By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Eric Metaxas
Narrated by: Malcolm Hillgartner
Religious rationalism seems an oxymoron but Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life story implies otherwise. In Eric Metaxas’ detailed history of Bonhoeffer’s adult life, one becomes acquainted with a pastor who abjures organized religions that choose self-preservation over biblical commandments. The complicity of the Roman Catholic Church in fascism and Nazism in WWII is well documented in Gerald Posner’s “God’s Bankers”.
Bonhoeffer (who is raised as a Christian) covertly and overtly protests Jewish discrimination by the German Nazis while living in Berlin in the late 1920s, early 1930s; until his death in 1945. In contrast to many Christians’ support of Hitler’s genocidal Jewish plans, Bonhoeffer openly challenges Nazi German policy.
Bonhoeffer is born into a wealthy aristocratic family in Breslau. He is the son of a successful neurologist, Karl Bonhoeffer. His mother is a teacher and granddaughter of a Protestant theologian. In contrast to his father’s science background, Dietrich is drawn to the church. Though religion is Dietrich’s calling, he never abandons belief in the value and importance of rational thought.
Because of Bonhoeffer’ wealth and aristocratic position, Dietrich acquires an advanced German education and travels the world. He earns the equivalent of bachelor’s and master’s degrees and goes on to receive a Doctor of Theology from Berlin University in 1927. In concert with family wealth and pursuit of education, Bonhoeffer travels to Italy, England, and America. On many occasions, Dietrich could have abandoned Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, but he chooses to return again and again to the heart of Nazism’s ascension.
In returning to Germany in 1931, Bonhoeffer becomes a spokesman for religious leaders who reject Hitler’s antisemitism and discrimination. Just before Hitler becomes Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer gives a radio speech attacking Hitler by warning the public not to be seduced by a leadership cult. Metaxas notes Bonhoeffer calls Hitler a mis-leader, a seducer. Bonhoeffer publicly rejects Jewish persecution, while Hitler moves to co-opt Catholic and Christian Churches by appointing pro-Nazi leaders to their synods. A schism develops in the German religious community with Bonhoeffer on one side and the Nazis on the other. Effectively, the Nazis become the dominant religious force in Germany; i.e. Christianity is co opted during Hitler’s reign.
As Bonhoeffer’s religious beliefs grow, his rationalist view of life demands action based on his interpretation of the Bible. Bonhoeffer recognizes Jesus Christ is a Jew and that intolerance of fellow human beings is a mortal sin. The author suggests Bonhoeffer becomes a spy for Hitler’s opposition and a covert participant in an assassination plot against the Fuhrer. Participation in an assassination plot makes one question Bonhoeffer’s faith.
Metaxas implies Bonhoeffer’s faith is consistent with biblical teaching. Unquestionably, Bonhoeffer’s history is one of self-sacrifice but overt conspiracy to murder seems beyond Bible-based instruction. After the failed assassination attempt on Hitler, Bonhoeffer and many other real and alleged German conspirators are arrested, tortured, and murdered. Bonhoeffer is tried and sentenced to death. He is sent to a concentration camp, moved several times, mis-identified once, and finally murdered on April 8, 1945.
What makes this history interesting is the consequence to one’s life when he/she has great faith in the Bible. On the one hand, Biblical interpretation gives one strength to endure the worst that can happen in life; on the other, Bible interpretation allows one to rationalize murder of another human being. Bonhoeffer is shown to be a pastor of faith, a martyr to a cause, a prophet of a future, and a spy willing to participate in a murder.
A cynic might suggest that Hitler’s assassination plot is vindicated by history as much as by religious faith. Without question, Bonhoeffer is on the right side of history but reason based on Bible interpretation also leads, and has led many Christians astray.