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Learning From Bonhoeffer

Recently I’ve been reading Eric Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer with a group of my old college church buddies. I already knew the story of his death opposing the Nazis, and I had read The Cost of Discipleship and portions of his other writings. But the in-depth details provided by Metaxas were amazing. Here are some of my personal takeaways from what I read.

I was struck by how Bonhoeffer spent his money. He was born into a privileged family, so he was able to do a lot of international travel. He seems to have thought nothing about reaching into his own pocket to rent a second apartment in the rough urban neighborhood where he taught a confirmation class, so that his students could drop in any time, or to rent out an estate where he could hold his illegal seminary. Yet when his school was forced to move further into the woods, he was also able to live on handfuls of bread to eat and handfuls of coal for heat. Like the apostle Paul, he apparently knew both “how to be abased” and “how to abound” (Philippians 4:12). He used his wealth much like I would hope to do.

I was also struck by Bonhoeffer’s experiences in America: both by his rejection of the bogus theology (as he saw it) at Union Seminary in New York, and by the impression made on him at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he felt the Gospel was being truly preached. Bonhoeffer seems to have undergone either a conversion or a galvanizing of his faith at this point which impacted the remainder of his life’s ministry.

I was surprised to learn that Bonhoeffer’s second trip to America as a visiting lecturer was called off so quickly by him. On the very day he arrived, Bonhoeffer decided that he had made the wrong decision to come, and within two months, he was on a ship back to Germany. Bonhoeffer felt that he would have had no right to live in post-war Germany if he did not share the suffering of his people, including the struggle against Hitler. The other major mistake Bonhoeffer feels that he made was when he declined to perform a funeral for a Jewish friend of the family.

I knew that there were plenty of Jews in Germany, but I was surprised to find in Bonhoeffer’s story how many of those Jews were Christians and even pastors, which explains why the edicts to exclude them from the Church made such a splash.

At first Bonhoeffer had to publicly resist the attempts of the Nazis to take over the Church, and the attempts of church leaders (even those who opposed Hitler) to compromise with Nazi policies. But on the day when Hitler conquered France, Bonhoeffer’s best friend saw that Bonhoeffer had gone covert when Bonhoeffer joined in the Hitler salute and urged his friend to do so, too. Bonhoeffer had joined the conspiracy.

What I did not know is that Bonhoeffer was given a position with the Abwehr, the German military intelligence agency. Inside the Abwehr were numerous members of the plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer traveled and gathered information, and passed it between parties. Bonhoeffer’s biographer does not so much speak of Bonhoeffer telling outright lies so much as giving false impressions of who he knew and what he was up to. When he was finally arrested, Bonhoeffer was able to pretend that he knew little or nothing. Because Bonhoeffer’s uncle was a high-ranking official, Bonhoeffer could have lobbied for better food and treatment, but instead, he used his clout to lobby for better treatment for fellow prisoners who were powerless.

I was disappointed at how little support Bonhoeffer and his conspiracy against Hitler got from the Allies. Much as I admire Churchill, here’s where Churchill proved to be an utter jerk. It’s amazing how God can use such a jerk to do great good, without requiring him to stop being a jerk.

Bonhoeffer’s story forces us to compare his predicament in Germany with our own. Bonhoeffer had to cope with a nation where the halls of education and the news media were all cheering for Hitler, where dissent and information that contradicted the Nazi narrative were being ruthlessly censored, and dissenters were being cancelled by government or mob action. Today’s comparisons of our former President with the Nazis do not fit these facts at all. They do fit with today’s censorship by Big Tech and the mainstream news media, and the cancel culture of the Woke mobs.

After Germany had been bombed into a parking lot and so many of their loved ones had died, how were survivors of Hitler’s Germany who opposed Hitler supposed to feel toward those who voted for him? They must have felt like Jeremiah and his sympathizers felt toward their neighbors after the destruction of Jerusalem. Their neighbors were horribly wrong in their choices, even though they meant well.

I struggle with those feelings myself as I look ahead of us. The senseless surrender of Afghanistan, plus the past year’s appeasement of Putin, may yet trigger World War III. Or perhaps we may be spared, only to be ruled by the iron hand of China and Iran. All this has strained my feelings toward many of my friends; indeed, what I’ve written here may strain their feelings toward me. I’d prefer not to see friendships become casualties of what’s going on around us.

It is difficult for me to figure out how to relate to those who made choices that have brought us to where we are. Bonhoeffer leaves us a hopeful example. You’ve got to be impressed by a guy like Bonhoeffer, who won converts among the prisoners and even prison guards, not by his arguments, but by his Christ-like life. Of course, he did not get out of prison alive. Christ’s way makes no such guarantees.