Like everyone who reads this, there are people, past and present, who I particularly admire. When opportunity allows, I try to read about their lives and thereby gain inspiration. Jesus of Nazareth aside, who surely must feature top of the list, the likes of Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King come to mind and feature highly. I suspect few would disagree.
There are many others of course, not least the barely known and long forgotten pioneer missionaries, who not only gave their lives in trying to convert the heathen but were involved in amazing feats of community activism. But for me, the one who stands out is the German theologian, Deitrich Bonhoeffer (4/2/06 – 9/4/45). There is much about this man’s life, aspects of the situation he found himself and the way he dealt with these that I can identify with. While I recognise the danger of placing our heroes on pedestals, I suspect like us all he was flawed and his heroism was reluctant.
I have known about Bonhoeffer for a long time and for similar reasons as most who have heard about him – he was a German pastor that was implicated in and executed for his part in the plot to kill Adolf Hitler, just prior to the end of World War 2. He is often seen as theologically liberal, for example in his involvement with the ecumenical movement. For this reason my more conservative elders were less inclined to hold him in too high a regard. As I later found out, this perception was not strictly correct, and while his thoughts were deep and often radical, expressing views on topics that were not well thought through at the time and maybe still aren’t, from what I could make out from my limited reading these did not amount to false teaching. He certainly had no compunction but to challenge the orthodoxy of the time, both church and state, when he saw this was needed, and often did so as a lone voice.
Three years ago, I listened to three broadcasts from the US radio station, Focus on the Family, concerning the life and work of Bonhoeffer. In the programs, the author Eric Metaxas was being interviewed concerning his book: “Bonhoeffer – Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy”. What transpired I found fascinating and also particularly encouraging given where I was at the time in my own journey as a community activist having a conservative evangelical theological perspective on life. I made note this was a book I needed to read, and left it at that – that is until three weeks ago.
It happened that my wife and I were in Southend Christian Bookshop, a veritable Aladdin’s cave if ever there was one and, while she was searching for presents to buy for friends, I did my usual of browsing the books. It was then I came across this one and my mind went back to the promise I made myself three years ago. While my wife normally tries to persuade me to reduce my book collection, in this case she brought the book for me with the book tokens she had. And when a few days ago I began to read I was not disappointed. I should add the book is a biggie (608 pages) and is closely packed with carefully researched yet well presented information on Bonhoeffer’s life, work and legacy and the world in which he lived. I would certainly recommend this to any wanting to find out more about this amazing man, although the author was quite evidently one who wrote from the standpoint of an admirer, with firm views as to how Bonhoeffer’s life and work could impact today’s society. I suspect though that the perspectives of those who argue that certain of Bonhoeffer’s theology amounted to heresy were barely covered.
In this and the next paragraph, I will give my feeble attempt at a synopsis of the book. Bonhoeffer was born into a close knit family, with amazing parents who instilled in him many of the values that remained with him throughout life, not least the imperative to think critically. The book parallels the events of that time: feelings of anguish following Germany’s defeat in World War 1, the appeal and rise of Nazism and what was going on, on the international stage. At a young age, he decided to become a theologian and received his doctorate when aged only 21. He traveled widely and was exposed to many ideas, which later informed the path his life took. He realized that being a theologian was not enough and became a pastor who saw it as his duty to care for the flock and teach them.
As Nazism began to rise, he clearly saw its evils and remained actively opposed for the remainder of his life. He joined the German resistance against Hitler, who he realized had to be stopped, and tried unsuccessfully to get the support of the allies. He was faced with a decision few of us would want to make: in order to prevent further evil do you join forces with those who would try to kill the one perpetrating that evil. He was eventually betrayed and after two years imprisonment was executed just before the War ended. The book challenges the reader as to how he/she would apply the lessons from Bonhoeffer’s life, and in particular challenges the church that they do not merely observe the evil that is happening around it when they have the opportunity to confront and refute it.
Only a few of my readers will be interested in the theological fine points around Bonhoeffer’s beliefs, yet these are important as it was these that governed his actions. His famous book, “The Cost of Discipleship”, laid clearly on the line that it was not enough just to believe but that as believers we are meant to be salt and light to the world and give our lives serving others. While he was a Lutheran insofar he subscribed to Luther’s teaching of justification by faith and salvation by grace, it was not “cheap grace” and followers of Christ needed to take up their cross to follow him. Rather than acquiesce to Hitler’s power, as did most of the German church, he realized he needed to actively oppose him for the sake of those being oppressed. While such notions of “religionless Christianity” caused him to be branded by some as a theological liberal, he understood more than most the need to have an inner experience of the life of Christ as opposed to mere outward signs of religious formality.
Ironically, those who read my own writings will discern an antipathy toward the agenda (whatever that is) of the liberal elite (whoever they are) because of the damage I see this bringing to our culture. Yet Bonhoeffer was diametrically opposed to the one thing many liberals hate most – Fascism, and understood more than his peers the need for inclusion (the very thing the Hitler idea of the church opposed) and social justice, especially toward the poor and the oppressed. He fought tyranny at every corner and given that we are losing and in danger of losing our freedoms, whether from the right or the left or in-between, this is an important message we need to heed. And yet regarding the creeds and dogma of the church and the notion of absolute truth I see no wavering. Bonhoeffer was a seeker after truth and having seen the truth tried to live it out accordingly, even (as happened) paying the ultimate price. He is a man for our times, whose message we, and especially the church, need to heed.