Dietrich Bonhoeffer - 70 years after his execution.


Posted by Julie Edensor on 9 April 2015 | Comments

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"This is the end - for me, the beginning of life." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, April 9, 1945

Above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey are arrayed ten great statues of the martyrs of the Church. Not Peter, Stephen, James or the familiar names of the saints sacrificed during the great Roman persecution before Constantine's conversion. No: these are martyrs of the twentieth century, when the age of faith was, in the minds of many in the West, already tottering towards its collapse.

One of those honoured above the Great West Door is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, pastor and peace activist. Bonhoeffer is, without doubt, one of the men we must admire the most in the history of the twentieth century. He was a man of faith. He was a man of reason. And above all, he was a man of action who wrote prophetically in 1937 that "when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." For Bonhoeffer, whatever the personal cost, there was no moral alternative other than to fight the Nazi state with whatever weapons were at his disposal.

On April 9 1945; just days before the US army would liberate Flossenburg prison where he was being held, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged. Bonhoeffer had lead the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany and was just 39 when he died.

Bonhoeffer was outspoken in his opposition to the Nazis and was willing to speak out not just about Hitler's dictatorship but also his euthanasia programme and the Jewish holocaust. Bonhoeffer had many opportunities to escape Germany; yet deliberately chose to continue his work serving the Confessing Church, a group of churches that refused to allow their pulpits to be used for Nazi propaganda. In 1943, just after getting engaged, Bonhoeffer was arrested and taken to Tegel prison and then later to Flossenburg where he was exectuted.

Bonhoeffer was a pastor, theologian and poet. His theology fuelled his political engagement and it cost him his life. Through his writings he remains a powerful prophetic voice to the church. Alongside CS Lewis he is one of the world's most quoted theologians; his personal courage and martyrdom bring authenticity to his challenging words. 70 years on from his death, it is vital that his call to costly and courageous discipleship is still heeded.

The following hymn was written by him in the concentration camp, shortly before his death.

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
  And confidently waiting come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning,
  and never fails to greet us each new day.

Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented,
  Still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
Oh, give our frightened souls the sure salvation
  for which, O Lord, You taught us to prepare.

And when this cup You give is filled to brimming
  With bitter suffering, hard to understand,
we take it thankfully and without trembling,
  out of so good and so beloved a hand.

Yet when again in this same world You give us
  The joy we had, the brightness of Your Sun,
we shall remember all the days we lived through,
  and our whole life shall then be Yours alone.

This hymn appears in the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal (695). The translator is F. Pratt Green (1903- ) listed in hymnal indexes sometimes under Green and sometimes under Pratt Green. The translation copyright is Hope Publishing Company 1974.

I believe that today, Bonhoeffer would be traumatised by the lukewarm and politically compliant Christianity on offer from the televangelists of the twenty-first century. Bonhoeffer's vision of Christianity and politics was for a just world delivered by social action, driven by personal faith.


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