I just finished Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy a great biography of a life worthy of examination. If you do not know Deitrich Bonhoeffer, you should become familiar with his life. Eric Metaxas’ look at his transition from theologian to conspirator in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler is excellent. The process of that transition during perhaps the most challenging time in contemporary history is important reading for anyone looking for insight on applying Christian ethics to life today. The principles that drove Bonhoffer’s decisions were sometimes controversial but provided him remarkable clarity when so many others were being fooled by a charismatic tyrant.
In 1933, within days of Hitler’s election as chancellor of Germany and years before he would become The Führer, the 26 year old Bonhoeffer lectured on the Führer Principle. Although not specifically about Hitler he prophetically warned how this altered concept of leadership would inevitably lead to an idol and a “mis-leader” unable to be held accountable. His prophetic view of the future of German leadership was only the beginning. Before the full nature of the Nazi regime had been revealed Bonhoeffer wrote of “the three ways in which the church can act towards the state:”
- Help the State be the State. Question the State regarding its actions and their legitimacy to help the State be as God ordained.
- Aid the victims of State action. The Church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society – even if they do not belong to the Christian community.
- When the existence of the Church is threatened and the State ceases to exist as defined by God, it is not enough to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.
These controversial principles paved the way for Bonhoeffer to move from confession to political resistance to conspiracy. Between 1933 and 1945 Bonhoeffer’s “three ways” was the blueprint for an increasing political resistance. At a time when patriotism and restoration of national pride after WWI was seducing a nation Bonhoeffer saw the mistreatment of the Jews and the undermining of the Church as the State going astray and spoke out against the Reich Church as it departed from the Gospel. As the situation worsened he spoke out against the Nazis and became directly involved in assisting the oppressed victims of the State. Finally he reached the point where aiding victims was not enough and the moral imperative was to “put a spoke in the wheel” and participate in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler that led to his own execution in the closing weeks of WWII.
We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, and straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Bonhoeffer’s life is worth examining by any student of Christian discipleship.