Discovering Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as depicted by Metaxas, is a soul I am intrigued by. In a time when I often wonder if I could be a true Christian if called to be, Bonhoeffer offers a true example of a man doing so, in a difficult time for him personally and a desperate time for the world.

My impression of the description of Germany in the 1930’s rang true to what I studied in college and reminded me of the importance of studying history, especially reflecting on times past in our own times.

The Versailles Treaty left the world so unstable, the vacuum for leadership was a vortex, and that instability and leadership vacuum produced Hitler and the surrounding impotent leaders, it was a time of no vision, an entire generation lost in WWI, an aimless people suffering and reeling from the aftermath of a new warfare and a new world order.

But we are not in such a time, any suffering and struggle we feel is of our own making, the media drives something that does not need to be there, education is failing and no one looks to history to learn or face any lessons. Yet, there is a vacuum of true leadership in America today, in 2016, so who will rise to fill it?
What would I do if we had a Hitler in our midst? Especially if I grew up fatherless, in a community lacking in leadership? Could I be Bonhoeffer? I cannot imagine I could be, but perhaps…

But I transgress…


I appreciated Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s upbringing, I recognized my own non-religious family, who, without knowing it produced “me”, perhaps not a scholar, theologian and minister like Bonhoeffer, but certainly leaning toward the same religious draw and values by the time I was entering my teens. Dietrich’s upbringing and young life prepared him for his journey. I admire that, but I fear the parallels I see today.

I appreciated Bonhoeffer’s approach to ministering to the young people around him and engaging in relationships with them. I can feel the mentoring he did for others ‘palpitating’ through those he served. I want to be like him. (Except he liked the bull-fighting in Spain, I did not.)

We read of his struggle in being called to theology and ministry and we see his own development and connection to the church (Lutheran). As he travels in his young life we see his success as a preacher in Spain, his gravitation to the Catholic faith and all it offered in Rome and in NYC his gravitation to the rich and feeling Harlem churches (which are right near where my father lives now…)

I admire his Thursday Circles and being engaging and dynamic enough to draw young adults to him, enough to talk about the realities of life, leading a generation of faith-filled young German men that would serve both in the German army during WWII, but also their fellow Germans in determining where they stand in the greater crisis that the war presented.


The biographer helps us to understand the schism in the German Church in this time period and as the war ensued. We can see the appeal the Nazis made to the pagan elements in all of us: bonfires, midnight solstice burnings of books, propaganda and more. And the kind of discriminations against the Jews that we easily forget about. First, no longer being allowed to be doctors or nurses in hospitals, not allowed to have insurance, not allowed to be teachers. The Jewish children were limited in how much schooling they could receive. No Jews were allowed to be journalists. Bonhoeffer, himself, was told to not preach at a Jewish friend’s funeral, a decision he regretted and felt shameful of for the rest of his life.

Metaxas touches on Heine’s prediction in 1834 that when Germany finally rejected Christ and Christianity that havoc and chaos would ensue, and so it did. There is no question of the correlation of thoughts becoming our actions… Neimoller, a contemporary of Bonhoeffer’s who was sent to concentration camps years before Bonhoeffer, wrote this…

“First they came for the _____ and I did not speak out – because I was not a _____.
Then they came for the _____ and I did not speak out – because I was not a _____. 
Then they came for the _____ and I did not speak out – because I was not a _____.  

And then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

The words in his writing were ‘socialists’, ‘trade unionists’ and ‘Jews’. What are our words today that can fill in the blanks? ‘Muslims’, ‘immigrants’, ‘protestors’?

Bonheoffer’s vision of what was to come, both politically and for the church was prophetic. And that, in the end, what would be needed would be those who could ‘simply suffer’ and suffer faithfully. He called on strength that came from trying to live life as the Sermon on the Mount calls us (something he says theologians at a university never have considered doing… Not sure if I agree with that.)

“There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe.” (Bonhoeffer, August 1934)

Bonhoeffer had a way of preaching that brought people to the edge of their seats, wanting more, but terrified of the real requirement being put before them as Hitler gained more and more power in Germany.

“Hitler [was] evil [that] had stepped to the center of the world stage and removed its’ mask.” (P470)

Bonhoeffer faced the spiritual and theological reality that the Jews were God’s People, too and that predictions of the sufferings in the Bible were once again upon them in Germany in his age. His friends worked to get Jewish friends and family members out of the country, they even secured Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s own delivery out of Germany to save him, but he could not stay away, he had to be a part of Germany’s history, he was called to fight from within.

When considering all those he had ministered and guided to their confirmation he wrote:

“Confirmands today are like young soldiers marching to war, the war of Jesus Christ, against the gods of this world. It is a war that demands the commitment of one’s whole life. Is not God, our Lord, worthy of this struggle?” (P302)

A “great inner restlessness” begins to drive Bonhoeffer, “a holy anger”. It becomes clear that to be fully human means to bring God into every aspect of our lives — to only ‘talk’ about God, but not get our hands dirty with his work is ‘bad theology’. One will have to accept that they will incur guilt by exerting their free will and freedom, in trying to do their best, making mistakes, failing, but not giving up. Bonhoeffer accepts this guilt with the duty to try to achieve what he can in his “exclusive allegiance to God.” (P432)


Those courageous enough to take a stand, or to plan an assassination, in Germany would get no support from the Allies, who, as every day passed, held the German people more and more guilty for their complicity in Hitler’s power, reach and actions. But there was Bonhoeffer, not losing hope in God even in the darkest times, he even discovers love in war and hopes for the future: his own, his church’s and his nation’s.

“… For here, in the midst of the final destruction of all things, one desires to build, in the midst of a life lived from hour-to-hour and from day-to-day, one desires the future, in the midst of being driven out from the earth, one desires a bit of space, in the midst of widespread misery, one desires happiness. And the overwhelming thing is that God says yes to this strange longing…” (p408)

As a student of history, I was riveted to this story… As a Christian, called to serve, I was inspired and frightened by the call this story defines for us all… As a citizen, I am troubled by the parallels in our society to those described in 1930’s-1940’s Germany…

As a seeker, I hope to read everything else I can get my hands on about and by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, because I want to be able to be like him, if and when I am called, to put my faith into action; courageously, radically and joyfully.


Book I feel called to read as a result of this reading:

T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (commissioned to criticize the Nazi Regime)

Bonhoeffer’s own works: Discipleship, Life Together

The Bramen Confessions


One thought on “Discovering Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  1. Commenting on my own post here – I said in the beginning – “But we are not in such a time, any suffering and struggle we feel is of our own making, the media drives something that does not need to be there, education is failing and no one looks to history to learn or face any lessons.”

    I now feel we are in very similar times, and much like the Bonhoeffer family I am astounded as to how our nation found itself in this position.


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