Living Well, Dying Well — or, Reflecting on Dietrich Bonhoeffer

A few weeks ago, I finished Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, 2010). The book is a six hundred-page behemoth that vividly illustrates Bonhoeffer’s world, especially his inner life. Bonhoeffer journaled and wrote many letters, which allows the modern reader to pierce the veil and see into the man. Although Metaxas’ portrait of him as an evangelical paradigm for piety is almost certainly only half-correct, he nonetheless does draw to the fore those elements of Bonhoeffer’s life that illuminate his utter devotion to God in the face of great evil.

The generation of continental academics that lived through the first half of the twentieth century, in the shadows of World Wars I and II, have a pronounced interest in the question of human meaning when death awaits all. Sartre, de Beauvoir, and friends especially highlight this radical shift in focus. Of course, I do not intend to say that Bonhoeffer was an existentialist—although I am curious to know where his intellectual trajectory was headed had he survived the war.  Nevertheless, I simply mean to say that Bonhoeffer prefigured those existential concerns when he reflected on the horrors of war and on what it means to die as a Christian. For example, in one of his letters from prison, he wrote:

In recent years we have become increasingly familiar with the thought of death. We surprise ourselves by the calmness with which we hear of the death of one of our contemporaries. We cannot hate it as we used to for we have discovered some good in it, and have almost come to terms with it. Fundamentally, we feel that we really belong to death already, and that every new day is a miracle. It would probably not be true to say that we welcome death … ; we are too inquisitive for that—or, to put it more seriously, we should like to see something more of the meaning of our life’s broken fragments.[1]

It would be innacurate to describe Bonhoeffer as a morose and macabre individual. By all accounts, no man in his Buchenwald prison block was more filled with joy. In fact, he treats death not as an unqualified evil but as “the last station on the road to freedom.”[2] To wit, in the early 1930s, Bonhoeffer preached to a London congregation, “Death is grace, the greatest gift of grace that God gives to people who believe in him. Death is mild, death is sweet and gentle; it beckons to us with heavenly power, if only we realize that it is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace.”[3]

But, some may protest, is this not a gnostic reconfiguration of the relationship between the present age and the Eschaton? Or, to put it more simply, does this denigrate the flesh for the sake of a superior spiritual reality? Bonhoeffer will not permit the careful reader to divide existence so neatly. Although death is an escape from the horrors of the world, one must not ignore their present responsibility. When writing to his fiancé from Tegel Prison, he spoke of faith not as that which “flees the world, but the faith that endures in the world and loves and remains true to the world in spite of all the hardships it brings us. … It must strengthen our resolve to do and accomplish something on earth. I fear that Christians who venture to stand on earth on only one leg will stand in heaven on only one leg too.”[4]

For Bonhoeffer, properly Christian witness to the world was counteracting injustice—embodied in the Third Reich’s assault on Jews qua Jews.[5] He laid heavy ethical claims on a German church that, for the most part, wanted no part of them. Christians have “an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.”[6] Moreover, Bonhoeffer would root this “unconditional obligation” in the compassionate ministry of Jesus, whom Christians mirror “by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and by a showing a real sympathy that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer.”[7] Because Jesus suffered and died for all men, without distinction, Christians are to suffer with and work on behalf of all who suffer, without distinction.

In 1930s and 40s Germany, this meant strict opposition to Hitler and to the German Christians, a politically risky move that endangered both Dietrich and his associates. Such a position required moral integrity. More than that, however, it required a posture of freedom and believing that God was for him. He struggled with the idea of being part of the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Yet, once he decided this course of action, he lived with the freedom of a man who believed that, whether he was right or wrong, God loved him and would uphold him—“not a cramped, compromised, circumspect life, but a life lived in a kind of wild, joyful, full-throated freedom,” as Metaxas puts it.[8]

As Bonhoeffer described the status of one who would oppose Hitler and everything he stood for, he wrote, “It depends on a God who demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture.”[9] That is to say, one must be so committed to the positive pursuit of wholehearted obedience to God rather than a wholesale fear of sin, that one loses all fear of sin because the warp and woof of one’s life becomes a meditation on pleasing God.

God requires “responsible action” in the world—not sanctimonious finger-wagging or averted eyes.[10] Bonhoeffer wrote, “It is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. … By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world—watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian.”[11] Metaxas portrays Bonhoeffer as one that modeled his life after these ideals, even to the point of martyrdom. After the Gestapo executed Bonhoeffer on April 9th, 1945, at Flossenberg, and as his funeral homily was broadcast over the radio, one of his compatriots noted that Bonhoeffer “was quite clear in his convictions, and for all that he was so young and unassuming, he saw the truth and spoke it out with absolute freedom and without fear.”[12]

For years, I have struggled to find a hero of the faith, as it were. But in Bonhoeffer, one finds an intellectual rigor and a commitment to Christian praxis that, as far as I have seen, has been matched by few in the West. This theologian of freedom treated the practicalities of Christian living with a sophistication and commitment to exactitude that is matched rarely elsewhere. He sacrificed his security and, eventually, his life because of his devotion to Christ and because of the sufferings of others. There is much to emulate in this man, who died at the age of thirty-nine.

[1]Metaxas, 447.

[2]Ibid, 531.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid, 456.

[5]See Fackenheim, Emil, God’s Presence in History:  Jewish Affirmations and Philosophical Reflections (New York: Harper & Row, 1970). Pointedly, “The Nazi murder of Jews was an ‘ideological’ project; it was annihilation for the sake of annihilation, murder for the sake of murder, evil for the sake of evil. … The Hitler regime had a ‘research’ institute on the ‘Jewish question,’ enlisting learned scholars in the task of thoroughly understanding Jews and Judaism in order to be able thoroughly to destroy both” (70, 71).

[6]Metaxas, 154.

[7]Ibid, 447.

[8]Ibid, 446.

[9]Ibid.

[10]Ibid, 470.

[11]Ibid, 484.

[12]Ibid, 537.

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