Born: February 4, 1906
Died: April 9, 1945
I am the wife of a moral theologian. As I type, there are approximately 4,000 books on the topic of moral theology poised to cascade from bookshelves, milk crates and piles in our small office. Many, if not all, of these books address the Holocaust to some extent. This systemic manifestation of evil calls into question everything we thought we knew about ourselves as human beings and about our God as good and sovereign. It is a hot and festering scar across human history that demands tending. So far, in all of these volumes looming around me, no one theologian has been able to come up with a satisfactory response to the horror and devastation this scar signifies. Perhaps no one ever will.
What I find infinitely more hopeful are the lives of real people of faith who lived in the midst of this moral chaos… who fought against it with all of their hearts and all of their minds and all of their souls and all of their strength. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was such a warrior. While many in positions of Christian leadership were silenced by fear (and even indifference… it should be noted that many Catholic and Protestant clergy assented willingly to the Nazi agenda), Bonhoeffer continued to speak out about a Christian imperative to resist and subvert the Nazi regime. He took part in highly organized plots to topple Hitler’s reign of terror and worked covertly with the Allies to secure post-war peace. He preached and wrote extensively about the responsibility of those who follow Christ to work for liberation and justice for all people. He was imprisoned for a year and a half at Tegel military prison, during which time he continued to write and preach. He was transferred to Flossenbürg concentration camp where he was executed by hanging. The camp doctor, who witnessed Bonhoeffer’s death, later remembered the scene: “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. 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.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer — as evidenced by the letters and writings produced during his imprisonment and preserved — believed in a good, loving and just God until the very moment of his death. I find this utterly astounding. This young pastor looked into the face of pure malevolence and unanswered suffering and was still able to praise and trust and worship God. There is something profoundly beautiful and scandalous about this. It is the stuff of the Gospel. It is the stuff of the Cross.
This summer — as we continue to grapple with our broken world, as we stand in sadness and solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Aurora, Colorado, who have experienced the wound of senseless evil still fresh and deep — we remember Pastor Bonhoeffer. We remember his compassion, his sense of urgency, his call to action and responsibility, his words of comfort to others even when his own heart was breaking. We remember that above Flossenbürg and Auschwitz and the World Trade Center and that small theater in suburban Denver is enthroned the God of mercy and justice. This God is good. All the time.