Bonhoeffer was a brilliant student, and swiftly drew much acclaim as a budding young scholar; but he underwent an amazing personal transformation: after earning advanced degrees in theology, after ordination, and even after writing books we still admire, he said he “finally became a Christian”! “For the first time I discovered the Bible… I had seen a great deal of the church – but I had not yet become a Christian. I had been turning the doctrine of Jesus Christ into something of personal advantage for myself… I pray that will never happen again. Also I had never prayed, or prayed only very little. For all my loneliness, I was quite pleased with myself. Then the Bible, and in particular the Sermon on the Mount, freed me from that. Since then everything has changed. I have felt this plainly, and so have other people about me.”
From a family of means, Bonhoeffer travelled widely, lived in Barcelona, London and New York for spells. A serious young man, his call was to urge the Church to get serious about its faith – which is simply a recognition of the truth about who Jesus was, and is: “One cannot give Christ only a small compartment of life, but everything – or nothing. I can live with or without Jesus if he is just a religious genius, ethicist, or a gentleman.” Religion in many ways is the “enemy” of Christianity because it can unwittingly present the false notion that somehow a bit of moral goodness is sufficient.
He was especially appalled by Christianity in the United States. “In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.” What did he hear in the great pulpits of America? “An ethical and social idealism borne by a faith in progress that – who knows how? – claims the right to call itself ‘Christian.’” Religion in America struck him as self-indulgent, self-satisfied, vapid, mere idolatry – and his words, sadly, portray much of what we still see in 2010. He was, however, impressed by the vital African American congregations he visited, like the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.
Clearly the gathering clouds of history demanded a seriousness. Hitler had seized dictatorial powers in Germany, and the pulpits that questioned the government were violently silenced. Bonhoeffer had every good opportunity to escape safely, as he was a scholar on the rise, with job offers in London and New York. But his calling was to return to Germany, to try to do something, anything… He spoke out boldly, denouncing Hitler’s arrogance, his unlawfulness, his crass manipulation of religion in his political maneuverings, and most of all his hatred of the Jews. For the first time in history, a handful of Christians (although the majority failed!) spoke up on behalf of Judaism: “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.”
As the Church in Germany was being corrupted or silenced, Bonhoeffer started an underground seminary at Finkenwalde, donating his own library, leading students not only in studies but also daily prayer and hymn singing. He wanted there, and everywhere, to create a fellowship, a community – nothing idealized, but with real people. We love our fellows in the Church no matter who they are; we never speak of someone who isn’t present; we enter into community not as demanding consumers, but as thankful followers of Christ; we are diligent about forgiveness, as we put “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” into action. Life Together is a readable, inspiring book about how Christians live together as the Body.
Bonhoeffer popularized the idea of “religionless” Christianity. He wasn’t against the Church at all; but he was zealous in his campaign against a thin, superficial religion that reduces “religion” to a mere garment thrown occasionally around an otherwise untouched life. He saw the whole world as God’s good creation; there is no sacred/secular distinction. Only a worldly, robust Christianity that can embrace all of life will do, given our need for God, and who God really is.
Probably, Bonhoeffer’s most famous message is voiced in The Cost of Discipleship, written in 1937 (just before being a Christian in Germany might get you imprisoned), with its haunting first sentence: “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church.” Grace was costly to Christ and thus is costly to us, but we prefer cheap grace, “sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Cheap grace is the forgiveness without repentance, baptism without discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without confession. Cheap grace is grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”
Bonhoeffer soon discovered a new wrinkle in this cost: he played a small part in the plot to assassinate Hitler – and for this he was arrested, imprisoned for eighteen months in a Gestapo cell, and finally executed just four days before the Allies liberated the Flossenbürg prison camp. In prison, his witness to Christ was profound. One fellow inmate wrote, “He was always good-tempered, always of the same kindliness towards everybody, so that to my surprise, within a short time, he had won over even the guards. He was always hopeful; he always cheered me up and comforted me, he never tired of repeating that the only fight which is lost is that which we give up. Many little notes he slipped into my hands on which he had written biblical words of comfort and hope. Bonhoeffer was very happy during the whole the time I knew him, and did a great deal to keep some of the weaker brethren from depression and anxiety.”
Bonhoeffer kept a prison diary (Letters & Papers From Prison) that has become a best-seller – and we may cherish his reflections. He learned a deeper sense of communion with the natural world, being enclosed behind bars! He learned to appreciate people, noting how “separation first makes it clear that often we take too little trouble to get together in normal times.” Like never before, he grasped our common need for quiet and solitude: “You need to get right down to fundamentals, to come to terms with life, and for that you need plenty of time to yourself.”
Bonhoeffer can teach us about suffering, solitude, and freedom: “We have to learn that personal suffering is a more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune.” “We can have abundant life, even though many wishes remain unfulfilled.” “Nothing that we despise in the other person is entirely absent from ourselves… We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”
The prison camp’s doctor overheard his last words (“This is the end, but for me the beginning of life”), and later testified: “I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer… In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
Bonhoeffer had written eloquently on prayer: “We confuse wishes…with prayer. Prayer does not mean simply to pour out one’s heart. It means rather to find the way to God and to speak with him, whether the heart is full or empty.” Or again, “If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart. Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray. The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.” As such, the Psalms were a treasure to him; he saw that “they cast every difficulty and agony upon God: ‘We can no longer bear it, take it from us and bear it yourself, you alone can handle suffering.’”
Bonhoeffer’s life is powerful evidence about the way we misunderstand the will of God! When the Stauffenberg bomb plot failed, Hitler declared “It was Providence that spared me… This proves that I’m on the right track. I feel that this is the confirmation of all my work. Providence protects me and we no longer have to fear our enemies.” Indeed, Bonhoeffer understood the will of God as something we do, with diligence and courage. Some people prefer simply being good – but we are called by God not to be about our own goodness, but the will of God; instead of keeping our hands clean, we may be called to get our hands dirty in the service of God.”
***Recommended new biography! by Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy