One of the men I admire most when it comes to nonviolent action against oppressive regimes is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Subversive, determined and bold, Bonhoeffer stands as one of the great 20th century martyrs for the Christian Church, living out his beliefs and dying for them. He also stands as an example of a mark of humanity in the nonviolent world, a thorough reminder that even those we may effectively deify can make mistakes as well.
Bonhoeffer was born into a family of prominence, his father a neurologist and his mother a countess by marriage, a granddaughter to the famous church historian Karl von Hase. However, they weren’t exactly a devout family, rarely attending church despite their heritage.
For college, Bonhoeffer wound up at the University of Berlin, then a center of liberal theology, but while there, discovered neo-orthodoxy through the writings of Karl Barth. He earned his doctorate of theology at 21.
Because he was too young to be ordained, he did some postgrad studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Though he actually is quoted as saying, “there is no theology here,” being used to the German traditions he studied under, he made a lot of friends while there through the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he came to love African American spirituals. He also learned more about the Social Justice Gospel, and became more aware of injustices and the church’s failure to support integration.
Note to some of my friends: he didn’t learn how to drive until he was 22, and failed the test three times. :)
Anyway, when he returned to Germany, he became a professor of systematic theology at the University of Berlin, but is more noted for being the first person in Germany to give a radio address critical of the new Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler. As the Nazis rose to power and began to overtake every facet of German life, including the church, Bonhoeffer is seen to have undergone a new transformation, from someone purely interested in theology in an academic sense to a man passionate about his faith. He and his colleague Martin Niemoller worked together to fight Nazi rule and to subvert its overtaking of the church, even founding a seminary at Finklewald, forming a sort of monastic community there, teaching theology untouched by Nazi hands. The school was disbanded in 1938, when Bonhoeffer was banned from Berlin.
After spending some time in Berlin in more or less exile, all the while desiring to be home in Berlin, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to begin a new campaign: the assassination of Hitler. He joined the Abewehr, the German Intelligence Branch, and became part of a plot to assassinate the Fuhrer, though his involvement is not well documented, and his known stance for pacifism leads to doubts on his involvement as well. When the Gestapo eventually did arrest him, they didn’t even know as to his involvement with the plot. He was thrown into prison for his preaching and works, and eventually transferred to Buchenwald and Flossenburg, both concentration camps. He was executed in the camp just two weeks before its liberation. A doctor at the camp witnessed the execution, and made this remark:
“I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer … kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
Today, Bonhoeffer stands at Westminster Seminary in England amongst three other martyrs for the faith, including Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero, and Mother Elizabeth of Russia. He paved new ways for the church to affect the secular world, and showed how the church needs to take a stand on all social issues and intervene in the oppression of others.
If you want to learn more about Bonhoeffer, read his writings, especially The Cost of Discipleship. There is also a documentary on Netflix about him called Bonhoeffer. It’s pretty awesome.