Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran bishop who was active in the German underground that opposed Adolph Hitler in World War II Germany. He was among a few of the Germans who knew that Hitler was murdering millions of Jews. He bravely challenged the Christian Church in Germany to stand against this evil, but it did not and ultimately Bonhoeffer paid for his beliefs with his life at the end of a rope.
New York Times best-selling author Eric Metaxas’ new biography on Bonhoeffer has shed new light on a brave Christian and his life still challenges the church to be the church.
Metaxas was in St. Louis recently as a featured speaker at the Education Policy Conference, an annual gathering of conservative leaders from throughout the Midwest. He sat down with Pathway Editor Don Hinkle to discuss his powerful new book.
DH: What compelled you to write the book?
EM: First of all, I felt that God called me to write this book. I didn’t undertake it lightly. Bonhoeffer is a very complex figure, and he has been widely misunderstood, and I didn’t set out to correct some of the wrongs that have been circulated about him, but I found that in telling his story and simply putting the facts in context, what emerges is a rather dramatically different picture of who he was than the picture some have put out there over the decades. So, it ends up being an important book, I didn’t think I was writing something important, but simply by telling the story of this amazing, inspiring man’s life I have, I think, surprised some people.
More specifically, what led me to write it is that my mother is German; my grandfather was killed in the war. What happened to Germany is very personal to me. To answer the questions of what happened to Germany and was there anyone who stood up and did the right thing are personal questions for me. And in telling the story of Bonhoeffer, I feel that I have gotten a lot of answers as to what happened. I think that his story is a story that will actually touch many Germans. It is to be published in German this fall, and is coming out in Germany, and I think it helps Germans understand what happened, but also that there were people who saw what was happening and who were called by God to do something about it.
DH: What do you think Bonhoeffer would say to the 2,000 Southern Baptist pastors in Missouri today given everything that is going on with our culture?
EM: The main thing that Bonhoeffer does is he calls the Church to be the Church. I think that when you read this book, you see him doing that from the beginning all the way to the end. He is calling the Church to actually to be the Church—not to play Church, but to be the Church. To be the Church of Jesus Christ in the world, that’s not something that’s merely cerebral or theological, but it is something that necessitates actually living and acting in the world. If the Church is not translating its theology into action, if the Church is not living what it says it believes, then the Church is actually not being the Church.
Bonhoeffer calls us in a prophetic way to be the Church of Jesus Christ in the world. If the Church is being the Church, the gates of Hell cannot stand against it. But, if the Church is not being the Church, then evil prevails. That is what happened in Nazi Germany, and will happen anywhere that the Church is not actually being the Church.
DH: When you say the Church needs to be the Church, you might explain what Bonhoeffer meant by that.
EM: I would like to think that in the course of the book that’s explained in depth, because it is not an easy thing to answer. The sure answer is that to be the Church we have to have a relationship with the God of the Bible and with Jesus Christ. We can’t simply be moralists, we can’t simply play Church, we actually have to have a relationship with God.We have to obey God. If we do not obey God, then we are not actually people who have faith. Faith and action go together. Faith and obedience go together.
For the Church to be the Church, it means we have to be fully integrated and we have to actually live out what we claim to believe. If we are not living out what we claim to believe, then the bad news is we don’t actually believe it. Then we are (sorry to use the word) hypocrites. To not be a hypocrite, but to actually be a disciple of Jesus Christ, is actually what God created us to do, and when we do that we are being the Church.It is not an easy thing, but it is exactly why we exist, and
I hope Bonhoeffer’s story can serve to inspire us to live that kind of a life.
DH: Reconcile Bonhoeffer’s theology with his role in the planned assassination of Hitler.
EM: Bonhoeffer is not by any means an advocate of violence, but neither was he a pacifist in the contemporary definition. He was somebody who felt just as David felt when he was led to kill Goliath. There are circumstances where we are led by God to do extraordinary things. Bonhoeffer never took lightly the idea of getting involved in the conspiracy to kill Hitler. He was very prayerful and humble about it—extremely humble about it. He wrestled with it over many years, and we have to understand he knew that he was one of the few Germans that actually knew what was happening in Germany to the Jews. Most Germans had no inkling of what Bonhoeffer knew. Bonhoeffer knew to some large extent the great tragedy of how many Jews were being killed. So he felt a real compulsion to think more deeply and to say: “is it possible that God was asking me to get involved in the conspiracy? Is it possible that God was asking me to not just think about it or preach about it, but to actually get involved?”
It was something he did with a heavy heart. He was not happy about it, but he felt God called him to do it. I think that in the full story of the book that will come clear to the reader, that this was not a light decision by any means for this man.
DH: How would Bonhoeffer view separation of Church and state?
EM: He had mixed views about it. He was not the typical German Lutheran, in the sense that he was very open to the idea of separation of Church and state, and in many ways admired it. But he was not exactly a huge advocate of it either. I think he really didn’t see that as a solution to all the problems. On the other hand, in the case of what happened in Germany in the 1930s, he saw that in some cases it’s a great idea.
DH: What do you think Bonhoeffer would think about the Manhattan Declaration and some of the other statements the Church has made publicly in regard to various moral issues?
EM: I can’t help but think that he would see the Manhattan Declaration in some ways like the Barman Declaration. It’s when a group of people in a loving, measured way take stock of the situation in the culture and say this is where the Church stands. I think that if we don’t do things like that, we are guilty. We are guilty for our inaction.
I personally applaud the writers of the Manhattan Declaration – Chuck Colson, Timothy George and Robert George – because they have done something heroic in the vein of the kinds of things that Bonhoeffer did. And I would urge every Christian to look up the Manhattan Declaration online to see if they should sign it.
DH: Did Bonhoeffer ever visit Missouri?
EM: Bonhoeffer drove through St. Louis in the spring of 1931, so he has been here. Bonhoeffer loved and explored the United States. He drove from New York City to Chicago, through St. Louis to Laredo, Texas. He left the car at the border, and then went into Mexico, spent some time and then came all the way back to New York.
So Bonhoeffer really had an affection for the United States. He saw our problems and I can’t but think that the message that God gave him for the Church in Germany is in many ways the message for us today right here – that is God’s message for the Church to be the Church. God calls us now to live that out, it’s not just an idea for the future or for the past, and I think there can be little question in my mind that Bonhoeffer wants to speak to us individually right now to do this right now. I honestly hope that people reading this book will have a desire – will be inspired, to live these things out in their own lives, in their own spheres in Missouri in their time. Otherwise, Bonhoeffer’s message will have failed a second time. The German Christians did not heed his prophetic voice 70 years ago, but I would like to think that American Christians would heed his prophetic voice today.