Who was Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and author best remembered for his political resistance to the Nazi regime during World War Two. He was executed by hanging at Flossenburg Concentration Camp in Germany on April 9, 1945, just days before American liberation of that POW camp; so he is also seen as a modern-day martyr. His books The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together are still widely read and considered to be devotional classics.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born February 4, 1906 in Wroclaw in modern-day Poland (but was part of Germany at the time) to an upper-middle class family. His father was a psychiatrist and neurologist and his mother was the granddaughter of a Protestant theologian. It was not a particularly religious home, but Dietrich was a studious child and declared his intention to work for the church at age fourteen. At age twenty-one, he had completed a Doctor of Theology from Humboldt University of Berlin, but unfortunately, the age requirement for ordination in the church was twenty-five. So Dietrich Bonhoeffer accepted a teaching fellowship at New York City's Union Theological Seminary. While there, he was befriended by Frank Fisher who brought him to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem where Bonhoeffer was touched by the call for social justice and fell in love with African-American spirituals. He claimed his time abroad turned his attention "from phraseology to reality."

Upon his return to Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was ordained and became a priest and lecturer in Berlin in 1931. Just two years later, Hitler rose to power. In January 1933, Bonhoeffer gave a radio address criticizing Hitler and warning people not to be misled. In April, he called for the church to stand against the persecution of the Jews. In October, Bonhoeffer moved to London to pastor two German-speaking congregations and to garner support for church resistance to Nazism. In May 1934, Bonhoeffer was influential in drafting and signing the Barman Declaration, a document signed by a number of pastors insisting that Christ, not the fuhrer, was the head of the church. This document essentially founded the Confessing Church.

Bonhoeffer then moved back to Germany to lead an underground seminary. While teaching about the Sermon on the Mount at the seminary, he wrote The Cost of Discipleship, a book calling for more faithful and radical obedience to Christ, rebuking comfortable Christianity. His seminary was discovered and shut down by the regime in October 1937. Bonhoeffer's book Life Together is a reflection on the Christian community he experienced at the underground seminary at Finkenwalde. He later fled to New York, but returned to Germany within a few months feeling that true discipleship demanded political resistance and that to lead the church after the war ended, he would need to have endured their suffering with them during the war.

Having been a committed pacifist, Bonhoeffer was concerned that he might be drafted into the German army. So his brother-in-law recruited him in the German intelligence agency claiming that Bonhoeffer's vast ecumenical connections would be an asset to the agency. He used traveling for the agency as a cover for rescuing Jews by ferrying them abroad, but was arrested for this work in March 1943. Bonhoeffer spent eighteen months in Tegel Prison, then was transferred to Buchenwald before being taken to Flossenburg for execution after being convicted of involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands as an example of a man committed to serving God rather than powerful men no matter the consequences. His life and teachings are valuable resources for Christians interested in standing against injustice and Christians in need of encouragement to obey God no matter the cost.

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