Saturday, April 09, 2016

Calendar of Saints: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Periodically I post a quote from a saint from the Episcopal Calendar of Saints that week. I connect it with a picture that I have taken as a kind of poster. These are meant to be meditative and mindful, playful and thought inducing. I hope they are helpful in your spiritual journeys.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)
Pastor, Theologian, and Martyr
April 9

Bonhoeffer was born in 1906, son of a professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Berlin. He was an outstanding student, and at the age of 25 became a lecturer in systematic theology at the same University. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer became a leading spokesman for the Confessing Church, the center of Protestant resistance to the Nazis. He organized and for a time led the underground seminary of the Confessing Church. His book Life Together describes the life of the Christian community in that seminary, and his book The Cost of Discipleship attacks what he calls "cheap grace," meaning grace used as an excuse for moral laxity.

Bonhoeffer had been taught not to "resist the powers that be," but he came to believe that to do so was sometimes the right choice. In 1939 his brother-in-law introduced him to a group planning the overthrow of Hitler, and he made significant contributions to their work. (He was at this time an employee of the Military Intelligence Department.) He was arrested in April 1943 and imprisoned in Berlin. After the failure of the attempt on Hitler's life in April 1944, he was sent first to Buchenwald and then to Schoenberg Prison. His life was spared, because he had a relative who stood high in the government; but then this relative was himself implicated in anti-Nazi plots.

On Sunday 8 April 1945, he had just finished conducting a service of worship at Schoenberg, when two soldiers came in, saying, "Prisoner Bonhoeffer, make ready and come with us," the standard summons to a condemned prisoner. As he left, he said to another prisoner, "This is the end -- but for me, the beginning -- of life." He was hanged the next day, less than a week before the Allies reached the camp.

  • From a personal perspective: For many of us who came to Christian maturity in the late 50s to late 70s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer may be our quintessential religious "hero." His writings and actions together gave many of us a strong sense of discipleship. His understanding of grace shaped many an understanding of what we are called to live like when faced with difficult times. It was a challenge to us as we faced issues like civil rights and the Vietnam War. Admittedly many of us may describe it differently today than we did 50 years ago. But that does not change the basic power of what Bonhoeffer said and did. He will always be a challenge to what Martin Marty calls civil religion.

    When religion unquestioningly supports the powers that be- and is in turn supported by them- we are in a dangerous time. That has not changed. May Bonhoeffer for many years to come be that reminder.

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