Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Cost of Faith
by Bob Schwartz
“The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts. For evil to appear disguised as light, charity, historical necessity or social justice is quite bewildering to anyone brought up on our traditional ethical concepts, while for the Christian who bases his life on the Bible, it merely confirms the fundamental wickedness of evil.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the most famous German pastoral and theological opponent of Hitler and the Third Reich. The Christian church had been coopted by the Nazis, a development that Bonhoeffer was called and compelled to oppose—not just in his preaching and prayer, but in action. This cost him his life:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian known for his opposition to National Socialism. His ties to the July 20, 1944, conspiracy to overthrow the Nazi regime led to his execution in 1945. His theological writings are regarded as classics throughout the Christian world….
Born in Breslau on February 4, 1906, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the sixth child of Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer. After completing his theological studies, he served a German-speaking congregation in Barcelona, Spain, from 1928–1930. He studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York from 1930–1931. During that time he attended Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and became deeply interested in the issue of racial injustice. He also became active in the Protestant ecumenical movement, making international contacts that after 1933 would prove crucial for the Confessing Church and for his time in the German resistance.
With Hitler’s ascent to power, Bonhoeffer’s church—the German Evangelical Church—entered the most difficult phase in its history. Strongly influenced by nationalism and unsettled by the chaos of the Weimar years, many Protestant leaders and church members welcomed the rise of Nazism.
In 1933, a group called the German Christians (Deutsche Christen) began to promote the nazification of German Protestantism through the creation of a pro-Nazi “Reich Church.” The German Christians wanted Protestantism to conform to Nazi ideology, and they pushed for the implementation of the state “Aryan laws” within the churches. The German Christians claimed that Jews, as a “separate race,” could not become members of an “Aryan” German Church through baptism.
Despite widespread antisemitism and enthusiasm for Nazism, most church leaders initially opposed the Aryan paragraph because it contradicted traditional teachings about baptism and ordination. Bonhoeffer argued that its ratification surrendered Christian precepts to political ideology. If “non-Aryans” were banned from the ministry, he argued, their colleagues should resign in solidarity and establish a new “confessing” church that would remain free from Nazi influence. The ideological and theological extremism of the German Christians provoked a backlash among more moderate Protestants, leading to the formation of the Confessing Church in May 1934…..
Bonhoeffer began to train young clergy at an illegal Confessing Church seminary, Finkenwalde, which was closed by the Gestapo in September 1937. Bonhoeffer spent the next two years secretly travelling throughout eastern Germany to supervise his students, most of whom were working illegally in small parishes. The Gestapo banned him from Berlin in January 1938 and issued an order forbidding him from public speaking in September 1940….
The first deportations of Berlin Jews to the east occurred on October 15, 1941. A few days later, Bonhoeffer and Friedrich Perels, a Confessing Church lawyer, wrote a memo giving details of the deportations. The memo was sent to foreign contacts as well as trusted German military officials, in the hope that it might move them to action. Bonhoeffer also became peripherally involved in “Operation Seven,” a plan to get Jews out of Germany by giving them papers as foreign agents. After the Gestapo uncovered the “Operation Seven” funds that had been sent abroad for the emigrants, Bonhoeffer and his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi were arrested in April 1943.
Bonhoeffer was initially charged with conspiring to rescue Jews, using his foreign travels for non-intelligence matters, and misusing his intelligence position to help Confessing Church pastors evade military service. After the failed July 20, 1944, coup attempt, his connections to the broader resistance circles were uncovered and he was moved to the Gestapo prison in Berlin. In February 1945, he was taken to Buchenwald and in April moved to the Flossenbürg concentration camp. On April 9, 1945, he was hanged with other conspirators.
In his best-known work, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer writes about the difference between cheap and costly grace:
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
We are thankful that a number of American religious leaders have finally risen up to speak out against only the latest indecency perpetrated by Trump. But we must remind them that sometimes, in the face of overwhelming evil, a little is not enough. Whatever their particular tradition or theology, they should understand the difference between cheap and costly faith. And between words and actions.