“Jesus does not call men to a new religion, but to life.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer July 18th 1944
Martyrdom is in many ways generally associated with the early Church. In those days it was dangerous to confess a belief in Jesus Christ. It is therefore a shocking fact that martyrdom is still a part of life in our world today. The number of martyrs in the 20th century is so high that no other previous century can compete.
It is hard to believe that people are still killed for their convictions. But this is a fact, even though it is a disturbing one.
When we describe the identity of the Church we often speak of the communion, the witness and the diaconical work. In Greek this would be the koinonia, the martyria and the diaconia. (???????a, µa?t???a, d?a????a). The surprising fact is that the witnessing of the belief in Jesus Christ, the word martyria, means sacrificing one’s life. Originally it meant a witness, but this witnessing is integrated with life and death. You can not witness to your faith in Christ without risking your life – this is what we learn from the old Christian language.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged naked on the 9th of April 1945. We believe that this was carried out on the direct order of Adolf Hitler. In the early morning in the concentration camp of Flossenbürg he was hanged together with some other anti-Nazis.
He was born in 1906. He grew up in a bourgeois family. His father was a professor of psychiatry. During his childhood and youth the family grew and lived in an atmosphere of great openness. His family encouraged many different kinds of culture. Music, theatre, dance and literature were all highly appreciated. There is much evidence of the great cultural enthusiasm in the professor’s home in Berlin. Religion was, however, scarcely on the daily agenda. The fact that Dietrich wanted to be a theologian was therefore a surprise to the family. Christian faith was accepted as self-evident but the family seldom participated in the life of the Church. Dietrich’s grandfather on his mother’s side was a professor of theology but as far as we know this did not have any great influence.
But when Dietrich’s elder brother Walter died in the First World War the atmosphere in the family changed. His mother’s mourning was unlimited and she withdrew into herself so that no-one was able to reach or comfort her.
When Dietrich was fourteen years old and in school together with his classmates, they asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. “I want to be a theologian and I will write about death.” He is supposed to have said these very words. But this was hardly acceptable to his family. In their scientific atmosphere theology was rather neglected.
But Dietrich wanted to write about death. He never actually wrote any book with this theme but on the other hand it can be said that all his writings have a tendency to deal with suffering and death.
As an eighteen year old he went to Rome with his elder brother Klaus. Certainly they enjoyed the city. Dietrich however was deeply influenced by the face of Laokoon, the antique statue in the Vatican museum. Laokoon is a giant man mourning the fact that his sons are dying as he himself is dying. In Rome Dietrich also met the Catholic church. Many evangelical theologians would at that time be sceptical of the Catholic liturgy. Bonhoeffer on the other hand saw the universal church. He recognized the worldwide church in the Easter liturgy when he saw people from Africa, Latin America partaking in the same procession as the Europeans. This was something new for him and it influenced his entire thinking.
As a 21 year old theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer became a Doctor of Theology. In Berlin this was rather unusual and his dissertation was highly praised. He suddenly became a rising star in the theological world. Karl Barth quoted him extensively in his Dogmatics.
He travelled to Barcelona, to New York and to a lot of European cities for research, for ecumenical meetings. But finally he was employed by the Abwehr, the secret service of the military in the Nazi regime. Strangely enough this military organisation was very anti-Hitler. And it was from this group of people that the proposal to assassinate Hitler arose. Bonhoeffer was the only theologian in the group.
In his many books he developed a theological thinking that astonished and captured people. He was really an original, far from making copies of the old theories. Certainly he was influenced by Karl Barth but very soon he went his own way.
His main book – according to himself – the Ethic, was never completed. It could be seen as a sign. His thinking was never completed. He never wrote a dogmatic from creation to heaven. His writings are more articles and contributions in specific situations.
In his Ethic he developed a thinking on human beings that is still worth quoting and reflecting upon.
If Jesus Christ is the true man and if Jesus Christ has shown us who God is, there can be no higher goal for a human being than to be a true and real man. This is a central thought in his thinking.
Human beings can not be thought of as an abstraction. In that case man will be only a thought. Then you will deny the existence of man. Every man is flesh and blood, and it is in flesh and blood that man fulfils his or her vocation, or fails to do so.
God is not an abstraction either. That would be to deny the living God. Man and God are bound together through Jesus Christ. In Jesus God became man and therefore all human beings are blessed. Every relation between human beings is a relation to God. And every relation to God is a relation to other people.
God is on man’s side against all her judges. God has really shown his solidarity towards mankind, towards the real man.
The threat against the real man is impending. Powers of all kind want to destroy him. The attack is aimed at the real man. There will be two sides in this attack, both are connected and crucial. Either the real man is seen with despise or the real man is divinised. In both cases the real man is neglected.
In youth man is often tempted to see his or her life in dark colours. The meaning of life is weak if there ever is any meaning with life. But in next moment the youth will lift his or her head and look upon himself or herself with completely different eyes. Now the youth is overestimating himself or herself. Everything is possible and the youth regards himself or herself as the centre of the world.
These two positions – the bottom or the highest possible position – are both expressions of a denial of the real man.
But God does not love an ideal man or a diminished man. God loves the human being as he or she really is. God loves the real world, not a fantasy world.
When a human being meets Jesus Christ, he or she is meeting the Saviour at eye level in order to help the person to be himself or herself.
This is a controversial issue in the history of theology. For Bonhoeffer there can be no other solutions. The main goal for a human being is to come home to himself or herself.
In one of his letters from prison he writes: “Before God and with him, we live without God.” (July 16th 1944)
Many interpreters have had great difficulties in understanding these words. They have said that Bonhoeffer is not thinking clearly here or that he means the last “god” in quotation marks.
I think that he means exactly as he writes. With God every human being, or every friend of Jesus Christ, will experience the darkness, the forsakenness, the abandon, the loneliness.
We tend to forget the prayer of Jesus on the cross when he cries out: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Maybe it is impossible to understand the depth and mystery of reconciliation and forgiveness if we deny the forsakenness. What Jesus experienced can be the experience of every man and woman any day.
The attempt to assassinate Hitler was a failure. The attempt on the 20th of July 1944 meant a lot. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer it must have meant even more. Now he knew that there could be arguments against him as a spy or traitor to the nation.
The first letter we have in his writing, after he had received the message of the assassination failure, is dated the 21st of July 1944. He is writing to his friend Eberhard Bethge.
He can for obvious reasons not mention his feelings concerning the failure. But for the first time he is certainly aware that his life may end in a Nazi concentration camp.
He writes and remembers a conversation he had in New York several years before.
In a café in New York he met his friend and they were both young and prosperous as theologians. We know today that the other one was a reformed pastor. This man raised the question of what they both wanted to be.
The French reformed theologian, whose name was Jean Lassarre, asked all of a sudden: “What do you want to be in the future?”
Dietrich did not know how to answer. The French pastor said: “I want to be a saint!” And Bonhoeffer replied that he would surely become a saint.
In those days at the café Dietrich was not sure what he wanted to say.
Now, in prison, he is convinced. He knows what to say:
“Later I discovered and am still discovering up to this very moment that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to believe. One must abandon every attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, a converted sinner, a churchman (the so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one.”
He wanted to become a real man.
Because Jesus called him not to a new religion,
but to life.