Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 100th Birthday: Christians Living in a Nasty World

February 4 was the hundredth anniversary of the birth in Germany of a Lutheran pastor, theologian and teacher. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in 1945 just before the end of WWII because of activities in resistance to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. Through his writings, some produced in a Nazi prison, he has continued to be influential for many decades.

In an article in Nebraska, David Hahn (who is running for governor here in Nebraska) has written about the significance of Bonhoeffer’s life, death, and writings in Hahn’s own life, and for Christian involvement in general in politics and public life. He spent time in Germany in the early 80’s studying under Eberhard Bethge, a good friend and biographer of Bonhoeffer.

First, Hahn summarizes Bonhoeffer’s life.

Bonhoeffer was born, 100 years ago today [Feb 4], in Breslau. He was executed by the Nazi’s on April 9, 1945 for his involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolph Hitler. In life, Bonhoeffer was a student of theology, an ordained Lutheran pastor. He studied at Union Theological seminary in New York, and participated in the life of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

Hahn indicated recently in an email that Bonhoeffer has been a significant influence in his life. He mentioned three books in particular – Cost of Discipleship, Life Together, and Letters and Papers from Prison. His article continues:

As I studied and considered philosophical and theological questions, and as I learned to enjoy great German beer, I kept returning to the writings and life of Bonhoeffer …

Hahn mentions the strangeness of a deeply committed Christian thinker and leader like Bonhoeffer being committed to a conspiracy that was trying to assassinate Hitler – how brutally it stretches your mind to process that. Hahn does not offer a justification for that commitment of Bonhoeffer’s, nor a solution to that problem.

I can only tell you what I learned from Bonhoeffer, from his writings, and from Bethge, as he spoke endearingly of his friend and his faith.

For Bonhoeffer, a Christian life could not include civic passivity. Christians are in this world. We are not to retreat from the world.

We have to stay involved, AND the stuggle is not necessarily hopeless.

The triumph of evil is not inevitable, but we must guard against hate, simple-minded unreason, fascism in God-talk; and we must be aware of the frailty of our life together.

“Fascism in God-talk.”

Fascism is a mixture of
– a police-state
– with the absolute dominance of wealthy capitalism in government and the economy

Nazism (a form of fascism) was not at all a Christian movement, but it did very deliberately use Christian terms and Christian ideals as part of its propaganda. It even sponsored a “German Christian” movement that was effective in helping many nominal or inadequately informed Christians aquiesce to Nazi control. Bonhoeffer spoke out vigorously against this. In fact he was on the radio two days after Hitler came to power in 1933 speaking against these trends. The broadcast was cut off before he could finish.

“And we must be aware of the frailty of our life together.” It is frail, like any human life, and as easily destroyed; but it is priceless, like any human life.

Here are some more summary quotes from Hahn on what he has learned from studying Bonheoffer.

State authority founded on fear is not an acceptable political and civic climate.

Christians must speak from the center, which is Christ. Above all, for civic and political involvement, we must ask God for a spiritual discernment, and act to develop this by knowledge and study and prayer and fellowship and discussion.

But, while we pursue an understanding of good and evil, we are not to become Pharisees; making a stark moral role of every action of life, and making a mania of evil and good; but to live and enjoy the life we are given.

He ends by referring to a woman he met in Germany who guided him to the gate of Dachau (an extermination camp). As she left him “she said only to me ‘Never again, never again. Please, you must make sure, never again.’ I could say nothing. She turned and walked slowly down the hill, toward town.”

Most of all, I learned and believe that we are to resist, and resist early, any tendency toward things that rob us of a moral life, because those things lead to unreasoning and brute passions, and then to extremism in all its ugly forms. It ultimately leads to a woman in Germany imploring a young American to never again allow hatred and inhumanity, and insanity …

“those things lead” – that is a very human road, not a German road or a Nazi road. We have to be sure we stay off that road.

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  • Did you see the Bonhoeffer program on PBS last night? It was very haunting. One heartening bit: according to the program a great many of the pastors who went along with the third Reich later had a change of heart and realized they could no longer support Hitler. Could our American churches that are mixing militaristic nationalism with Christianity also have a change of heart? I’m concerned that we put style before substance so much, we tend to think that unless people are actually wearing uniforms and doing that stiff-legged march, everthing is okay. Besides, everybody knows we are the good guys. Right?

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