Bonhoeffer was born in 1906, son of a professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Berlin. He was an outstanding student, and at the age of 25 became a lecturer in systematic theology at the same University. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer became a leading spokesman for the Confessing Church, the center of Protestant resistance to the Nazis. He organized and for a time led the underground seminary of the Confessing Church. His book LIFE TOGETHER describes the life of the Christian community in that seminary, and his book THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP attacks what he calls "cheap grace," meaning grace used as an excuse for moral laxity. Bonhoeffer had been taught not to "resist the powers that be," but he came to believe that to do so was sometimes the right choice. In 1939 his brother-in-law introduced him to a group planning the overthrow of Hitler, and he made significant contributions to their work. (He was at this time an employee of the Military Intelligence Department.) He was arrested in April 1943 and imprisoned in Berlin. After the failure of the attempt on Hitler's life in April 1944, he was sent first to Buchenwald and then to Schoenberg Prison. His life was spared, because he had a relative who stood high in the government; but then this relative was himself implicated in anti-Nazi plots. On Sunday 8 April 1945, he had just finished conducting a service of worship at Schoenberg, when two soldiers came in, saying, "Prisoner Bonhoeffer, make ready and come with us," the standard summons to a condemned prisoner. As he left, he said to another prisoner, "This is the end -- but for me, the beginning -- of life." He was hanged the next day, less than a week before the Allies reached the camp.
His works in print (paperback) include the following:
THE MARTYRED CHRISTIAN (MacM $7; 160 readings from his
LETTERS AND PAPERS FROM PRISON (MacM $9)
CREATION AND FALL and TEMPTATION (bound together) (MacM $5)
MEDITATING ON THE WORD (Upper Room $8) (large type Walker $10)
LIFE TOGETHER (Harper $8)
THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP (MacM $7)
ETHICS (MacM $7)
SPIRITUAL CARE (Augsburg Fortress $8)
THE PSALMS: PRAYER BOOK OF THE BIBLE (Augsburg Fortress $6)
CHRIST THE CENTER (Harper $8)
Some of his later writings insist that many Christians do not take seriously enough the existence and power of evil. Because of this and other statements of his, some theological advocates of "secularist Christianity" in the 1960's attempted to claim him as their own. In my judgment, a study of his writings (even his later writings) as a whole does not support this claim. However, it is true that he never had a chance to edit his prison letters and papers, or put them into context, and accordingly it is not surprising that they contain some statements that baffle the reader.
The following hymn was written by him in the concentration camp, shortly before his death.
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.
is this heart by its old foe tormented,
still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
Oh, give our frightened souls the sure salvation
for which, O Lord, You taught us to prepare.
when this cup You give is filled to brimming
with bitter suffering, hard to understand,
we take it thankfully and without trembling,
out of so good and so beloved a hand.
when again in this same world You give us
the joy we had, the brightness of Your Sun,
we shall remember all the days we lived through,
and our whole life shall then be Yours alone.
This hymn appears in the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal (695). The translator is F. Pratt Green (1903- ) listed in hymnal indexes sometimes under Green and sometimes under Pratt Green. The translation copyright is Hope Publishing Company 1974.
The hymn appears as 637 in the current Finnish Hymnal, translated by Anna-Maija Raittila, and beginning "Hyvyyden voiman ihmeelliseen suojaan".
CHURCH LEADERS REMEMBER DIETRICH BONHOEFFER
(ENI) Fifty years after the execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the age of 39 on April 9, 1945, at the hands of one of Hitler's special commandos in the concentration camp of Flossenbuerg, church leaders have paid tribute to the German Lutheran theologian who joined the political opposition to Hitler. At a recent memorial service in Flossenbuerg, Klaus Engelhardt, the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), described how Bonhoeffer refused to be placed on the prayer list of the Confessing Church after his imprisonment in 1943. "Bonhoeffer believed that only those who were imprisoned because of their proclamation or actions in the service of the church belonged on the prayer list, but not those imprisoned as political conspirators," he said. Engelhardt asserted that the church today should think again about how it supports those who exercise their resistance to injustice through political means. "Is our Protestant church not in the position and not prepared to support or pray for those who take the path of political resistance to inhumanity or the perversion of law and order?" he asked. "They are among those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and whom Jesus praises in the beatitudes."