In a time where “resistance” has gained a life of its own, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life epitomizes true, grounded resistance. I recently finished Eric Metaxas’ (see note below) lengthy biography of German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Bonhoeffer didn’t set out to be a member of the resistance against Nazism and Hitler, for many years he was just a pastor. But he refused to comply with the standards of any but God, especially with the standards that ruled Germany of his day. He humbly surrendered his daily life for the sake of the calling God placed on his life. And God led him to stand up against Nazism, which ultimately led to his death. Bonhoeffer’s life is an example of cultivating resistance in a simple, daily way, rooted in loving and pursuing God and loving his neighbors.
Bonhoeffer was a child of Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer, a family of a prominent Germans who valued critical thinking and integrity. His choice to study theology in university was regarded by his family as unusual but it was nonetheless supported. Yet rather than pursuing God only from an academic point of view, Bonhoeffer sought to determine how theology and daily life would meet and mold. Bonhoeffer’s obedience to God’s calling began with daily habits of meditating on scripture, praying the Psalms, and worshiping through song, conversations, and time outdoors. In these moments, he pursued the sovereign and almighty God. And he spent his life instructing and encouraging others to do the same. This pattern of worship was present as he pastored congregations in four different countries, taught seminarians, and encouraged others while in prison. His knowledge of scripture helped him stand firm when Germans were bowing down to the whims of power and guided his steps.
One of the defining parts of Bonhoeffer’s beliefs was that faith in God was active. He believed Christians should be engaged in the world and the people around them. One of his most famous quotes from a letter to his fiancé, Maria von Wedemeyer, epitomizes this well:
“When Jeremiah said, in his people’s hour of direst need, that “houses and fields [and vineyards] shall again be brought in this land,” it was a token of confidence in the future. That requires faith, and may God grant it to us daily. I don’t mean the faith that flees the world, but the faith that endures in the world and loves and remains true to that world in spite of all the hardships it brings us. Our marriage must be a “yes” to God’s earth. 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.”
Planning for marriage in 1943 at the height of World War II was just one example of how Bonhoeffer lived out active faith in a sovereign God. Bonhoeffer’s hope was in God’s ultimate restoration. His belief that faith was active led Bonhoeffer to turn his love for God outward towards his neighbors, especially Jews. In 1933, the Nazi’s unveiled The Aryan Paragraph declaring that anyone not of Aryan background would lose their jobs. This edict extended to the German church and to pastors who were Christians by faith but ethnically Jewish. As the German church struggled to figure out how to respond, Bonhoeffer wrote an essay entitled “The Church and the Jewish Question”. He clarified three roles of the church in regards to its relationship with the state. The church was first to hold the state accountable and be a witness to truth if there was excessive lawlessness. Then, the church was to aid victims of the state, even if the victims were not Christians. Finally, the church was to stop the state from perpetuating evil if its existence was threatened. In this instance, Bonhoeffer believed the church needed to rebuke the state for it’s refusal to see Jewish people (among others) as humans with worth and dignity and aid Jews.
The essay was not accepted by all in the German church. Many in the German national church decided to institute the Aryan Paragraph and encouraged Jewish congregants to form their own churches. But to Bonhoeffer, loving Jews – whether they believed in Jesus as the Messiah or not – was an act of loving God and loving neighbors. The absence of this belief in the German national church was proof to Bonhoeffer that the German national church was no longer the true church. He cited scripture, specifically Galatians 3:28, that says “there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female, for you all are one in Christ Jesus”. He and other pastors who believed similarly formed the Confessing Church, a church that sought to serve God only and love God’s people.
As the rise of Nazism in the 1930’s continued, the German national church continued to acquiesce with Nazi commands. Another command was to rid the Bible and churches of any “Jewish influence”. Ironically, this meant stripping the Bible of most of its “Jewish elements” such as the Old Testament and re-casting Jesus as a strong, Aryan hero. Bonhoeffer’s response was to publish a book on the power and context of the book of Psalms. By releasing a book about the Old Testament, especially a book from the Bible that was considered very “Jewish”, Bonhoeffer was staking his claim that one could not divorce God from scripture, especially not to suit mere human needs. Despite the book being relatively unknown at the time, the simple act put Bonhoeffer in the sights of the Nazis. For the rest of his life, Bonhoeffer would respond to Hitler and Nazism with obstructions or acts of resistance. Eventually, he decided to join the active collective resistance that sought to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer was convicted that the work of resistance was blessed and deemed necessary by God. He believed failing to speak out against the state was “fear” and that the Bible demands people to “‘Speak out for those who cannot speak’”. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed for his role in the resistance on April 9, 1945 in Flossenburg concentration camp, two weeks before the camp was liberated.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a model for resistance against the temptation to fear and flee from the world. He refused to put his hope or obedience in any earthly powers. He knew God was sovereign and would ultimately bring justice. He modeled the habits by which we can nurture such hope; through daily acts of pursuit and worship of God. And he was a model for resistance against the evils of this world – such as racism and hatred. Resistance to the evil he witnessed was an integral part of his faith. Because of it, his actions flowed from the deep conviction of loving God and loving those God had created, whomever they may be. When we confront fear and evil in the world, may we engage and wrestle with it, always proclaiming the truth. And may the two greatest commandments – “Love the Lord your God” and “love your neighbor as yourself” be our guideposts.
Author Note: Current views expressed by Eric Metaxas do not reflect my own. I am grieved that 10 years after writing a biography on a man who believed in weakness against power and honoring God far above earthly powers that Metaxas has attached himself so heartily to earthly powers. However, he researched and wrote an excellent book.