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Dietrich Bonhoeffer – theologian, prophet, martyr

This week is the anniversary of the execution by the Gestapo, of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer remains a giant of Christian theology and is known world-wide.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Theologian, Prophet, Martyr

By Robert C. Wilson
Early on the morning of April 9, 1945, sixty-six years ago this week, the German evangelical theologian and church leader, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Gestapo at  Flossenberg concentration camp. His crime? He had begun an underground seminary for training and equipping German pastors to shepherd the Confessing Church, and to resist Nazi rule. In July 1944, the plot by leading military officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler unravelled. The key leaders were arrested and  Bonhoeffer was implicated and sentenced to death.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of seven children born into an influential German family. His father was a noted Professor of Psychiatry and his mother was an intellectual, and one of the first women of her generation to obtain a university degree. They fully expected Dietrich to pursue a career in medicine,law, engineering or commerce, and were shocked when he informed his parents that he wanted to study theology.

Bonhoeffer was a brilliant scholar who underwent a climactic personal transformation, as he pursued his studies. After earning advanced degrees in theology, after ordination, and even after writing several books Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that he  finally became a Christian! He stated, “For the first time I discovered the Bible…I had seen a great deal of the church, but I had not yet become a Christian. I had been turning the doctrine of Jesus Christ into something of a personal advantage for myself. Also I had never prayed, or prayed very little. For all of my lonliness, I was quite pleased with myself. The Bible and in particular the Sermon on the Mount, freed me from that. Since then everything has changed!” This was Bonhoeffer’s “road to Damascus”experience.

He first aroused the ire of the Nazi government by a radio broadcast he gave in the early 1933 in which he attacked the Nazi leadership and warned Germany against slipping into an idolatrous cult of the Fuhrer. He was part way through his radio address when the government censors monitoring the broadcast, “pulled the plug” and cut him off the air.

Bonhoeffer, from a family of significant means, travelled widely. He lived in Barcelona, London and New York. His calling was to urge the church on both sides of the Atlantic to get serious about its faith. “Religion in many ways he observed, was the enemy of Christianity, because it can unwittingly promote the false notion, that a bit of moral goodness is sufficient.”

Although he was invited to the U.S.A. by the leading liberal theological schools, he was appalled at what he found. “In New York they preach about virtually everything. Only one thing is not addressed…namely the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin, and forgiveness, death and life.”

“What he did hear in the pulpits of America was an ethical and social idealism born by faith in progress… that claims the right to call itself Christian. Religion in America struck him as ‘self indulgent, self satisfied, vapid, mere idolatry and his words sadly, portray much of what we still see” in 2011 in the west.

While in New York City, Bonhoeffer woshipped at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where the worship was joyful, real and centred on Jesus.

“The early morning light fell on the high-walled courtyard as the camp physician paused before the heavy door to the cell block. The doctor, followed by armed guards, made his way to the lonely cell”.

The prisoner “before taking off his prison garb, knelt on the floor praying to his God”. The attending physician remarked “I was most deeply moved by the way this loveable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer…”

At the place of execution he again said a short prayer, and then climbed the steps to the gallows; brave and composed. I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God!”

“Behold Dietrich Bonhoeffer hanging from a gallows.” as expressed by writer David Gusher. “It is a scene of extraordinary significance both for Bonhoeffer’s time and ours.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared, “When dark hours come and when the darkest hour comes upon us, then let us hear the voice of Jesus Christ, which cries in our ears, “Victory is won!”

And the church replies, “Alleluia!”

Filed Under: Letters and Opinion

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  1. Donald N Bastian says:

    Robert: Thanks for keeping the story alive. You have certainly caught the essence in a few words. And well written!l

  2. Doreen Hawley says:

    A very interesting read but at the same time a sad one. The only glimmer of happiness that he went to be with his Lord.

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