Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Michael A Rizzotti

February 4th 2006 marks the 100th year anniversary of the birth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A remarkable German theologian. Bonhoeffer was involved in several clandestine missions to help Jewish people escape Nazi Germany. He also participated in failed plots to overthrow and assassinate the Fuhrer. His unpatriotic actions led him to the gallows. He was executed on April 9th 1945. A few weeks before Hitler committed suicide and the end of the war.

Bonhoeffer took part in a little known resistance movement against Hitler. He had been a spy and was determined to publicize to the world the existence of Nazi concentration camps and Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. Bonhoeffer’s had also worked with contacts in England, particularly Bishop George Bell. He had hoped that the British government would show support for the resistance of which he was a part. He also tried to convince his British contacts to participate in a military coup against Hitler. History reveals that due to their distrust of him and the Germans, England’s help never materialized.

What made Bonhoeffer exceptional is that he could have taken a cushy job teaching at good University or become a minister in an affluent parish. He could have blended in with the crowd like most of his countrymen and ignore Hitler’s folly. He could have stayed in the US after his latest visit instead of returning home. However, he could not leave his family and friends behind, or abandon his country at a crucial time.

He came from a good and affluent family. His father was a well respected professor of psychiatry and neurology. His mother had obtained a university degree. A rare feat for the time. She undertook to educate her children at home and explaining that: “Germans have their backbones broken twice in life: first in schools, then in the military”.

Bonhoeffer was torn between his passion for the Word of God and the love for his country. The German Church of the time was split between the emotional grips of patriotism and the commands of the Gospels. What made Bonhoeffer stand out from all other theologians of his era was his commitment to Christ. And to this day he remains an example of what it means to be an authentic “disciple” of Jesus Christ.

Like Jesus he stood up for the outcast. He was opposed to Antisemitism and expressed his views publicly against the racial policies of the Nazis. He stood against the predominant views of appeasement by the so-called Christian Church of his country. The Gestapo eventually caught up with him and forbid him to teach or preach. Before he finally was imprisoned he spent two years secretly teaching and supervising his students illegally in small parishes. He was arrested in April 1943. And until his death he remained a man of faith and stood steadfast against the delusion of tyranny and misplaced patriotism.

Germany was divided between a predominant German Evangelical Church and a religious right faction called the Deutsche Christen ─German Christians. The German Evangelical Church had a strong nationalist tradition and had a history of being subservient to state authority. Whereas, the German Christians became the more predominant voice of Nazi ideology. They even advocated the removal of the Old Testament from the Bible. With their help, Anti-Semitism became widespread and enthusiasm for Nazism took over Germany.

To this day many questions remain unanswered. How could a majority of Christians living in Germany not stand up to Hitler? How could they condone his racial policies? And how could they overlook the illegal invasion of other countries, justify hatred and war? The answer might lie in the art of casuistry!

Casuistry is the theological discourse that deals in resolving special moral cases of conscience especially in regards to matters of conflicting duty or responsibility. Mostly it appears in the form of sophistry: A justification of an act that is morally wrong making it appear to be morally right. For instance, the Church was able to morally justify acts violence during the Inquisition, contradicting the messages in the Gospels. It did this by diverting the issue away from the killing of innocent victims by demonizing them. The Nazi did the same thing with the Jewish people. Making them the victims and scapegoats of unresolved conflicts within their own German culture.

Bonhoeffer’s preoccupations were confronted by both theological and political issues. The racism of his country had finally convinced him that the religious traditions of his time were spiritually bankrupt. Disillusioned about his Christian contemporaries he described them as living a “religionless Christianity”. Where moral values were being replaced by cynicism and ideology. He realized that tribalism and patriotism had overtaken religion and the universal principles of true spirituality. Living the consequences of a religionless Christianity first hand from his embattled position, incarceration and execution.

In the face of his moral turmoil, Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship literally lays out his Christian position: To stand up morally against the tyranny of war, racism and hatred. Such a moral stand however has a cost. And since he was a man of his and God’s Word, he paid the price with the sacrifice of his life.

Most of all, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is among a few in history of Christianity who deserves to be called a Christian. To this day I cherish his memory, his moral example and character. He will remain an indisputable model of what is to be a “Christian”, especially amidst times of ethical and political morass.

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