There is plenty that we can learn from the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, especially when it comes to challenging a sleeping, compromising and errant church. He was among the first to see the warning signs about the Nazis, and took a strong stance, which sadly many of his fellow Christians resisted.
Even some of his allies were a bit slow to see the dangers, including Martin Niemoller. Thus Bonhoeffer was acting in a prophetic capacity, sounding the alarm and warning the church not to get too cosy with this new and dangerous regime.
Back in the early 1930s he was sounding the alarm, when very few other believers were even aware of the dangerous path the nation was heading on. And even as believers did become aware of what the Nazis were on about, including their ugly anti-Semitism, too many Christians simply ignored the warning signs or were willing to compromise.
All this is clearly spelled out in the newest and most comprehensive biography of Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas, (Bonhoeffer, Thomas Nelson, 2010). In 600 pages his life story is told in careful detail. It is an extremely valuable book and has plenty of relevance for Christians today.
For those not aware of Bonhoeffer, he was a German Lutheran pastor (1906-1945) who lived a short but significant life. He resisted the liberal theology he grew up with, and sided – for the most part – with Barth and his neo-orthodoxy, over against this theological liberalism.
A theologian as well as a pastor, he spent much of his later years resisting the German embrace of Hitler, and eventually joined in a movement plotting to kill Hitler. He was arrested in April 1943 and spent 2 years in prison before being executed.
The willingness of Christians to compromise and give in to Nazi thinking was a scandal, and Bonhoeffer fought this continuously, often to no avail. Far too many German Christians thought that they could just accommodate or placate the regime. They preferred being wishy-washy.
As Metaxas says, “As would happen so often in the future, he was deeply disappointed in the inability of his fellow Christians to take a definite stand. They always erred on the side of conceding too much, of trying too hard to ingratiate themselves with their opponents.”
He knew this was a dangerous path: “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.” He knew that the true follower of Christ would always be counter-cultural and go against the grain. As he famously said, “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.”
While many church folk did align themselves far too much with Hitler, the myth that he was a Christian is carefully laid to rest by Metaxas. Hitler was an opportunist who was quite happy to use the church for his own ends. As Metaxas puts it:
“What helped him aggrandize power, he approved of, and what prevented it, he did not. He was utterly pragmatic. In public he often made comments that made him sound pro-church or pro-Christian, but there can be no question that he said these things cynically, for political gain. In private, he possessed an unblemished record of statements against Christianity and Christians.”
Yet there were groups like the so-called “German Christians” who basically became apologists for the Nazis. Over against this was the “Confessing Church” which resisted the attempt to Nazify the Protestant churches. In May 1934 they issued the Barmen Declaration which declared the limits of the state.
But this group was sadly always in the minority, and theirs was an uphill battle. He and his allies were always on shaky ground as they spoke out, and far too many other German Christians were just too fearful or unwilling to speak out, especially when they had more of a chance earlier on.
Some of the key lessons for believers today that we get from his life should be rather obvious. The chief one is the willingness to stand up and be counted, even when it is not popular to do so. Indeed, when it is dangerous to do so is the real test of Christian conviction.
But sadly most Christians today would not dare to say boo to a fellow believer, Christian leader, or church – let alone to sin in the world – for fear of being labelled judgmental, intolerant and unloving. No matter how off the rails things may be going, far too many believers are just too fearful or indifferent to speak out.
‘Jesus would never judge anyone’ they will say with monotonous regularity. ‘We must love everyone and never speak ill of anyone’ they chirp. Their bumper sticker clichés roll off the tongue, but they do incredible damage. If this limp-wristed and spineless attitude had been found in Bonhoeffer and his colleagues, they never would have stood against Hitler.
Indeed, they had the same compromisers and appeasers in their day, saying you should not rock the boat, and maybe we can just get along with Hitler. Of course most of us would today recognise that such people were false sheep, not genuine born-again biblical Christians.
But every generation has these so-called believers who seek to silence any prophet and censure any Christian who is willing to stand against the tide. Early on Bonhoeffer preached on Jeremiah, and clearly felt in sync with the prophet. Like Jeremiah, he knew he must suffer and be rejected:
“[Jeremiah] was upbraided as a disturber of the peace, an enemy of the people, just like all those, throughout the ages until the present day, who have been possessed and seized by God, for whom God had become too strong . . . how gladly would he have shouted peace and Heil with the rest.”
All those who seek to live fully for Christ can expect to be treated like Christ, and the prophets of old. Rejection, hatred and persecution was their lot and will be our lot as well. Indeed, the real disciple of Christ can expect no less. In his important 1937 work on discipleship (which in English editions came out as The Cost of Discipleship) he offers much solid meat here.
Perhaps the most famous quote from the book is this one: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Bonhoeffer knew this truth all too well, and that is exactly how his life went, resulting in an early martyrdom. He also spoke about the dangers of “cheap grace”.
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Or as he also said, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ”. He knew full well that to be a true follower of Christ would always be costly, and could not come on the cheap. It seems that is a lesson that so few believers today in the very comfortable West have learned.
They are far too entrenched in, and happy with, the surrounding culture. They don’t want to cause any commotion or ruffle any feathers. Yet all around us ominous signs are emerging of great evil on all sides, and major anti-Christian crackdowns. But few see the dangers or are willing to stir themselves and act.
We simply want our life of comfort and ease, and hope things will not get too bad. But we are simply deceiving ourselves. We are setting ourselves up for a big fall. Indeed, by the time we finally wake up, it will be far too late. As Bonhoeffer’s companion Niemoller so powerfully put it:
“In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
This German pastor spent eight years in prison for being willing to speak out, and narrowly missed execution. Bonhoeffer was of course not so fortunate. But both pastors became fearless advocates for Christian truth in an age of compromise, decadence, tyranny and violence.
The question is, where are the equivalents of these men today? Who will stand up today, and speak boldly against the sins of the surrounding culture, and seek to rouse a dead church from its imminent destruction? We vitally need such people today, or we will lose it all.
(The Metaxas biography is available in Australia at Koorong Books.)