I hope you’ve been tuning into our three-day program with best-selling author, Eric Metaxas. We’ve been discussing his biography of Nazi resistance leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer, titled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.
The Road to Freedom
From beginning to end, the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer reads like something of an implausible if not impossible script:
A dashing young German genius receives his Ph.D. in theology at the tender age of 21, assumes a pastoral role, visits the U.S. only to find a leading New York City seminary teaching a flabby faith of cheap grace. He returns home and upon Hitler’s ascent to power openly confronts and condemns (on radio!) Nazism as being incompatible with Christianity. Yet just as Hitler is poised to march on Poland in 1939, the 33-year-old Bonhoeffer escapes to America.
He is quickly consumed by guilt, and returns just 26 days later on the last passenger ship allowed across the Atlantic. Stepping back onto German soil, he slips on the mask of a patriotic, intellectually eccentric pastor. It’s a ruse. In reality he is a double agent contributing to several plots to undermine and assassinate the Fuhrer. Eventually arrested, imprisoned and sentenced to death for treason, he walks coolly and calmly to the gallows. In the dank morning fog of April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer exhibits no fear; he sees his death as both an end — and more importantly, the beginning of true life.
That his biographer is Eric Metaxas, a lithe, witty and elegant writer, who once wrote for Veggie Tales, might strike some as strange. That is until the reader realizes that in Bonhoeffer the talented Metaxas has found his ideal complement and companion to his first and bestselling biography, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery.
Whereas Wilberforce openly confronted and battled the evil of slavery within and beyond his role as a politician, Bonhoeffer tackled totalitarianism as a pastor, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. They both relied on God’s grace and their deep faith to guide and sustain their efforts. In the end, though, neither saw the specific evils (slavery and Nazism) as the source of their respective revolutions. Instead, they saw the culprit as something far more grievous, devious, pervasive and impossible to overcome without faith in Christ: sin.
Years later, the Russian novelist and political dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn summed up what both men saw within their respective eras, and that which we see on parade today: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.”
At the core of the tragic though redemptive story of Bonhoeffer lies a blueprint for Christian involvement in secular government. Metaxas puts to rest any suggestion that a believer is to remain silent when it comes to political policies that contradict faith.
According to Metaxas, Bonhoeffer’s actions show us there are three main responsibilities of the church when confronting evil:
First, it must question the state. In a sense it must call the government to account, and be a voice that speaks out if and when the state is not behaving legitimately.
Second, if the state is harming anyone, it’s the role of the church to help those whom the state is harming.
And thirdly and most radically, if the state is behaving wrongly, it is the role of the church to directly oppose the state.
To the reader, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s story should convict, if not convince, that here lived a man who truly believed what Jesus of Nazareth taught — and who He said He was.
The final and probing question one is left after reading is an all-important retrospective one:
Are we cultural Christians — or are we believers who embrace this martyred man’s main thesis: to “come and die” when called by Christ?