3 Encouragements from Reading Bonhoeffer

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Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In January I joined up with a fellow blogger who was hosting a read-along of Bonhoeffer’s biography by Eric Metaxas with the understanding that we would post our thoughts on the first half of this book on February 15 and then do the same for the second half of the book today.

The second half of the book covers about the last 10 years of Bonhoeffer’s life, 1935-1945, which are the years of Hitler’s rule over Germany, as well as the German occupation of many surrounding countries.

Bonhoeffer’s battle against this evil had already begun before these years, but the Nuremberg Laws that were issued in 1935 forced the different factions of the German church to begin to oppose Hitler with more combined effort. There was a new drawing of lines in the sand.

I learned so much from reading this book, but I have tried to organize my thoughts along three different ideas. These encouragements represent where I personally have been most inspired by Bonhoeffer’s story.

3 Encouragements from Reading Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

1. To stand up for the rights of those who cannot stand up for themselves is our responsibility as Christians.

The author states that Bonhoeffer believed it was the role of the church to speak for those who could not speak. To outlaw slavery inside the church was right, but to allow it to exist outside the church would be evil. So it was with the persecution of the Jews by the Nazi state.

Bonhoeffer began to speak out about Christians who would not stand up for the rights of the Jewish people: Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.

It is common for me to read about human rights abuses in the world. I follow Human Rights Watch. I’ve read A Problem From Hell, which is about the evolution of the term Genocide and its application to six different situations in the last century. But lately, I’ve been reading about North Korea and the consistent atrocities perpetuated by the regime against the common people in that country. And I wonder if in today’s information age where we can know so much more about the world than was known to us in Bonhoeffer’s day, we have created ways of being desensitized to the world’s suffering.

For many people in the US and the rest of the world, the atrocities of Auschwitz were not known until well after the war was over. However, labor camps in North Korea are visible on Google Earth images. People have been tortured, starved and worked to death in these camps for the last fifty years, whereas Nazi concentration camps were shut down after three to five years.

I wonder if in one hundred years, children will study these places and wonder why their parents and grandparents didn’t do anything to stop them the same way I read about the WWII rounding up of the Jews and wonder.

Somehow it is easier to look back at the past and feel that I wish I could have done something to stop a historical atrocity than it is to pay attention to someone who is in need of my help today.

So would it be right to say in our day that,

Only he who cries out for the North Koreans may sing worship songs on Sundays.

It sounds a little more offensive than Bonhoeffer’s quote, doesn’t it? A little more in your face.

But you can be sure Bonhoeffer’s words were as in your face as you could get in his day. We read about him now as a hero, but many of his own contemporaries felt that he was out of his mind.

And in fact, maybe he was just a little bit crazy.

There are so many details in Bonhoeffer’s story that give me comfort as a wandering pilgrim in this world. Which brings me to my second encouragement.

2. Our journeys in this world (both spiritual and physical) are long and winding roads, full of unpredictable twists and turns that sometimes make no sense at all. 

At one point, when the danger was closing in on him in Germany, Bonhoeffer managed to secure a teaching position in the US in order to leave the country. Before reading his whole story, I felt that it was so tragic that he left the United States to go back to Nazi Germany, only to be captured and killed. However, the book reveals that he was completely tortured by his decision to seek safety in another country while so many others were without that option and were fighting an intellectual, theological and physical battle for good in Germany. He was in the US for only a few weeks before he resigned his position and returned to Germany, even though it seemed that before he left Germany, taking the position in the US was the best next step for his life.

This incident in the book is so encouraging to me, because I find myself praying so fervently for guidance from God about specifics in our lives. I want to know where and when and how. I want to understand what’s next. But our spiritual journey does not always follow a linear, sensible path.

It can include an arduous boat ride and grand move to another country that may not last as long as planned. In fact, our lives includes detours that may not ever make sense to us.

What an encouragement to so many of us who are seeking to do right in the world that when we look back on our lives, the things we feel were a waste, may have fulfilled a grander purpose. Equally encouraging (though sometimes frustrating) is that we don’t have to understand the grander purpose in this lifetime. I just have to keep moving forward the best that I know how and seeking the next step.

3. We need not fear death.

I have realized in the last year how insulated I am from the reality that all people, sooner or later, die. My grandmother’s death in December is the first time I have been torn in two by the death of a loved one. I have grieved death, but my grandmother’s departure from this world was different. Even though she lived a long, wonderful life and died as triumphant a death as I could ever imagine, her being gone leaves me feeling lost in the night.

I suppose that it is because of this recent reality that I have paid closer attention to people who die with dignity and without fear. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The doctor at the camp where Bonhoeffer was executed was especially moved by Bonhoeffer’s last hours on this earth, saying that, 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.

The last pages of Bonhoeffer’s biography have stayed with me in the weeks since I finished it, affirming this truth that death is not something we need fear as Christians.

Even if millions have seen Bonhoeffer’s death as tragic and as a prematurely ended life, we can be certain that he did not see it that way at all. In a sermon he preached while a pastor in London, he said:

No one has yet believed in God and the kingdom of God, no one has yet heard about the realm of the resurrected, and not been homesick from that hour, waiting and looking forward joyfully to being released from bodily existence.

Whether we are young or old makes no difference. What are twenty or thirty or fifty years in the sight of God? And which of us knows how near he or she may already be to the goal? That life only really begins when it ends here on earth, that all that is here is only the prologue before the curtain goes up–that is for young and old alike to think about. What are we so afraid when we think about death?

Death is only dreadful for those who live in dread and fear of it. Death is not wild and terrible, if only we can be still and hold fast to God’s word. Death is not bitter, if we have not become bitter ourselves. Death is grace, the greatest gift of grace that God gives to people who believe in him. Death is mild, death is sweet and gentle, it beckons to us with heavenly power, if only we realize that it is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace.

How do we know that dying is so dreadful? Who knows whether, in our human fear and anguish we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly, blessed event in the world?

Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.

Though some might find these words super morbid, they were spoken in an age where everyone had lost loved ones in their prime, by illness or in war. I imagine these words to be salve to the hurts that both constant and imminent deaths were incurring.

For me, to have lost my grandmother has meant that I have begun to hold a little closer to death. I see it coming in a way I did not before. Not just for me, but for others that I love. But Bonhoeffer’s life and words help me not to panic. I love that he says that we can actually transform death.

I am left wondering how this transforming of death will change my living. In light of Bonhoeffer’s life, I am asking lots of questions of my own.

 

 

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