Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Walking the talk

I always felt a deep respect for people who take personal risks in daring to confront oppression in a peaceful manner. Names like Mahatma Gandhi, Vaclav Havel and Andrei Sakharov spring to mind.

This Easter I especially think of German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), who was executed 75 years ago because of his active resistance against the German Nazi regime at that time.

Congruence between ideals and personal life

I have always found it difficult to accept discrepancies between people’s private lives, and the ideology they express in public. Well-known examples are of the course the recent sex scandals of clergymen in various churches. However, I also find it remarkable that there seems to be a tradition in the Netherlands for prominent members of the mainstream socialist party, to accept well-paid jobs for large corporations when they leave politics.

The reason I admire Bonhoeffer is that he fully integrated his Christian beliefs in his personal life, and was prepared to pay the highest possible price for this.

Becoming a pastor

Bonhoeffer grew up in a prominent intellectual family, where theology was not considered to be true science, at least not one on an equal footing with e.g. physics or law. And yet, despite the lack of support from his family (especially his father), he decided to study theology anyway. 

During his study, Bonhoeffer made no secret of his ‘orthodox’ views about a ‘living’ God, an opinion that went directly against the thinking of the leading liberal theological academics during this time.

Once Bonhoeffer had completed his studies, he had a number of opportunities to pursue a successful academic career. Bonhoeffer, however, chose to pursue a practical training to become a vicar.  A refreshing choice. When I was in college and asked protestant theology students if they planned to become a vicar, the reactions I got from most of them made me think I made an indecent proposal. In Bonhoeffer’s time, the disdain he experienced from people in his environment must have been the same.

One of his assignments during this training was to take place in Berlin’s notoriously rough Wedding district. Here he had to conduct an obligatory confirmation class for children from ‘non-privileged’ families under very challenging circumstances. Rather than treating this assignment as a ‘tour of duty’, Bonhoeffer sought to enter an open and honest relationship with these inner-city kids. He bought Christmas presents for them, bought cloth so they could have a nice looking outfit for their confirmation ceremony, taught them chess and English, and treated these children, who had never been on holiday before, to a stay in his family holiday home in the country.

Resisting Hitler’s Nazi Regime

In 1933, Hitler’s Nazi party came to power in Germany. One of the first actions the new regime undertook was to bring the protestant churches under the control of the state. This manifested itself for instance in prohibiting Jewish vicars to serve in the church. Right from the start, Bonhoeffer opposed these hateful acts and became one of the co-founders of the ‘Bekennende Kirche’ (Confessing Church). Furthermore, he used all his power and influence to engage the international Christian community (Oecumene) to speak out against the Nazi regime and to distance itself from the German State Church. He did all this in a country where the totalitarian regime became more and more intimidating and violent against its opponents over time.

Several times Bonhoeffer had the opportunity to leave Germany. In June 1939, on the eve of World War II, he traveled to the US, where he was offered the opportunity to pursue a career as an academic. No one could have blamed him for accepting this. After all, had he not already actively and openly defied the Nazi regime for six difficult years? How easy would it have been for him to convince himself that he could continue to resist the Nazi regime, perhaps even more effectively, from the free world? Immediately after his arrival in the US, however, Bonhoeffer felt miserable because he felt his vocation was in Germany. He felt he abandoned his fellow-Christian brethren and that by doing so, he would not be entitled to play a role in German society after Hitler had been removed. Therefore he decided to take the first opportunity to return, reportedly with the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic…

Back in Germany, Bonhoeffer, who already had knowledge of plots to overthrow Hitler, became more and more involved with a group of conspirators against Hitler and his regime. He helped to smuggle Jews to Switzerland and liaised between parts of the German resistance and the Allied Powers, mainly through his contacts in the Oecumene. His cover was a role in the Abwehr (German military intelligence organization). In this capacity, he traveled to Sweden and Switzerland, formally on Abwehr business, but in reality for clandestine activities. Again, these travels provided him with an opportunity to escape from Nazi-occupied Europe. However every time he chose to go back to Germany.

Unfortunately, Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943. In 1944 he could escape prison, but decided against this, fearing repercussions for his family. On April 9, 1945, just a couple of weeks before the German capitulation (May 4-7, 1945) Bonhoeffer was executed for being part of the same plot.

What makes Bonhoeffer a unique role model?

For two reasons I never liked and used the phrase: ‘What would Jesus have done?’. The first is that it feels wrong and arrogant to take a decision and explain this to other people with the argument that Jezus would have done the same. The second reason is that I find God’s ways are unpredictable.

I always found Bonhoeffer a very interesting role model though. What makes Bonhoeffer an interesting role model for me, is not the fact that he had the courage to made the choices he made, but the reason why he made them. What made Bonhoeffer unique as a theologian and a person, is that he did not see theology as a playground for academics to prove their intellectual superiority, nor as an instrument to demarcate the differences between the different churches. As a matter of fact, Bonhoeffer’s definition of the church is a completely different one than the one I was raised with. According to Bonhoeffer the church “is the place of Christ present in the world… Neither the state church nor some petit bourgeois centre, for no human person, but God alone determines this place”.

For Bonhoeffer theology was an instrument to understand what the Bible was telling him and other Christian to do in the concrete situations where they are placed. For instance, he told Christians who, in 1932 did not want to weigh in on the political situation in Germany by hiding behind the famous words attributed to Marin Luther: ‘Here I stand. I can do no other’, that this was untrue, careless and arrogant in their situation: ‘We can act differently’.

For Bonhoeffer, these choices were not ‘just’ a matter of courage or following his conscience, but a direct consequence of his steadfast belief in God and His word. Bonhoeffer did not feel he had a choice in the same way that the prophet Elijah had no choice when he was called by God to challenge king Ahab.

Accepting the consequences of this steadfast belief in God and His word is strongly tied to the concept of ‘cheap grace’, which is explained in Bonhoeffer’s book ‘Discipleship’. In this book, Bonhoeffer argues that true belief in Christ leads to discipleship and that the life of a disciple includes sacrifice and suffering. Bonhoeffer calls this ‘costly grace’. The opposite of costly grace is ‘cheap grace’. Cheap grace is the desire to receive grace without following Jesus spiritually and practically; the desire for salvation without having to recognize Jesus as a savior. 

This strong belief in costly grace and the fact that true belief should have consequences for the daily life of Christians is expressed in one of his best-known quotes: 

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author


Recommended biographies and books

  • Bethge, E., 2006. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag. (German)
  • Metaxas, E., 2010. Bonhoeffer. Nashville: Nelson.(English)
  • Bonhoeffer, D. and Franken-Duparc, E., 2012. Navolging. [Utrecht]: Ten Have.(Dutch)
  • Bonhoeffer, D. and Lagendijk, L., 2005. Beter Dan Het Leven. Kampen: Ten Have.(Dutch)
  • Bonhoeffer, D., Dudzus, O. and Boer, D., 2012. Brevier. Utrecht: Kok.(Dutch)

2 thoughts on “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Walking the talk

  1. Anonymous 22 April 2020 / 20:59

    Dear Dirks, thank you for your highly interesting and personally touching Blog on Dieter Bonhoeffer! Similar to you, I am a great admirer of Bonhoeffer’s personality, attitude and charisma. Although a lot has already been written, your Blog sheds new perspectives on this personality, great work! I can only add “www.youtube.com/watch?v=aN7dGz6NH5M ”
    Charlotte

  2. dirkverburg 25 April 2020 / 12:05

    Dear Charlotte – Thank you so much for your compliments! I found it extremely hard to write something new or original about Bonhoeffer. I actually wrote the first version of this article 5 years ago, 70 years after Bonhoeffer died. However, I did not publish it at the time. Partly because it was quite personal, party because I did not have the idea it was ‘finished’. I still think this version is only 90% finished, but I really wanted to commemorate the 75-year mark and not wait for the 80-year one!

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