“Why should it always be the bad people who make the revolutions?” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer
How could a man who sought the heart of God and lived to serve Jesus involve himself in a plot to kill another human being?
Eric Metaxas, in his biography of Bonhoeffer, traces that evolution. A godly man who chooses to intentionally break one of God’s commandments cannot make such a choice lightly.
Surely a lesser man could rationalize such actions and “sin all the more that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1), but not a person after God’s own heart.
Bonhoeffer was a theologian (seeker after God) and a pastor (shepherd), both a follower and a leader. He took seriously how he would serve his Master and how others would learn from him.
So he had to count the cost of such a radical choice. He went beyond the idea of being guided by principles to being guided by God Himself.
This conviction likely came from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which had influenced Bonhoeffer’s faith from an early age. In that sermon, Jesus presented a series of antitheses: “You have heard it said (principle) … but I tell you (revelation).” To be found faithful, Bonhoeffer would not settle for mere obedience to the written law.
He did not want to be seen as righteous, but to earnestly love and serve in Jesus’ name.
He had long ago settled that it was the role of the church to speak for those who could not speak, and the world around him was growing ever more grim.
Persecution by the Nazis was growing more and more atrocious — including state-sponsored euthanasia of “unworthy lives,” those people with mental or physical disabilities, and abortions forced on women deemed “genetically inferior” or “racially deficient.” Hitler had declared himself “the supreme judge of the German people.” When Germany’s President Paul von Hindenburg died, Hitler appointed himself president.
With the stabilizing influence of Hindenburg gone, Metaxas writes, “The German people found themselves far from shore, alone in a boat with a madman.”
The German state and church were being “welded together,” and other nations were reluctant to get involved.
Some international church leaders spoke against the German government’s actions against Christianity, but Bonhoeffer was dismayed when “the slowness of ecumenical process [was] beginning to look to me like irresponsibility.”
He came to the conclusion that he must become even more personally involved.
When he was asked why he helped form the Confessing Church instead of opposing from the inside the German Christian Church, he said, “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.”
He would have to take his faith to new dimensions, to live what he believed to the hilt.
When he encouraged fellow believers standing against persecution, he was speaking as much to himself: “This is where we find out whether we have begun in faith or in a burst of enthusiasm.”
His role in the conspiracy to oust Hitler revolved around friendships he had established with influential people in Britain, Norway and the United States. German generals opposed to Hitler wanted to assure the Allies that they weren’t the bad guys, that they were seeking to establish a more responsible government in Germany. Bonhoeffer carried that message, covertly, to those who would listen. All of the conspirators knew that discovery of the plot would likely mean their executions.
A fellow conspirator, Henning von Tresckow, wrote: “A human being’s moral integrity begins when he is prepared to sacrifice his life for his convictions.”
As the war dragged on, and Nazi atrocities intensified, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill loudly branded every German a Nazi. There would no recognition of any opposition within Germany.
How Bonhoeffer faced death is at least as important as how he faced life.
Perhaps you have seen the 2008 movie “Valkyrie.” It tells the story of how the plot to assassinate Hitler with a bomb developed and came to fruition, but failed when a massive table leg protected him from the blast.
The Gestapo started uncovering the names of all those involved in the conspiracy and began arresting them, interrogating them, trying them and condemning them to death.
Bonhoeffer had already been imprisoned for his work with the Confessing Church, and now he knew his only hope of survival was the arrival of the Allied troops now closing in on Germany. But he had long ago accepted the possible consequences of his resistance, and had found comfort in what he had learned from Scripture and prayer.
His words on death teach us about the commitment disciples make when they choose God over life. Early in the war, he wrote this to his seminary students after learning that some of their brethren had been killed in action:
“To be sure, God shall call you, and us, only at the hour that God has chosen. Until that hour, which lies in God’s hand alone, we shall all be protected even in greatest danger, and from our gratitude for such protection ever new readiness surely arises for the final call. …
“The Lord makes no mistakes. … Whomever God calls home is someone God has loved. ‘For their souls were pleasing to the Lord, therefore he took them quickly from the midst of wickedness.’ (Wisdom of Solomon 4)
“We know, of course, that God and the devil are engaged in battle in the world and that the devil also has a say in death. In the face of death we cannot simply speak in some fatalistic way, ‘God wills it,’ but we must juxtapose it with the other reality, ‘God does not will it.’ Death reveals that the world is not as it should be, but that it stands in need of redemption. Christ alone is the conquering of death. Here the sharp antithesis between ‘God wills it’ and ‘God does not will it’ comes to a head and also finds its resolution. God accedes to that which God does not will, and from now on death itself must therefore serve God [my emphasis]. From now on the ‘God wills it’ encompasses even the ‘God does not will it.’ God wills the conquering of death through the death of Jesus Christ. Only in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ has death been drawn into God’s power, and it must now serve God’s own aims.”
While a pastor in London, he had preached: “Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.”
Before long, Bonhoeffer was drawn into the Gestapo’s net and was sentenced to death. In his last days, he continued to work as a pastor with his fellow prisoners, comforting them amid their depression and anxiety. He even shared the foundations of Christianity with a Russian atheist.
On his last day, he led a worship service. As he finished his closing prayer, two men in civilian clothes came to take him away. His parting words were: “This is the end. For me the beginning of life.”
After the final verdict was read, camp doctor H. Fischer-Hullstrung observed Bonhoeffer kneeling in his cell and later wrote: “I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost 50 years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
Two weeks after Bonhoeffer’s execution on April 8, 1945, in Flossenburg, Germany, the Allies marched in and liberated the prison camp. One week later, Hitler committed suicide and war was over.
Among the many words that could be said as an epitaph, Bonhoeffer’s vision of discipleship shines brightly:
“Only the believer is obedient, and only he who obeys believes.”