Today is the 108th anniversary of the birth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Despite being a lifelong Lutheran, I had never heard of Bonhoeffer until I went to seminary. Bonhoeffer was a German pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident. He was a founding member of the Confessing Church, which sought to resist the efforts of the Third Reich to interfere with the state church. He later became an active member of the German resistance to the Nazis and was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943. Two years later, when the full extent of his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler was discovered, he was executed at Flossenburg concentration camp, just two weeks before the camp was liberated by American troops and less than a month before the German surrender. When the guards came to lead him to the gallows, he had just finished leading worship. His last words, according to an English prisoner who witnessed his execution, were, “This is the end – to me, the beginning of life.”
In the almost seven decades since his death, Bonhoeffer has been profoundly influential. Much has been said and written about the profound example of Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom, his willingness to resist evil even at the cost of his life. To be sure, that is a story that should be told and retold. What is most striking to me, however, is not how Bonhoeffer died, but how he lived, and what he wrote and thought and taught about living. Few of us, after all, will ever be called to die like Bonhoeffer, but we are all called to live, every day, in community with others. And so, I offer these three quotes from Pastor Bonhoeffer’s writings:
“The will of God, to which the law gives expression, is that men should defeat their enemies by loving them.” ― The Cost of Discipleship
“I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.” ― Life Together
“If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all. … How can I possibly serve another person in unfeigned humility if I seriously regard his sinfulness as worse than my own?” ― Life Together
Perhaps it was that life-long practice of humility and self-sacrificing love, even of his enemies, that gave Pastor Bonhoeffer the courage and the grace to die as he did. Perhaps the real challenge is not to find the courage to die as Bonhoeffer died, but to find the courage to live as Bonhoeffer lived.