Below is the first in a series of articles introducing inspirational Christians, as discovered by South Wonston House Group. The idea is to learn a bit more about what is behind well known names and to encourage people to find out more for themselves. We start with Deitrich Bonhoeffer - next time it will be St Francis of Assissi.
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian and was also an accomplished musician and writer. Born on 4 February 1906 in Breslau into a large fairly wealthy family, he studied Theology and went on to complete his Doctorate at Berlin University in 1927. In 1930 he went to America, where he attended a black church, teaching Sunday School and learning to love Afro-American Spirituals. He became interested in racial injustice and poverty. In his mid-twenties he experienced a personal conversion to faith and resolved to carry out the teaching of Christ as he found it revealed in the Gospels. He was ordained in 1931.
In 1933, two days after Hitler was installed as Chancellor, Bonhoeffer delivered a national radio address in which he attacked Hitler and warned against slipping into an idolatrous cult of the Führer. He resisted Hitler’s influence over the church in Germany and then, when it became too strong, started the independent Confessing Church. He spent a year in America, at New York's Union Theological Seminary, before returning to the post of lecturer at the University of Berlin. In August 1936, Bonhoeffer's authorization to teach at the University of Berlin was revoked after he was denounced as a "pacifist and enemy of the state".
He accepted an appointment as a pastor of two German-speaking Protestant churches in London and was given a chance to study non-violent resistance under Gandhi, but decided to return to Germany in order to establish an underground seminary for training pastors. In September 1937, the Gestapo closed the seminary and by November had arrested many pastors and former students.
In 1938 he joined the German secret service, together with his bother-in-law, to serve as a double agent. While traveling to church conferences in Europe, instead of studying the places he visited, he helped Jews escape Nazi oppression.
Bonhoeffer went to the United States in June 1939 at the invitation of Union Theological Seminary in New York but he regretted his decision almost immediately and, despite strong pressure to stay in the United States, he wrote "I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany..... Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security." He returned to Germany.
During the war he served as a courier for the German resistance movement, conveying its intentions to the Western Allies in hope of gaining their support and, through his ecumenical contacts abroad, to secure possible peace terms with the Allies for a post-Hitler government. In May 1942, he met Anglican Bishop George Bell of Chichester and sent feelers out to the British foreign minister Anthony Eden but these failed. He continued to be involved in operations to help German Jews escape to Switzerland.
Eventually his resistance efforts and his role in rescuing Jews were discovered and in April 1943 he was arrested together with his sister and brother-in-law. He spent two years in prison, corresponding with family and friends, pastoring fellow prisoners, and reflecting on the meaning of "Jesus Christ for today." On April 9, 1945, just two weeks before soldiers from the United States liberated the camp, he was hanged. His siblings were also involved in anti-Nazi activities – his twin sister and his brother-in-law were executed; his brother Klaus was executed for his part in the plot to assassinate Hitler and his two older sisters’ husbands suffered the same fate.
Bonheoffer’s vision centred around international peace with countries coming together through the church, but it is for his work as a spiritual writer, musician and author that he is remembered. The prison correspondence was edited and published as ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’, and the experiences of the underground seminary were used to write “Life Together”. His writings on Christianity's role in the secular world have become widely influential and an inspiration for the Civil Rights Movement in the United States; the anti-communist democratic movement in Eastern Europe; and the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. His book ‘The Cost of Discipleship’, a study on the Sermon on the Mount, has become a devotional classic and his short life showed great bravery and courage, leaving a legacy of inspiration for battles against injustice wherever it is found.
“Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behaviour. Christians are called to compassion and to action.”