In spite of the fact that I have long admired him greatly, quoted him in sermons and chapel talks, and included him in university/seminary lectures, up until now I have not written about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in any of my previous blog articles (and this is my 499th one).
Today, though, on the 110th anniversary of his birth on February 4, 1906, I am happy to post this article in honor of Bonhoeffer’s memory.
As most of you probably know, Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis in a German prison in April 1945, just weeks before the end of WWII in Europe. He was 39 years old, the same age as Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated on an April evening 23 years later.
Bonhoeffer was born into an upper middle class family and could easily have become a medical doctor or a lawyer. Instead, he chose to become a pastor and a theologian. And then he chose to become one of the leaders among the small percentage of Christians in Germany who stood up in opposition to Hitler and the Nazis.
Before Hitler’s rise to power, though, Bonhoeffer spent the academic year of 1930-31 as a student and teaching fellow at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. For six months during that year he regularly attended the Abyssinian Baptist Church and sat under the preaching of Pastor Adam Clayton Powell (1865-1953).
Bonhoeffer, who turned 25 during the year he was in New York, was significantly influenced by his experience of attending that predominantly African-American church in Harlem.
In January 1933 Adolf Hitler, Führer (leader) of the National Socialist German Workers Party (or Nazi Party), was appointed Chancellor of Germany. Bonhoeffer, who was still just 26 at that time, soon began to oppose the fascism of Hitler and joined with Martin Niemöller, Karl Barth, and others to form what came to be known as the Confessing Church.
These anti-Nazi Christians in Germany drafted the Barmen Confession in 1934. They sought to make it clear that Jesus Christ was the Führer, their leader and the head of the Church, not Hitler.
Later that year, Bonhoeffer went to London to become pastor of a German-speaking church there. In 1935, though, he returned to Germany to become the head of the Confessing Church’s seminary.
In September 1937 that seminary in Finkenwalde was closed by the Gestapo and by November, 27 pastors and former students of Bonhoeffer were arrested.
That same November, Bonhoeffer published his most widely read book, Nachfolge (“following after”), which in 1949 was published in English as The Cost of Discipleship. In it Bonhoeffer sought to elucidate what following Jesus really means.
The first chapter of the book is titled “Costly Grace,” and there Bonhoeffer rejects what he terms “cheap grace.” That term was one he had heard in New York. Before Bonhoeffer was born, Rev. Powell had used the phrase “cheap grace” to refer to the dominant forms of religion that tolerated racism, sexism, and lynching in one form or another.
For Bonhoeffer, “cheap grace” was what he saw among the “German Christians” who accepted Hitler’s fascism. But he came to see that for him discipleship meant to stand up for the Jews and to oppose Hitler—and he even joined in plotting to kill Hitler in order to save Jewish lives.
Because of his anti-Nazi activities, Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned in April 1943. Two years later he was executed.
Bonhoeffer wrote in Nachfolge, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That, indeed, was the cost of discipleship for him.