A review of Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (part 1)
In the hit TV series 24, Jack Bauer is a counter-terrorist agent seeking out threats to national security and doing whatever is necessary for the greater good of saving the American people. In his high-octane adventures, Jack is no stranger to taking the law in his own hands and facing impossible life and death decisions. His no-nonsense attitude considers no risk too great if only he can save his country from its deadliest enemies. His is a utilitarian philosophy of life – making decisions based on what he considers the greater good; reasoning that it is better for him to kill one criminal than for thousands of innocent people to die.
It’s switch-off, escapist telly that has no real bearing on normal life, certainly not for the Christian who would never be found in such extremely dangerous or complex situations. Or would they? How would a Christian behave if they, by some strange circumstance, find themselves in such situations? What if they were in a situation where to act could mean sinning, but not to act would certainly mean compromising your faith? Would it ever be right for a Christian to kill a tyrant to save thousands, or millions, of people’s lives? What if that tyrant was Hitler?
What would you do, when doing nothing was the most unacceptable alternative?
This was the very real dilemma for Dietrich Bonhoeffer and those around him during World War II. Bonhoeffer was a German Pastor who during the war was the key figure in leaking information about the Nazi atrocities to the West, and was part of the inner circle of conspirators seeking to assassinate Hitler. He was one of the people prepared to stand up to the Gestapo and was eventually killed for his part in the conspiracy to kill Hitler.
However, before we get to his dilemma, a bit about his background. Bonheoffer had a warm and loving upbringing, full of music, the outdoor life and strong relationships. His family were among the most cultured and intelligent in Germany at that time; his father was an eminent scientist and his brother a famous lawyer. Dietrich was always an earnest young man, sincere, intense and thoughtful. His interest in Christianity was always very personal and real, and finally led to him studying theology and becoming a minister.
As a leader of the church in Germany, Bonhoeffer was a prominent and outspoken opponent of the emerging Nazi government. Until he was strong enough to crush it, Hitler first attempted to woo the established church and deceived many of its leader through flattery. Bonhoeffer was not one of these, he was far too perceptive to be taken in.
Bonhoeffer was ruthless in his search for truth, “he accorded theological ideas the same respect that his father accorded scientific ideas…questions about the Bible, and ethics and theology must be treated with the same rigorousness, and all cant “phraseology” must be identified, exposed as such and cut away and discarded. One wished to arrive at answers that could stand up to every scrutiny because one would have to live out those conclusions” (page 127).
But his clarity of thinking and confrontational views often brought him into conflict with the other more-moderate leaders and his piercing prophetic expressions led to him often being misunderstood. Ironically, it was with leaders outside his native country that he found most like-mindedness. His trips to the UK and USA established strong connections with other church leaders and brought him to the attention of the world scene.
Back in Germany the war was about to start and Bonhoeffer was torn between returning to his homeland, where almost certain death awaited him, and staying in America where his increasing fame meant a secure lecturing position and a prosperous future. Ever the anti-celebrity, Bonhoeffer chose to go home and sailed back to Germany, not knowing what awaited him. He would say later on that “he had been “grasped” by God; that God was leading him, and sometimes where he would prefer not to go” (page 70).
However, once back on home soil Bonhoeffer faced a moral dilemma of either joining an army in a war he morally disagreed with, or to avoid conscription, become a conscientious objector and face the firing squad. In the midst of his dilemma, and seeking to retain a useful role within the church, he took a job as an informer with the German secret police reporting on church activities. In a typical Bonhoeffer move, he actually worked as a double agent, secretly helping the church while pretending to inform on them. Only those close to him knew his true motives and allegiance and his duplicitous role caused many in the church to become confused. But these were confusing times, when loyalties to the state, the church and the family that had been intertwined for centuries in German culture were being pulled apart.
The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands as a symbol of truth against an avalanche of lies. It is the story of the power of right to overcome wrong. In his fight against evil he held nothing back – neither his own desire for happiness or his fear of a painful death. In the end he lost everything he had, his family, his fiancee, his promising career and finally his life. Any yet, as we look back from our vantage point we can see that in the final analysis he won. With some Christian leaders you learn from them mostly through their teaching, others teach you through their lives. For Bonhoeffer his life and devotion add greater depth to his teaching for it cost him so much.
Finally, a word from Bonhoeffer about what drove him: “It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God. I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weakness but in strength, and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness” (page 467). God in the centre, God in life. This is what Bonhoeffer was passionate to see lived out, and this is his legacy for us who follow after him. May we found strength to be willing to lose everything in order to win Him who is worth more than life itself.
Part 2 of my review can be found here