The Beginning of Life: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (February 4, 1906 – April 9, 1945)
“Hitler executed almost five thousand people after the failure of Operation Valkyrie, the July 20, 1944, assassination plot led by Claus von Stauffenberg.” (The New Yorker, March 14, 2011, p. 71)
Among them was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a gentle, patient, pious martyr to his faith. What set him apart among his fellow prisoners was his continued good cheer and faithful patience, his ongoing witness to the truth and love of Christ, and his willingness to serve.
In his last known words, he sent a message: “This is the end – for me, the beginning of life.”
At that moment of so frequent desperation he claimed for himself the promise of eternity, the hope of the resurrection. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Even in the extremity of his last days he was calm, a prayerful pastor with a peaceful voice. That voice had not always been peaceable: he had called on his fellow Christians to live the truth of the Gospel even when it required of them the sacrifice of their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
His sacrifices included his own ideal of pacifism – for he had come to believe it was necessary for some, in that extreme crisis, to give up even that integrity of morals, for the sake of those who would be saved – and so he joined the conspirators who plotted to kill the Führer (Leader) of their own nation.
In Life Together (1939) he asked what it meant to be called into life together under the Word – the word that was in the beginning, the word that was with God, the word that is divine: Jesus, in other words. How do we live under him, under his mercy, his grace, and his sovereignty?
How do we live our lives individually, communally, socially, and globally, under that word? And what can we do, practically, to live as Jesus’ people?
Who is Christ for us today? How are we to live, now, knowing of the infinite mercy of God? Can we give up everything but life in God?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a teacher and pastor. Most of his life, except for brief sojourns in Barcelona, New York, London, he spent – spent fully – in his native Germany. He grew up in a gentle, aristocratic world, but as he reached full adulthood the political landscape in his home country changed. One would be tempted to say it changed unrecognizably – except that Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others came to see in it the face of evil. So they sought more fervently for the face of Christ.
They found it in service – and they found it in each other. Some of them found it, briefly, in the extraordinary gift of community.
In the Confessing Church seminary he led at Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer gathered a group of dedicated young men, who prepared together, through prayer and study, for service to a beleaguered world. (Life Together was a product of that experiment in intentional community.) It was a seminary ‘on the run’. As it had to be, the seminary community was both settled into place and ready to move – the seminarian was monk and pilgrim at once.
The government shut it down in one place and it popped up in another, for awhile. (My friend and seminary neighbor Beni Witbooi taught in a similarly nomadic – and prophetic – school of theology under the apartheid regime in South Africa.)
Being a people of God on the move essentially is not a new idea.
Look at Moses, who led the children of Israel out of Egypt. A fugitive from Pharaoh, he fetched up at a well in Midian, became a shepherd, learned to find pathways and waterholes in the wilderness, and then returned to the place of danger to lead his people to a life of freedom. He went to the mountaintop and he saw the Promised Land. He did not get there with them, but he saw where it awaited them.
So it was for Bonhoeffer; so it is for many. We may be blessed to see the whole journey, the soul’s progress from exile to freedom; we may only see a part. But we know in Christ’s mercy that the Liberator, the Shepherd good and true, will at last and always, as he already has, break through the bonds of sin and lead us to grace.
May we, whatever we do together to live under that Word which is love and light and life, act in the name of Christ and dwell in the security of knowing we are know by him whose name is above all other names and who calls each of us by our true names into our true identity: Beloved, children of God.
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:21)
The Lessons Appointed for Use on April 9, the Feast of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theologian and Martyr, 1945: Proverbs 3:1-7, Psalm 119:89-96, Matthew 13:47-52
Gracious God, the Beyond in the midst of our life, you gave grace to your servant Dietrich Bonhoeffer to know and to teach the truth as it is in Jesus Christ, and to bear the cost of following him; Grant that we, strengthened by his teaching and example, may receive your word and embrace its call with an undivided heart; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
For the Gospel Grapevine (April 2011), parish newsletter of St Alban's Episcopal Church, Edmonds, Wash.