Shafts of Light, III: Dietrich Bonhoeffer
O God, why do you cast us off forever?
Your foes have roared within your holy place;
they set up their emblems there.
At the upper entrance they hacked
the wooden trellis with axes.
And then, with hatchets and hammers,
they smashed all its carved work.
They set your sanctuary on fire;
they desecrated the dwelling place of your name,
bringing it to the ground.
They said to themselves, “We will utterly subdue them”;
they burned all the meeting places of God in the land.
Yet God my King is from of old,
working salvation in the earth.
You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
You cut openings for springs and torrents;
you dried up ever-flowing streams.
Yours is the day, yours also the night;
you established the luminaries and the sun.
You have fixed all the bounds of the earth;
you made summer and winter.
So there are five stained-glass windows in the Malott Chapel—four Christian virtues and a global organization. There’s a Patience window. Also Mercy. Alexander Solzhenitsyn is in the Freedom window with Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel.
And so I begin with the somber observation that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is in the Martyrdom window with Martin Luther King and Anne Frank. To begin the story at the end of the story, Dietrich Bonhoeffer would die in a Nazi concentration camp at the age of 39, the same age as Martin Luther King.
He was an unlikely hero, and he was an unlikely pastor. When he and his twin sister Sabine were born in 1906, they were the sixth and seventh of eight children in a home of prodigious privilege. Dietrich’s father was the Chair of Psychology and Neurology at the University of Berlin.
The house was crawling with servants. There was a cook, a gardener, a chauffeur, maids, housekeepers, and a governess for every child. Eight governesses. It must have looked like Downton Abbey. Well, maybe not quite, but almost. The Bonhoeffers had everything to gain and nothing to lose by just going along and getting along with Hitler’s titanic malice.
And here’s the thing. The Bonhoeffers were not observant Christians. They would have been nominally Lutheran, attending church to baptize, marry, and bury, but like most of the aristocratic and academic classes of Germany in the early twentieth century, they were too smart for God.
And so friends and family were shocked when little Dietrich headed for the Lutheran ministry. He was a brilliant student. He earned his Ph.D. degree at the University of Berlin at the age of 21; yes, 21. He spoke and/or read Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, and Italian but was terrible at English, even though he visited the United States twice and read theology at Union Seminary in New York.
Enough with the drab details. I will cut to the chase. It was as if Fate or Destiny or Providence or some extraterrestrial principality had foreordained from the beginning of time that these two polar opposites would crash into each other in a colossal collision. One believed in the primacy of spiritual, unearthly power; the other in the supremacy of goose-stepping Storm-Troopers, Panzers, V-1 rockets, Luftwaffe, U-Boats, and the naked power of seething hatred.
Adolph Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. Two days later—two days—a 26-year-old Bonhoeffer goes on the radio to denounce that decision. The German nation was desperately searching for a capable Führer—a Leader, Savior—to lift them up out of the humiliation and brokenness that had commenced in 1919 at Versailles.
But the Reverend Bonhoeffer warned his German compatriots that a Führer can quickly morph into a Verführer—a Misleader. That radio broadcast is cut off mid-sentence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s loyalty to Jesus of Nazareth was so unbending he could see what was coming from the very first day, and he was almost the only one in the German Church to own this prescience. Three weeks later—three weeks after Hitler became Chancellor—a munitions factory at Dachau was being transformed into the first concentration camp.
Dr. Bonhoeffer saw what was coming. Later that year in 1933 the Nazis went on a book-burning spree. They burned books by, among others, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Sigmund Freud, Herman Hesse, and Heinrich Heine, who’d predicted, 100 years earlier, that “where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people.” Which is exactly what happened.
Five years later, on November 9, 1938, the Nazis took a break from burning books and took instead to burning Jewish shops and synagogues. It would eventually be known as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer loved the Hebrew Psalms. The Hebrew Psalter was his main prayer book; he used it to guide and inform his rich conversation with God. The last book he published in his lifetime was a meditation on the Hebrew Psalms.
In his own copy of the Hebrew Psalms, Dr. Bonhoeffer added a handwritten note to Psalm 74; it was a date; November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht. It is the only such notation in his entire Psalter. Psalm 74 reads: “At the upper entrance they hacked the wooden trellis with axes. And then, with hatchets and hammers, they smashed all its carved work. They set God’s sanctuary on fire; they desecrated the dwelling place of God’s name, bringing it to the ground.” Originally those verses referred to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 587 BC, but Dr. Bonhoeffer also saw them as a prediction of Kristallnacht.
While all this is going on, German Christians and clergy are professing their undying loyalty to Adolph Hitler. On April 20, 1938, the German Lutheran Church required its ministers to swear an oath of allegiance to the Führer: “I swear that I will be faithful and obedient to Adolph Hitler, the Führer of the German Reich and people…” April 20: This oath of allegiance was presented to him as a birthday present.
Obviously, Dietrich Bonhoeffer would never swear such an oath, and that is why he is one of our local saints. This is why he is memorialized in that stained-glass window in the Malott Chapel. This is why even 75 years later his witness is so crucial to our own Christian faith as dual citizens in the Kingdom of God and in the United States of America.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught us that faithful Christians can never conflate the cause at hand with the will of God. We can never put our ultimate trust in a penultimate demagogue. Earthly government is generally God’s gracious gift to God’s earthbound children, but Jesus Christ alone is King and Jesus Christ alone is Lord. Never place an earthly leader at the right hand of God; that’s where Jesus sits, and when we forget that, we might—we might—start by burning books, proceed to burning synagogues, and end up burning people.
All earthly authority is contingent, dependent, provisional, derivative, and temporary. Eighty percent of American evangelicals are still in thrall to Donald Trump. People of good conscience can differ, but it’s the comprehensiveness of that loyalty that is so disturbing.
And it’s not just evangelicals on the right; liberal Christians do the same thing on the left with opposite leaders. You saw all those standing ovations in President Biden’s speech to Congress the other night. Well, at least from one-half of the house.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn tells a great story that would be amusing if it weren’t so sad. At the conclusion of a conference of the Communist Party in Moscow in the 1920's, the Moderator asked for a spontaneous tribute to Joseph Stalin, and of course everyone in the hall instantly leapt to their feet. Standing ovation. On and on it went. Seven minutes. Eight minutes. Nine minutes. No one dared to be the first to stop clapping and sit down. It went on for eleven minutes. Try doing a standing ovation for eleven minutes; your hands will turn red and your arms will be exhausted. Older people were dropping like flies. Comrade Stalin. No one dared to stop. Finally, one of the conveners stopped clapping and sat down, and so did everyone else, but the first person to stop got a ten-year sentence in the Gulag. Christians never pledge allegiance to an unworthy regency, because Jesus Christ alone is sovereign.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s fearless, unflinching discipleship was costly in the extreme. The unworthy regime which demanded but never received his fealty hanged him with piano wire at the Flossenbürg Prison Camp on April 9, 1945, two weeks before the American Army liberated the camp, and 19 days before Hitler himself came to his miserable end. He almost made it.
He never relinquished his faith in God’s goodness. He wrote a poem for his mother and his 21-year-old fiancée the Christmas (1944) before he died:
By gracious powers
So wonderfully sheltered,
And confidently waiting,
Come what may,
We know that God is with us
Night and morning,
And never fails to greet us
Each new day.
It’s become a poignant hymn. It’s mostly in the minor key, but Lisa Bond wants us to note how, on the last chord, the tune shifts to the major, to give us a sense of hope, no matter how dark the present hour.
Jeremy Worthen, “Praying the Psalms and the Challenges of Christian–Jewish Relations: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Thomas Merton,” Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations, SCJR 9 (2014) 1, 10–11.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago: 1918–1956, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), vol. 1, pp. 69–70.