It’s sobering to think that the horrors of the Second World War took place just a few decades ago. That unimaginable period is indeed uncomfortably close in terms of time.
But as with most periods of such treachery, there are inspiring stories that surface – reigniting a sense of hope of how one life can make such a profound difference in the midst of suffocating darkness.
I’ve just finished a powerful book by acclaimed author Eric Mataxas which follows the life, work, pervasive influence and spiritual journey of German theologian/pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, the book offers a fascinating and gripping account of one man’s personal formation as a spiritual giant and prolific author. But there was much more to the courageous Bonhoeffer.
As Adolf Hitler’s increasingly brutal influence strangled Europe and beyond, Bonhoeffer was horrified to see what was happening to his beloved Germany and to the increasingly persecuted Jewish people.
Over time, Bonhoeffer, who was already a well-respected theologian, pastor and writer in his 20’s, took on different roles to combat the evil of the Nazi regime. He seemed utterly tireless in speaking up for the downtrodden and putting his life on the line to combat the oppression and brutalities he saw around him.
He also wasn’t afraid to face the fearsome Nazis as he fought against their tyranny — even if it ultimately meant giving his own life. There was simply no way he could stand by and watch, and even though he may have felt at times like he wasn’t making a sweeping difference there’s no doubt he ever looked back or was tempted to step away from what he would have considered his calling.
Another driving force in Bonhoeffer’s life was his commitment to the ‘confessing church’ in Germany which held to orthodox Christian beliefs in the midst of Nazi resistance. It was all too easy for some to tow the line and try to pacify the Nazis, but Bonhoeffer would have none of it. He was repulsed by what he called ‘cheap grace’ and held firmly to the notion the church must stand strong on its foundations whatever the cost.
Making the story that much more poignant is that Bonhoeffer could have avoided the suffering. He sailed for the U.S. in 1939 to work in New York City. He planned to stay at least one year, but wasn’t at peace and in a few months headed back to Germany. Ultimately, he became increasingly involved in secret plans to do away with Hitler.
His connection to members of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Office), which had plans to assassinate Hitler, in part led to his arrest in April of 1943.
Not surprisingly, Bonhoeffer paid the ultimate price for speaking up and working so hard to change things. After spending about a year and one-half in prison he was executed at the Flossenberg concentration camp in 1945. He was just 39 years old.
Tragically, the end of the war and liberation weren’t far away.
Bonhoeffer’s literary legacy of course lives on. Many of his titles are considered modern classics, including The Cost of Discipleship, Ethics and Life Together. But the sheer force of his putting a powerful faith into practice also stands out.
It’s also a legacy we could learn much from today. There are people around the world locked in unimaginable oppression – one such example is the ongoing scourge of sexual trafficking. Speaking up against such travesties is a start, as is practically supporting organizations that make it their mission to fight on the front lines of such social justice nightmares.
Bonhoeffer would no doubt have seen it this way. There is always a way to help, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time.
Ultimately, he put it best.
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”