Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who was executed for his opposition to the Nazis. This month, on the 70th anniversary of his death, Germany looked back at his important legacy.
His teachings and writings greatly influenced Christian dissidents in the U.S. civil rights movement, anti-Apartheid activists in South Africa and church-led opposition to communism in eastern Europe during the Cold War. He also contributed to the development of Christian ecumenism.
Mr. Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 in Breslau, a town which today is located in Poland and known as Wrocław. His parents were religious, but not actively practicing and didn’t attend church very often. Their relationship to Christianity was friendly but distant.
Mr. Bonhoeffer’s father was a professor for neurology and psychiatry. When his son told him he wanted to study theology, his response was simply “a shame for you,” son. Later he said that he expected his son to live a quiet pastoral life, but had been “greatly mislead” by that perception.
Throughout his teachings and letters Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted that Christianity and politics are inseparable from one another. And so he helped in a plot against Hitler, a move for which he was later convicted and hanged on April 9, 1945, just three weeks before Hitler committed suicide.
Mr. Bonhoeffer strongly believed that the church and Christians have a responsibility to interfere with secular events and politics when they lose touch with Christian values. The church needs to intervene to underline the government’s responsibility towards the people. The church is also responsible for helping people in the community that become victims of their government, such as refugees today. It also needs to object when things get out of hand.
“The church needs to question whether a government is acting legitimately.”
In his early twenties, Mr. Bonhoeffer studied in Rome, in Tübingen, a small town in Germany, and later graduated with a doctoral degree in Berlin in 1927.
“Then something else happened,” he wrote in a letter to a friend in 1937 about that time, “something that has changed my life. I started to come closer to the Bible. Before that, I had preached many times, and had seen a lot within the church, but I was not yet a Christian.”
He re-discovered the Bible and a new piety when he was confronted with the Nazi regime. He was one of the few who openly criticized the growing anti-Semitism in 1933. That same year, Jewish shops were boycotted and Jews were fired from public offices.
“First of all, (the church) needs to question whether a government is acting legitimately,” he wrote in 1933. “Secondly, it must help victims of the government’s action,” and thirdly, he wrote, the church needs “to attack the spokes of the wheel itself.”
Whoever is religious, needs to be political at the same time, he said.
Mr. Bonhoeffer followed his own teachings when he collaborated in the assassination attempt.
“Who is calling for peace so that everybody is listening?” he asked at a major ecumenical conference in Denmark. “The individual Christian is not able to do that. The powerful of this world can ignore him without words (…) Only the big ecumenical council of the Holy Church of Christ from all over the world can speak in a way that the entire world is listening to the word of peace…”
Since Mr. Bonhoeffer’s death, his writings and preaching have inspired many people worldwide and he is considered one of the most widely read theologians of the 20th century.
His main achievements are the inter-connectivity of religious views. He insists that there is a language of faith and a language of secular dialogue.
According to Mr. Bonhoeffer, Christian laws and secular laws are not separate but the same.
“There is not two realities, but only one,” he said.
If Christians want to face reality and modern times, he said, they need a foundation with clear ethics based on public responsibility.
Video: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Anti-Nazi resistant and resolute hero by Eric Metaxas.
This story first appeared in Die Zeit. Heinrich Bedford-Strohm is the council chairman of the Evangelical Church of Germany. To contact the author: email@example.com