Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Heroes: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

When I think of heroes, I think of great men. I can recognize small acts of heroism in the world around me, but in my mind, I see a picture of men advancing into battle with courage and composure. I picture a paladin of pristine virtue bringing forth the cause of truth, goodness and beauty, destroying evil, and reclaiming strongholds for good.

But those kind of stories often ring hollow. They present larger-than-life men of irreproachable character who are difficult to identify with. After all, I don't have pristine virtue. Heroes are men, and men have vices.

So today, I want to tell you a story of a man with vices, and hopefully paint a more accessible picture of heroism. I propose that a man becomes a hero when he is pressured to abandon his virtue, but overcomes fear and inner turmoil in order to do what is right, at all costs.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer grew up an academic, and perhaps that was part of his problem. While studying for his doctorate in theology in the 1920s, he reacted strongly to the threat of liberal theology by gravitating towards the opposite extreme of neo-orthodoxy. The neo-orthodox taught that Christ's atonement occurred from outside of history, rather than in his physical death and crucifixion on the cross. Its emphasis on God's absolute transcendence led adherents to favor a rational, distant religion over a personal faith in Christ. In more extreme cases, it led to a denial of Scripture's ability to communicate the actual word of God.

In this context, Bonhoeffer quickly constructed a neat ethical paradigm for Christian living. He fit God inside a box. For a while, it worked. He became a pacifist while on a trip to America after watching All Quiet on the Western Front, and when Hitler came to power in his home country of Germany, he committed himself to resisting every encroachment of the Nazi regime. As the Nazi regime became more entrenched in power, and as World War II descended, Bonhoeffer became acutely aware of the atrocities perpetrated by Hitler. He spoke out against the mistreatment of the Jews, opposing Hitler on patriotic, theological, and ethical grounds. His practice of zealous, peaceful resistance guided his actions and enabled him to stand comfortably on what he believed was right.

But as he became increasingly censored by the regime, and his resistance became less and less effective, he joined the Abwehr, a German intelligence organization that contained a number of members who opposed Hitler. During his involvement, he was aware of various assassination plots against Hitler, which he struggled to reconcile with his pacifist worldview. As he waded through the ethical issues surrounding his associates' actions, he gradually came to the conclusion that “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.”

The decision was a painful one. The conclusion threatened to blow his ethical paradigm to bits. Furthermore, commitment to his newfound belief required incurring the full wrath and fury of a brutal regime. Over the course of agonizing about the morality of his decision, Bonhoeffer wrestled with questions of truthfulness, violence and revenge. But Bonhoeffer ultimately concluded that submission to God's higher commands at times required an apparent contradiction of his lower ones.

During this time, Bonhoeffer began to come around from his cold, distant religion to a personal relationship with Christ. He began to realize the nature of discipleship, and, to borrow the title of one of his books, the cost of discipleship. Bonhoeffer grew to hate the “cheap grace” propagated by the church, arguing instead for what he called “costly grace,” a grace that “confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: 'My yoke is easy and my burden is light.'” Bonhoeffer's inner turmoil was not a question of bravery or cowardice, but rather a process of determining the will of God in his life. Once he found it, he obeyed unflinchingly.

Bonhoeffer was ultimately arrested for his participation in a failed conspiracy to kill Hitler. He was moved from prison to prison, ultimately ending up in a concentration camp, where he was executed on April 9th, 1945, shortly before the capture of Berlin by Soviet troops. A camp doctor who witnessed the execution recounted, “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer... kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

Throughout the final years of his life, Bonhoeffer abandoned himself to Christ. Once he determined what he believed his Savior would have him do, he did it without succumbing to fear of the consequences. He conquered his fear and inner turmoil, displaying a life of Christian virtue. Christians may (and do) contest the ethics of his decision, but none can accuse him of failing to work from a desire to do what was right. He lived a life entirely sold out to God, without fear of reprisals, and I hope that by following his example, the same can be said about me.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." -Matthew 5:10

By Nick Barden

"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." -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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