Dietrich Bonhoeffer A Biography

A few weeks back I had a routine Doctor appointment. I mentioned in passing a slight discomfort in my lower right abdomen. The doc pressed into said sore spot and feared the worst; appendicitis (read in same tone as the old gingivitis commercials for added affect). I went to the hospital and after many more nurses, doctors and even my own mother made it a point to poke the area of pain, it was confirmed that I did indeed have appendicitis. Pro tip to any of you that may one day in the future have appendicitis: I recommend you make a shirt or a sign that states , “Yes it hurts when you do that, so don’t!” if it prevents one unneeded prod, it’s done its job.

An appendectomy followed, and I found myself with ample free time during the healing. I decided with this free time to tackle a book that I have long hoped to read but have been intimidated by, Dietrich Bonhoeffer a Biography. Now it wasn’t the subject of said book that had me intimidated but rather the length of the book. Coming in just under 1,000 pages, it is a mammoth work,, but with ample healing time on my hands I decided now was as good a time as any.

The book was fascinating. Written by one of Bonhoeffer’s former students and closest friends it opens up the world of Germany in the turn of the century and up through World War II. Bethge seeks to tell the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian from a well to do family who took a stand against Hitler during the rise of National Socialism. Bonhoeffer resisted Hitler on two fronts, first as a leader of the Confessing Church; a church that was formed after the State church adopted the Aryan clause and failed to stand against the mistreatment of Jews. Bonhoeffer spoke at conferences, wrote drafts against the church, and eventually taught a group of confessing church pastors at Finkenwalde, a preaching seminary. Along with being a leading voice in the confessing church Bonhoeffer also became part of a conspiracy to remove Hitler from power. Working with his brother in law, Dohanyi, Bonhoeffer used his role in the Abwher to pass along information regarding the conspiracy to leaders in London and Switzerland hoping that after Hitler was removed peace could be found. The plan took many forms. The conspirators gathered evidence of Hitler’s cruelty to prisoners of war and even had Karl Bonhoeffer (Dietrich’s father) draft a letter questioning the sanity of the fuhrer, hoping that a legal case could be brought against the leader disposing him from power in that way. As those plans fell through a plan was eventually formed to assassinate Hitler. First they attempted to kill him by planting a bomb on his plane; the bomb failed to detonate. Next they brought bomb into a meeting with Hitler; this bomb did detonate. It, however, did nothing more than blow his pants off and make him feel immortal.

It drives me crazy that I am 500 words in to this post and have barely started to say what I hope to. I suppose that’s why Bethge’s book is nearly 1000 pages. I have confessed before my fascination with Bonhoeffer. Reading this book only reinforced and deepened that fascination. Bethge made it a point throughout the text to not just share details of Bonhoeffer’s life but to also explore Bonhoeffer’s writings and expound on his thoughts and theology. This excited me, and in turn caused my reading list to grow.

The resistance to Hitler makes for a story that compels most, but in fact I am equally impressed by Bonhoeffer’s theology and works (The two should be understood together). We ought be challenged by his ideas of “Cheap Grace” ( see Discipleship), community (Life Together) and his fascinating exegesis of Genesis 1-3 in Creation and the Fall. I can’t hope to come close to covering all that deserves to be said about what Bethge covers in this Biography but I will close this post discussing a few of my highlights.

Bonhoeffer spent some of his early formative years in New York, and he was struck by the racism towards the African American community. One of his fellow classmates invited him to an inner-city black Harlem church, and he spent his time there teaching Sunday school. It was there that he learned to love the Negro spirituals that he would later teach his students at Finkenwalde. The racism so unsettled Bonhoeffer that he wrote his brother Karl-Friedrich who had preceded him in visiting America by a few years about the issue. His brother agreed, citing the racism as the cause for turning down an offer to teach at Harvard, he wanted to be sure that neither he nor his children would be associated with such a societal shortcoming. Karl Friedrich went on to say about Germany in 1931

“In any case our Jewish question is a joke by comparison; there won’t be many people who claim they are oppressed here. At any rate not in Frankfurt…” (Bethge, 151)

I don’t know what Frankfurt (my birth town coincidentally) looked like in 1931, but I do know that they were just a few years removed from atrocious acts against the Jew.

I wonder why it is that we are better equipped to analyze the faults of other countries while missing the issues in our own. In our own day I think of how the immigrant has become fodder for politicians to score points on; they are an easy scapegoat for the economy and crime issues. Meanwhile, as the church, I think we would do well to remember that “we were once strangers in a strange land,” and throughout Scripture there is a clear mandate to care for the poor, the widow and the sojourner (immigrant). I think too about the unborn, who are killed for the sake of convenience and medical research. Recently I heard a priest say that “it is impossible to do a vice virtuously”. I couldn’t agree more and pray daily for the unborn.

Bonhoeffer spent time before his teaching assignment at Finkenwalde visiting different seminaries and church communities taking notes and shaping his own ideas of community formation. In one of those communities they recited Psalm 119 daily, a practice that he would continue for years. This struck me because for one Psalm 119 is looooong, but also because I have for the past few years been drawn to the Psalms, amazed by their ability to shape and speak to me. Bonhoeffer has a book titled Prayerbook of the Bible. It reflects on the Psalms, and I intend to read it soon.

In Germany the state and church were intimately linked. They were so close, that as the National Socialist party came into power they had the ability to appoint bishops and affect church policy. This led to the Aryan clause being adopted and the church in essence becoming a propaganda tool for the state. As a result, there were many who thought to be a good Christian was to be a good German, to support the Fuhrer, to turn their eyes from the awful things happening, and worse to participate in such atrocities. This is unsettling and Bethge proposed that Bonhoeffer avoided this trap because;

“Within this vocation he eventually achieved a very personal relationship to the church of Christ. This led him away from nationalistic tendencies and brought him into the ecumenical realm” (Bethge,xv)

It is my hope that we as the church might be so captivated by an image of God’s Kingdom that we can distinguish between the state’s vision and God’s vision. We must be vigilant to not become a propaganda arm of the government as we care for the widow, the orphan, and sojourner as ambassador’s of God’s kingdom come.

In closing I hope to share briefly the character and impressiveness of Bonhoeffer. One prisoner who met Bonhoeffer in the lowest point of his life said this of the great man of God

“He was one of the very few men I have ever met to whom his God was real and ever close to him.” – Payne Best (Bethge, 920

In the end I think that is how Bonhoeffer ought be remembered as a man close to God who through his leadership and convictions stood tall during one of history’s darkest times.

I said earlier that Bethge’s book is loooooong, crazy long; and I don’t imagine many of you have the time to work through 1,000 pages on him. However in conversation with Theologian W. Travis McMaken (an author I happened to have reviewed previously in my blog) he did me the favor of recommending this biography Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel by Renate Wind. It comes in under 200 pages, and if McMaken recommends it than I feel comfortable doing so as well.

I hope to soon teach a class at the church on Bonhoeffer or one of his works. Keep tuned to the blog for an upcoming review of The Work of Theology by Stanley Hauerwas.

until next time –