Bonhoeffer: An Indisputably Authentic Witness

By Matt Shinall

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of Tegel prison, summer 1944. Photo: Christian Kaiser Verlag

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of Tegel prison, summer 1944. Photo: Christian Kaiser Verlag

Courageous in the face of evil, hopeful in the midst of modern man’s greatest adversary, seeking first the Kingdom of God; this is the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian, pastor, civil rights activist and martyr.

Imprisoned for dissidence and hung for high treason at the order of Adolf Hitler, Bonhoeffer’s life and death offers today’s church a sobering lesson in standing up for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Christian for Our Time” was the title of a presentation given recently at Berry College by guest lecturer Dr. Charles Marsh, an inspiring reminder of what one man, full of the Holy Spirit, can accomplish.

The distinguished Dr. Marsh has authored a number of books, among them, “Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” The author, in addition to writing his doctoral dissertation on Bonhoeffer’s theological works, spent nearly a decade researching and writing his biography. Traveling the world in the footsteps of Bonhoeffer, Dr. Marsh sought to see the world through his eyes. Spending countless hours in the archives of Berlin’s public library, he became intimately familiar with one of the greatest heroes in modern history.

Born to a wealthy family in Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew from a young age he would become a theologian. He obtained his first doctorate at 21 and his second at 24. He then set off to see the world, study people and learn of God from another’s perspective. He spent time in Italy, Libya, Morocco, Cuba, America and Mexico. He spent six months immersed in the culture of the African-American church. His experiences with racism and class division in the Jim Crow South would profoundly affect his future.

He returned home to find a quickly changing landscape. Men would soon destroy his beloved homeland and attack his very way of life.

Nazis rose to power the same year Bonhoeffer returned to Germany. Hitler was appointed Right Chancellor and overnight, Storm Troopers appeared on the streets of his idyllic hometown.

Already on the path to becoming a well-noted theologian, Bonhoeffer would be defined by the events of coming years and the actions he took despite a cancerous evil threatening to consume the world.

In 1935, Germany passed the Nuremberg Laws institutionalizing Nazi ideology and denying German Jews citizenship and basic human rights. In the days that followed, Bonhoeffer nailed out a response. His quick and decisive actions crystalized what Dr. Marsh calls “an indisputably authentic witness.” Within two weeks of the laws’ passage, Bonhoeffer went on record in protest against the Nazi party and their political efforts against Jews. From this time on, he was a marked man.

Despite his early calling to Christian thinking, Bonhoeffer would not stop at simply writing down his thoughts. He took action. He founded a German seminary devoted to training dissident pastors. Bonhoeffer made no effort to conceal his displeasure with the powers that be.

Bonhoeffer continued to make waves. He knew the only hope for Christianity and the world was to raise up an evangelical confessing church. But his efforts were largely unsuccessful and the German protestant church was nearly fully infiltrated by Nazi sympathizers.

By now a well-respected and internationally-known theologian, Bonhoeffer was offered asylum in America as a visiting scholar. In 1939, he returned to New York to take refuge from the turbulence at home. But it took only one anxious summer for Bonhoeffer to realize he could not wait out the impending disaster befalling his home and his church. After a brief and agonizing stay, Bonhoeffer saw that war was on the horizon and concluded, “I know which decision I must make and I cannot make it in security.”

Bonhoeffer knew the fate of the Christian church rested firmly in the evangelical message of the risen savior and he vowed to not sit idly by while Adolf Hitler dismantled the church, replacing it with a powerless mouthpiece spewing Nazi propaganda.

He knowingly and willingly returned to the lion’s den and faced Satan’s affront head on.

Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned in 1943 and later transferred to a Nazi concentration camp. He was tried for his alleged association with a plot to assassinate Hitler and was hung in April 1945, just two weeks before Allied Forces liberated the camp.

A detailed account of Bonhoeffer’s life is available in Dr. Marsh’s biography among other sources, but from even the briefest of accounts we have much to learn.

We see in this example the unashamed confidence and pride with which a man of God ought to stand up in defense of the Gospel.

And we are reminded that talk is cheap. May we all move to action empowered by the Holy Spirit in the face of evil.

Matt Shinall Matt Shinall is a recovering journalist living in northwest Georgia with his wife, Brielle. He currently works in fundraising at Berry College, a private college in Rome, Ga. 

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