Dietrich Bonhoeffer

How can someone participating in an assassination plot be a peacemaking visionary? Ah, there are so many questions raised by the life and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian hanged in Flossenberg concentration camp at the end of World War II for is part in the plot to kill Hitler. But, yes, he has been a shaping visionary for me personally as a peacemaker from my early college years to recently when I read a new biography about this academic/activist.
Daniel Buttry

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

“Whoever speaks the truth cynically is lying.” Those words were penned from the cell of a Gestapo prison in Berlin (from his Letters and Papers from Prison). If anyone had a right to speak cynically it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a child of the of the German Lutheran Church, and as Adolf Hitler came to power he had an intimate seat to witness that church compromise its faith and leadership in a corrupting relationship with power that was itself cynical and godless. He saw his own efforts to do good swamped by systemic evil. He faced moral challenges at a horrifically profound level that brought him to the point of surrendering his pacifism to try to stop one of the most violent and vile regimes in history. But through all the moral corruptions around him Bonhoeffer maintained a purity of heart that shone as a bright light from that dark Gestapo cell. He continued as a truth-teller without the caustic self-righteousness and ultimate despair of cynicism.

You can read massive tomes of excellent biographies of Bonhoeffer. He was a brilliant young upper-class scholar completing his doctorate in his early twenties and publishing his first theology book at the age of 24. He became a professor of theology and a local pastor, and his brilliance quickly led him to postings in London and later to New York. But as Hitler rose to power Bonhoeffer became one of the early prophetic voices against the anti-religious and dehumanizing spirit of Nazism. When the Lutheran Church hierarchy was taken over by pro-Nazi bishops, he was a founder of the Confessing Church that explicitly rejected Nazism as a matter of genuine Christian faith. He formed a seminary for the Confessing Church that operated underground until it was shut-down by the Nazis.

In the early years of World War II a plot developed in the Abwehr, the German Navy’s secret service. Through family connections—almost all males were conscripted at that point—Bonhoeffer became a part of the anti-Hitler conspiracy centered in the Abwehr. He used his religious stature to convey messages between the plotters and the Allied high command. When the July 20, 1943 bombing only injured Hitler (captured in the popular movie Valkerie) Bonhoeffer was arrested in the massive sweep against the plotters. He spent most of the rest of the war in Tegel Prison, being transferred toward the end to Flosenberg where he was hanged days before the armistice.

I write about Bonhoeffer as a visionary for these reasons:

  1. His message about cynicism hit me like a sledgehammer when as a young person I was discovering the compromises of so many church people in the face of racism, poverty, and the War in Vietnam in the early 70s. Cynicism gave me a self-righteous perch above the moral swamp of other people’s compromises, but it also gave me a free pass to do nothing in the face of either those compromises or the evils that prompted them. Bonhoeffer stripped me of the righteous dress of cynicism and challenged me to live deeply engaged with the problems and moral complexities of my own era with as clear and clean a heart as I could by God’s grace.
  2. In his classic book The Cost of Discipleship he wrote “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” He spoke of the costly grace of God that cost Christ everything and also costs us everything. Bonhoeffer put his own life at risk and ultimately died in an effort to be faithful to God in the most trying circumstances imaginable. Bonhoeffer gave me and many others the clarion call to courageous and faithful following of God as best as we could discern at the forefront of the world’s struggles.
  3. Bonhoeffer lived boldly in choosing the path of faithfulness where there seemed to be no pure choices. In a reflection he wrote that is published in Letters and Papers from Prison, “After Ten Years,” he revealed the pure faith that won over cynicism: “I believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil.” But his faith was in God, not in his own capacity to discern God’s way and follow it. He spoke of “a God who demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith, and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture.” His was a life that lived out the oft-misunderstood quote of Martin Luther, “Sin boldly, but cling to Christ more boldly still.”

Bonhoeffer lit these moral beacons for me through his writings which I encountered as a student. Many of his quotes seared into my mind and were quickly memorized. I have used them again and again to help in my own moral orientation in difficult times. I have shared them again and again with people I’ve sought to guide in their days of crisis.

For more stories of peacemaking heroes

This profile on Dietrich Bonhoeffer was written by Daniel Buttry. This website was inspired by three books written by Dan. Check out Daniel’s book series on peacemakers, crossing boundaries of region, spirituality, and culture.