A Bonhoeffer Christmas

bnhfr2It’s time now for something to be done.  He who has the 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.

~Col. Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg (Operation Valkyrie plot to kill Hitler)


For eighteen months during 1943-44, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned at Tegel military prison awaiting trial for his part in a conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler and thus save millions of lives by bringing an early end to World War II (“Operation Valkyrie”). A Saint to the bitter end there he continued his evangelism among his fellow prisoners and even with the Nazi guards some of whom were compassionate and aided Bonhoeffer to smuggle his letters out of prison to his student and best friend, Eberhard Bethge, family and to others, and these uncensored letters were posthumously published in volumes 7 and 8 Bonhoeffer Works:  Letters and Papers from Prison. Corporal Knobloch, a Nazi guard even offered to help him escape from the prison and “disappear” with him, and plans were to accomplish this end. However, Bonhoeffer ultimately rejected escape fearing Nazi revenge against his family, particularly his brother Klaus and brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi who were also imprisoned. 

Due to the failure of the July 20th Plot to kill Hitler in 1944 (“Operation Valkyrie”) and the location in September 1944 of clandestine Abwehr documents connecting to the conspiracy, Bonhoeffer’s association with the conspirators was exposed. For the next year and a half he was relocated from the Gestapo’s high-security military prison, Tegel Prison in Berlin. In February 1945, he was secretly moved to Buchenwald concentration camp, and finally to Flossenbürg concentration camp where at Hitler’s command he was sentenced to death on February 8 and executed by his Nazi guards by hanging on February 9, 1945.

Ethics—Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, (Volume 6)

The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought of his book Ethics as his magnum opus, the culmination of his theological and personal odyssey, yet, like the Apostle Paul he wrote much of it while he sat in his cold, foreboding cell at Tegel prison where deep down in his heart he had to realize that he would never finish this magisterial opus. Yet, this book can be seen, along with his Discipleship and Life Together, as essentially complete, and as certainly important in forming an extensive understanding of Bonhoeffer, who willingly gave his life as a martyr and with his fellow conspirators’ heroic efforts gallantly fought against the evils of Hitler and the Nazis.

Bonhoeffer’s Ethics opens with these lines: “Those who wish even to focus on the problem of a Christian ethic are faced with an outrageous demand—from the outset they must give up, as inappropriate to this topic, the very two questions that led them to deal with the ethical problem: ‘How can I be good?’ and ‘How can I do something good?’ Instead they must ask the wholly other, completely different question: ‘What is the will of God?’”

For Bonhoeffer, there is no reality separate from God and no goodness apart from Him. No false dualisms like sacred and secular, natural law and positive law.  No separation of church and state. Such sophistic pretense is to invoke his spiritual mentor Karl Barth’s judgmental notion of religion—a structure to pervert God altogether and create a failed humanistic path to heaven alone.  Bonhoeffer called it “Barth’s Tower of Babel,” and “the fig leaf that tries to fool God, but fails.”

“All things appear as in a distorted mirror,” Bonhoeffer wrote, if they are not seen and recognized in God.”  So God is not merely a religious concept or religious reality.  God is the one who invented reality, and reality can only be seen truly as it exists in God.  Nothing that exists is outside his realm.  So there are no ethics apart from doing God’s will, and God—indeed, Jesus Christ—is the nonnegotiable given in the equation of human ethics.” 

Bonhoeffer continued this transcendent theme on the mystery of singular obedience to God through Christ as the only logical reality in this life or the life to come in paradise:

In Jesus Christ the reality of God has entered into the reality of this world.  The place where the questions about the reality of God and about the reality of the world are answered at the same time is characterized solely by the name: Jesus Christ.  God and the world are enclosed in this name . . . we cannot speak rightly of either God or the world without speaking of Jesus Christ.  All concepts of reality that ignore Jesus Christ are abstractions.

As long as Christ and the world are conceived as two realms bumping against and repelling each other, we are left with only the following options.  Giving up on reality as a whole—either we place ourselves in one of the two realms, wanting Christ without the world or the world without Christ—and in both cases we deceive ourselves. . .  There are not two realities, but only one reality, and that is God’s reality revealed in Christ in the reality of the world.  Partaking in Christ, we stand at the same time in the reality of God and in the reality of the world.  The reality of Christ embraces the reality of the world in itself.  The world has no reality of its own independent of God’s revelation in Christ. . . . [T]he theme of two realms, which has dominated the history of the church again and again, is foreign to the New Testament.

Bonhoeffer dramatically expressed this singular reality to God in life and in death. Regarding his death Eberhard Bethge, a student of Bonhoeffer, writes of a man who saw the execution: “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”


Would to God that during this Advent season of 2013 that America; that this grotesque, insane, evil world would just for a moment STOP . . . and embrace the selfless martyrdom of Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer for he said that, “Advent creates people, new people.” Bonhoeffer’s life is the very essence of sacrifice and thus the real meaning and reality of Christmas—not Santa Claus, reindeer, snowmen, Christmas trees and not material gifts, but the one Holy gift from God, His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ who 2,000 years made the ultimate sacrifice and gave His life that we might have a right to the Tree of Life. Saint John wrote of our Lord and how he would be received by us—“He [Christ] was in the world and the world was made by Him and the world knew him not.” Yet, through Bonhoeffer’s sacrifice we can know the Lord this Advent season.

…A Bonhoeffer Christmas.

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