Heroes, Bonhoeffer, and a troubling past

Yesterday I introduced you to the Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe while I was sharing with you about my, albeit short, visit to Berlin.  I had told you that there was much I wanted to share with you regarding Berlin and that I would have to do so in small increments.  Whereas cities such as Rome, London and Paris are important to our western history as developing societies, as their pasts have helped shaped how many of us live our lives today, Berlin, on the other hand, is more important to our recent history as developing societies, demonstrating 20th century divisions that give way to successful unifications.


I’ve also told you that I would share with you about my adoption, the loss of my mom, the suicide of my brother—oh, did I forget to mention that—that is for another day entirely, and then there is the rescue story of Percy, my other precious little cat…. but all of that must wait.  I cannot speak another word, especially about Germany, without stopping briefly and sharing  with you a tad bit about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

This is not, however, the time for me to give you a full-fledged biography.  There are a myriad of books on the market that can do a much better job of that then I.   But I do feel obligated to share with you about my friend Dietrich.

I suppose everyone has a hero in his or her life.  Some heroes are real, some are not.  Some of our heroes, we know personally while others remain as strangers.  Some of our heroes are living, while some are long gone.  We all have our standards as to what constitutes a hero.  For me hitting a ball, running fast, making lots or money, being famous are not the pieces, which formulate my view of a hero.  Rather descriptors such as self-sacrificing, integrity, conscience, morality, conviction, truth, and yes, even brave—as in “I will walk into the fire of hell to save you or help you disregarding my own well being brave”—these are the words that come to mind when I think of what describes my hero.

I have several heroes—from the mighty to the meek, but there is one in particular who stands out– especially as I speak of Germany and as I trudge through Lent reading, as part of my daily devotionals, the wise counsel of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Let me tell you when I first “met” my hero….

Many years ago when I was a junior in college I had come home for the weekend.  I attended church at The Cathedral of St Philip in Atlanta—the large Episcopal Church in town.  My godfather was the Dean of the Cathedral (there is a story one day about my Godpoppa ).  The sermon that particular Sunday was about Grace.  Grace being the mercy shown to us by God (and in some cases other human beings), even though it is not deserved…. The Dean began talking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  All I knew about Mr. Bonhoeffer was the fact that he was a German Theologian and at 21, to me, that equated to someone heavy and boring.  But as my godfather spoke about Mr. Bonhoeffer, explaining about Mr. Bonhoeffer’s idea of Cheap vs. Costly Grace, he became quite emotional.

I was suddenly jolted back to paying attention.  There, before a congregation of almost 2000, my strikingly eloquent Godpoppa could barley finish his sentence.  What was this?!  What was he talking about?  Who exactly and what exactly had evoked this sudden and rare moment of intense emotion.  This is an Episcopal Cathedral remember?  The epitome of control and precision, not emotionalism!

Unfortunately at that time in my young unlived life, I was simply unable to comprehend what my Godpoppa, was painfully well aware of.  It was the realization of what the very words he was speaking actually meant—that of Cheap Grace vs. Costly Grace….. with the very real knowledge of that oh so costly Grace which caused the hurt and even palpable pain in his voice that Sunday. It was that very Grace, which cost a great deal for his very life, and for my life and for the lives of everyone listening that Sunday.  It’s just that I didn’t/ couldn’t quite grasp that concept quite yet.

I could go into an in depth discussion about this Cheap grace and Costly Grace but there is already a book dedicated to the subject.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the book in 1937.  Now let us remember that my intent here is not to review a book or examine a Sunday sermon from days gone by, it is however to introduce you to one of my heroes.

His story is long, intertwined with treachery and was silenced prematurely–or so thought the Powers of the time.  Although his life was cut quite short, as he was only 39 on the day of his execution, his thoughts, writings, sermons and life lessons are as strong and relevant today as they were 68 years ago.

He was the youngest of 6 children—that is, he and his twin sister were the youngest two of six.  He was a devout Lutheran minister, teacher of Theology, and outspoken critic of the times.  It was the conviction of his outspokenness that cost him his life.  He was a prisoner of the Nazis for two years. Why?  Because he would not be quiet.  He believed in pacifism and yet agreed that a plot to kill Hitler was necessary.  While in prison, Bonhoeffer continued his writings ( please see Letters form Prison), preaching against oppression and witnessing for that Costly Grace even as family members and friends were being taken and killed.

Bonhoeffer proved to be such an irritant to the Third Reich with his outspokenness—outspokenness against the war, outspokenness against the Lutheran Church for its capitulating by becoming the official church of the Nazi Regime, outspokenness against the Führer and outspokenness for the killing of hundreds of thousands of Jews.  It was because of all this “outspokenness” that he invoked the full wrath of Hitler.

Dietrich’s outspokenness was not loud and brash. There was no screaming, no mass rallies, no marching.   His was rather a steady consistent path exemplifying Costly Grace.  And it was by that constant steadfast extolling of Grace that frightened the Evil of the day.

By April 1945 the war for Germany was in its final weeks.  It was obvious to all that Germany was all but beaten.  21 days separated their deaths.  Hitler ordered Bonhoeffer’s execution to be immediate even though he knew his world was quickly crashing down on top of him.  On April 9, 1945 Dietrich Bonhoeffer walked silently to the gallows never wavering in his conviction.  On April 30th Adolf Hitler, cowering in an underground bunker, put a pistol to his own head.  One brave, one a coward.

“If we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ’s large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and by showing a real sympathy that springs not form fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer.  Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior.  The Christian is called to sympathy and action, not in the first place by his own sufferings, but by the sufferings of his brethren for whose sake Christ suffered.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Heroes do not capitulate.  They are not loud and brash. They speak for those who have no voice. They go silently to their deaths never wavering. They run to the fire as others run away. They do not cower in fear. Their life and their death is a witness for justice, a witness to their faith, a witness to their love

The Christian singer and songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman has a song that is the epitome of this conviction as it is based in the verse taken from John 15:12-13 …“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his brethren.”

 Man of courage with your message of peace

What is that look in your eyes?

Why have you come to this faraway place?

What is this story you would lay down your life to tell?

What kind of love can this be?

There is no greater love than this

There is no greater gift that can ever be given

To be willing to die so another might live

There is no greater love than this

Broken hearted from all you have lost

How can you sing through your tears?

What is this music that can bear such a cost?

What is this fire that grows stronger against the wind?

What kind of flame can this be?

This is the love that God showed the world

When He gave us His Son

So we could know His love forever

Beyond the gates of splendor.

My hero Dietrich Bonhoeffer took this command and lived it for not himself but for those who were being persecuted.  He took the unpopular and dangerous stand to disregard self for the sake of others.  A young Lutheran minister who said that the War, the Regime, the murdering of countless Jews was wrong and it must stop…unto his own death.  Heroes are brave.

It wan’t until I had lived a bit more that I came to understand personally about this Costly Grace.  If it was not for Costly Grace, I could not and would not be writing this post.  My hope for you this Lenten season is that you may come to know and experience the costly yet redeeming Grace that is for each of us to claim as our own.

One comment on “Heroes, Bonhoeffer, and a troubling past

  1. Val says:

    Have you read the Metaxas book? As much as I love The Cost of Discipleship, I think I love Life Together just that much more. He was as amazing as he was complicated.

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