Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian, was among those Christians in Germany who recognized early on the enormity of the evil posed by Hitler’s regime. For Christians, he believed, the claims of the Nazi state posed a confessional challenge—ultimately a question about whether the Church worshiped God or a national idol. Bonhoeffer was a leader in the so-called Confessing Church, organized to oppose efforts by the state to co-opt and control the churches in Germany. In 1939 he accepted an opportunity to escape the country and teach in New York. Almost immediately he regretted the decision. “I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share in the tribulations of this time with my people.”
Upon his return, he joined in a conspiracy to overthrow Hitler. When the plot eventually unraveled, Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators were arrested. After two years in a military prison he was hanged on April 9, 1945.
In his early theology Bonhoeffer had written about the “cost of discipleship” and the need to reject “cheap grace”— “the grace we confer on ourselves.” From prison he wrote of having learned “to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast . . . in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.” In his life and witness he offered a poignant model of a form of contemporary holiness—not withdrawn from the world but fully engaged “in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures.”
“The church’s task is not simply to bind the wounds of the victim beneath the wheel, but also to put a spoke in the wheel itself.”