Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A “Man for Others”

I recently read an excellent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis for participating in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. The biography is called Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxis. (Numbers in parentheses throughout this article are page references to this work.) I’ve always connected with Bonhoeffer, which on the face of it may sound strange, since he was a conservative evangelical Lutheran who ended up supporting the killing of another human being—hardly a stance that brings to mind A Course in Miracles. Yet even so, for reasons I hope will become clear below, Bonhoeffer strikes me as a uncommonly good human being with qualities I admire and wish to emulate in my own way.

Let me begin with a way-too-short summary of his life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a young pastor and theologian active in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich. He was an ardent opponent of the Nazis from the beginning of their rule in 1933, and was especially concerned about the growing persecution of Jews and other “undesirables.” Of particular concern to him as a pastor was the German (Lutheran) church’s response to Hitler and the ideology of National Socialism. Most German church leaders capitulated to the Nazis to one degree or another, from simply not speaking out against the regime to forming an official Reichskirche (Reich Church) that promoted a thoroughly “Nazified” theology.

But Bonhoeffer and a few brave others strongly denounced Hitler’s regime as entirely incompatible with the Christian gospel. In his mind, the church had a duty to “Speak out for those who cannot speak” (247). So, he and his associates broke away from the official German church and formed the Confessing Church, which rejected Nazism and (in their view) affirmed the true Christian “confession,” the true gospel of Jesus Christ. He founded a seminary devoted to training the next generation of young pastors and theologians to restore the true gospel when the nightmare of the Third Reich had passed, a time many hoped would be soon.

However, things continued to get worse; war was imminent. So Bonhoeffer, who at that time (1939) was in America and on the brink of accepting a comfortable position there, decided after much prayer and reflection that he had to return to Germany to join with his brethren in the struggle for the soul of his country. The situation was so grave that eventually, he felt that God was calling him to join a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler to save the lives that Hitler was destroying. He did so, working during the war as an agent for one of the German military intelligence agencies as a cover for his participation in the conspiracy.

Several attempts were made on Hitler’s life using concealed bombs, but he always managed to escape without the bombs ever being detonated. The conspirators lamented their bad fortune, but the good news was that precisely because the bombs were not detonated in those attempts, the conspiracy remained undiscovered and could try again. But finally, in the famous Operation Valkyrie carried out on July 20, 1944, the concealed bomb did go off—but without harming Hitler. Now that the plot had been dramatically revealed, the conspirators were rounded up, and most of them were executed. Bonhoeffer was executed on April 9, 1945, only weeks before the Allies arrived and Hitler killed himself.

As I said, in spite of our theological differences—and in spite of the fact that the Course would find an assassination attempt problematic, to say the least—I find Bonhoeffer admirable and worthy of emulation. There is an intangible “something” about him that I feel a real connection to. In terms of his specific personal qualities, three in particular stand out for me. One is the deep love that he extended to seemingly everyone he encountered. He seems to have been remarkably free of malice; he seems to have possessed in great measure what the Dalai Lama has called the “good heart.” Those who shared recollections of him emphasized again and again how incredibly loving, kind, and generous he was.

As a little snapshot, here is an account of a former student of his when he was teaching a confirmation class for rough, working-class boys in North Berlin. Other pastors had given up on these troublemakers, but Bonhoeffer was determined to work with them, and in the end he connected with them in a way that no previous pastor ever had. Getting off to a good start was a key to this. So, very early in his work with these boys, when one boy took out a sandwich during class, Pastor Bonhoeffer said nothing at first. Then he looked at him, calmly and kindly—but long and intensely, without saying a word. In embarrassment, the boy put his sandwich away. The attempt to annoy our pastor had come to nothing through his composure and kindness—and perhaps through his understanding of boyish tomfoolery. (131)

Bonhoeffer described Jesus as “the man for others,” and that seems to be the standard by which he himself tried to live. He was a person who tried to “be truly helpful” (T-2.V.A.18:2), to use that famous phrase from the Course, and people’s recollections of him veritably shine with the positive impact he had on them.

Another quality of Bonhoeffer’s that I admire is his towering intellect. The man knew how to think. His good heart and brilliant mind combined to produce someone whose mental stance as an academic and theologian appears to have been unusually free of ego. He could listen to different points of view open-mindedly and respond to them with kindness and clarity. He carefully weighed all sides of an issue and could change his mind if opposing arguments convinced him. Even though as a conservative theologian he often disagreed with the liberals who were predominant in the academy, he retained their respect and they his.

And once he was finally convinced of a position, he stood up for it with “gentle firmness and quiet certainty” (W-pI.73.10:1), to use another Course phrase. This was especially evident in his stance toward the Nazis. He spoke and wrote with eloquent conviction about the clear and unambiguous choice his church and his nation faced. In a time when Nazi churchmen were writing “Germanicized” revisions of the Sermon on the Mount in which the meek no longer inherit the earth, and were hailing Jesus (a Palestinian Jew, of course) as “a burst of Nordic light in the midst of a world tormented by symptoms of degeneracy” (218-219), such conviction was desperately needed. While many were fearfully trying to find a convenient compromise between Nazi ideology and the Christian message, Bonhoeffer reminded them that you cannot serve two masters:

It must be made quite clear—terrifying though it is—that we are immediately faced with the decision: National Socialist or Christian. (233)

The question is really: Christianity or Germanism? And the sooner the conflict is revealed in the clear light of day, the better. (183)

Yet as unequivocal as his position was, he was also intelligent enough to keep quiet when declaring it would compromise the very goal that his position demanded. Later on, after he had joined the conspiracy and therefore had to mute his anti-Nazi views in order not to call attention to himself, he and his colleague Eberhard Bethge were in a café when the French surrender to Germany was announced. The crowd went wild with patriotic fervor, and to Bethge’s shock, Bonhoeffer himself was doing the “Heil Hitler” salute right along with them. Bonhoeffer then whispered to Bethge, “Are you crazy? Raise your arm! We’ll have to run risks for many different things, but this silly salute is not one of them!” (361). In other words: Don’t be so outwardly pure that you compromise the purpose that your inward purity has called you to fulfill. Use your head!

The final quality of Bonhoeffer’s that I want to highlight here is just that commitment to purpose, to mission—his absolute commitment to following God’s Will in everything he did. He reflected and prayed constantly on the question of what God’s purpose for him was, in matters large and small. This was something he stressed to the young pastors he trained at his seminary. In fact, he trained them to follow a monastic-style spiritual practice that included morning and evening services, meditation on scripture passages, and prayer. All of this was for the purpose of grounding his pupils in a life committed to following the way God laid out. In his words:

The restoration of the church must surely depend on a new kind of monasticism, which has nothing in common with the old but a but of life of uncompromising discipleship, following Christ according to the Sermon on the Mount. (245)

He himself felt that his work was a real calling from God. And it seems to me that from early on, he had a sense that he was destined to die for the sake of this calling. I’m very struck by what he wrote in 1936—after Hitler came to power, but long before Bonhoeffer’s death for his opposition became a serious possibility:

My calling is quite clear to me. What God will make of it I do not know…I must follow the path. Perhaps it will not be such a long one (Phil. 1:23 [a verse in which Paul declares his desire “to depart and be with Christ”]). But it is a fine thing to have realized my calling…I believe its nobility will become plain to us only in coming times and events. If only we can hold out. (123)

Bonhoeffer’s “final standard” was to be “the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God” (431). It seems that this was the man he truly strived to be.

This brings us to the final years of his life. As I mentioned, in 1939, haunted by the call of God to join his brethren in Germany as the war was about to commence, he turned down a comfortable position in America to fulfill what he felt was his God-given destiny. This was a decision that ultimately cost him his life, but one he felt that he simply had to make for the sake of his life’s mission.

And it seems to me that the qualities he developed throughout his life—especially his love—came to full flower after he was arrested, imprisoned, and executed. We can see the impact he had in the accounts of those who saw him in those final days. Hugh Falconer, one of his prison mates, said that “[Bonhoeffer] was very happy during the whole time I knew him, and did a great deal to keep some of the weaker brethren from depression and anxiety” (516). Another of his prison mates, Payne Best, wrote a memoir about his prison experience, and said of Bonhoeffer that His soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison…[Bonhoeffer] had always been afraid that he would not be strong enough to stand such a test but now he knew there was nothing in life of which one need ever be afraid. (503)

In that same memoir, Best said that Bonhoeffer “was a good and saintly man” (518). Years later, he shared in a letter to Bonhoeffer’s family that “In fact my feeling was far stronger than these words imply. He was, without exception, the finest and most lovable man have I ever met” (528).

Bonhoeffer began the last day of his life not knowing that it was the last day of his life. Unbeknownst to him, Nazi officials were coming to give him and his co-conspirators a mock trial followed by their execution. But the officials were (rather miraculously) delayed long enough for Bonhoeffer to give what turned out to be his final Sunday service for his fellow prisoners. Best said that this service “spoke to us in a manner that reached the hearts of all, finding just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment and the thoughts and resolutions which it had brought” (528). Eventually, the officials did show up, and they told Bonhoeffer to come with them. Everyone knew what that meant. Best said that as Bonhoeffer left, he said to him, “This is the end. For me the beginning of life.”

Finally, Bonhoeffer prepared for his impending death. The only account we have is from the prison camp’s doctor, H. Fischer-Hüllstrung, who said:

I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer [in a room in one of the huts], before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. 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.

As a Course student, why am I so inspired by a conservative Lutheran who fervently believed that the one and only way to salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross? Part of it is that in spite of Bonhoeffer’s obvious differences with the Course, I see similarities as well. His practice of seeking God’s guidance echoes the Course’s emphasis on seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance. His commitment to what he regarded as a God-given mission for his life is reminiscent of what the Course calls our special function. His work as a teacher passing on his path to his pupils in the seminary he founded brings to mind the “plan of the teachers” described by the Manual. And it certainly seems that with at least some of these pupils (Bethge in particular), he had what the Course would call holy relationships.

In addition to these specific similarities, I see a similarity on a kind of macro-level. We at the Circle like to speak broadly of the Course as a path of study, practice, and extension to others, and I see all three in Bonhoeffer’s following of his own path. He was devoted to rigorous study of his scripture, with an emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount, which actually does parallel the Course in many ways. He developed a practice of prayer and meditation that sounds similar to Course practice—he even spent each day reflecting on a different scriptural passage, which sounds a lot like the Course’s practice of reflecting on the idea for the day. And as a teacher and exemplar, he extended miracles of love and helpfulness to everyone he encountered, striving to be a “man for others” as Jesus was.

And as I hope has become clear in what I’ve written here, it is this last aspect of Bonhoeffer’s life—his extension to others—that inspires me the most. I’m sure he must have had his faults, but the simple fact of the matter is that I am deeply moved by a man who, whatever those faults, lived a life of uncommon goodness. This goodness is so apparent in the accounts of people whose lives he touched, as we can see in those I’ve quoted above. This was a man who devoted his entire life to serving others in whatever way God guided him, no matter what the cost—even unto death. Such a man is a rare and priceless gift to the world.

Bonhoeffer’s uncommon goodness is the frame through which I see his decision to participate in the plot to assassinate Hitler. Was it the right thing to do? I don’t know. On the one hand, it’s impossible for me to imagine the Course saying “Kill that guy.” On the other hand, it’s possible that the Holy Spirit had some reason for Bonhoeffer to participate in the conspiracy, even if He didn’t want Hitler to actually be killed. There’s no way to know all the intricacies of God’s plan. But it seems clear to me that Bonhoeffer’s decision in this unimaginably extreme situation was rooted in the same things that guided his entire life: his devotion to others and his commitment to following God’s Will for his life. He prayed long and hard about his decision to take part in the conspiracy, and he felt it was what he was being called to do. That is not a guarantee that his decision was correct, of course. But given his basic goodness and the extremity of the situation, I’m certainly willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

My admiration for Bonhoeffer is ultimately rooted in my conviction that in the end, goodness like his will win the day. If I ever find myself in a situation anywhere near as extreme as his, I can only hope and pray that I can respond to it with anything near to his love and courage. He was a beautiful exemplar of his path, and he inspires me to be a beautiful exemplar of mine. Whatever our different paths, I believe that to the degree all of us can approach life the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer did, the world will be blessed. And in the end, the goodness at the heart of reality—the goodness of God, which blossoms when we all become “men and women for others”—will indeed win the day.

Source of material commented on: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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