It was in April of 1945 that Dietrich Bonhoeffer paid the ultimate price for his faith in Christ. At the Flossenbürg concentration camp, Bonhoeffer became one of the great martyrs of the twentieth century. This year marks the 75th anniversary of his untimely and tragic death.
His life and death drew me into a greater understanding of grace and the necessity of community within the Church. Perhaps you are not familiar with Bonhoeffer; let me take a moment to introduce you to this man who died 75 years ago.
Bonhoeffer’s family lived a life of distinction and prestige in Berlin, Germany, before the First World War. They were Christians, but like so many Christians then and now, they were not very close to God. Young Dietrich, however, became serious about his faith in Christ and set out to serve Him in the Church.
After his seminary studies at Berlin University, Bonhoeffer spent a year as an assistant pastor at a church in Barcelona. Then in 1929, he returned to Berlin for postdoctoral work. Bonhoeffer traveled to Union Theological Seminary in New York as an exchange student. There he learned firsthand about the injustices African Americans faced and began fighting for their cause.
Meanwhile, back in Germany, Adolf Hitler was fighting for a different cause, one that would form the Nazi party and eventually Nazi Germany. The Nazi influence among German Christians was growing. The church leaders were turning a blind eye toward the injustices; even worse, they were participating in this deranged leader’s plans. The Nazis went on to gain government control over the churches in Germany. They placed restrictions on the Jewish people living in their country. As we know today, they began the extermination of an entire people group.
Bonhoeffer learned to value different Christian faith expressions and denominations, especially during his short time in London, England. Known as Ecumenism, Bonhoeffer promoted the idea that Christian denominations should learn from each other and work together in society. This worldview fell far short of reality in Nazi Germany.
Knowing that the Church must resist Hitler instead of giving into Nazism, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to lead the new preacher’s program at Confessing Church’s seminary. He looked to the Bible passages in the Sermon on the Mount to form his curriculum. Christian community became a focal point for him as he wrote such books as Life Together (1939) and Discipleship (1937). In a short time, the Nazi government closed the seminary. Still, Bonhoeffer continued teaching in secret locations until World War II started in Germany on September 1, 1939.
In time, the German government would admonish Bonhoeffer and stop him from teaching, preaching, and publishing his books and materials. Not fully complying with the government’s orders and under suspicion of mounting resistance against Nazi Germany, he was arrested and imprisoned for the rest of his life. Bonhoeffer was eventually found guilty of being part of the Resistance’s attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944. This verdict rendered a death sentence. So, on April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was put to death for his crimes against Nazi Germany, just three weeks before Hitler’s suicide and four weeks before Allied Victory in Europe.
This theologian, pastor, activist, and martyr counted it a joy to suffer for the cause of Christ. He would not remain silent in the face of Nazi oppression. His life motivated and still motivates Christians around the world to stand firm against the evils they face. His life challenges me, and I hope with this short essay, he will challenge you too. We must take a stand for what is right—even if we must stand alone sometimes. Whether in the workplace, at school, or within your family, do not turn away from biblical truths. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye toward those who are suffering. Let us be willing to use this one-and-only life that God gives us to make a difference in our communities.
Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Eric grew up in the little town of Gibraltar, PA with his grandparents. He met his wife Cheryl while working at Good’s Greenhouse in Bowmansville, PA. He has three adult children and values watching them grow into the people God wants them to be.