Chris Appleby Ministries

Chris Appleby Ministries


Dietrich Bonhoeffer   audio

Rom 5:1-8 

(Part of a series based on "A Dangerous Dozen" by C. K. Robertson.

Well today’s superhero isn’t quite the sort of king’s man that we saw in that clip. For a start his background was nothing like that guy’s; nor did he have access to the array of weaponry and technology that that man had. In fact this week’s blockbuster would be more like Smiley’s People than Kingsman. Nevertheless as we’ll see, he truly was a King’s Man and his work had certain parallels with both those fictional characters, as he worked as a secret agent to overcome one of the greatest dangers to the world of the 20th century.

But let’s start at the beginning. Our hero’s name was Dietrich, born in 1906 to Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer. His father was a professor of psychiatry and his mother a teacher. His mother came from a family of musicians and clergymen, well known in high society. Her aunt was taught piano by Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann. Her family was both artistic and intellectual. Similarly his father came from the German nobility through Dietrich’s grandfather. His mother was a strong Christian but his father, being a scientist, was sceptical of such things. There were 8 children including Dietrich and his twin sister, Sabine. Questions and the exploration of ideas were encouraged and loud and energetic debates over ideas were a feature of their home throughout their lives.

Dietrich’s introduction to faith came largely through his mother, reinforced at various stages by his grandmother. His earliest recorded religious inquiry was at the age of 4 when he asked his mother “Does the good God love the chimney sweep too?” And on a more practical level, “Does God, too, sit down to lunch?” 

His early life was good until, in August 1914, Germany declared war on Russia and the country was thrown into the war to end all wars. In 1917 Dietrich’s oldest two brothers, Karl-Friedrich and Walter, were both called up. The following year Walter, the second oldest, was sent to France and two weeks later was dead. Only eleven at the time, Dietrich was greatly affected. He understood the need for self-sacrifice but at the same time realised that it needed to be for something truly worthy of sacrifice, not just the idle ambitions of human beings. You can see that even at this early stage he was asking questions about life and meaning. He inherited Walter’s Bible and began to study it closely. By the age of fourteen he’d decided he wanted to become a theologian. When his brothers told him the church wasn’t worth his time and energy, he told them “Then I’ll reform it!” Not unlike Francis whom we heard about last week.

The period of his life following the end of the war was described by him later as “a new epoch of suffering and grief” and his homeland as “a house of mourning.” The Versailles treaty entailed great suffering on the part of the German people, both physically and emotionally. The cost of reparations Germany was forced to pay were enormous which led to huge resentment and anger against the other countries involved. I’m not sure we can really understand how they felt, but just think about where they’d come from. They’d been part of the great Prussian empire. Kaiser Wilhelm was the ruler of an empire that rivalled England’s, ruling over parts of France, Belgium and Denmark, along with colonies in East Africa and Asia.

Germany was also a great cultural centre, a gathering place for philosophers, theologians and scientists, artists and musicians. Think about the philosophers of the 19th and early 20th century: Nietzsche, Marx, Engels, Heidegger; or the great composers of the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods; so many of them came out of Germany. But now all that grandeur, all the culture had been wiped out in a futile war, along with countless sons and brothers. In its place was this domination by France and England and America. And that resentment provided the fuel for the new nationalism brought in by Hitler.

Hitler appeared on the scene in the mid-20s promising to make Germany great again. He built on the general feeling of resentment of foreigners with a movement to exclude anyone who was not of pure German descent, with a particular focus on Jews. For Dietrich this was a problem.

Around the time that Hitler began his campaign Dietrich moved to Tubingen to take up his university education, focussing on theology. He studied the works of Luther, Augustine and Barth. He took a semester off to travel to Rome and, worshipping with Catholics there, he began to think about the question “What is the Church”. This led to his Doctoral dissertation, “The Communion of Saints.” This in turn led him to become part of the ecumenical movement in Europe giving him connections with Christians outside Germany.

The Nazis at this stage were trying to convince the German church leaders that the Lutheran Church was essentially a German church; so the church should be defined by racial identity and blood. Of course that wasn’t a new idea. The slave owners of the 17th and 18th centuries had thought a similar thing about their European superiority over African slaves. But Hitler was taking it further, wanting the Church to affirm his agenda of ridding the country of Jews.

Bonhoeffer’s connection with Christians from other countries and racial groups helped him to see the lie at the heart of this philosophy. For him ideas had consequences. And this idea would lead to his opposition to the Nazi party.

He also had a close friend in Berlin, Franz Hildebrandt who was studying at the same theological school, who was a Christian but with a Jewish heritage. That meant that he had a problem. As far as the Nazis were concerned his faith meant nothing. It was his blood that mattered. Bonhoeffer could see the irrationality of that but he knew that didn’t help.

As part of theological training Bonhoeffer was required to take on pastoral work. This he did first in Berlin, teaching at a Sunday School where he learnt how to teach theology simply, then in Barcelona where he was the assistant minister for a year. After that year he returned to Berlin but had to wait 2 more years before he’d be old enough to be ordained.

Having to wait two years before he could be ordained meant he needed to get some work experience. He was offered an opportunity to lecture in America and so he set sail at the end of 1930. There he formed lasting friendships with a Swiss student Erwin Sutz, with whom he shared an appreciation of Barth’s theology, and a French student Jean Lasserre, who introduced Bonhoeffer to Christian pacifism and was an influence in the writing of ‘The Cost of Discipleship”.

But even more significant for him was his experience of the black Church in Harlem. There was a substance to their preaching of the gospel and a passion and vision in its presentation that impacted him. He also observed an active and systemic prejudice against African Americans that foreshadowed what was to come in Germany. Yet at the same time he saw their courage and faith in the face of this hatred and injustice. It was perhaps here that he came up with the distinction between “cheap grace” and “costly grace”. He saw that, for Jesus, grace meant accepting and enduring the cross. It cost God’s Son his life. So, Bonhoeffer said, “nothing can be cheap to us that is costly to God.”

On his way back to Germany his friend Lasserre invited him to attend a conference in Cambridge sponsored by the World Alliance of Churches, an ecumenical organisation that had only recently been formed. Here Bonhoeffer became convinced that Christians were called to be peacemakers and that they could do this more effectively by working together. This awakening to both pacifism and ecumenism prepared him to face the dangers of Nazism when he returned to Berlin.

By now many students at the seminary were convinced by Hitler. As I said earlier he’d promised to make Germany great again. He promoted family values. He was a supporter of the church. He’d given the youth of the country pride and a sense of purpose.

Bonhoeffer saw right through this to the anti-Semitism at its heart. In 1933, two days after Hitler was appointed chancellor, he gave a radio address on “The Younger Generation’s Altered View of the Concept of Führer”, where he criticised leaders who “Set themselves up as gods.” Half way through the broadcast his microphone was turned off. This was the first of a series of acts that removed civil liberties, including the right of assembly, freedom of speech and freedom from unlawful arrest and detention. Within weeks the government had secured the right to enact laws without going through the parliament. Those without Aryan blood were banned from civil service jobs, and that included being a Christian pastor. In no time flat, Germany had become a fascist state.

Yet there were very few Christians who opposed all of this. Most were happy with this state of affairs. They saw the divine hand behind Hitler, describing the leader’s rise to power as a miracle from God. Does that ring a bell?

Now Bonhoeffer was virtually on his own. So he wrote a proposal to the churches, a threefold plan of action: directly challenge the state to justify its actions; offer aid to the victims of illegitimate actions of the state; and “not just to bandage the victims of the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.” This didn’t get far but it was the plan that Bonhoeffer himself would carry out in the end.

In the next few years, things escalated. The first concentration camp was built near Dachau in 1933 and others soon followed. In November 1938the hostility towards Jews reached its peak on what’s known as Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass”, when Jewish shops and synagogues throughout Germany were destroyed.

Meanwhile Bonhoeffer had opportunities to leave Germany a number of times. He travelled to England in 1934 where he formed a strong friendship with Bishop George Bell, one of the pioneers of the ecumenical movement but he was called back to Germany to lecture at a secret seminary set up by the Confessing Church. This came out of the Pastor’s Emergency League, set up by Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemoeller and two other pastors. It was a group of Christians who were ready to take a stand and wanted to prepare others. Bonhoeffer trained them in a Christian community setting to prepare them to resist. Yet when Kristallnacht happened there was no response.

So it was time for him to do more.

Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi worked as a lawyer for the Nazi Counterintelligence Office, the Abwehr, and both shared information with and asked advice of Bonhoeffer about a conspiracy to overthrow Hitler and set up a new government with the help of surrounding nations. So Bonhoeffer visited England and America again to connect with ecumenical groups who might help them.

On his return to Germany his brother-in-law arranged for him to get a job in the Abwehr. This didn’t go down well with his friends in the resistance. They saw him as a defector who’d sold out to Hitler but in fact he was working as a spy, a double agent. The war had begun and Hitler’s sterilisation program was in full swing, targeting anyone who suffered from mental illness or epilepsy. Hitler called them the “incurables”. Soon those of Jewish and other “inferior races” were added to the list.

Bonhoeffer’s comment at this point was that “Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behaviour.” Rather it required political involvement. His work in the Abwehr was to report on the ecumenical movement. That meant he was able to travel abroad where he could try to convince Church leaders of the need to support the German resistance against Hitler.

He continued to write, working on his major work “Ethics”. In it he argued that a life of faith demanded involvement in the struggles of the day; that is, “living completely in the world.”

The resistance group made two attempts to kill Hitler in 1943, both without success and unknown to Hitler and his staff.

Interestingly it wasn’t his part in this conspiracy against Hitler that led to his arrest; it was a plan by his brother-in-law Hans to help fourteen Jews escape Germany. When Hans was arrested the trail led straight to Bonhoeffer.

He was arrested in April 1943 and sent to Tegel Prison, where he would live out the rest of his short life. He was able to write to his family and to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, sending information back and forth using a code system they’d worked out beforehand.

While in prison, a final assassination attempt was made, known as Project Valkyrie. A bomb was taken into Hitler’s retreat by one of the conspirators. Four of his staff were killed but Hitler survived. Hitler then ordered the execution of those involved in the plot which included Bonhoeffer, though it took some time before he was identified. A plan was made to break him out of prison but he refused when he heard that his brother Klaus had also been arrested. He’d wait for an Allied victory or release into God’s kingdom. Sadly the Allied victory came too late. One of Hitler’s final acts was to order his execution. His last words to his fellow prisoners were: “This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.”

Well, what is it about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s story that helps us in our Christian Discipleship? I think there are two major things to consider.

First was his ability to recognise where the actions of his political leaders was heading. He didn’t just go with the flow. He stopped and thought about what was behind the words and actions of Hitler. He thought theologically about the claims of racial superiority, of exclusivity, and saw that they didn’t match up with the gospel and spoke out about it.

Secondly he put his faith into action with great courage, ignoring the danger. He wasn’t prepared to opt for cheap grace. He knew that discipleship implied bearing the cost of following Jesus, of taking up his cross. Having recognised the evils of the political situation in his country he called it what it was. When he was silenced by the powers that be, he found other ways to work against the evils he saw.

He was one of those heroes who are ordinary people in everyday positions who see what needs to be done and do it. He chose to live completely in the world, getting involved in the struggles of the day, using the gifts God had given him, to help others face up to the evil around them. He didn’t seek imprisonment but he was willing to risk it because the need was so great. He acknowledged his own weakness but knew that he was a man who was known by God and would be kept by God whatever happened.

He was in every sense a King’s man.

Questions for thought:

How does this challenge your view of God and the Church?

What can you do to be alert to and speak out about evil in the political climate?

How might you get involved in the struggle for justice in our world, particularly in our own nation?

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