Thursday, April 7, 2016

Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
Eric Metaxas
Published 2011

Powerful, shocking, inspiring I am still reeling from this book.  A story is best if it leaves me stunned for a while.  This one did.

When a friend posted an anti-abortion quote on Facebook by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man I had never heard of, I figured he was a Christian who stood up for righteousness in the face of difficult opposition.  I was in search of stories about Christians who lived through persecution because in America we hardly know real persecution - at least for now.  This book title was listed after the quote, and I added the book to my TBR list.

Wow!  I had no idea what I was getting into.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew about or assisted in planning the assassination of Hitler.  How does a Christian reconcile a scheme to murder when Christians are not to take God's law into their own hands?  This question remained with me, and it would not be answered until 3/4 of the way through the 500-page biography.

Paula Bonhoeffer and her eight children (She is looking at Dietrich.)

Naturally, the author began at the beginning of Bonhoeffer's life, in Germany.  He was not raised in a strictly religious household, but he was exposed to Christian teachings.  Eventually he decided he wanted to study theology and become a pastor; yet, even before he was ordained, he was fervently teaching and writing about Christian principles.  He was asked to teach throughout Europe and in America.

After the rise of the Nazi party and Hitler as Chancellor of Germany, Bonhoeffer was immediately vocal about his opposition.  Since Bonhoeffer had friends (and family) in high places, he received low-key details about Nazi plans and crimes against the Jews (and other classes of people deemed inferior) long before the German people and world could believe was happening. He was infuriated, and expected the Christian church to speak out publicly.

Unfortunately, Hitler already had his claws on the German Church.  You see, the German people, including those in authority, like Army generals and church leaders, did not believe what was happening right before their eyes; they could not foresee how badly it was going to become.  They did not believe this hothead Hitler was serious or that he would be successful; they figured he would calm down eventually.  But Bonhoeffer did see, and he knew from the very beginning: This madman must be stopped!

Either the clergy agreed with Hitler or they lacked courage.

Bonhoeffer was instrumental in dividing the Church - that is: he caused the Protestant church to decide where it stood on the issues at hand: either they were with Hitler, or they were against him. And because Hitler was reforming the nationalist German Church - because, you know, he was so righteous - Bonhoeffer helped start the Confessing Church in opposition.  Because of this, Bonhoeffer was deemed an enemy of the State, or pacifist, and was prohibited from public speaking, teaching, publishing, or preaching; he was on the run from the Nazi government, teaching or preaching underground in his own country.

Meanwhile, Bonhoeffer became actively involved in a German military intelligence organization named Abwehr, a resistance group.  The group shared information with the Allies.  With his numerous contacts abroad, Bonhoeffer acted as a messenger, in addition to helping Jews safely escape Germany.  The group was also involved in or had knowledge of numerous missed opportunities to assassinate Hitler and several of his top aids, including the July 20, 1944, plot.

Eventually, when Bonhoeffer was arrested, it was assumed it was due to a misuse of currency exchange.  He remained a year and a half in prison and was never clearly charged or given a trial.  As the war dragged on, Bonhoeffer thought for certain Hitler would eventually be successfully assassinated, the war would end, and he would be released.  After all, the Allies were closing in, and Hitler was faltering.

Unfortunately, in the last year of the war, the Nazis uncovered documents that connected Bonhoeffer to Abwehr and his involvement in and knowledge of assassination attempts and many other anti-Nazi plans.  In a fit of furious revenge, Hitler demanded that all those involved, waiting in prison, be executed immediately.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged with nine other members in April 1945. Three weeks later, Hitler killed himself, and the war with Germany was over.

Not very convincing salutes; they probably were terrified not to.

That question I had about Christians taking God's law into their own hands was also on Bonhoeffer's mind.  Basically, he believed he was a sacrifice.  He believed "one must be more zealous to please God than to avoid sin.  One must sacrifice oneself utterly to God's purposes, even to the point of possibly making moral mistakes."  He said,
Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behaviour.  The Christian is called to sympathy and action...
He thought Hitler so evil that human rules could not stop him:
The evilness of the Nazis could not be defeated via old-fashioned ethics, rules, and principles.  God alone could combat it.
Bonhoeffer likened the human condition to the character of Don Quixote: "in our efforts to do good,"
...we think we are doing good and fighting evil, but in fact, we are living in an illusion.  'Only the mean-spirited can read the fate of Don Quixote without sharing in and being moved by it.'
The author Metaxas explained:
The solution is to do the will of God, to do it radically and courageously and joyfully.  To try to explain right and wrong - to talk about ethics - outside of God and obedience to His will is impossible.  'Principles are only tools in the hands of God; they will soon be thrown away when they are no longer useful.'  We must look only at God, and in Him we are reconciled to our situation in the world.  
Bonhoeffer knew "that apart from Jesus Christ, we cannot know what is right or do right."  Hence, he believed he was being used by God to do His will (to work against Hitler and the Nazis) by sacrificing his own life in order to save others.  God was not interested in success; God wanted total and complete obedience, even if it meant death.

While none of the assassination attempts were successful, Bonhoeffer and the Resistance did much good, especially because they worked against evil.  In addition, the times shaped Bonhoeffer's theology, and he left us with important written Christian works, such as Ethics, Life Together, and The Cost of Discipleship.  Gratefully, I did learn about courage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who knew first hand what it meant to stand for righteousness and his love for Christ, in the face of fierce opposition. He gave his life for it.

On a Personal Note

My most treasured line from Bonhoeffer is about marriage.  Let me explain why: a friend of mine and I were talking about our teenagers and sex.  My friend argued that unmarried sex is ok if you love that person, while I insisted that we should teach our children that sex outside of marriage is wrong. It wasn't until later that I realized why I now personally believe that.

Given that I have been struggling with my own marriage, I have learned this important lesson: love is not enough to keep people together, but marriage is necessary to make love mature; it is marriage that supports love - not the other way around.  There will be times when you won't feel like loving your spouse, but it is the covenant of marriage that will preserve your love nonetheless.  (Yes, I know people divorce all the time, but that is a completely different post for another day.)

What I want to share is this:  Bonhoeffer wrote a sermon from his prison cell for his niece and her fiancĂ© for their wedding day.  He esteemed marriage as "more than your love for each other," and "a higher dignity and power for it is God's holy ordinance, through which he wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time."  And he added (my exact sentiments),
It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.
Yes!  I concur.


Jean said...

Thanks, Ruth, especially for your thoughts on marriage. I may have to read this too.

Carol said...

I've had this book for ages but never had the wherewithal to start it. I, too, appreciated your thoughts related to marriage & thanks for the push to actually read this book.

Ruth said...

You're welcome. It was an excellent read, with lots of history.

Ruth said...

Your'e welcome, too. I do hope you appreciate it once you get to read it. I found it memorable.

Chelle said...

This is on my list of reads for the year. Your review has helped it jump the queue.
Looking forward to it now. Thanks!

Sharon Wilfong said...

This is a great review. I have read this biography and think it is wonderful. So many good points are made. First of all, there is the church within the church. We see that happening today. People who declare themselves to be Christian but are conformed to the world. That is what the German church chose to do. It will also be a remnant that stays true to biblical principals.

In regards to Bonhoeffer's justification of Hitler's assassination. On the one hand, I do not judge him and know that God was glorified through his life and death. On the other hand I disagree with taking justice into our own hands. I firmly believe that God made a profound statement that it is HE that governs man and we cannot rely on our own reason. The fact that every assassination attempt failed, even when they shouldn't have. I mean, really? The bomb went off right next to him and still didn't touch him? Or another time somehow failed to ignite? Hitler died by his own hands and I believe that was according to God's purpose.

Finally, I agree with your beliefs about marriage and that's a great quote from Bonhoeffer. Have a great day!

Ruth said...

Excellent. I would love to read your review when you are done.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Sharon.
I had the same feelings about the assassination. At first I thought he had taken it upon himself to kill Hitler, but when I learned that he was really knowledgable about attempts and Hitler's whereabouts, I felt a little differently. But since nothing was successful, it does demonstrate that it was not God's will for anyone to harm Hitler. God had other plans for him.
As for Bonhoeffer, he believed that God wanted to use him to work against Hitler, even if assassination was not successful. Bonhoeffer was instrumental in passing information to Allies; who knows how much of that was helpful in Hitler's demise.

Janet said...

Does this book read like a novel or is there lots of analysis? It sounds wonderful.

Janet said...

Does this book read like a novel or is there lots of analysis? It sounds wonderful.

Ruth said...

It is a biography, so the author is telling the story of Bonhoeffer's life from early childhood to death. There is a lot of supporting evidence taken from speeches, sermons, or letters, that break up the narrative, but the author reiterates the message of the insert. So it does not really read like a novel, in the traditional sense, but more like a story about a life, with lots of examples. Hope that helps.

Janet said...

It does help. I just got it from the library. I will let you know my reaction! Love your blog.