Dietrich Bonhoeffer became well known because of his refusal to accept that the regime of Adolf Hitler in Germany was in the interests of the Christian faith. He paid the price, being hanged in Flossenburg concentration camp three weeks before Hitler’s suicide and the end of the Second World War. He had studied theology, and before ordination went on a student exchange to the U.S.A. There he saw at first hand the evils of racism, without knowing how relevant that would be in the life of his own country.
After ordination he lectured at the University of Berlin and found his talk of peace to be unpopular; but his heart lay with the confirmation class he led for 50 boys from a slum estate. The Church in Germany was riddled with nationalism, anti-Semitism and compromise. Eventually Bonhoeffer withdrew to a Lutheran church in London, but he knew that he must return to Germany.
On his return he became the director of a Confessing Church seminary, responsible for 25 young men whom he tried to raise in community. They dispersed when the Nazis closed the seminary, but studied under Bonhoeffer in secret, assessing the ‘cost of discipleship’ (the title of one of his most important books). As Bonhoeffer withdrew to America, the net was tightening around the Jews in Germany, and he knew he would have to return again, although as a pacifist he would almost certainly face death.
He worked for the resistance and was part of a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. But it was his evasion of the call-up for military service that led to his arrest. He wrote to his parents and his fiancée when he was allowed to. He supported and prayed for his fellow prisoners. Perhaps he died because of his political convictions and not as a Christian martyr, but he would have said there was no distinction between the two.
Some of his words lie at the heart of our ‘new monastic’ movement:
The renewal of the church will come from a new type of monasticism, which has only in common with the old an uncompromising allegiance to the Sermon on the Mount. It is high time men and women banded together to do this.
Lord, sometimes I find it very hard to do the right thing as I know it to be in Your eyes. I know it will hurt or disadvantage me, destroy my reputation or impoverish me, and I am afraid. Strengthen me by the example of my fellow Christians of old who have been true to You to the end, and show me, as You showed them, that You will never leave me nor forsake me. Amen.