Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while in
Nazi custody, summer 1944
February 4, 2006, was the centenary of the birth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and pastor who was executed by the Nazis in 1945 for his role in the resistance which sought, unsuccessfully, to assassinate Hitler, bring the crimes of the Third Reich to an end, and establish a new, morally legitimate, government in Germany. Bonhoeffer's role in the resistance grew out of a theological worldview that was at once profoundly rooted in the Lutheran tradition in which he grew up and shaped by his friendships with such people as the French pacifist Jean Lasserre, an American black friend named Franklin Fisher, and the Anglican Bishop George Bell. One of the most brilliant theologians of his day, Bonhoeffer was not satisfied to pursue theology as a purely academic enterprise. He recognized that a divinity which is not homely, a theology which is not incarnate, is not Christian. The time in which he lived provided a dramatic, and costly, opportunity not only to articulate his faith, but to live it in an exemplary way.
"Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.... Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian "conception" of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. The Church which holds the correct doctrine of grace has, it is supposed, ipso facto a part in that grace. In
such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God..... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."
By this time, Bonhoeffer was already coming to the conclusion that he could not stand on the sidelines and that public statements were an insufficient response to the crisis at hand. He had been speaking out for years against the regime and its abuses from the pulpit and in other forums at home and abroad. But soon after the publication of The Cost of Discipleship he accepted a post in the German intelligence service where he became actively involved in high-risk efforts to save Jews and, eventually, to assassinate Hitler.
Discipleship, Bonhoeffer had written, is a matter of costly, not cheap, grace. It is costly in the same way that the Incarnation itself was costly: "it cost God the life of his Son." And yet, as he wrote about discipleship, Bonhoeffer did not equate the cost of discipleship with martyrdom. When he eventually came to the most quoted sentence of the book, "when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die," he was not speaking about physical suffering, much less death. Rather, he was speaking about giving up our attachments, giving up the old person, the old life, as the first disciples did who left behind home and family to follow Jesus. Very often, rejection and suffering will follow and are to be accepted, but the fundamental cost of discipleship is a different kind of death.
Personally, Bonhoeffer came to understand that discipleship had to mean that even deeply held convictions, such as loyalty and love of country and even his commitment as a Christian to pacifism and non-violence, might have to be relinquished. No attachment may be higher than our attachment to Christ. In a letter to friends and associates at Christmas 1942, he wrote: "Who stands firm? Only the one for whom the final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these, when in faith and sole allegiance to God he is called to obedient and responsible action: the responsible person, whose life will be nothing but an answer to God's question and call." So, when the path ahead is risky and the moral choice is clouded, we must act with the confidence that costly grace will prevail. Again, from The Cost of Discipleship, "It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner."
Initially arrested in 1943 because of his role in helping Jews to escape
the Nazis, Bonhoeffer was eventually implicated in the failed attempt on Hitler's
life on July 20, 1944. Just weeks before the liberation of Germany, on
April 9, 1945, he was hanged for treason. His brother Klaus, and his
brothers-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi and Rüdiger
Schleicher were also executed for their roles in the plot. A
doctor at Flossenburg was one of the last to see Bonhoeffer and, ten years
later, he described the last moments of his life: "He climbed the
steps to the gallows, brave and composed. In the almost fifty years that I
have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely
submissive to the will of God."
STATIONS ON THE ROAD TO FREEDOM
In addition to
The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer's
published works include Life
Together, a reflection on Christian community based on his
experience running an underground theological seminary, Ethics, and
Letters and Papers from Prison, a
collection of letters, poems, and other writings smuggled out of prison. His close friend Eberhard Bethge, who was the recipient of much of the
prison correspondence and edited it and Ethics for publication,
also wrote a biography
of Bonhoeffer. A 2003 documentary on the life of
Bonhoeffer, is available on DVD. Denise Giardina has written a novel,
Saints and Villains,
based on Bonhoeffer's life. Writing historical fiction, not history, Giardina takes liberties with the story, but many will find this book to
be a moving reflection on the struggle to be faithful in the face of great
review of the novel is
available here from the archives of The Christian Century. Finally, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Rowan Williams,
gave this paper
(provided here in PDF format) at the International Bonhoeffer Congress at
the University of Wroclaw, marking the Bonhoeffer centenary.
our fortress and our strength, who gavest grace to thy servant Dietrich
Bonhoeffer to know and teach the truth as it is in Jesus Christ and to
bear the cost of following him: Grant that we, strengthened by his
teaching and example, may receive thy Word and embrace thy call with an
undivided heart; through the same Jesus Christ our Savior, who liveth and
reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.