Scott's Reviews > Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas
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's review
Jun 11, 12

bookshelves: biography-autobiography, church-leadership
Read from May 27 to June 10, 2012

This book was an excellent read. I have read two of Bonhoeffer's major works, Discipleship and Life Together, but had only general familiarity with the man's life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man of remarkable character and moral courage. Standing straight up to the Nazi regime and telling them, "you're wrong" with a strength of conviction that seems far too rare in our time; in fact, I wonder if the consumer Christians of today would ever find such backbone. Bonhoeffer was not without his struggles; shortly before he made his final commitment to fight to the bitter end, he retreated to America where he could easily have found a cushy academic post and sat the war out entirely. He was instantly beside himself, however, realizing he would betray his beliefs and his brothers in the Confessing Church if he stayed away. In under one month, he was on his way back to Germany. He knew he was likely going to his death, and it turned out he was right about that.

One of the intriguing points of his life was that upon returning to Germany, he joined in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. It might surprise some that such a saintly man embrace such a goal. He never held a gun, but he did lend pastoral support and his insight to those carrying out the plans. He also joined the Abwehr (German military intelligence), a group that was solidly against Hitler and which contained a great number of the conspirators. He would supposedly use his pastoral contacts to gather information about the Allies for the good of the Third Reich, but in fact he appealed to his ecumenical friends for support from the Allies for this group that wanted to eliminate Hitler. I learned the sad and shortsighted fact that Churchill and Roosevelt didn't give these courageous men even the slightest modicum of support. Churchill's modus operandi was to paint Germans in general as demon-spawn, so to motivate his countrymen to fight to the last. The concept that there were many good and virtuous Germans fighting against the Nazis just couldn't be allowed much circulation. It might have diluted the Allied resolve. For the most part, the conspirators were on their own. Who knows: if they had received some advice and materiel from the British, their assassination attempts may have been successful; the Nazis may have folded earlier and with fewer atrocities committed. We can only speculate.

As paradoxical as it may seem for Bonhoeffer to join a group dedicated to killing Hitler, he was at peace with doing so. He showed a tremendous solidarity with the Jewish people, against whom Hitler and his ilk were committing the most evil monstrosities imaginable. He believed that the Jews were God's people, and that Christians had an obligation to stand with them and fight for justice. To end Hitler's life was to stem the tide of God's children being slaughtered, and to strike a blow against evil itself. The young pastor knew his course, and was quite prepared to follow it until his death. He even made many preparations for that eventuality, and long before his imprisonment ever happened.

Once he had been imprisoned, the man positively beamed with peace and goodwill toward his fellow captives and even his jailers. He constantly brought encouragement and lightened the mood of everyone around him. Before long this man who, by the book, should have been kept locked in his cell and prevented from contact with others was allowed to roam about the prison and offer pastoral support to anyone who needed it. Even on the long and noxious journey to Flossenburg, where he would face the noose, he was completely at peace. He shared the few pleasantries he'd saved (bread, cigarettes) with everyone on the journey with him, and kept them constantly encouraged. A British officer who had been captive with Bonhoeffer, and later released, found the Bonhoeffer family later and told them, "He was, without exception, the finest and most lovable man I have ever met."

Bonhoeffer kept his appointment with the gallows, radiating the sort of peace and joy that completely astounded everyone who witnessed. The prison doctor could not help but write about what affected him so by Bonhoeffer's witness:

I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. 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.

What an amazing testimony! As Christians, we are challenged by Bonhoeffer's example. Would we be so courageous and consistent about our convictions? Would we even face death with peace and joy? Bonhoeffer thought it was a privilege to be counted worthy to suffer for Christ. Would we? Bonhoeffer was absolutely dedicated to daily prayers and readings from the Word of God. He spent so much time in God's presence before his season of suffering that he experienced God's presence and comfort powerfully when the fateful hour came. So many Christians today are so "busy," and can't be bothered to spend time with God apart from an hour on Sunday. If we would be called to surrender our lives for what we believe, could we face death with such equanimity? Could we reject all bitterness and violence, to face our own deaths with nothing but love in our hearts? I wonder.


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05/27/2012 page 176
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