In a letter on July 21, 1944, to his longtime friend, Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while in prison, recalled a conversation he had some years ago with a young French pastor. They discussed what they both wanted out of life.
The pastor opined that he aspired to eventually become a saint. Bonhoeffer disagreed, stating that he would like to have faith by attempting to live a holy life. It’s possible that both men were on target with their desires, though we’ll never know that will be the case. (See "Dietrich Bonhoeffer," edited by Robert Cole, Maryknoll, New York Orbis Books, 1998).
Who exactly was Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Dietrich, born in 1906, one of seven siblings, came from a prominent aristocratic family in Breslau, Germany, that moved to Berlin. Dietrich studied theology at Tübingen University and then at Berlin University where he received the doctoral degree in theology with a dissertation on “The Communion of Saints.” He was an outstanding student who played the piano brilliantly and was an excellent tennis player, to boot.
In 1928, Bonhoeffer took a position as a curate in a Lutheran church in Barcelona where he enjoyed taking care of the spiritual needs of blue-collar workers. They loved the talks he gave because they were thoughtful and punctured with biblical verses. For example, he once stated that Christ had been left out of a person’s life, if that person only gave to Christ a tiny part of his/her spiritual life. Bonhoeffer told his audience that one needs to give one’s life entirely to Christ, if they wanted to really understand their spiritual life.
In 1930, Bonhoeffer decided to go to Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan as a Sloan Fellow where he gained the respect of outstanding theological faculty like Paul Lehmann, with whom he developed a close friendship. After the year was up, Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin University as a lecturer in theology, while working on his second doctorate.
Two days after Hitler rose to power as German Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer railed against Hitler and the Nazi party on the radio, when suddenly he was cut off in the middle of his remarks. That same year, inspired by Pastor Martin Niemoeller, Bonhoeffer again spoke out against Nazi rule. Many members of the Lutheran Church, including bishops and pastors supported Hitler and some even wore brown Nazi shirts, to the dismay of Bonhoeffer and Pastor Niemoeller who helped organize the “Confessing Church” that opposed the Nazis.
Bonhoeffer had to leave Berlin in 1938, and in 1941, the Nazi government forbade him to write. He then became part of an anti-resistance movement, along with six military officers who tried to overthrow the Nazi government by force. In April 1943, Bonhoeffer became a prisoner at the Tegel Prison and then at Flossenbürg, a small village in the Oberpfalz region of Bavaria.
Flossenbürg had a barracks that held 1,000 prisoners, but was built to hold 250 prisoners. Both Jews and special enemies of the state were housed in Flossenbürg. Special enemies like Bonhoeffer received “special treatment’ such as interrogation, torture and execution. Bonhoeffer was hanged in this prison — witnessed by Dr. H. Fischer who said that Bonhoeffer knelt on the floor and prayed before he was hanged.
What made Bonhoeffer a special person? For one, Bonhoeffer had a rich spiritual life, centered on Christ and the Good News of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Just as Christ gave his life and was the Man-for-Others, so did Bonhoeffer remain true to his Christian faith, even though this meant execution at the hands of the Third Reich.
Bonhoeffer looked on life through the lens of his faith that gave him “new eyes” to see reality. In this connection, I am reminded of the words of Daniel Berrigan, who once said, "Faith is like a glass of water: without color, without odor, without taste, yet when held up to the light of day, faith is a prism that reflects all the beauty, wonder, and mystery in the entire universe."
At times, Bonhoeffer sounded controversial in some of his later writings. He argued that one should not be concerned about “saving one’s soul,” since this was not biblical. He pointed out that there is no concern in the Hebrew Scriptures about saving one’s soul. Bonhoeffer noted that the focus of everything should be righteousness and the kingdom of God on earth.
He asked, “Doesn’t Romans 3:21 and the following verses tell us that only God is righteous? We Christians should focus on this world rather than the next world." Bonhoeffer asked for the re-interpretation (in the manner of the world according to the Scriptures and John 1:14), of such concepts as faith, justification, rebirth, repentance and sanctification. By doing this reinterpretation of such concepts, we will speak to people of today.
Finally, Bonhoeffer felt that what makes a Christian is a person’s participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world, rather than some religious act. For Bonhoeffer, “the religious act is partial,” whereas faith involves one’s entire life. (See his book, "Letters and Papers from Prison," p. 95). Bonhoeffer will be remembered forever for the tremendous courage he displayed in calling out the Nazi regime and opposing Hitler. That’s why I think of him as a saint with “true grit.”
Richard Penaskovic is an emeritus professor at Auburn University, who taught religious studies for 30 years.