— Midweek Meditations:
thoughts, inspiration and encouragement
from ACF community members —
On 9 April 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor and anti-Nazi resister, was executed as a traitor by the SS on the order of Adolf Hitler. The date is commemorated in the Church of England calendar as that of the death of a martyr. It is very easy to think of Bonhoeffer as one of the ‘good Germans’, as a saint-like figure, and then to think no more of what his resistance meant doctrinally and personally. To do so, however, is to forego a more profound confrontation with the past.
The legend that has come to shroud Bonhoeffer makes such an attempt especially challenging. The fact that Bonhoeffer first spoke out prophetically against Nazi immorality two days after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor and the fact that the concentration camp where Bonhoeffer was hanged was liberated two weeks later by US troops mark an appealing narrative arc. It is, however, in thinking more carefully about Bonhoeffer’s teaching and character that we can really learn from his story. Indeed, it is in the details of his work and his life that the important message for us today may be found.
To do so requires that we use our imagination to fathom Bonhoeffer’s context and character. Unlike the vast majority of his compatriots and colleagues, Bonhoeffer sought from the outset to protect all of Germany’s people and Protestant churches until the Nazi regime fell. His anti-Nazi efforts (in the form of sermons and support for the Jews, then as a clerical diplomat and double agent, and finally in providing ethical advice to the plotters of July 1944) meant developing a novel doctrine of discipleship and ethics of resistance for Christians. Bonhoeffer had to renounce the traditional separation of church and state, reject rampant nationalism in favor of Christian values, and in turn justify the extremity of tyrannicide, arguing that it was ‘necessary to do evil rather than to be evil’.
Still, Bonhoeffer was ‘a man for all that’; there can have been no automaticity in his courageous words and deeds. He was a complex man with deep friendships and an apparent fondness for long hikes and jazz music. In a time of terror, Bonhoeffer chose to renounce the peace of study and prayer; he declined offers to stay out of harm’s way in New York in 1939 and to escape from a Berlin prison in 1943; he resolved instead to take the place of the other, come what may. Hanging for hours on piano wire in the camp courtyard until he died, Bonhoeffer paid the full cost of being a Christian.
We’ll never know how much Bonhoeffer struggled with and suffered for his resistance to the Nazis. Nor can we ever know what exactly we would have done in his situation. Putting Bonhoeffer on a pedestal, however, as he has been literally among the ‘modern martyrs’ at Westminster Abbey (see image above), should not mean that we do not try hard to know, every year on 9 April.