BONHOEFFER – Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas.

Over the years, I have read a couple of biographies and when this book was sent to me by a friend, my reaction was – this is another one of them. My approach to reading biography is always one of caution, I am cautious because I know that everyone likes to look good and as such any biographical work ends up in being an advertisement of how “holier than thou” the subject was. Of course, I do not believe that any human being is a saint, perfect and without blemish!

Thank God that Eric Metaxas did not potray Dietrich as one of these saints, that job was left to the Westminster Abbey who has classified him as one of the 20th Century Martyrs. Eric Metaxas simply led us through the live and times of Dietrich and allows us to end up with the conclusions that we want to make of this life – a gift from God for his generation and our generation.

20th Century Martyrs

Before the German’s murdered democracy with the tools of democracy and the German state became Hitler’s stronghold, the Bonhoeffer family was already an accomplished one with an envious lineage. It was to this family that Dietrich was born, who in 1920 decided to become a theologian! This, to me was his first act of rebellion, At 14, he was already a rebel. A rebel against becoming an accomplished scientist like his dad or a high profile lawyer like his brother Klaus became with Lufthansa. He was a theologian from a family that wasn’t churchgoing. It was to the credit of Paula and Karl Bonhoeffer, Dietrich’s parents that they treated Dietrich’s choice with respect and cordiality.

The entire book, to me highlights the struggle of a man – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who appeared to be a captive of God and it raises the question of how impossible it is to reconcile God’s calling with the popular belief system in the world without being looked at as someone with a nut missing upstairs, just like Jeremiah in the Bible? Obedience to God is simply enmity with the world and enmity with the world will almost always certainly lead to one having to lay down his life. As Henning von Tresckow, one of Dietrich’s co-conspirators in the plan to assassinate Hitler puts it, a human being’s moral integrity begins when he is prepared to sacrifice his life for his convictions. This was an issue that confronted Dietrich, it is the same issue that confronts us all on a daily basis. The bible makes us to understand that though we live in the world, we are not of the world – John 15:19. So like Dietrich, are we willing to lay down our lives in defence of our faith?

Again, in 1933, before many within the German state became conscious that they were far from shore, alone in a boat with a madman (Hitler), Dietrich’s rebellion came to the surface. This time, the church was dilly dallying and a stance need be taken – to be with Hitler, which was the most obvious choice to many and popular, or to support the Jews against the Nazi and the state. The church could not take a stand but Dietrich did. He took a stand. Though he was not a Jew, he would stand with the Jews and hence incur the wrath of the state. It was one that was unpopular but one he took with God. He declared that it was the duty of the church to stand up for the Jews. As if that was not enough, he also put three responsibilities before the church then –

1. It must question the state;
2. It must help the state’s victim and
3. Work against the state, if necessary.

There you have it, the seed of rebellion was germinating and would grow up to be a tree of conspiracy. Let’s contrast this with the stance Martin Niemoller took, a stance that haunted him all his life, and led him to putting together these infamous words:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade unionists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Jew.
And then they came for me –
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Dietrich’s had a calling, one that was quite clear to him. What was not clear to Dietrich, was what the end would be. He wasn’t bothered by it and he needed not to – as he was entirely submissive to the one who had called. Even in the face of imminent death, such was his submission that a co-prisoner testified that he

“saw Pastor Bonhoeffer kneeling on the floor, praying fervently to God…so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer….I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

Isn’t this descriptive of exactly what Jesus did on at Gethsemene? There he cried out to the father and asked

O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. Matt 26:39

Dietrich and Jesus, were entirely submissive. Though they would rather not want to die but were ready to lay down their lives in total obedience to God – if that was what God willed, which happened to be the case for them. Just like Dietrich, we all have our callings and I will argue that it is clear to us. In one place, Jesus spelt it out that we should go into the world and make disciples of all nations. Again, like Dietrich what is unclear to us all is what the end would be to us and we remain bothered by this which we ought not to be, if we believe on him that has called.

On April 9th 1945, Dietrich, this prisoner of the living God was hanged – he had been imprisoned for two years and it was just two (2) weeks before the Allied Forces marched into the same Flossenburg concentration camp and freed all the other prisoners. Listening to Dietrich’s sermon, years back in London in November 1933, one is tempted to conclude that his death finally was freedom to the beginning of a new life. In that sermon he had stated:

“No one has yet believed in God and the kingdom of God, no one has yet heard about the realm of the resurrected, and not been homesick from that hour, waiting and looking forward joyfully to being released from bodily existence.”

I asked myself the question – why did the living God allow Dietrich to die so close to when he could have been liberated and end up doing so much more work for God amongst the living? This question is made more troubling in that this same living God, our God, in his permissive will also allowed Hitler, the evil incarnate, to escape his assassination.

Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, regarding Hitler, said he had searched his conscience

“before God and before myself. This man is evil incarnate….It’s time now for something to be done. He who has courage to act must know that he will probably go down in German history as a traitor. But if he fails to act, he will be a traitor before his own conscience”.

With that in mind, he took the courageous step and planted a bomb – six feet from the Fuhrer’s legs. This was the plan, to which Dietrich and others were co-conspirators. It was to remove Hitler and spare the world the agony and the pain that was being unleashed on it. Yet Hitler would be saved and get more hardened declaring that

“It was Providence that spared me….This proves that I’m on the right track. I feel this is the confirmation of all my work”.

Well, some will argue that maybe Dietrich in this instance did not hear from God. Did God tell him to be part of the conspiracy to remove Hitler? Was it not the same God that prevented David from laying his hands on Saul in a cave in the wilderness of Engedi? Despite the Spirit of God having departed from Saul, David will not put forth his hand against the LORD’s anointed but cut off a piece of Saul’s skirt to evidence that he could have killed Saul? Could God himself not have slaughtered Pharaoh and let the children of Israel go but rather requested Moses to carry out ten signs through which he gradually hardened Pharaoh’s hearts and then laid his hands on Egypt so that they came to know that “He is the LORD”?

It will be difficult to fault such a logic but again God works in mysterious ways. With God allowing Hitler to live, through his permissive will, the world would witness more agony, despair and the death of uncountable numbers of Jews and that of Dietrich in concentration camps. The world will come to know that HE is the LORD and rules in the affairs of man! So why will God permit Dietrich to die and Hitler to live? Would my creator not have demonstrated his mighty powers to the world more by allowing the bomb to blow up Hitler and spare the world the agonies and sufferings to come? So if God had required Dietrich to act on his conviction and be a part of the conspiracy to remove Hitler, should God not have shown up with signs and wonders?

Just stretching my imagination, could it be that God wants him to die as a martyr and not from cancer, after all he was a cigarette smoker? I don’t know the answer but it was God’s will and Dietrich died. The answer to these questions are at the heart of why we have atheist in the world. In the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, the reporting on the sufferings of the Biafran children was what led Steve Jobs out of the church. He never came back and death took him as an atheist or if you like, a Buddist. He just could not fathom why a just God will allow the unjust to flourish in the world and cause much pain and sufferings. The only consolation I have, that we all have, as Christians, is that God’s works are perfect and his ways are just. As Moses puts it in Deuteronomy 32: 3 -4 :

For I proclaim the name of the Lord;
Ascribe greatness to our God!
The Rock! His work is perfect,
For all His ways are just;
A God of faithfulness and without injustice,
Righteous and upright is He.

Through the mouth of Isaiah (Isaiah 55:8-9) God himself said:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

So why do we think we are different and that our calling is not to die in obedience to God? In this was a challenge to me, and maybe to all of us who claim to be a Christian – there are simply no guarantees with the faith we profess. But isn’t there one? Did God not assure us, again through the mouth of Isaiah in Isaiah 43:2 that:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

Yes, there is a guarantee that we will pass through the waters and surely through the fires as well but we will not be consumed. How then does one interpret what the word “consume” mean, seeing that Dietrich died? For Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, they were spared death yet they went through the fire. Their faith was of such that they were prepared and defied the King even if God whom they serve will not deliver them out of the Kings hands. In their case, God showed up for them and delivered them while they were in the fiery furnace. God did not show up for Dietrich, neither did he show up for Jesus – they both died. And then, God showed up. In Dietrich’s case, the world came to know and receive him as a martyr, one of the very few in the 20th century. We all know of Jesus.

So we all do pray and want God in our lives but are we willing to be like Dietrich or be obedient as Christ disipes and live out our calling as Christ-ians – Christ like? Just before we answer and get on our knees for our next prayer, let’s consider Jeremiah. He was just as much flesh and blood as we are, a human being like ourselves? He was entirely submissive to God and yet he went through pains, was mocked, brutalized and generally upbraided as a disturber of the peace, an enemy of the people. He was a prisoner and he had to follow. His path was prescribed and it was the path of the man whom God will not let go, who will never be rid of God. At God’s instructions, he did things that caused him pain and sufferings, was taken captive, held in chain.

Now let us pray, knowing that our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. This is the way Paul puts it in 2 Cor 4:17. this is the only way to look at our trials and temptations while we are still part of this world. Let us pray to be of use to God and that his will, not ours be done. Isn’t that what Jesus commands in the LORD’s prayer?

If all the message of Dietrich’s life is lost to us, one message that should not be lost is that anything short of complete obedience to God is “cheap grace”. Action must follow what one believed, else one could not claim to believe it.

Are we acting out our believe and leaving God to take care of the ending? So Steve G, thank you for sending this book my way and making me another like you – thought provoked and challenged.

One Response

  1. Stephen Goetsch says:

    Bimbo read this on my urging, after I agreed to read and comment on a book he found fascinating, the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.

    First, I want to thank Bimbo both for his detailed insights on the Bonhoeffer book and for urging me to read the Jobs book, since due to my own independent spirit, I might not have picked it up on my own, since I perceived the adulation placed on him on the occasion of his death to be somewhat misplaced. A poor reason perhaps, but I don’t have time to read every book popularly endorsed, and I normally prefer history and non-fiction. Bonhoeffer is both, and Jobs is perhaps almost, both.

    Jobs is my contemporary and I share his name, if differently spelled. He is a product of the San Francisco Bay area, and I attended Berkeley at the same time that Jobs was beginning Apple. I know the locations of Jobs’ narrative, and of course I lived through the evolution of the Apple company from its inception through to the present. My family and I own some 10 different Apple devices, I personally own 3.

    But about the book, and about Steve Jobs. There is much to admire, and much to reject about Mr. Jobs. I feel that the biographer seemed to have the freedom to fully research his subject, and to characterize Steve as accurately as he knew how, warts and all. Such is a testament to both Steve and to his wife, who certainly knew there were warts.

    Steve died as one of the wealthiest people on earth. He did not hesitate to use that wealth when he wanted something; money was rarely an object in anything, especially his personal life. Yet, despite his wealth, he could not bring himself to purchase much furniture for his otherwise expensive home. Wealth was a motivator for Steve, but in an obtuse way. He did not seem to flaunt wealth so much as the freedom to rebel that it bought him, and he rarely applied any of it personally or professionally to promote or support altruistic or charitable ends. He was reluctant to acknowledge or support his own daughter by an early girlfriend. He seemed to love his wife, and she handled him amazingly well. She, with his support, raised his kids in an apparently successful manner. Late in his life he found his biological sister, and in that she is a successful writer, it could be concluded that Steve Jobs’ genes were responsible for enabling much of his success.

    Steve had a lot going for him. His adopted parents loved him and reinforced their commitment to him throughout his life, especially in being willing to send him to college at one of the most expensive, exclusive colleges on the West Coast, despite his lack of conformist discipline. He was brilliantly intelligent, and grew up in a neighborhood filled with people on the cutting edge of the most exciting developments in the history of technology, in the heart of Silicon Valley. He counted as neighbors some of the most highly influential people in the development of computing technology, some as influential as Steve even if less well known. Thus, as Newton (?) once said, he could stand on the shoulders of giants to achieve what he did.

    Steve had a sense of art, and that sense was slavishly devoted to perfection. It would seem that this, combined with his ready access to and capacity to understand cutting edge technology, and his personal propensity to rebel from the normal were all driving forces in his becoming the international icon he became. He wanted things perfect, he wanted things delightful, and he wanted to do things no one else did.

    To achieve his success, however, he engaged in a number of behaviors and activities that most today consider to be counterproductive, and those with moral scruples would less than admirable. He was demanding (not in itself bad), but also demeaning, self glorifying and self promoting, impetuous, profane in word and deed, a drug user, unable to accept competent advice even from doctors if it disagreed with his world view or his private theories on health. He used the “Jobs Reality Warp” to project his positive energy onto others, but abused this often to his loss, including his long denial that his cancer required conventional treatment to end it, only to lose his life because he would not accept that treatment at the necessary time.

    Steve Jobs felt the need to succeed by a high level of control of himself, his company, his product’s design, the people in his life, everything. His life shows that such an approach can be largely successful, there is no denying that. However, it also shows that the same high control approach can undermine success. He controlled his cancer treatment, and eventually died from what was a minor problem. He tried too hard to control Apple, and was ousted for it early on. On the other hand, his approach to Pixar was quite the opposite; trying only to provide the tools to allow his team to succeed.

    As both Bimbo and I share a Christian worldview, this review could not be complete without a discussion of Steve Jobs’ relationship to religion. He claims that early on, because a pastor failed to give Steve a satisfying answer regarding starving Biafran children, Steve rejected all claims of Christianity. One suspects (I admit I do) that rejecting Christian claims on his life was another form of both rebellion against anyone telling him how to live, as well as his innate desire (profoundly obvious in him yet common to some extent in all of us) to control his own destiny. A fair, if ultimately unanswerable question might be how might a Christian faith altered Steve? How might that have changed his life story?

    I can only speculate. There is plenty of evidence that Christian faith is not inimical to success in business. Another biography I have read, “Titan”, about the life of John Rockefeller, documents how strongly his faith informed his life decisions, flawed as they might have been in some cases. We are all flawed, and there is no reason to believe that had Steve Jobs had had faith in Christ, he might have been perfect. Not likely by a long shot.

    With faith in Christ, Steve would have had more personal peace of mind, that is so clear as to be an aphorism. Perhaps he might not have dabbled in drugs, and had he still made sexually immoral decisions, he would have likely been able to recognize his responsibilities earlier and more amicably. Perhaps he would have recognized sooner or more effectively that he could not, or should not try to control things that were not his to control.

    A Steve Jobs with faith might have redirected his wealth toward so many useful endeavors. Rockefeller, a life-long devout Christian, led the way in this regard starting universities, creating the entire field of Public Health (eradicating significant health issues the world over), establishing several National Parks, strong support for minority education. Bill Gates, Jobs’ contemporary, is attempting to combat AIDS with millions of his own money, although Gates may not be doing so from a faith point of view. But faith in Christ goes hand in hand with the idea that you cannot take it with you, that money is to be used for His purposes, not ours.

    Faith might have taught Steve to be kinder to his friends and employees. It is anybody’s guess as to whether this might have made him more or less worldly successful. Certainly, however, the world’s successful people are not all without grace and humanity in their day to day dealings with others.

    Personally, I am content not being Steve Jobs. His insistence on perfection and his clarity of goals I do admire, and actually I take inspiration from him to improve my own thinking in this regard. On the other hand, despite his wealth, he was a lonely man with few close friends, who burned his subordinates, and died from his own stubbornness. On the other hand, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a guy born into wealth and security, and who willingly gave it away for the sake of his brothers and sisters in Christ, his fellow Germans, and the rest of humanity. He took stands early and often against the madness of his generation, much of which has been revived in our own generation, but without his clear, steady unhyped voice. He died happy, if prematurely, trying to save his country (and its victims) from the disaster they eventually brought upon the world. He did it not only through public discourse, and leadership within the world of his calling, but also through his own day-to-day moral and devoted lifestyle. Both Jobs and Bonhoeffer were brilliant thinkers. But I want to be like Bonhoeffer.

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