Would you be a spy? How far would you go? Could you really die for your faith?
Have you ever wished you could do more as a spiritual leader? I have always been intrigued by the frumpy, unassuming character of G.K. Chesterton's sleuthing 'Father Brown' who also serves as a brilliant mystery crime-solver.
The role of a pastor seems almost timid against the principalities and powers. It sounds fictional, but Bonhoeffer's life delicately balanced disciple making pastor with creative teacher, bold Confessing Church leader refusing allegiance to Hitler, and ultimately working as a double agent to plot Hitler's assassination.
This biography is declared to be one 'definitive, deeply moving narrative'. I certainly found it to be compelling reading as I compared the uncertain times of the world in our day with the moral courage demonstrated by pastor Bonhoeffer in the face of unmitigated Nazi evil.
This book is more than biography as it mixes theology and history with moving personal story.
We follow the young academic Dietrich as he starts a Sunday School class with dramatic stories in the Barcelona children's congregation (beginning with just one girl), to a fiery Harlem African-American church where his faith was kindled in continued vibrant ministry to children. Upon his return to Germany that fire burned bright as he became one of the first to take a stand against Hitler's dizzying rise to power, rejecting the safety offered outside of Germany. By the Spring of 1933 he was declaring it the duty of the Church to stand up for the Jews. Hitler would incite 'mercy killing' of the weak and infirm taking up medical space for injured soldiers. He came to see early on that the Church must question the State, help the State's victims, and work against the State if necessary.
The great Church of Luther had become marked by formalism, capitulating to Hitler. It had lost the true gospel of 'costly grace'. The lie of creation theology linking German racial identity to the church was anathema to the idea of the Church universal. "Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace. Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ."
Bonhoeffer championed a 'religionless Christianity', not to be misconstrued in an empty modernist sense, but as one's vital connection with the living God. Christianity was not about man-made religion at all. Moral accomplishment failed to make an ethical way to heaven. It was all about the person of Christ. Moral performance was the enemy of Christ leading to spiritual pride.
Hitler was against the meekness of the Church as it did not suit the socialist state. It was his sinister plan to turn the Church over time by starting with a cessation of Bible publishing. Twisting Christianity towards Germanness and in opposition to Jewishness, the Old Testament must go. It was all a conspiracy. The New Testament was blatantly taken out of context ignoring the fact that all Jesus' disciples were Jews. Jesus was portrayed as a cruel anti-Semite. Church music had to be freed from all Israelite references - no small task.
Mien Kamph by the Fuhrer was to go upon the altars as the most sacred book embodying the purist and truest ethics for the nation. The removal of the Christian cross was superseded by the unconquerable symbol, the Swastika, and a sword, to show a hard warrior-like faith.
Karl Barth was mentor and friend to Bonhoeffer, the greatest influence of all theologians in his life. Barth was the most formidable opponent of liberal theology's ivory tower, stressing the transcendence of God as wholly other, an utter unknowability apart from revelation. This was scandalous to theological liberals and he was kicked out of Germany in 1934.
Bonhoeffer was utterly dependent on the God who breaks through and grasps us. He had a deep sense that he had been grasped, chosen for something. "I must follow the path. Perhaps it will not be such a long one but it is a fine thing to have realized my calling."
The deep call of Christ was not about winning but about submission, simply suffering faithfully. He lived a life of uncompromising discipleship based on Sermon On the Mount.
When does treason become a command of God? Questions like these are a challenge to our at-ease belief system today.
Inevitably, Bonhoeffer moved from confession (to give assent, to acknowledge that Germanism is not Christianity) to political resistance. Merely speaking the truth smacked of cheap grace. Things would get confusing for people as he pretended to be in Hitler's military intelligence. Working as a double-agent he plotted attacks on Hitler and sought plans for international peace; he was not free to explain himself and seemed to have finally capitulated.
Imprisoned for two years, we have a loving collection of letters between Dietrich and his fiancé. Included are epistolary coded messages where we see an active, fully living obedience - a wild, joyful freedom compared to extreme Nazi submission to authority. Coming to terms with death, it was something he freely and voluntarily accepted, welcoming each new day as a miracle.
Bonhoeffer was a comfort and bulwark to others he suffered alongside, a strength borrowed from God and lent to others, even winning favour with guards. He entrusted himself to God and therefore lived without regrets or real fears.
The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church. "The only fight lost," he wrote, "is the fight given up. Only the believer is obedient, and only he who obeys believes."
Along with his brothers and two brothers-in-law, Dietrich died just before the Americans arrived. Hanged at the young age of 39 in the Flossenburg concentration camp, this brief life has become one of the most fascinating, complex figures of the 20th century.
As I was concurrently reading about 'Lady Guillotine' in Dicken's Tale of Two Cities and 'Big Brother' in Orwell's 1984, I am left struck by the precious precariousness of our peaceful freedom. This is a book that will inspire us to redouble our purpose to work in the light while it is still day.