Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a martyr

The Standard March 31, 2022

Jesus warns his followers that the world would not take kindly to them following in his footsteps. “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12) “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” (John 15:12-14) “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me.” (John 15:18-21)

In his classic The Cost of Discipleship, where he spells out the difference between “cheap grace” and “costly grace,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer proclaims, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” For him, this was more than just an inspirational saying.

A German leader in the Confessional Church in the 1930s, Bonhoeffer refused to treat Adolf Hitler as an idol or a god. He saw the dangers ahead for Germany and actively worked against the Nazi regime. Remarkably focused on living out his Christian faith, Bonhoeffer’s sacrifice knew no end. Gerhard Leibholz in Memoir writes about his brother-in-law, “In June 1939, American friends got him out of Germany. But soon he felt that he could not stay there, but that he had to return to his country. When he came to England on his return from the United States, his friends quickly realized that Bonhoeffer’s heart belonged to his oppressed and persecuted fellow Christians in Germany and that he would not desert them at a time when they needed him most. The reasoning which brought Bonhoeffer to his decisions belongs, as Reinhold Niebuhr says, ‘to the finest logic of Christian martyrdom.’ ‘I shall have no right,’ Bonhoeffer wrote to Niebuhr before leaving America, ‘to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people… Christians in Germany sill 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 this choice in security.’”

Bonhoeffer, his sister and brother-in-law were arrested by the Gestapo in April 1943. In prison he ministered to those who were sick, anxious or depressed. In February 1945 he was taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp and then to other camps, until he was executed on April 9, 1945.

According to the United States Holocaust Museum’s page on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The SS doctor who witnessed Bonhoeffer’s death later recalled a man ‘devout… brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds… I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.’ Bonhoeffer sent one final message, to George Bell in England: ‘This is the end, for me the beginning of life.’”

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