In an earlier post [see "Messages from a Martyr"] I mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and pastor who was hanged by the Nazis on April 9, 1945. Over the next few days, I want to put some of his best ideas on the table and talk about them. Again, I'd love to hear from you.
What follows here is a little more of his life story, important background for discussing his thought:
Bonhoeffer was born in 1906, the son of a notable psychiatrist. He surprised his non-religious family when, at an early age, he announced that he would study theology. But it was no empty dream. At age twenty-one, he completed his doctoral dissertation and was quickly becoming one of the brightest religious thinkers of his day.
As war approached in June of 1939, he came to New York as a guest teacher at Union Theological Seminary. But within days after his arrival, he realized he could not stay. Just before he returned, he wrote to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, his American sponsor: “I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”
His return began several years of tension and intrigue. Bonhoeffer had been one of the first to openly denounce the idolatry of nationalism and the concept of fuhrer. Naturally, leaders of the Third Reich mistrusted him. But they also recognized his usefulness; at international church conferences, he could put a good face on Nazism and even conduct espionage.
Bonhoeffer had different goals. In a 1937 book, “The Cost of Discipleship,” he had built a strong case for Christian pacifism. But his stance was never unconditional, and the conditions of a godless, bloodthirsty, anti-Semitic regime compelled him to join an underground resistance movement that intended to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
Suspected by the Gestapo all along, he was arrested in April 1943. The two years that followed included ruthless interrogations and the harsh life inside Berlin’s Tegel prison, a frequent target of Allied bombers.
It was during those years that his thought began to flourish. From his cell he wrote dozens of letters, poems, and essays. Some of these were eventually collected and published as “Letters and Papers from Prison,” which has since become a modern Christian classic.