Today, February 4, is the 110th birthday of the German pastor, theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. When I arrived at Wheaton College, as a transfer student in January of 1969, one of the first great joys I experienced was finding the story of Bonhoeffer for the first time. The classic book, The Cost of Discipleship, was my introduction. Later I read his prison papers, a few of his works on ethics and a lot of biography. I did not understand this theology then, and still do not fully understand it now, but I knew greatness and humility when I saw it. Bonhoeffer was truly a great Christian! But here is the point often missed – he was not a “safe” Christian. Anyone who reads him soon realizes that Bonhoeffer was not a typical pastor.
Too few of us have read Bonhoeffer and fewer still have grasped his importance, especially to the modern West. (The popular biography of him a few years ago was helpful in some respects but it also gave some distorted images and caused many to see Bonhoeffer in a politically conservative light, something which is not relevant to his real story.) For starters, Bonhoeffer saw the intensifying persecution of the Jews under the Nazi regime as a deliberate attack on Christ himself. I wonder if we would feel the same way in 2016. Substitute immigrants from the Middle East and ask the question that way. Or ask if we would stand up for Muslims in our present context?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer died a martyr because he conspired with a group of Christians to kill Hitler. His co-conspirators were mostly Catholics. The German Lutherans tended to capitulate to Luther’s two kingdom idea and (many) passively accepted Hitler. The Catholics followed Thomas Aquinas and felt that a despot should be removed. Bonhoeffer came to believe a sick man was in charge of a sick nation in a sick world. He felt he had no right to appeal for the renewal of Christian life in Germany if he did not share in the trials of the time with God’s people, both Christians and Jews.
Bonhoeffer was executed only one day before the prison in which he had been kept was liberated by the allies. Only one day. Twenty-four hours was the difference between martyrdom and liberation. But then his martyrdom was his liberation and now from heaven he speaks more powerfully to us at age 100 than he did in his late thirties in 1944.
May we learn to live the costly discipleship of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. May we learn to live well in a dangerous time when our nation is sick and politics offers us no viable answers. Living as exiles is the place to begin. Bonhoeffer understood this and can help us find our way in a dark time.