The sixth reason Dietrich Bonhoeffer can impact twenty-first century preaching and preachers is that he lived well and died well. This reason will be posted in parts. Today will focus more on Bonhoeffer’s example and the testimony of those who knew him. Later this week, we will concentrate on the Biblical foundation for this impact and the personal application. I will also highlight Bonhoeffer’s poetry while he was in prison in yet another post.

        Bonhoeffer’s legacy is based on more than just his works. Bonhoeffer lived for the glory of Jesus even as he risked his life opposing Nazi oppression. The source of strength for him to live well, and eventually die well, was the grace of God.

     His good friend, Eberhard Bethge delivered a lecture entitled “The Living God Revealed in this Church” in Coventry Cathedral on October 30, 1967[1]. In that lecture, he expressed his concern that Bonheoffer’s legacy was marred by misunderstanding the source of power that sustained Bonhoeffer’s life. For example:

     The isolated use and handing down of the famous term “religionless Christianity” has made Bonhoeffer the champion of an undialectical shallow modernism which obscures all that he wanted to tell us about the living God.[2]

      That source of power was actually God’s grace that Bonhoeffer relied upon during the times he stood alone for the cause of Jesus; and during the times he displayed the image of Jesus through his words and action. Bethge summed it up with the phrase: “secret discipline.”[3]To Bonhoeffer:

     “Secret discipline meant…all that power to deepen and sustain Christian life: prayer, meditation, common worship, the sacraments, and experiments in life such as Finkenwalde had been, all in fact that helped to fit the Christian for a life of love lived with God and for his fellow men.”[4]

     Most modern readers of Bonhoeffer who are enthralled by his writings can completely miss why he lived and wrote the way he did:

     The Letters and Papers from Prison, which are the most widely read and quoted of all Bonhoeffer’s works, explore extensively the problems of identification which face the Christian in the present century, while saying little about that secret discipline by which his identity as a Christian is maintained. But what the writer did not say he was living daily and hourly, and the eloquence of his life counterbalances the reticence of the letters.

      His life had in fact represented a continuous effort to hold the two in balance, an attempt complicated by powerful inwards and outward pressures, so that at certain stages the scale tipped more heavily to the one side and certain stages to the other.[5]

     While Bethge believed that many readers may miss the reason why Bonhoeffer lived that way, Kelly and Burton believe many are actually attracted to Bonhoeffer because of his intense relationship with Jesus. They write that genuine community was a key component to Bonheoffer’s spirituality:

      One of the main reasons why readers find Bonhoeffer’s writings so compelling lies in the inner strength and intensity of his relationship with Jesus Christ developed in the practical everyday life of a Christian community. When he wrote his account of his community-sustained spiritual life in the Finkenwalde seminary, he was not reminiscing about an agreeable, idyllic experience of a like-minded group of dedicated seminarians.

     He intended to share with others this experience, with its joys and trials, its mutual support and enduring friendships, that it might serve as a model; for forming moral leaders and for the creation of new forms of church community throughout Germany.[6]

     “Moral leaders” will be the fruit of the “new forms of church community.” Bonhoeffer shared his “experience” at Finkenwalde in the pages of “Life Together.” If this “new and different” way “to be the church” became a reality, then vibrant followers of Jesus would be produced:

      In depicting that community in Life Together, Bonhoeffer also acknowledged the urgent need for the church to discover new and different ways to be the church. He thus emphasized the courageous following of Jesus Christ within a genuine community formed along the lines of the gospel, not the typical kind of church gatherings where strangers met and remained strangers, and whose dull blandness offered little resistance to the political ideology that had gained the allegiance of most churchgoers.

      In Bonhoeffer’s spirituality, effective moral leadership and one’s personality strengths are supported in and through the sharing of convictions that takes place in genuine Christian communities where the teachings of Jesus Christ, not political ideology, should inspire believers.[7]

     In such communities, the followers of Jesus should be inspired to “live out the gospel more intensely and thus cope more courageously with the crisis then overwhelming the German people and churches.” Kelly and Nelson speculate that the German landscape would have been transformed and the atrocities committed during the war could have been avoided if genuine Christian communities were formed within the churches:

     In hindsight, one wonders whether the slaughter that took place in the war and in the death camps could have been avoided had the Christians of Germany professed their faith in truly Christian communities like that directed by Bonhoeffer.[9]

     Bonhoeffer himself served as a prototype in both his life and his death. An early example of this was that he displayed intensity during theological debates with his students at Finkenwalde, and yet he deeply cared for each of them. His assistant, Wilhelm Rott wrote that Bonhoeffer “always had time for the brethren.”[10] His compassion for his fellow believers grew out of his own passionate and personal relationship with Jesus Christ.[11]

     Bonhoeffer was “a man of deep, personal prayer.”[12] It was his fervent spirituality that sustained him and motivated him to stand for the truth of the Word of God:

      His practice of quiet meditation on the Word of God helped him to become a unique advocate for truth and freedom as his own country was being overwhelmed with mendacious distortions of the truth by the Nazi government, The truth, as Bonhoeffer saw it, was that Jesus Christ was being crucified anew in the persecution of the Jews and dissidents and later in those murdered in the death camps and on the battlefields of World War II.

      Many passages from his collected writings underline his conviction that the main task of Christians was not to stand on the sidelines in silence or to kneel in pious prayers for deliverance and safety while violence was being done. From his efforts in the church struggle and from his family connections in the resistance movement, Bonhoeffer was aware of the criminality of his government.[13]

      Bonhoeffer’s resolve to spend time in prayer and scripture meditation strengthened him to stand up against the Nazi government:

His determination to resist Nazism was reinforced by his daily meditations on the biblical texts. It was in fact his dedication to prayer, as Bethge has observed, that kept Bonhoeffer’s conspiratorial actions from degenerating into self-righteousness, that buoyed his spirits with unflinching perseverance, that kept his pursuit of justice in line with the gospel. No prayer seemed complete for him unless it was linked to prophetic action for justice.”[14]

       Bonhoeffer’s final published book was a lengthy commentary on the Psalms.It earned him a monetary fine from “Reich Board for the Regulation of Literature.” After Bonhoeffer appealed the fine, the Board threw at him a “strengthened prohibition against any further publishing venture on his part because of the ‘dangerous dogmatic and spiritual connections’ that conflicted with the prevailing Nazi ideology.”[16] It was Bonhoeffer’s longing in the commentary to “retrieve the Psalms as the prayer book of Jesus Christ himself”:

     It is not only “the prayer book of the Bible,” as Bonhoeffer declared, but also a tapping into the strength of one’s personal communion with Jesus Christ, the sustenance of the faith of Christians caught in a life-and-death struggle with evil.

     …The Psalms are God’s mode of enabling the followers of God’s son Jesus to speak to and with Jesus. God hears those in the language of Jesus who, as God’s Word, allows his followers to enter into his own prayer and thus to find their way with Jesus back to God. Bonhoeffer argued that this prayer is God’s gift to the followers of Jesus because it focuses them not on themselves but on Jesus, the biblical center, who leads them to pray as God wants.”[18]

         Bonhoeffer wanted to put into the hearts of German Christians a practical way of enriching their prayer lives. For him, “the Psalms enabled him to cope with his own shifting moods amid all the vicissitudes of his ministry, including his imprisonment. The Psalms taught him that God was near in all the sorrows and joys, successes, and disappointments that had marked his own days.”[19]

 

At the Finkenwalde seminary, Bonhoeffer often incorporated the Psalms into the “regular community prayer services.” This practice also encouraged and strengthened him even“during the most dismal days in Tegel prison.”[21] 

 

      Psalm 31, in particular, helped him to concede that his life was still consigned to God: “My time is in your hands” (verse 15), he prayed, though Psalm 13 permitted him, nevertheless, to air his impatience and demand an answer to the agonizing question: “how long, O Lord?”

      It was predictable, therefore, that the prayers Bonhoeffer composed for his fellow prisoners were filled with the spirit of the Psalms. Their constant theme was to trust in God’s love and acceptance of whatever God has permitted in their regard.[22]

      Bonhoeffer entered the Tegel Prison in Berlin on April 5, 1943.[23] There he ended each day in prison with praise[24] to God and prayer for his family and the people around him: “He commended into God’s hands at close of day his loved ones and his fellow prisoners, and even their wardens, as well as his own person. He asked for strength to bear what God might send and the courage to overcome their fears”[25]His devotion to Christ exceeded his own prison cell:

      In the all-pervasive distress of prison life, he would say to God, “I trust in your grace and commit my life wholly into your hands. Do with me according to your will and as it is best for me. Whether I live or die, I am with you, and you, my God are with me.” These prayers, which were circulated illegally among the cells, manifest many of the insights that helped guide Bonhoeffer’s own actions on behalf of peace and freedom and exude his concern for Christian community even in prison.

         Fellow prisoner and conspirator, Fabian von Schlabrendorff wrote that Bonhoeffer was concerned for the spiritual and emotional well-being of his fellow prisoners: “To the very end, Bonhoeffer took advantage of (their) condition by arranging prayer services, consoling those who had last all hope, and giving them fresh courage. A towering rock of faith, he became a shining example to his fellow prisoners.”[27] One student of Bonhoeffer’s spirituality, F. Burton Nelson realized “with a new appreciation the source of Bonhoeffer’s spiritual stamina and vitality—his constant, daily, childlike relationship to God.”[28]  

        Bonhoeffer’s fervent relationship with Jesus would also maintain him during his two years of imprisonment. This can be seen in a letter from prison to Eberhard Bethge on August 21, 1944:

       “It is certain that we may always live close to God and in the light of God’s presence, and that such living is an entirely new life for us; that nothing is then impossible for us, because all things are possible with God; that no earthly power can touch us without God’s will, and that danger and distress can only drive us closer to God. It is certain that we can claim nothing for ourselves, and may yet pray for everything; it is certain that our joy is hidden in suffering, and our life in death; it is certain that in all this we are in a community that sustains us. In Jesus God has said Yes and Amen to all, and that Yes and Amen is the firm ground on which we stand.”[29]

      In the lonely darkness of a Nazi prison cell, Bonhoeffer’s spirit was not only strengthened and encouraged through the presence of Jesus, but ironically by the “community”[30] of Christ’s body. Not even the barb-wired fences and guarded cells could separate Bonhoeffer from the experience of fellowship with his brothers and sisters in Jesus:

      But whether they were physically present or close to him in prayers and meditative reflections, Bonhoeffer experienced intense comfort from the thought that they were all “in a community that sustains (them).” He specified that such community in Jesus Christ was the “firm ground” on which he had taken his stand…Separated from his family and friends and denied the physical support of the Confessing Church while in prison, Bonhoeffer was strengthened by the thought of his being remembered in the prayers offered on his behalf.[31]

 

         It was Bonhoeffer’s friendship with Eberhard Bethge that gave him the most joy and comfort. In his last letter to Bethge, dated August 23, 1944, he opened with: “Dear Eberhard, It’s always an almost indescribable joy to get letters from you. The peace and quiet in which your last letter was written was especially splendid.”[32] Later in the letter, Bonhoeffer writes:

         “Please don’t ever get anxious or worried about me, but don’t forget to pray for me—I’m sure you don’t! I am so sure of God’s guiding hand that I hope I shall always be kept in that certainty. You must never doubt that I’m travelling with gratitude and cheerfulness along the road where I’m being led. My past life is brim-full of God’s goodness, and my sins are covered by the forgiving love of Christ crucified.”[33]

 

 

 

 

          By early 1945, “interrogations were taking a much more serious turn. Communication could no longer be maintained between those who had privy to conspiracy…Bonhoeffer…and others were being examined under torture, all were on trial for their lives.”[34]

      Yet, there were glimmers of hope because “there were curious elements in the interrogations…Their captors were plainly ill at ease. They could not remain unaware of the crumbling fortunes of the Nazi party…the British and Americans from the West and the Russians from the East were converging on Berlin.”[35]

      At the same time, Hitler gave the orders that the trials of the conspirators “be prolonged in order that they might be forced to reveal as much as possible about the nationwide network of whose existence he was now convinced.”[36]

      The uncertainty of the future “had not dimmed Bonhoeffer’s radiance or disturbed his peace.”[37]Fabian von Schlabrendorff would later write about Bonhoeffer:

      “He was always good tempered, always of the same kindliness and politeness towards everybody, so that to my surprise, within a short time, he won over his warders, who were not always kindly disposed. It was significant for our relationship that he was rather the hopeful one, while I now and then suffered from depressions. He always cheered me up and comforted me; he never tired of repeating that the only fight which we lose is that which we give up.”

       On February 7, 1945, Bonhoeffer was moved to Buchenwald concentration camp.[39] There were twelve cells in the camp. Bonhoeffer was in cell number one. The author of The Venlo Incident, British Captain S. Payne Best was in cell number eleven. Captain Best verifies that even in Bonhoeffer’s final weeks, days and hours, he lived for the glory of Jesus. Bonhoeffer was deeply grateful for the fact that he was alive.[40]

     In a letter, dated March 2, 1951, to Bonhoeffer’s sister, Sabine Leibholz, Best wrote that “Bonhoeffer was different; just calm and normal, seemingly perfectly at his ease…his soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison.”[41]Bosanquet explains that Bonhoeffer “was passing the last landmarks in his spiritual journey”:

      “The struggles of the Tegel days had ended in victory, and he seems to have attained that peace which is the gift of God and not as the world giveth. The struggle to abandon to God his rich and treasured past, the struggle with the last vestiges of his pride, the struggle to suffer, in full measure and yet in gratitude, his human longings and to remain open to others in the midst of his own pain; all this had led him to the experience of the Cross, in which at least, through a grasp of reality so intense that it fused all the elements of his being into a single shining whole, he learnt what life can be when “we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously not our own sufferings, but the sufferings of God in the world.”

       Out of this death to the last vestiges of self Bonhoeffer seems to have been raised up quietly, unspectacularly into the last stage of his life, in which he was made whole, made single, finally integrated in Christ. In a way more complete than any that had gone before, the Christian had become “the man for others, the disciple “as his Lord.” As we look back, struggling with such help as we have to pierce the obscurity that surrounds him in these last months, this seems to be the truth.[43]

      As a man for others, Bonhoeffer’s generosity to his fellow prisoners became a constant theme. This was seen on April 3, when the prisoners were informed that they were being transferred to another facility. Sixteen prisoners and their luggage all tightly crammed into an eight passenger van. The van was powered by a wood generator that filled the van with fumes. The van would often break down, so the prisoners just sat until the van could move. Captain Best describes one of the stops:

There was no light, we had nothing to eat or drink nor, but for the generosity of Bonhoeffer, who, although a smoker, had saved up his scantly ration of tobacco and now insisted in contributing it to the common good, anything to smoke. He was a good and saintly man.”[45] 

         Captain Best also noted that while everyone, including Bonhoeffer, alternated between “hopes and fears”, Bonhoeffer did reach the stage of knowing that he could face any trial without fear: “He had always been afraid, that he would not be strong enough to stand such a test, but now he knew that there was nothing in life of which one need ever be afraid.”[46]

      The prisoners finally made it to Schonberg on April 6. On April 8, a Sunday, Bonhoeffer led a small worship service for the prisoners: “He gave an exposition of the Scriptures for the day: ‘Through his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5) and ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again into a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’ (1 Peter 1:3).”[47]Captain Best writes that Bonhoeffer…

“…spoke to us in a manner which reached the hearts of all, finding just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment and the thoughts and resolutions which it had brought. He had hardly finished his last prayer when the door opened and two evil-looking men in civilian clothes came in and said: ‘Prisoner Bonhoeffer. Get ready to come with us.’ Those words ‘Come with us’—for all prisoners had come to mean one thing only—the scaffold.”[48]

     Bonhoeffer then “gathered his few belongings. In a copy of Plutarch that he had received for his birthday he wrote his name in large letters and left it on the table.”[49] As the other prisoners said their good-byes to Bonhoeffer, he talked to Captain Best privately and gave him a message to pass on to his “English friend Bishop Bell”:

Tell him that for me this is the end, but also the beginning. With him I believe in the principle of our universal brotherhood which rises above all national interests, and that our victory is certain—Tell him too that I have never forgotten his words at our last meeting.”[51]

     There was a “trial” that lasted through the night: “the prisoners were interrogated once more and confronted with one another. All were condemned.”[52] Early in the morning on April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging. Bosanquet writes:

So the morning came. Now the prisoners were ordered to strip. They were led down to a little flight of steps under the trees to the secluded place of execution. There was a pause. For the men about to die, time hung a moment suspended. Naked under the scaffold in the sweet spring of woods, Bonhoeffer knelt for the last time to pray. Five minutes later, his life was ended.”[53]

     The camp doctor was an eye-witness of Bonhoeffer’s final minutes:

“Through the half-door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps of the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly seen a man die so entrirely submissive to the will of God.”
[54]

Thank you for taking the time to visit this bonhoefferblog. I would appreciate any comments you may have. You can click the “Evaluation Form” at the top of the page. You may also e-mail me at bryan@harveyoaksbaptist.org. Thank you


[1]Bosanquet, The Life and Death of Bonhoeffer, 279.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

 

[4] Ibid.

 

[5] Ibid., 279-280

 

[6] Kelly and Nelson, The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 145.

 

[7] Ibid., 146.

 

[8] Ibid., 147.

 

[9] Ibid.

 

[10] Ibid., 24.

 

[11] Ibid., 145.

 

[12] Ibid. 227

 

[13] Ibid.

 

[14] Ibid.

 

[15] Ibid., 231.

 

[16] Ibid.

 

[17] Ibid.

 

[18] Ibid., 232.

 

[19] Ibid.

 

[20] Ibid.

 

[21] Ibid.

 

[22] Ibid., 233.

 

[23] Kelly and Nelson, eds., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Testament to Freedom, 535.

 

[24] Kelly and Nelson, The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 233.

 

[25] Ibid.

 

[26] Ibid.

[27]Fabian von Schlabrendorff, The Secret War Against Hitler (London: Hodder and Stroughton, 1966). 324.

 

[28] Kelly and Nelson, The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 233-234

 

[29] Kelly and Nelson, eds., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Testament to Freedom, 512-513.

 

[30] Kelly and Nelson, The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 234.

 

[31] Ibid.

 

[32] Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 392.

 

[33] Ibid., 393.

 

[34]Bosanquet, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 267.

 

[35] Ibid. 267, 268

 

[36] Ibid. 267

[37] Ibid., 267-268.

 

[38] Ibid. 268.

[39] Kelly and Nelson, eds., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Testament to Freedom, 535.
 

[40] Best, The Venlo Incident, 180.

 

[41]Bosanquet, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 271.

 

[42] Ibid,

 

[43] Ibid.

 

[44] Best, The Venlo Incident, 190.

 

[45] Ibid., 191.

 

[46]Bosanquet, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 272.

 

[47] Ibid., 277.

 

[48] Best, The Venlo Incident, 200.

 

[49]Bosanquet, The Life and Death of Bonheoffer, 277.

 

[50] Ibid.

 

[51] Ibid.

 

[52] Ibid.

 

[53] Ibid., 15.

 

 

[54]Devine, Bonhoeffer Speaks Today, 36-37.

 

Advertisements