Bonhoeffer’s Death and a Different Kind of Heroism

This is the end, but for me the beginning.

 

These were the last words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as he faced his death sixty-six years ago today. As a young man, he published a dissertation that the great Swiss pastor Karl Barth called “a theological miracle”. In the midst of the Second World War, Bonhoeffer stood in solidarity with the people of God, doing everything from protecting the hunted Jews to running an illegal seminary at Finkenwalde. He spent nearly his entire academic career working to bring unity and clarity amongst the church leadership since the beginning of Adolf Hitler’s reign of terror. Finally, Bonhoeffer, becoming convinced that the time to act directly for the sake of humanity had come, participated in a plot that came within inches of assassinating the Furher.

 

Bonhoeffer spent the last two years of his life being shuttled between prisons at Berlin, Tegel and the like, before being finally brought to Flossenberg, where he was hanged to death on April 9, 1945. Even in prison, Bonhoeffer composed (although did not finish) what he believed was his most important work, Ethics, which, although incomplete, brilliantly takes his belief that Christ stands for his people and traces it through all of life, from work to euthanasia to a restored humanity.

 

The accounts of his death mainly focus on his strong, almost heroic stance as he walked willingly to his death, fully convinced that God’s will for him was good. Truth be told, Bonhoeffer would slap me for mentioning the word “hero” in the same sentence with his name. He was too aware of his own brokenness to allow this type of self-worship. He trusted in the work of Christ for him too much to praise him for anything- whether his writing, his obedience, his courage or even his remarkable trust in God.

 

 

The summer before his death, Bonhoeffer reflected on his glowing reputation amongst the other inmates. He knew his own heart too well to “believe the hype.” True humility is stunningly beautiful because we see it so rarely.

 

On the sixty-sixth anniversary of our dear teacher entering into life in its fullest, I hope you take a minute and reflect on his words.

 

Who am I? They often tell me that I would step from my prison cell

poised, cheerful and sturdy,

like a nobleman from his country estate.

Who am I? They often tell me I would speak with my guards

freely, pleasantly and firmly,

as if I had it to command.

Who am I? I have also been told that I suffer the days of misfortune

with serenity, smiles and pride,

as someone accustomed to victory.


Am I really what others say about me?

Or am I only what I know of myself?

Restless, yearning and sick, like a bird in a cage,

struggling for the breath of life, as though someone were choking my throat;

hungering for colors, for flowers, for the songs of birds,

thirsting for kind words and human closeness,

shaking with anger at capricious tyranny and the pettiest slurs,

bedeviled by anxiety, awaiting great events that might never occur,

fearfully powerless and worried for friends far away,

weary and empty in prayer, in thinking, in doing,

weak and ready to take leave of it all.

 

Who am I? this man or that other?

Am I then this man today and tomorrow another?

Am I both all at once? An imposter to others,

but to me little more than a whining, despicable weakling?

Does what is in me compare to a vanquished army,

that flees in disorder before a battle already won?

 

Who am I? They mock me those lonely questions of mine,

Whoever I am, you know me, O God. You know I am yours.[1]


[1] Testament to Freedom, p. 514.

 

 

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