Lessons from Dietrich Bonhoeffer

dietrich bonhoeffer

On our vacation not long ago I read the biography entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. It’s by far the longest book I’ve read (around 550 pages depending on the format you read it in). I’ve never been a big biography reader, but to say this book left its mark on me would be a profound understatement (not really the book actually, but the legacy of Bonhoeffer’s life).

(On a side note, I highly recommend the practice of reading at least one book on vacation. Make it a type of book you enjoy reading, maybe even story focused so it doesn’t feel like mental work to understand. Too many people return from vacation, and they take a week to get into the swing of things. Having at least one “task” to accomplish on vacation allows you to keep some discipline.)

The legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has continued to expand as his written works have gained wider circulation, and as his story has become told to younger generations. I read many of his books in seminary, and already had immense respect and admiration for Bonhoeffer prior to reading the story of his life. Following the reading of his biography, he inspires me as a minister, practicing theologian, writer, and family-man.

Over the next several weeks I’m going to hone in on themes from Bonhoeffer’s life that seem to be of particular interest and help to us at this time. While Bonhoeffer lived a century ago, much of what he stood for in his life and in his experiences can be formative for us, in our time.

Each post will highlight different themes and stories from his life, but today I want to highlight a decision that led ultimately to the taking of his life, because it seems to provide a solid summary of his character. Next week I’ll look at how his theological understandings made this decision an obvious one.

In 1939 Bonhoeffer recognized that he was being watched closely by the Gestapo and the Nazi party, to the point where his work in Germany was being compromised, so he pursued work in the United States. Due to some previous connections at Union Theological Seminary, he lined up a lecturing position and traveled overseas to take the job.

In his letters Bonhoeffer had a weird tone during the trip across the Atlantic, that came to a head after he docked. He was in the wrong country. He had been selfish, seeking comfort, when his brothers and sisters had their lives on the line on the other side of the world. He turned down the job offer, and several weeks later, traveled back to Germany, only to be arrested months later.

He wrote a friend, telling of his decision:

“I have had the time to think and to pray about my situation and that of my nation and to have God’s will for me clarified. I have come to the conclusion that I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany…

Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make that choice in security.”

This, maybe more than any other decision in his life, absolutely floored me. To have been so convinced of leaving, and then to sense God’s leading back home again, is quite incredible.

The lesson at hand is that following Jesus is a constant conversation and discernment. Am I where God wants me? Am I living as He desires me to?

Those are the kinds of questions Dietrich seemed to be constantly asking. It’s a living with palms held open.

Part Two || “Disembodied Christianity”

Part Three || “A Foundation in the Word”

Part Four || “The Work Never Ends”