The following is my column for The Clinton Chronicle for April 14, 2021.
needs heroes. For such examples, sometimes we look backward.
My youngest son and I are reading Eric Metaxas’ book, 7 Men and 7 Women and the Secret of their Greatness. I highly recommend it. One model is Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the German theologian and pastor who protected German Jews and participated in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. For such actions he hung at Flossenburg concentration camp.
Born into an
extraordinary family, his parents taught their children to love learning of all
kinds and to think logically, acting upon their beliefs. Dietrich “understood
that ideas were never mere ideas but the foundations upon which hone built
one’s actions and ultimately one’s life.”
A sort of
epiphany during his eighteenth year while attending a Palm Sunday Eucharist at
Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome forged a deep conviction with far-reaching
consequences: the church transcended race, nationality, and culture, and that
extended beyond German Lutherans.
seminary student in America, he participated in the country’s largest church –
an African American one in Harlem, New York. He witnessed a people whose God
was real and personal – not just philosophical or theological – in spite of
their often-hard lives. The pastor, Adam Powell, Sr., challenged hearers to
have a genuine relationship with Jesus and to put their faith into action in how
they treated others: “Bonhoeffer seemed to link the idea of having deep faith
in Jesus with taking political and social action.”
Germany in 1931 to teach at Berlin University, his friends noted a marked
change. His faith now was a wedding of both intellect and heart. The seeds of
theological liberalism were sprouting in Germany, including the higher criticism
movement. In contrast to many Berlin theological circles, he “referred to the
Bible as the Word of God, as though God existed and was alive and wanted to
speak to us through it. The whole point of studying the text was to get to the
God behind the text. The experience could not be merely intellectual but must
also be personal and real.” The young teacher discipled his students to meditate
on the Bible, pray, and love Jesus.
stepped into a vacuum of leadership in Germany, reeling from their defeat in
World War I and lacking the experience as a country with governing themselves
democratically. He brilliantly played to their felt needs, promising moderation
and peace and claiming internal betrayal from Communists and Jews. This false
idea of treachery – the Dolchstoss
(stab-in-the-back) was the “fake news” of 1930’s Germany, and many accepted it
a prophet has divine insight to see beyond public rhetoric – and to distinguish
between true and false. Prophets often go unheeded and receive gross
mistreatment because their warnings seem out of sync with popular discourse.
Bonhoeffer saw things would get much worse for his country, and he realized Hitler’s Nationa
l Socialists would lead the nation into catastrophic results. Two days after Hitler became Germany’s chancellor, the theologian delivered a radio speech chastising Hitler’s perverse idea of leadership. He warned the Germans the chancellor would mislead the people: he “saw from the very beginning what no one else seemed to see – that Hitler and the philosophy he represented would end tragically, and that Nazi ideology could not coexist with Christianity.”
Hitler pretended to be a Christian, he secretly despised it, wanting to slowly
infiltrate the church with Nazi theology, unify German churches around his
ideology, and “create a single state church that submitted to him alone.” He
did so incrementally so most people wouldn’t be alarmed until it was too late.
whose father taught him to think ideas through to their consequential ends,
tried to warn fellow Germans. Convinced true Christians had to fight the Nazi
movement with all their strength, Bonhoeffer sounded the alarm about the
radical growing evil. He knew a “slumbering church would be no match for the
Nazis.” Sadly, many German Christians did not understand or acknowledge what
was at stake and were unwilling to fight the movement.
By the late
1930’s, Nazis increased the scope of government with many laws and regulations,
limiting the freedoms of citizens and especially serious Christians. They
eventually prohibited Dietrich from teaching and speaking publicly. As the
Third Reich took complete control of society, he and other believers faced
incredible ethical-moral choices. How does a Christian act under a government
that enforces laws diametrically opposed to God’s Word?
Some of Bonhoeffer’s family were involved in a conspiracy against Hitler. Through immense, prayerful consideration, they agreed with the motto referenced in the American Revolution: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” As Adolf consolidated his power, underground conversations continued about how to stop the Fuhrer. They “believed that to do anything less was to shrink from God’s call to act upon one’s beliefs.”
As World War
II began, Dietrich became a double agent, openly pretending to be a part of the
Third Reich, while secretly working with the wide network of conspirators to
working underground to save the lives of seven Jews, Gestapo leaders discovered
the plan and arrested Bonhoeffer at his parents’ home. At Berlin’s Tegel
military prison, he wrote his famous Letters
and Papers from Prison. Fifteen months after his arrest, conspirators
enacted the Valkyrie plot - a failed
attempt to assassinate the Fuhrer with bombs. The vast conspiracy now exposed,
names were revealed, including Dietrich’s.
Taken to an
underground high-security prison, he prepared for death, which he called “the
last station on the road to freedom.” Later transferred to Flossenburg concentration camp, under direct orders of
Hitler, Dietrich was executed on April 9.
The cost of
discipleship for Bonhoeffer was great. Metaxas summarizes, “he lived his whole
life to illustrate . . . that anyone who pays a price or who suffers for
obeying God’s will is worthy of our celebration.”
Picture used by permission from Pixabay.