“We will have to move through a very deep valley, I believe much deeper than we can since now, before we will be able to send the other side again.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer
As Adolf Hitler rose to power in the early 1930’s, he sought to influence the German churches for his personal gain. Much of the clergy supported him, but a segment of Protestants, led by such figures as Martin Niemoeller and Karl Barth, broke away from the Deutsche Christen organization of churches and established the Confessing Church. Victoria J. Barnett, Director for Church Relations at the US Holocaust Museum, chronicled the rise of these renegade clergy:
“Founded on the principle that a truly Christian church would not succumb to the demands of political ideology, the Confessing Church argued that the principles of belief were to be found in the scriptures, not in Nazi laws, and that the head of the Church was Christ, not a political Fuhrer. These convictions placed the Confessing Church on a collision course not only with the German Christians, but with the Nazi dictatorship itself.”
Though he was only 27 years old when Hitler became Chancellor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gained early prominence as a radical voice of dissent. Eric Metaxas, who appears on LIFE Today this week, recently documented the tragic and inspirational life of this young pastor in the book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.
As Hitler’s Germany rolled across eastern Europe, Bonhoeffer was teaching seminary students, known as “ordinands,” at a place called Sigurdshof under the direction of Eberhard Bethge. Shortly after the seminary was shut down, the church leader shifted from vocally opposing Hitler to actively plotting his assassination. Metaxas explores this turning point in the chapter “From Confession to Conspiracy.”
Bonhoeffer was in the heart of the conspiracy, lending emotional support and encouragement to those more directly involved, such as his brother Klaus and his brother-in-law the Dohnanyi. He didn’t have qualms about it. But for him to become more officially involved with something else entirely.
Bonhoeffer’s situation was a complicated one. As a leader in the confessing Church, he had more difficult choices than if he had been acting alone. Whatever he chose to do, he must consider others, just as he had done when he rejected becoming a conscientious objector. He wasn’t free to do as he pleased. Bonhoeffer never at arrived decisions easily, but once he saw things clearly, he moved forward. After his return from New York, he was not yet clear about what God was leading it to be.
It must have been sometime during this period that his sister-in-law Emmi Bonhoeffer provocatively tried to prod him toward more serious involvement. Neither Emmi nor Klaus was a Christian, so it was inevitable that when her husband was risking his life, she might think of her pastor brother-in-law as being too comfortably above the fray. Perhaps he had the tendency toward being so “spiritually minded” that he was “no earthly good.” Emmi thought enough of Dietrich to share her thoughts directly. “You Christians are glad when someone else does what you know must be done,” she said, “but it seems that somehow you are unwilling to get your own hands dirty to do it.” She was not suggesting Bonhoeffer become an assassin, but his involvement was not what her husband’s or Dohnanyi’s was. Bonhoeffer carefully considered what she said. He said that no one should be glad that anyone was killing anyone else, and yet he knew what she was getting at; she had a point. Still, he wasn’t decided on what to do….
On March 15, 1940, the last group of ordinands finished their term, and two days later the Gestapo closed Sigurdshof. They had discovered at last, and the golden era that began at Zingst in early 1935 had ended. Bonhoeffer could no longer teach ordinands. He would have to think about what was next, and his options were being winnowed down. He was moving ineluctably toward deeper involvement in the conspiracy, but exactly what this would mean was still unclear. No one has better attempted to explain the seeming paradox of a Christian involved in a plot to assassinate a head of state than Eberhard Bethge. He helped show that Bonhoeffer’s steps toward political resistance were not some unwarranted detour from his previous thinking, but were a natural and inevitable outworking of that thinking. Bonhoeffer always sought to be brave to speak the truth — to “confess” — come what may, but at some point merely speaking the truth smacked of cheap grace. Bethge explained:
Bonhoeffer introduced us in 1935 to the problem of what we today call political resistance. The levels of confession and of resistance could no longer be kept neatly apart. The escalating persecution of the Jews generated an increasingly intolerable situation, especially for Bonhoeffer himself. We now realized that mere confession, no matter how courageous, inescapably meant complicity with the murderers, even though there would always be new acts of refusing to be co-opted and even though we could preach “Christ alone” Sunday after Sunday. During the whole time the Nazi state never considered it necessary to prohibit such preaching. Why should it?
Thus we were approaching the borderline between confession and resistance; and if we did not cross this border, our confession was going to be no better than cooperation with the criminals. And so it became clear where the problem lay for the Confessing Church: we were resisting by way of confession, but we were not confessing by way of resistance.
All his life, Bonhoeffer had applied the same logic to theological issues that his father applied scientific issues. There was only one reality, and Christ was Lord over all of it or none. A major theme for Bonhoeffer was that every Christian must be “fully human” by bringing God into his whole life, not merely into some “spiritual” realm. To be an ethereal figure who merely talked about God, but somehow refused to get his hands dirty in the real world in which God had placed him, was bad theology. Through Christ, God had shown that he meant us to be in this world and to obey him with our actions in this world. So Bonhoeffer would get his hands dirty, not because he had grown impatient, but because God was speaking to him about further steps of obedience.
Watch Eric Metaxas this Tuesday and Thursday on LIFE Today. Excerpts from Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, pages 358-361. Published by Thomas Nelson. Devotional introduction written by Randy Robison.