On Feb. 4, 1906, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born to his parents, Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer in what today is the city of Wroclaw, Poland. He was raised and educated a Lutheran, receiving a degree from the University of Berlin when he was 21 and a Master of Divinity from Augustana Divinity School.
In 1930 he traveled to New York City where he studied at Union Theological Seminary in Harlem. While he was there, Bonhoeffer began to see things “from below” meaning from the perspective of those who are suffering from poverty and social injustice. He was transformed form being a man who loved to study Christianity from its intellectual side to a man driven to carry out the teaching of Christ, particularly those found in the Sermon on the Mount. On November 15, 1931, he was ordained at St. Matthews Church in Berlin. Just two years before Hitler came to power.
Hitler immediately called for new church elections, which were rigged so that Nazis would gain control. In opposition to the Nazis, Bonhoeffer formed the “Confessing Church.” The Confessing Church doctrine was to keep spiritual matters in the hands of the church and not the government. Bonhoeffer and others objected to the Nazi nationalist church which removed most of the Old Testament (too Jewish), forbade anti-Nazi sermons and writings, and created a more anti-Jewish Jesus.
Bonhoeffer’s stance lead to his being ostracized from most religious circles in Germany, so he went to London for two years to write and “spend some time in the desert.” In1935 he returned to Germany hoping to create an underground seminary, which would teach the principles of the Confessing Church. In August of 1936, he was declared a “pacifist and an enemy of the state.” A year later Himmler declared the Confessing Church to be illegal. Over the next two years, Bonhoeffer did his teaching and preaching in secret. He also wrote his most famous work The Cost of Discipleship, a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount.
In June of 1939, afraid of being drafted into the German army, Bonhoeffer fled to the U.S. He did not stay long. He felt his place and his battle for the Church was in Germany.
Once in Germany, he learned that he was not allowed to speak to any group or publish any writings. He joined the anti-Nazi underground and had knowledge of some of the attempts to assassinate Hitler. Over the next two years he served as a courier for the German resistance.
On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned in Tegel military prison for 18 months awaiting trial. He continued to write and many of his essays and letters were smuggled out by sympathetic guards.
In July, 1944, a bomb went off in a conference room nearly killing Hitler. Bonhoeffer was implicated in the conspiracy along with 7000 others including Irwin Rommel. In February, 1945, He was moved first to Buchenwald concentration camp and then to Flossenburg concentration camp in Germany north of Munich near the Czech border.
Bonhoeffer was condemned to die in a kangaroo court on April 8, 1945. He was tortured and hung the next day, just two weeks before American troops liberated the camp. Witnesses say he went to his death bravely and prayerfully.
The next time you hear someone say that an athlete or a rock star or a wealthy CEO or a political pundit is his hero, roll your eyes, shake your head, and tell him about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.