Bon­ho­ef­fer: Pas­tor, Mar­tyr, Prophet, Spy

Eric Metaxas
  • Review
By – September 1, 2011
Eric Metaxas has writ­ten a fas­ci­nat­ing biog­ra­phy of Diet­rich Bon­ho­ef­fer, a Luther­an the­olo­gian, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly depict­ing the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich dur­ing the years 1922 – 1945. The two men led lives that were dra­mat­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent but they shared one trait — to do away with those who opposed their resprec­tive phi­los­o­phy. Hitler, of course, mur­dered any­one who wasn’t loy­al to the philo­soph­i­cal idea that Hitler was an uber­men­sch. And Bon­ho­ef­fer, who was a man of God, was part of a plot to assas­si­nate the man whose exis­tence was anath­e­ma to any tru­ly eth­i­cal human being. Bonhoeffer’s phi­los­o­phy was based on over­com­ing evil and the direc­tive do good to all men.” It was not a pas­sive phi­los­o­phy.

When a con­flict among church lead­ers arose con­cern­ing whether or not to make peace with the Nazis by adopt­ing the Aryan Para­graph in the new Ger­man Chris­t­ian reli­gious doc­trine which declared that even bap­tized Jews had to have their own church­es and could not expect to be part of the Ger­man church, Bon­ho­ef­fer respond­ed by writ­ing an essay, The Church and the Jew­ish Ques­tion,” in which he stat­ed that where Jew and Ger­man stand togeth­er under the Word of God, here is the proof whether a church is still the church or not.” He firm­ly believed that to help Jews or any vic­tim­ized peo­ple was the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the Chris­t­ian church. This was a rad­i­cal idea even in 1933 but one which Bon­ho­ef­fer pro­claimed dur­ing all of his brief life. He was 39 when Hitler had him exe­cut­ed on April 9, 1945.

To speak for those who had that right tak­en from them was part of Bonhoeffer’s rai­son d’etre. Per­haps this stemmed from the pat­tern laid down in his child­hood. He had grown up in a remark­able house­hold where intel­lect and ethics were of equal impor­tance. His twin sis­ter, Sabine, wrote that her father took it for grant­ed that we would try to do what was right” but was kind and fair in his judg­ments when they did not live up to that expec­ta­tion. How­ev­er, he did insist that his chil­dren speak only when they had some­thing to say…and did not tolerate…self-pity or self­ish­ness or boast­ful pride.” Bon­ho­ef­fer learned these lessons well. Self­less­ness was his goal. And he did not exhib­it any self-pity in the years he was impris­oned, accord­ing to all who came into con­tact with him. He spent much of his time in con­cen­tra­tion camps coun­sel­ing oth­ers, when it was allowed. And he went to the gal­lows with his courage and dig­ni­ty intact, nev­er think­ing he was a martyr.
Eleanor Ehrenkranz received her Ph.D. from NYU and has taught at Stern Col­lege, NYU, Mer­cy Col­lege, and at Pace Uni­ver­si­ty. She has lec­tured wide­ly on Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture and recent­ly pub­lished anthol­o­gy of Jew­ish poet­ry, Explain­ing Life: The Wis­dom of Mod­ern Jew­ish Poet­ry, 1960 – 2010.

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