Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
By Eric Metaxas
I am reading a book by Eric Metaxas on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is an extensive biography, over 600 pages. Metaxas is best known for his biography of William Wilberforce “Amazing Grace”.
I first came across Dietrich Bonhoeffer early on as a young Christian, when a friend gave me a copy of Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. I remember thinking at the time that the Cost of Discipleship was a good book but maybe Bonhoeffer was a bit legalistic. I didn’t really appreciate fully the context he was living in as a Christian in 1930’s-40’s Germany. He was a product of his time, of his culture, of his church. Metaxas does a very good job of explaining the cultural and religious context in which Bonhoeffer grew up. Sometimes we can only see what’s wrong with people. When it comes to Bonhoeffer,there are some who can see only what Bonhoeffer got wrong. From reading this book what I see is that Bonhoeffer knew and treasured the gospel. Like so many great Christians, he was fully committed to following Jesus and made no apologies for sharing the gospel at a time when it was easier to just keep your head down and be silent. Bonhoeffer says “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak, not to act is to act.” Metaxas tells of some consequences of staying silent in this quote.
“Many years later, after Niemöller had been imprisoned for eight years in concentration camps as the personal prisoner of Adolf Hitler, he penned these infamous words:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionist, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Jew.
And then they came for me –
and there was no one left to speak for me.”
In 1933, at the early days of Nazi reign in Germany, the Nazis made a law banning anyone of Jewish descent from being employed by the government. The “Aryan Paragraph,” as it came to be called. German churches, which relied on government support, now faced a choice. Keep their subsidies by dismissing their pastors and employees of Jewish descent or resist. Many church leaders fell into line with the “Aryan Paragraph”. Within days of the new law’s introduction, Bonhoeffer published an essay titled “The Church and the Jewish Question,” in which he challenged the legitimacy of a regime that failed to comply with the tenets of Christianity. The churches of Germany, he wrote, shared “an unconditional obligation” to help the victims of an unjust state “even if they do not belong to the Christian community.”
Bonhoeffer continued, Any church that allied itself with an evil regime was not a church, and could not therefore speak for God. “What is at stake,” Bonhoeffer insisted, “is by no means whether our German members of congregations can still tolerate church fellowship with the Jews. It is rather the task of Christian preaching to say: here is the church, where Jew and German stand together under the Word of God; here is the proof of whether a church is still the church or not.”
“…when someone asked Bonhoeffer whether he shouldn’t join the German Christians in order to work against them from within, he answered that he couldn’t. ‘If you board the wrong train,’ he said, ‘it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.”
Over the coming weeks I hope to post some of the highlights and quotes that stand out for me in this book by Eric Metaxas. I would love to know if you have read this book and if so what are some of your thoughts. Leave a comment.