Death of anti-Nazi pastor seen as a sign of hope for justice - news from ekklesia

By staff writers
April 14, 2005

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Death of anti-Nazi pastor seen as a sign of hope for justice


This week marks the sixtieth anniversary of the execution by the Nazis of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who involved himself in the plot against Hitler and is seen by many, Protestant and Catholic alike, as one of the most remarkable theologians of the last hundred years.

Bonhoeffer preferred to return to Germany in the 1930's to be part of the Confessing Church there rather than to pursue safer options in New York, Barcelona and London where he had travelled. He was hanged at Flossenburg on 9 April 1945, just before the end of the war. His body was never found.

The actual day of the anniversary was overshadowed by worldwide attention to the funeral of Pope John Paul II, but Bonhoeffer is still recognised as one of the most important figures in world Christianity and a symbol of hope against injustice.

At the beginning of the month the pastorís death was marked in a simple ceremony at Westminster Abbey, with speeches by the Dean, Dr Wesley Carr, by Pastor Dr Bindewald of the German Evangelical Church (EKD) and by the German Ambassador to Britain, Mr Thomas Matussek.

A statue of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of ten on the Abbey's west front which celebrate the lives of Christian martyrs in the 20th Century, was unveiled seven years ago. He was just 39 when he died, but he has left a personal legacy of faithful courage and a body of challenging writings which are still studied the world over.

Later this year Churches Together in Britain and Ireland will publish a new book by the Rev Dr Keith Clements, General Secretary of the Conference of European Churches, called ëBonhoeffer and Britainí. It charts his time in England and his brief visit to Scotland, and will include new documentary material for scholars as well as a popular overview for the general reader.

Bonhoeffer was an innovative church educator, a great thinker and a person of committed action. In addition to his prison writings, in which he charted the need for Christians to engage afresh with a post-Christendom world, the Lutheran theologian is perhaps best known for his book ëThe Cost of Discipleshipí, which has been reissued regularly by SCM Press.

In it he writes: ìChristianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth...there is trust in God but no following of Christ... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate... Costly grace is the incarnation of God.î

ìIt is difficult to over-estimate the significance of Bonhoefferís life and thought,î Ekklesia research associate Simon Barrow said today. ìSometimes the scale of Christian complicity with Nazism and the smallness of authentic Christian resistance to Hitler are misrepresented when we revere such figures. Sadly they were the exception, not the rule. But they show what true belief is all about.î

He added: ìBonhoeffer saw the suffering the Jewish people in the 1920s and 1930s as definitive for the moral worth of humanity and the theological veracity of the church. In his words and in his blood he identified for all of us the inescapable link between the Christian message and opposition to all manner of injustice and violence. Like Jesus who he followed, Bonhoeffer was executed as a criminal. But his hope was in the God who gifts us a life that cannot be contained by the power of death.î

Dietrich Bonhoefferís legacy is not easy either for churches or for states. In Germany there are still some, including those deeply shamed by the Nazi legacy, who find it difficult that he took on the mantle of treason in his opposition to Hitler. In Britain, his pleas via Bishop Bell of Chichester for serious support for the German resistance were ignored by the Churchill government.

In the international ecumenical movement Bonhoeffer made waves against the search for easy unity with his pleas against the German National Church for bending the knee to Nazism.

He also decided eventually to compromise his personal piety and his passionate belief in the non-violence of the Gospel by becoming a minor player in the plot to kill Hitler. But he did not seek to justify himself theologically, preferring instead to throw himself on Godís mercy.

ìAs Bonhoeffer saw it, the wheels of monumental injustice and genocidal violence had to be spiked, and for this he was prepared to give his life,î says Ekklesiaís Simon Barrow. ì9 April is unlikely to remain a date most remembered for Bonhoefferís execution, but his witness is at least as strong as those whose passing is marked with great pomp and circumstance.î

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