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The Relevance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Historically speaking, the Christian faith is a bloody religion. Consider the Originator of the Christian faith, Christ Himself. He experienced a public, violent and horrific death during crucifixion, not to mention the preliminaries of a physical beating, scourging, wearing a crown of thorns, the nails driven in his feet and wrists, piercing by a Roman lance, and the agonizing hours on the cross.

Why was he killed? Salvation for all humanity aside, a straightforward reason for His death is that his words, work, and way of life were antithetical to the prevailing culture, and the Roman government found it convenient to execute Him. The historical reality in this salvific drama is that His followers both those who were looking for His coming and those following after have, from time to time, found that their words, work, and way of life placed them on a collision course with hostile forces.


Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of these. He was born on February 4, 1906, the sixth of eight children. Bonhoeffer’s parents, Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer, were affluent and descended from aristocratic family lines represented by accomplished doctors, lawyers, ministers, and scientists. Bonhoeffer’s father, Karl, was one of the leading psychiatrists in the world during the 1930s. While the family attended the Protestant church very infrequently, Bonhoeffer’s mother, Paula, gave all the children religious instruction in the home.


As a teenager, Bonhoeffer chose vocational church ministry and later studied theology at the University of Tubingen and the Berlin University. A brilliant student, he completed his doctoral dissertation in 18 months, graduating in 1927 at the age of 21. After a brief time as an associate pastor of a German congregation in Spain, and a short time in America studying at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin and joined the theology faculty at the Berlin University.


While Bonhoeffer was preparing for ministry, Adolf Hitler was maneuvering himself to become the leader of Germany. On January 30, 1933, while Bonhoeffer was teaching theology at the Berlin University, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Within 90 days of taking office, Hitler successfully dismantled the Weimar Constitution, enacted legislation abolishing all personal rights, and shifted legislative power from the German parliament to his cabinet. Mass arrests, incarcerations, and persecution of the Jews followed.


Hitler demanded that every facet of German society embrace National Socialism. German institutions succumbed one by one: business, military, education, then—the German Protestant Church. Hitler desired a German Protestant Church where only those with proven Aryan pedigree could be members and where National Socialism was propagated to keep the church racially pure.


In both words and actions, Bonhoeffer and a host of other German believers stood against Hitler’s efforts. Their words, works, and way of life were antithetical to Nazism. As a result, many were jailed, forced to relocate, or murdered in the death camps. Bonhoeffer was hanged on April 9, 1945.


Bonhoeffer initially lived in a Germany where the adult population voted, participated in the political process, and enjoyed a constitution guaranteeing personal rights. It all disappeared 90 days after Hitler took office. A constitutional republic, democracy, and individual rights are not guaranteed and can disappear in a flash.


In reviewing the U.S. national news over the last decade, one can find evidence of Christian believers who, by their words, works, and way of life, are proving antithetical to the prevailing culture tides. Why? Because they will not embrace the government approved and culturally acceptable practices that the Bible calls sin. At present, these battles are being fought by a handful of believers. Suffice it to say that the friendly space accorded to the Evangelical Church in America is getting smaller and smaller.


My book, Pastors Against Hitler, is a brief overview of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life so that Christians in the 21st Century might understand and perhaps follow his example.


Michael S. Haggard, PhD is Director of Mentored Online Virtual Education and Assistant Professor of Church History at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, TN.


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