Thursday, 23 August 2012

A glimpse of Bonhoeffer

I cried earlier this week.  At some ungodly hour of the morning.  And then later again.

There is much going around me to cry about.  The horrible injustice that so many of our friends with HIV face.  The grinding poverty that nudges its way into our middle-class lives - only to be pushed away.  The gut-wrenching kick of finding out another friend's marriage is on the rocks.  In fact there is too much to cry about when you stop to think about it.

But my tears were from reading.

Reading about a young German pastor who lived out a life of joy in Jesus.  And who was shot by the Nazis in the fag-end of WWII just days before the advancing allied troops overran the Flossenbuerg concentration camp he was in.

As the gestapo came to take him away to the final death camp, he told a group of fellow prisoners: "This is the end, For me the beginning of life."

There go my eyes.  Misting over.

I had long known about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  But not really known him.

Thanks to Eric Metaxas' colossal biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy I have plunged deep into a world that I thought I knew at least to some extent from my excellent lessons in modern German history from my dear Herr Walter Meister.  This book has shown me just how little I know of the terrible whirlpool which was Germany's descent into Nazism and the utter madness of the war.

Bonhoeffer comes off as a modern saint - a radiant man whose intellect and deep love for his country and his fellowmen drove him time and time again to take the uncomfortable and dangerous positions of speaking up and acting out the Gospel of God.  But instead of being a haggard grey-beard, the book shows him to be what seems a virtual vortex of joy.  His love for others and his thrill of music and conversation shines through - as does seeming paradox of being a hard-minded theologian with a -sharp mind who seems to step ever deeper into an experiential understanding of his Lord Jesus.

This does not mean that Bonhoeffer is some kind of 'perfect man' straight out of a hagiography of the blessed so-and-so who never wanted to play when they were a child but preferred to spend their time in deep prayer at altar of their village church.  Hardly.

The book shows his depressions.  The disappointments that Bonhoeffer had. His failures and gradual alienation from many as the resistance to Hitler seemed to keep faltering again and again - while Hitler and the forces with him seemed to go from strength to strength.

So what is so compelling about this book.  For one the almost unbelievable fact that Bonhoeffer seems to have taken on the job of a spy - of a military intelligence officer in the Abwehr (the military intelligence wing of the German army).  The book paints this as partly an elaborate and daring cover-up of his own desire to end the Nazi regime - where he and others of the old aristocratic parts of the army worked towards a coup d'etat to remove Hitler and his cronies.  The tragedy being how rabidly successful Hitler seemed to be for much of his regime and much of the first part of WWII.  The other side of his joining the Abwehr was to save himself from being put into prison by the Gestapo for his defiance of the Nazis through the confessing church - and his running of illegal seminaries and work to try and help those few courageous pastors who were being put in prison or sent to the front.

I have always been a sucker for spy stories.  But here is one where the good guys lose.  The plot to kill Hitler failed by a whisker.  And in revenge most of the people of that group were rounded up, tortured and killed.

But the book brought me to tears because of more than this.  I think one of the reasons is the unwillingness to give into evil - though all the odds were stacked against him - and all who stood out against Hitler.

I of course have to wonder about my German grandfather - whose small size and work as a coal merchant in Leipzig meant that he was not conscripted and sent to fight against the Russians.  My mother tells me that he was a good man, who treated the prisoners of war who were conscripted to help out in the coal work with kindness, and who listened to BBC on the radio to try and find out what was happening.  But what choices did Willie Fischer make when it came down to it?  When the Aryanisation of the country racheted up step by step.  Did he like Bonhoeffer speak up for the Jews?  Or did my grandfather, like the vast majority of his country men stifle his conscience and look away?

What brought tears to my eyes was not even Bonhoeffer's decision to come back to Germany after having just 'escaped' the New York and a comfortable life ahead of him.  Though this act of obedience and submission to God's will took my breath away.

Here is what Bonhoeffer talks about death:

That life only really begins when it ends on earth, that all that is here is only the prologue before the curtain goes up - that is for young and old alike to think about.  Why are we so afraid to think about death?...  

Death is only dreadful for those who live in fear and dread of it.  Death is not wild and terrible, if only we can be still and hold fast to God's Word.  Death is not bitter, if we have not become bitter ourselves.  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 realise that it is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace.

Who doe we know that dying is so dreadful?  Who knows whether, in our human fear and anguish we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly, blessed event in the world?

Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.

The passage is from a sermon preached in London some years prior to his own death.  And from all accounts Bonhoeffer stepped forward God-filled to meet his executioners.

And then another poignancy - just before he was finally arrested - Bonhoeffer gets engaged to the love of his life.  Their relationship never ends in marriage.  Despite initial hopes that Bonhoeffer would be released soon - the months of his imprisonment turn into years - and Maria and Dietrich do not become wedded as man and wife.

The 542 pages of Metaxas' book were devoured, chewed on, cried over and wondered at by yours truly.  Definitely the best book that I have read this year.  By far.  By very far. (Bible excepted of course).  Get your copy now - or come and visit us and read, borrow - but don't steal our copy.

I ended the book in tears.  Knowing that in the tragedy of Bonhoeffer's life - and the few righteous gentiles in Germany who stood up for truth - is the seed of hope.  Bonhoeffer died.  But truth did not.  And since I believe in the glorious resurrection - Bonhoeffer's obedience to Jesus has eternal value.  Which gives hope to the often confusing contours of our lives too.  


  1. Andi,

    I, too, read this recently and had a similar reaction. The writing was so engaging. I read parts and then listened to parts of the book on tape. One afternoon I had been listening and then had to stop to go pick up my kids from school. When I emerged from the house and got in the car, it took me a few minutes to realize that there were not Nazis all around our neighborhood - I had been so engrossed by Metaxas account.

    Metaxes spoke here in the Twin Cities this spring. I was unable to attend, but here is a link to the talk he gave.

    Bekah Jones

    1. Should have signed off as Bekah Binnington Jones to better identify myself : )