of the gospel is the inner person, the sphere where the Kingdom of God reigns; the Kingdom of the State, on the other hand, lies in the outer sphere, the realm of law, and is not subject to the gospel’s message. German Christians used this argument to justify devotion to race and fatherland as ‘orders of creation’ to be obeyed until the final consummation.

These debates may seem arcane in twenty-first-century secular Australia, but in the Germany of the 1930s they were central to the decision of the majority of German Lutheran ministers to submit to the Reichskirche (resplendent with swastikas on their ecclesiastical stoles) and to retreat into a politically non-threatening quietism as the political repression of Hitler’s post-1933 chancellorship unfolded. Equally, it was Bonhoeffer’s theological dissent from the perversion of this Two Kingdoms doctrine that led him, at the tender age of 29, to establish in 1935 the German Confessing Church, with its underground seminary.

For the rest of the post…

No, he was not but read on…

The Mormon Bonhoeffer

In the 1970s, Latter-day Saint leaders began to quote C.S. Lewis in the semi-annual General Conference talks.

20th-century Martyrs, Westminster Abbey

20th-century Martyrs, Westminster Abbey (Bonhoeffer is on the right; Martin Luther King, Jr. is second from the left)

Earlier this month, Mormon Apostle D. Todd Cristofferson made a rather striking reference to the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a discussion of marriage.

Cristofferson quoted at length from a May 19, 1943 sermon that Bonhoeffer wrote while incarcerated in a high-security Gestapo prison:

Marriage is more than your love for each other. … In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory, and calls into his kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man. … So love comes from you, but marriage from above, from God.

What a beautiful message. One can readily see why Cristofferson appropriated it for his discussion of the significance of marriage for Latter-day Saints. For Mormons, marriage a divine institution, an ordinance connected with with the exaltation of men and women to become kings and queens unto God. Marriage is the crowning ordinance that exalts human beings back into the presence of a Father they had once known prior to their mortality. It binds together the generations.

As one would expect, there are many things in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of marriage that do not accord with Cristofferson’s. Most obviously, for Bonhoeffer, it is marriage until death, probably not eternity. Nor does Bonhoeffer connect marriage with salvation or exaltation.

For the rest of the post…

In previous posts, we began to answer the question if Dietrich Bonhoeffer should be considered a “martyr” in the traditional way that Christians understand martyrdom? Craig J. Slane, in his book, Bonhoeffer as Martyrwrote that…

…Since 1945, it has become fashionable in various religious contexts to esteem Bonhoeffer with the title martyr. The enthusiasm continues. On 9 July 1998 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was memorialized along with nine other martyrs of the twentieth century at Westminster Abbey. Statues of the ten were unveiled and now stand in the abbey’s west portal. Those included with Bonhoeffer are the Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Manche Masemola of South Africa, Licuinan Tapeidi of Papua New Guinea, Maximillian Kolbe of Poland, Esther John of Pakistan, Martin Luther King Jr. of the United States, Wang Zhiming of China, Janani Luwum of Uganda, and Oscar Romero of El Salvador (31).

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