We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in an essay to theologians and theological students
The question that always hovers around any discussion of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is his participation in the surprisingly widespread plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. While he himself was not anywhere near being the assassin, his work with the Abwehr (German Army) as a double agent was connected with the overall plotting and planning. (It also kept him from being drafted and sent to the front.) He was involved in the plans almost from the beginning and gave it his complete support, knowing full well what the consequences would be. Many, myself included, have struggled with that position. Many debates have been held - and will continue to be held - among people who wonder if that was an appropriate thing for a Christian pastor and theologian to do.
His most famous justification for his actions is the example he used of needing to stop a runaway bus from killing many people. If it took shooting the driver, he said, it was appropriate in order to save more lives. Even if it is a sin, he said, he must risk that to stop evil. In an essay for theological students he used the quote above as a description of what he was doing. He was committed to bringing the wheels of injustice and evil to a halt once and for all.
I did not live in that time. I do not live in a place that is anywhere near as awful as Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. We too often throw words like Nazi and the name of Hitler around as if we know what we are talking about. Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived in a time and place that was filled with and governed by evil. There was no apparent human caring in Hitler, Himmler, or Goering. The SS and Gestapo were as inhuman as any army has ever been. The whole direction of the Nazi vision was anti-religion, anti-God, anti-any life but their own. Words like compassion, kindness, or grace have absolutely no meaning in their world. We have seen far too many of such people and situations in the past century. They are still happening in parts of the world. But what we have in our histories of World War II gives us an unprecedented example of how easily and quickly an otherwise civilized society can devolve into hatred, anger, fear, and unrestrained death. That must not be downplayed or overlooked!
In reading Eric Metaxas’s biography of Bonhoeffer I have come to a deeper appreciation of what this deeply faithful and faith-filled man was facing. Metaxas makes it clear that it was not an easy decision for Bonhoeffer. He did not take it lightly. He took his faith very seriously and its role in his life was paramount. At the very end of his life he continued to exhibit a calm and a “presence” that astonished his fellow prisoners and the guards who watched them. He saw death, at the end, as a road to freedom. He was able to combine his deep faith with the needs of those around him and face the situations without any outward fear. He was convinced he was doing what was right and went ahead and did it. All the things I have talked about in the previous weeks of Lent were all combined at the end to propel him forward with certainty in the resurrection of Jesus Christ! His faith was as real as it can be!
There has been much talk in the US in the past three months about resistance and even revolution. Some have pointed to Nazi Germany in the 1930s as someplace to learn from, hence the look to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his faith. We are, at this point, far from that level of extremism. But that only makes it more imperative that those of us who feel strongly need to know what is happening and learn what potential actions we can engage in. It has been and will continue to be a time of contention, disagreement, fear, anger, and a multitude of emotions. In our country we have seen many things challenged that we thought were being taken care of- civil rights, women’s rights, the environment to name a few. We have seen a series of potential scandals and ongoing investigations, the extent of which we have never seen in our lifetimes. We watch as saber-rattling becomes the norm. We argue over walls and immigration, refugees and the Biblical idea of sanctuary cities.
Which brings us to Holy Week- the central activity of Jesus that makes clear why we Christians are to follow him. In Jesus, Bonhoeffer would say, we see God’s view of being human.
- We see in the life of Jesus the life that every Christian should strive for.
- We see in Holy Week the suffering that Jesus was willing to undergo for humanity.
- We see on Maundy Thursday the call to servant obedience he gave to his followers.
- We see on Good Friday the ultimate personal sacrifice of self for others. And, to use Bonhoeffer’s quote, we see how far God in and through Jesus was willing to go to drive a spoke into the wheel of evil and injustice.
In my preparations this week, even as I cheer Jesus, I know that all around are things to pay attention to- the things that Jesus paid attention to, as, for example, he drove the money changers from the Temple before retiring to Bethany.
- Where am I seeing the signs of injustice?
- How do I participate in these acts of injustice and evil, even if it is “only” by my silence?
- What are the ways I can care for the victims of injustice and evil? That is important. But if I do nothing to stand up to the evil we will all continue to be overwhelmed with more victims than we can handle.
- What are the ways I can name these signs of evil?
- How can refuse to go along with the evil
- In the end, how can I help in the actions to stop the evil?
April 9, 1945
was executed by the Nazis at
Flossenburg Concentration Camp.
He was 39 years old.