Thursday, April 9, 2015

Bonhoeffer - 70 years

On April 9th, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged. His courage and faith continue to shape our own lives of faith today.
He was born in 1906, son of a professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Berlin. He was an outstanding student. In 1930, a year too young to be ordained, he went to New York to Union Seminary, where he encountered Afro-American worship where "the 'black Christ' is preached with captivating passion and vividness. Anyone who has heard and understood the Negro spirituals knows about [this] strange mixture of reserved melancholy and eruptive joy"(1).  Bonhoeffer would later introduce some of the Negro spirituals to the worship services at the illegal seminary in Finkenwalde (possibly one of the first places in Europe to introduce such songs).
At the age of 25 became a lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Berlin.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer became a leading spokesman for the Confessing Church, the center of Protestant resistance to the Nazis. He organized and for a time led the underground seminary of the Confessing Church. His book Life Together describes the life of the Christian community in that seminary, and his book The Cost of Discipleship attacks what he calls "cheap grace," meaning grace used as an excuse for moral laxity. 
Bonhoeffer had been taught not to "resist the powers that be," but he came to believe that to do so was sometimes the right choice. In 1939 his brother-in-law introduced him to a group planning the overthrow of Hitler, and he made significant contributions to their work. (He was at this time an employee of the Military Intelligence Department.) He was arrested in April 1943 and imprisoned in Berlin. After the failure of the attempt on Hitler's life in April 1944, he was sent first to Buchenwald and then to Schoenberg Prison. His life was spared, because he had a relative who stood high in the government; but then this relative was himself implicated in anti-Nazi plots.
On Sunday 8 April 1945, he had just finished conducting a service of worship at Schoenberg, when two soldiers came in, saying, "Prisoner Bonhoeffer, make ready and come with us," the standard summons to a condemned prisoner. As he left, he said to another prisoner, "This is the end - but for me, the beginning - of life." He was hanged the next day, less than a week before the Allies reached the camp.
Reggie Williams, author of "Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus" writes, "As a brilliant, wealthy, Aryan man, he was killed by the forces that were attempting to construct a society specifically for him. But rather than be at home in what was billed as 'the ideal community' he suffered, like the outcasts, choosing to suffer the consequences for non-cooperation with evil."

In preparing for worship this week, the first Sunday after Easter, there is so much to reflect on from Bonhoeffer's life. About the life of the early church community, living together in a way that ensured that none had any needs and resources were shared. About the courage, even in the experience of doubt, to follow the way of Christ for justice, even to death. About the vision of life that endures in eternal company with God, that we are never separated from the love of God.

(1) Volume 10 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's works, Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928-1931 (Fortress 2008)

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