Wednesday, May 21, 2014


The subtitle of the 2010 biography by Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, only begins to define who Dietrich Bonhoeffer was. One might also add Writer, Friend, Family Man, Theologian and a few others. Metaxas gives due attention to each of these dimensions to Bonhoeffer's short life. He was executed by the Gestapo, under direct orders from Adolf Hitler, in 1945 just weeks before the end of World War II. Bonhoeffer, the devout German pastor, had played a role, however small, in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

Quite early in Bonhoeffer's career he preached a sermon in which he said, "if you want to find eternity, you must serve the times." The times in which he served were among the worst in history. He was a patriotic German, a member of a prominent family, during Hitler's rise to power. Most of his colleagues in the German church were slow to recognize Hitler for who he was, never really believing he might do any of the things, such as the persecution of the Jews, he hinted at doing. Bonhoeffer, the prophet, was among the first to warn German Christians that they would have to take a stand. It is something of a wonder Bonhoeffer survived as long as he did.

Yet he had plenty of opportunities to get out of Germany before war broke out and before it was too late. He made trips to the United States, England and elsewhere, and he was offered positions that would have kept him out of harm's way. Yet he felt his place was with his people in Germany. He cut short his last trip to the U.S. because of his eagerness to return to his friends and family.

The success of the Metaxas biography may have been something of a surprise. Long biographies of theologians do not often turn into bestsellers. That this one did is a testament both to the biographer's skill as a writer and to the power of Bonhoeffer's life. I notice that another Bonhoeffer biography has just been published, but I'm sure the man life was important enough to deserve even more attention.

The church I attend in Largo, Fla., has what is called the Cloud of Witnesses, dozens of busts of prominent men and women of the faith, from Moses to Martin Luther King, that surround the sanctuary. One of these belongs to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor, martyr, prophet and spy.

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