by Charlie Leck
I wrote the following essay in April 1995,
for a 50th Anniversary Celebration of
the death and life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
On April 9th, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian, was executed in a concentration camp at Flossenbürg, Germany. Heinrich Himmler, the notorious head of the Nazi Gestapo, signed the order calling for Bonhoeffer’s death. The charge against him was treason and disloyalty to the Reich; however, his loyalty to Christ was never questioned. He had been arrested by the Gestapo two years and two days prior to his death. On April 12, 1945, three days after Bonhoeffer’s execution by hanging, the Allied Forces liberated the camp at Flossenbürg.
Pastor Bonhoeffer was 39 years old at his death. In his brief life he wrote profusely of his Christian Faith. He left us a distinguished library of his teachings. His most notable book, The Cost of Discipleship, was first published in 1937. It stands as a remarkable testimony to the dedication of his own life to Jesus Christ. In it, Bonhoeffer wrote... “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is universally recognized as a martyr of the Faith. I regard him as a hero. He considered himself a disciple of Jesus Christ.
He understood the dangers of National Socialism even before Adolf Hitler rose to authority. In 1933, the year Hitler came to power, speaking to a national radio audience, Bonhoeffer denounced Germany’s political system as corrupt and evil. He tried to warn his countrymen that they were raising the Führer to the level of a god. He called it idolatry.
As a result of a conflict over whether or not it should actively resist the rise of Nazi power, the German church was severed. This traditional church generally supported Hitler’s policies and adopted a slogan: “One people, one Reich, one Führer, one church!” In protest, Bonhoeffer disavowed his position as a pastor within the state church and became a leader in the newly formed Confessing Church, which was constituted in May of 1934. Soon, the Reich would declare this new sect illegal and the Gestapo made every effort to close it down.
In 1936, his government banned Bonhoeffer from teaching in the nation’s theological schools or universities. Nevertheless, he continued to serve as a pastor and to speak out against the rising power of the Nazi Reich. He went to Finkenwald to direct an illegal seminary set up to train young men to live a genuine life of brotherhood in a time of crisis. The college was shut down by the Gestapo in 1940.
After the outbreak of the war, Bonhoeffer worked for, and within, the underground resistance movement. He participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler. It was a difficult decision for him because he had lived the life of a dedicated pacifist (though he had never assumed the label). At the same time, between 1940 and 1943, he worked furiously in an attempt to complete a book which he considered to be his life work. The Reich Chamber of Literature forbade him to publish any of his writings and, early in 1943, the SS (Schutzstaffel) discovered and confiscated much of his manuscript. Parts of it, however, remained hidden in the gardens of monasteries at Kieckow and Ettal. Some of his friends, who knew of their hiding place, recovered these writings and, though never completed, a posthumous volume of Ethik was released in Germany in 1949.
Following his arrest in 1943, Bonhoeffer continued his ministry by working with those of his fellow prisoners who were ill, fearful or despondent. Many of those who survived Flossenbürg, spoke and wrote of Bonhoeffer’s heroism during his days in the camp. They said that he exhibited remarkable tranquillity and composure. The pastor also continued to write, and his guards smuggled many of his notes and messages from the camps. These were later published as Letters and Papers from Prison.
Shortly before his death, realizing the inevitable, he wrote the last verse of his poem, “Stations on the Road to Freedom.”
DEATH(Translation by J.B. Leishman)
Come now, solemnest feast on the road to eternal freedom,
and destroy those fetters that bow,
those walls that imprison this Transient life,
these souls that linger in darkness,
so that at last we see what is here withheld from our vision.
Long did we seek you, freedom, in discipline, action and suffering.
Now that we die, in the face of God himself we behold you.
Christ called Dietrich Bonhoeffer to discipleship and, hearing the summons, the pastor no longer lived for himself. He lived for his Lord. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
In an attempt to show the depth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s mind, and the dedication of his life, I have selected the following excerpts from his writings. Because they are out of context, it would be unfair to assume they represent the full, accurate thinking of Bonhoeffer on these matters. I purposefully chose a few of them to titillate your curiosity and to invite you to contemplate these matters of importance to our Faith. It seems to me that it would be helpful to your reading of these excerpts, and to your understanding of them, if you remember the historical circumstance in which they were written. The German scholars called this the Sitz im Leben (the place in life). Be mindful that Bonhoeffer wrote within a nation controlled by an irrational, godless government of hatred and cruelty.
The books from which these quotations have been taken, and the translations therein, are strictly copyrighted, and I have noted them in an appended bibliography.
from the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
on Being a Christian
To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man — not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. (Letters and Papers from Prison)
God’s name, God’s kingdom, God’s will must be the primary object of Christian prayer. (The Cost of Discipleship)
On Earthly Possessions
Be not anxious! Earthly possessions dazzle our eyes and delude us into thinking that they can provide security and freedom from anxiety. Yet all the time they are the very source of all anxiety. (The Cost of Discipleship)
Judgment is the forbidden objectivization of the other person which destroys single-minded love. (The Cost of Discipleship)
Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are. (The Cost of Discipleship)
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. (The Cost of Discipleship)
Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. (The Cost of Discipleship)
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. (The Cost of Discipleship)
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. (The Cost of Discipleship)
We Lutherans have gathered like eagles round the carcass of cheap grace, and there we have drunk of the poison which has killed the life of following Christ. It is true, of course, that we have paid the doctrine of pure grace divine honors unparalleled in Christendom, in fact we have exalted that doctrine to the position of God himself.... To be “Lutheran” must mean that we leave the following of Christ to legalists, Calvinists, and enthusiasts — and all this for the sake of grace. We justified the world, and condemned as heretics those who tried to follow Christ. The result was that a nation became Christian and Lutheran, but at the cost of true discipleship (The Cost of Discipleship).
It is wiser to be pessimistic; it is a way of avoiding disappointment and ridicule, and so wise people will condemn optimism. The essence of optimism is not its view of the present, but the fact that it is the inspiration of life and hope when others give in; it enables a man to hold his head high when everything seems to be going wrong; it gives him strength to sustain reverses and yet to claim the future for himself instead of abandoning it to his opponent. (Letters and Papers from Prison)
The real trouble is that the pure Word of Jesus has been overlaid with so much human ballast — burdensome rules and regulations, false hopes and consolations — that it has become extremely difficult to make a genuine decision for Christ. (The Cost of Discipleship)
Discipleship means joy. (The Cost of Discipleship)
Happy are they who know that discipleship simply means the life which springs from grace, and that grace simply means discipleship. Happy are they who have become Christians in this sense of the word. For them the word of grace has proved a font of mercy. (The Cost of Discipleship)
Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. (The Cost of Discipleship)
If we would follow Jesus we must take certain definite steps. The first step, which follows the call, cuts the disciple off from his previous existence. The call to follow at once produces a new situation. To stay in the old situation makes discipleship impossible. (The Cost of Discipleship)
The life of discipleship can only be maintained so long as nothing is allowed to come between Christ and ourselves — neither the law, nor personal piety, nor even the world. (The Cost of Discipleship)
Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend — it must transcend all comprehension. (The Cost of Discipleship)
The path of discipleship is narrow, and it is fatally easy to miss one’s way and stray from the path, even after years of discipleship. And it is hard to find. On either side of the narrow path deep chasms yawn. (The Cost of Discipleship)
To the question — where today do we hear the call of Jesus to discipleship, there is no other answer than this: Hear the Word, receive the Sacrament; in it hear him himself, and you will hear his call. (The Cost of Discipleship)
The life of Jesus Christ on earth is not finished yet, for he continues to live in the lives of his followers." (The Cost of Discipleship)
on the Church
The Church is One Man. All who are baptized are “one in Christ.” (The Cost of Discipleship)
It will remain impure so long as history exists, and yet in this its actual form it is God’s church. (The Communion of Saints)
This clearly means that the church is organized towards a certain aim, namely the achieving of the will of God. (The Communion of Saints)
Our age is not poor in experiences, but in faith. (The Communion of Saints)
We said that in the concept of the church there is a collision between two lines of thought; between the idea that the church is founded by God, and that nevertheless, like every other kind of community, it is an empirical community. (The Communion of Saints)
The church rests upon the Word. The Word is the absolute authority present in the church. (The Communion of Saints)
The structure of the church is such that where one of its members is, it is there too, in its strength, in the strength, that is, of Christ and the Holy Spirit. (The Communion of Saints)
A man is in Christ if he is in the church. (The Communion of Saints)
The church is God’s new purpose for men. (The Communion of Saints)
on the Confessing Church
The Church confesses that she has desired security, peace and quiet, possessions and honor, to which she had no right, and that in this way she has not bridled the desires of men but has stimulated them still further. (Ethics)
It is not good when the Church is anxious to praise itself too readily for its humble state. Equally, it is not good for it to boast of its power and its influence too soon. It is only good when the Church humbly confesses its sins, allows itself to be forgiven and confesses its Lord. Daily must it receive the will of God from Christ anew. (Christ The Center)
By her confession of guilt the Church does not exempt men from their own confession of guilt, but she calls them into the fellowship of the confession of guilt. (Ethics)
on the Incarnation
The Body of Christ takes up space on earth. That is a consequence of the Incarnation. (The Cost of Discipleship)
The question may not run, "How is the incarnate one thinkable?", but "Who is he?" He is not the one adopted by God, he is not the one clothed in human characteristics. He is God who became man, as we became man. He lacks nothing belonging to man. There is no gift of this world or of man that he has not received.... The man whom I am, Jesus has also been. Of him only is it valid to say that nothing human was alien to him. Of this man, we say: "This is God for us." (Christ The Center)
There is a very real danger of our drifting into an attitude of contempt for humanity. We know quite well that we have no right to do so, and that it would lead us into the most sterile relation to our fellow-men.... The only profitable relationship to others — and especially to our weaker brethren — is one of love, and that means the will to hold fellowship with them. God himself did not despise humanity, but became man for men's sake. (Letters and Papers from Prison)
on Good and Evil
I am so sure of God's guiding hand that I hope I shall always be kept in that certainty. You must never doubt that I'm traveling with gratitude and cheerfulness along the road where I'm being led. My past life is brim full of God's goodness, and my sins are covered by the forgiving love of Christ crucified. (Letters and Papers from Prison)
Man at his origin knows only one thing: God. It is only in the unity of his knowledge of God that he knows of other men, of things, and of himself. He knows all things only in God, and God in all things. The knowledge of good and evil shows that he is no longer at one with this origin. (Ethics)
I believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil. (Letters and Papers from Prison)
Rarely perhaps has any generation shown so little interest as ours does in any kind of theoretical or systematic ethics. (Ethics)
One is distressed by the failure of reasonable people to perceive either the depths of evil or the depths of the holy. (Ethics)
Still more distressing is the utter failure of all ethical fanaticism. The fanatic believes that he can oppose the power of evil with the purity of his will and of his principle. But since it is part of the nature of fanaticism that it loses sight of the totality of evil and rushes like a bull at the red cloth instead of at the man who holds it, the fanatic inevitably ends by tiring and admitting defeat. He aims wide of the mark. Even if his fanaticism serves the high cause of truth or justice, he will sooner or later become entangled with non-essentials and petty details and fall into the snare set by his more skillful opponent. (Ethics)
What is worse than doing evil is being evil. (Ethics)
Today there are once more villains and saints, and they are not hidden from the public view. Instead of the uniform grayness of the rainy day we now have the black storm-cloud and the brilliant lightning-flash. The outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness. Reality lays itself bare. Shakespeare’s characters walk in our midst. (Ethics)
The man of duty will end by having to fulfill his obligation even to the devil. (Ethics)
on the Love of God
Love, then, is the revelation of God. And the revelation of God is Jesus Christ. (Ethics)
Love has its origin not in us but in God. Love is not an attitude of men but an attitude of God. (Ethics)
Ecce homo! — Behold the God who has become man, the unfathomable mystery of the love of God for the world. God loves man. God loves the world. It is not an ideal man that He loves, but man as he is; not an ideal world, but the real world. (Ethics)
This is the decisive word which marks the distinction between man in disunion and man in the origin. The word is love. (Ethics)
on the Will of God
It is evident that the only appropriate conduct of men before God is the doing of His will. (Ethics)
The knowledge of Jesus Christ, metamorphosis, renewal, love, or whatever other name we may give it, is something living and not something which is given, fixed and possessed once and for all. For this reason there arises every day anew the question how here, today and in my present situation I am to remain and to be preserved in this new life with God, with Jesus Christ. And it is just this question which is involved in proving what is the will of God. (Ethics)
Temptation is a concrete happening which juts out from the course of life. For the physical man all life is a struggle, and for the moral man every hour is a time of temptation. (Temptation)
The devil tempts us in the sin of spiritual pride, in that he deceives us about the seriousness of God's law and of God's wrath. He takes the word of God's grace in his hand and whispers to us, "God is a God of grace, he will not take our sins so seriously." So he awakens in us the longing to sin against God's grace and to assign forgiveness to ourselves even before our sin. He makes us secure in grace. (Temptation)
on Self Discipline
If you set out to seek freedom, you must learn before all thingsMastery over sense and soul, lest your wayward desirings,Lest your undisciplined members lead you now this way, now that way.Chaste be your mind and your body, and subject to you and obedient,Serving solely to seek their appointed goal and objective.None learns the secret of freedom save only by way of control. (Letters and Papers from Prison, Stations on the Way to Freedom)
In the beginning, out of freedom, out of nothing, God created the heavens and the earth.... God is in the beginning and he will be in the end. (Creation and Fall)
Man shall proceed from God as his ultimate, his new work, and as the image of God in his creation. There is no transition here from somewhere or other, there is new creation. This has nothing to do with Darwinism: quite independently of this man remains the new, free, undetermined work of God. We have no wish at all to deny man's connection with the animal world: on the contrary. But we are very anxious not to lose the peculiar relationship of man and God in the process. (Creation and Fall)
The man whom God has created in his image, that is in freedom, is the man who is formed out of earth. Darwin and Feuerbach themselves could not speak any more strongly. Man's origin is in a piece of earth. His bond with the earth belongs to his essential being. The "earth is his mother;" he comes out of her womb. (Creation and Fall)
Where death is the last thing, fear of death is combined with defiance. Where death is the last thing, earthly life is all or nothing. (Ethics)
We still love life, but I do not think that death can take us by surprise now. After what we have been through during the war, we hardly dare admit that we should like death to come to us, not accidentally and suddenly through some trivial cause, but in the fullness of life and with everything at stake. (Letters and Papers from Prison)
on the Resurrection
Easter? We're paying more attention to dying than to death. We're more concerned to get over the act of dying than to overcome death. Socrates mastered the art of dying; Christ overcame death as the last enemy (I Corinthians 15:26). There is a real difference between the two things; the one is within the scope of human possibilities, the other means resurrection. It's not from ars moriendi, the art of dying, but from the resurrection of Christ, that a new and purifying wind can blow through our present world. (Letters and Papers from Prison)
The historical nature of Jesus Christ has two aspects, that of history and that of faith. Both aspects are bound together. The Jesus of history has humbled himself; the Jesus who cannot be grasped by history is the one to whom resurrection faith is directed. (Christ the Center)
Is our faith then ultimately only faith in the empty tomb? (Christ the Center)
Belief in the resurrection is not the "solution" of the problem of death. (Letters and Papers from Prison)
What is concealed behind this idea of the presence of Christ is the decision not to consider the resurrection, but to stop with the Jesus of the cross, with the historical Jesus? This is the dead Jesus Christ who can be thought of like Socrates and Goethe.... Even as the risen one, Jesus Christ remains the man Jesus in time and space. Because Jesus Christ is man, he is present in time and space; because Jesus Christ is God, he is eternally present. The presence of Christ requires the statement, "Jesus is fully man;" but it also requires the other statement, "Jesus is fully God." (Christ the Center)
Bonhoeffer’s LAST known writing...
This is the end, for me the beginning of life. I believe in universal Christian brotherhood which rises above national interests and I believe that our victory is certain. (a message, left in a book, for his English friend, George Bell)
See now that I, even I, am he;there is no god besides me. (Deuteronomy 32:39)
Jesus said) “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord has need of it.’ (Luke 19: 30-31)
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich; Christ the Center: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978, 126 pp. (Translated by Edwin H. Robertson from the German edition of Gesammelte Schriftent, published in 1960 by Christian Kaiser Verlag, Munich.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich; Creation and Fall: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing, New York, 1959, 94 pp. (Translated by John C. Fletcher from the German edition of Schopfung und Fall, published in 1937 by Christian Kaiser Verlag, Munich.)
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich; The Communion of Saints: Harper & Row, New York, 1965, 256 pp. (Translated by R. Gregor Smith from the third German edition of 1960 of Sanctorum Communio, first published in Germany in 1930).
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich; The Cost of Discipleship: The Macmillan Company, New York, Macmillan Paperbacks Edition, 1963, 352 pp. (Translated by R. H. Fuller from the German edition of Nachfolge, published in 1937 by Christian Kaiser Verlag, Munich).
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich; Ethics: The Macmillan Company, New York, Macmillan Paperbacks Edition, 1965, 382 pp. (Translated by Neville Horton Smith from the German edition of Ethik, published in 1949 by Christian Kaiser Verlag, Munich).
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich; Letters and Papers from Prison: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing, New York, 1972, 437 pp.(Translated by Reginald Fuller, Frank Clark, John Bowden, et al, from the German edition of Widerstand und Ergeburng: Briefe und Aufzeichnungen aus der Haft, published in 1970 by Christian Kaiser Verlag, Munich.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich; Temptation: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing, New York, 1959, 32 pp. (Translated by Kathleen Downham from the German edition of Versuchung, published in 1953 by Christian Kaiser Verlag, Munich.)
Gruchy, John de (Editor); Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Witness to Jesus Christ: Fortress Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1991, 308 pp. (The Making of Modern Theology series.)
Wind, Renate; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Spoke in the Wheel: Will B. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1992, 182 pp. (Translated from the German edition of Dem Rad in die Speichen fallen: Die Lebensgeschichte des Dietrich Bonhoeffer, published in 1990 by Beltz Verlag, Weinheim.)