Dietrich Bonhoeffer, called to sympathy and action

In our current (June 21-28) issue, Peter Heinegg reviews Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy, a new biography of German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written by Eric Metaxas. Almost immediately after Hitler's ascension to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer, then just 27, distinguished himself as a voice for justice, protesting against the Third Reich's efforts to bring the German church under National Socialism's aegis. Bonhoeffer's indignation intensified as the German church considering embracing the state-created "Aryan paragraph," which prized "pure" Aryan ancestry and began the first series of escalating discriminatory and threatening measures against Jews in Germany. In his essay "The Church and the Jewish Question," Bonhoeffer confronted the new government's plans to "unify" church and state, identifying "three possible ways in which the church can act towards the state." Bonhoeffer concluded: 1) that the church question the state's actions, ensuring that the state acts as God ordains; 2) that the church has "an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community,"; and, in his most forceful instruction, 3) that the church should act "not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself." It is in this last directive that we see the seeds of Bonhoeffer's radical heroism and his commitment to his faith, virtues that would lead to his work as a double agent for Abwehr, a German intelligence agency and his participation in a failed assassination attempt of Hitler.

In 1943, imprisoned at Tegel penitentiary, Bonhoeffer wrote an essay entitled "After Ten Years," reflecting on his beliefs and experiences in the ten years since Hitler's meteoric rise. Here he reveals the crux of his decision to sacrifice all for faith, for the persecuted and for God:

We are not Christ, but if we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ’s large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and by showing a real sympathy that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. The Christian is called to sympathy and action, not in the first place by his own sufferings, but by the sufferings of his brethren, for whose sake Christ suffered.


Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis in 1945.

In this recent interview with Mike Huckabee, Metaxas, who also wrote the best-selling Amazing Grace, discusses his book and Bonhoeffer's outstanding moral courage.

Regina Nigro

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8 years 7 months ago
While I think Bonhoeffer was a brave person, I don't really think he was right to plan a murder, even the murder of a very bad person.  An interesting article on the subject is "Bonnoeffer Was Wrong" by Jesuit Raymond A. Schroth, professor of humanities at Saint Peter's College ....
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 7 months ago
I've just downloaded this book onto my Kindle.
D. Bonhoeffer is one theologian that has always interested me, particularly his notions of Cheap Grace and "God-less Christianity" - God is with us in his apparent absence on the scene.  I look forward to finding out more about him.
Thanks for the tip!  (that makes 3 books that I've gotten as a result of America's recommendations.  I was very pleased with the other 2: Tattoos on the Heart and Let the Great World Spin)
David Pasinski
8 years 7 months ago
Fr. Schroth's other others have written eloquently disapproving Bonhoeffer's choice to be somehow a part of a Hitler assassination plot. What I don't recall is whether this is based on an espoused total pacifism that would then likewise condemn all Allied actions. My own inclinations towards pacifism have always been trumped by the history and myth of WWII and thinking that the elimination of Hitler's leadership - which would not have solved all Nazi issues, but would have significantly affected them and could only be accomplished, in my judgemnt, through his death - would have been a correct moral choice that would have saved millions. Am I wrong?
8 years 7 months ago
Thomas Aquinas seems to say tyrannicide is ok under some circumstances, but there's no hint of that in the NT where we're told to forgive our enemies.  I can't see, for instance, Jesus joining a plot to kill Pilate.  I'm not saying people should stand by and do nothing, but why does doing something have to mean assassination, and what does it mean when  someone like Bonhoeffer, who wants to reveal Jesus/God to us, decides on assaaination?  It just seems sometimes that instead of addressing the difficulty of taking what's in the NT seriously, everyone from Aquinas to Rick Warren (who once advocted killing the top guy in Iran) believe it's irrelevant.


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