Bold as a Lion: Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Professor Bill Such, PhD
A.W. Tozer Theological Seminary
In Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Course
Leadership Strategies for Cultural Transformation (IM 6500)
The story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is tantalizing for he became “bold as a lion” amidst a horrifying regime. Author Eric Metaxas has written a provocative biography on Bonhoeffer distinguishing him as pastor, martyr, prophet and spy. Born in on February 4, 1906 in Breslau, Germany into an upper class professional family, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a young man of privilege. His father was a leading psychiatrist in Berlin; his mother homeschooled the children. Dietrich lived a productive, yet short life as theologian, pastor - turned spy - which led to his execution on April 9, 1945 at the young age of thirty-nine. We will be looking at three areas within Dietrich’s life that brought about change in culture and the effectiveness of these strategies.
Action & Change
The historical and personal circumstances that caused Dietrich Bonhoeffer to act and bring about change are related to the man himself. Dietrich was not born into a Christian family, yet when his brother died in the First World War, Dietrich sought God for understanding as he read his brothers Bible. He decided to attend Seminary which was first against the wishes of his prominent family. He attended college in Tübingen, received his doctorate in theology at the age of twenty-one from the University of Berlin where he was later ordained. He was privileged to travel to the United States for his post-graduate studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. There he was influenced by the plight of the black people comparing it with that of the Jewish people in Germany. His faith was also deepened and he truly gave his heart to the Lord becoming a Christian.
In 1931 he returned to Germany where he continued to write and lecture on theology in Berlin. Like his family, Dietrich was a strong opponent to the rising Nazi regime. He was horrified by the inhuman behavior of the Nazi party and desired for change to take place within the system. He thought was if you take off the head of the snake (Hitler) than the tyrant behavior would cease. 
Strategies Used & Effectiveness
Dietrich Bonhoeffer participated in the German resistance movement as a religious leader, pastor, and theologian who strongly opposed Nazism and was a founding member of the Confessing Church with Martin Niemöller, Karl Barth and others. Between late 1933 and 1935 he served as pastor of two German-speaking protestant churches in London which gave him contacts that he later used in his cause against Hitler. When he returned to Germany he had an illegal seminary that was closed by the Gestapo and he was banned from teaching, preaching, and all speaking in public, yet Dietrich continued to work with opponents of Hitler.
During World War II, Dietrich’s involvement in the resistance grew tremendously upon his returned to Germany as he was appalled by the cruelty and anti-somatic policies executed towards the Jewish people and others who were oppressed due to their support of the Jews. Against tyranny Dietrich’s convictions brought him to a critical choice in 1939 to become actively involved in German Military Intelligence as a double agent working with Abwehr to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The failed assassination attempts as well as the discovery that money used to help the Jews escape was traced to Bonhoeffer eventually led to his arrest in April 1943. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was execution by hanging just twenty-three days prior to the Nazi surrender in April of 1945 in Flossenbürg concentration camp. Dietrich’s brother Klaus and his brother-in-laws Hans von Dohnanyi and Rudiger Schleicher were also executed for their parts in the conspiracy.
The effectiveness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s approach can be weighed by reviewing his actions and their effect within the Church and society. Dietrich Bonhoeffer changed his conviction for being a Christian pacifist to participation in a deliberate plan to assassinate Adolph Hitler. This stance led him to martyrdom, yet this was not his intent as he was engaged to be married. Seeing evil spread throughout Germany and Europe must have been difficult for Dietrich. Surely he had and internal conflict with regards to breaking his resolve toward pacifism. Yet, for the greater good of humanity he forfeited these beliefs. No one truly knows how they would act given the same opportunities and situation.
He used everything in his power to stop such evil. His work and life was a demonstration to Christian believers on the importance of staying true to your faith regardless of the outcome. In the mid-1990s Dietrich Bonhoeffer was absolved of any crimes against the German government and today is seen by many as a hero and martyr to the Christian faith. A quote from one of his books, The Cost of Discipleship (1939) states, “When Christ calls a man, he bid him come and die” it is thought to be a personal foreshadow of his death. While in confinement, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison to be published in 1949 and 1953. These works have been highly appraised by theologians to this day.
It is his writings which have had the greatest influence within society and the Church. With pen and voice he taught of faith, community, discipleship, and value for life. He was not afraid to stand up to evil institutionalism knowing that it could cost him his life. Using action and resolve amidst what I believe was his own personal struggle of using violence to fight violence. He stayed faithful to God - searching Scriptures to find understanding in handling such a grave situation within society. The fundamental change that Christ offered during his life and death is a demonstration of the better way. For believers the power to influence society without overthrowing Rome (corrupt governing authorities) is challenging when you are placed in the sphere of influence that Bonhoeffer was.
Yet, this man brought huge transformation to the Church through his teachings which were much more powerful than his unsuccessful attempt to conspire with others to cut off the head of a wicked regime. Living during his time was difficult, yet he travailed and finished well as a man whose contributions are still appreciated. The story of his life is one of passion for truth with a commitment and conviction for justice on behalf of those who face implacable evil. Bonhoeffer said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” It is my stance that one must live their conviction through demonstration for the love of humanity. I believe that Christ would understand this position and forgive any area where we may lack or waver for the welfare of the greater good.
To measure Cultural Transformation based on a life is a daunting task at best. Derrick Bonhoeffer is considered one of the greatest Theologians of his time by many academic scholars, yet was his life’s ambition to have been a spy, martyred for his faith and political involvement? One can ask themselves whether it was Divine sovereignty or mere circumstance of his time that led him down this path. Derrick Bonhoeffer’s contributions to society were immense as his writings are still treasured today. Though some Clergy may scrutinize his methods and change from pacifism to conspirator and spy within the Church - they cannot deny his heart towards a common good of humanity. His desire for all humanity to be treated equally and valued within society was a message also taught by Jesus and his disciples. This message shines brightly through his pen as well as the clear demonstration and conviction. Derrick demonstrated the word spoken in James 2:26: “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also is faith without works is dead.” Driven by a profound desire to cease tyranny, Derrick Bonhoeffer, a gentle man with a pastor’s heart, become “bold as a lion” in the work of his faith.
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