Feast Day of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Flossenberg memorial to resistance members killed April 9, 1942. 2 Timothy 1:7: "For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline."
Flossenberg memorial to resistance members killed April 9, 1942.
2 Timothy 1:7: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.”

Bill Wylie-Kellermann studied Bonhoeffer with Paul Lehmann, Bonhoeffer’s friend and colleague at Union Seminary NYC. The life and times of Bonhoeffer are instructive for us today. Below is both Bill’s reflections for today, 70 years after Bonhoeffer’s execution by the Nazis.

And also reflections from Victoria Barnett, staff director of the Committee on Ethics, Religion, and Bonhoeffer scholar at the Holocaust at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Both reflect on Bonhoeffers 1942 Christmas letter.

“We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the power-less, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.”— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christmas letter to friends and co-conspirators (1942)

Seventy years ago today, just weeks before the fall of Berlin in 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was marched naked into the yard of Flossenberg Concentration Camp and hanged with piano wire for being an enemy of the Nazi state. He was 39.

Bonhoffer may be said to have literally written the book on radical discipleship. For several generations his Cost of Discipleship has provoked conversion, focused hearts, signified the way. It is perhaps most famous for its opening meditation contrasting “cheap grace” – grace as commodity, principle, doctrine – with “costly grace” which is grace to die for – the way of discipleship and the cross. “When Christ calls someone, he bids them come and die.” … — Bill Wylie-Kellermann

Read the rest of Bill’s post at Radical Discipleship here.

Vicky Barnett is the coeditor of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works project, the English translation series of Bonhoeffer’s complete works (Fortress Press). Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church movement are viewed quite differently between Christians and Jews.

In December 1942, Bonhoeffer sent a Christmas letter (“After Ten Years”) to his closest friends in the resistance. In a bitterly realistic tone, he faced the prospect that they might fail, and that his own life’s work might remain incomplete. He may have wondered, too, whether his decision to return to Germany and to work in military intelligence had been the right one. “Are we still of any use?” he wrote:

We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?

The necessities of subterfuge and compromise had already cost him a great deal. He pondered the different motives for fighting evil, noting that even the finest intentions could prove insufficient. “Who stands firm?” Bonhoeffer asked:

Only the one for whom the final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these, when in faith and sole allegiance to God he is called to obedient and responsible action: the responsible person, whose life will be nothing but an answer to God’s question and call.

In this letter, one of Bonhoeffer’s most moving and powerful writings, the various threads of Bonhoeffer’s life and work came together. He had been one of the few in his church to demand protection for the persecuted as a necessary political step. He had called upon his church, traditionally aligned with the state, to confront the consequences of that alliance. The church struggle, as he wrote Bishop George Bell in 1934, was “not something that occurs just within the church, but it attacks the very roots of National Socialism. The point is freedom. . . .”

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