Civil Courage and Transcendent Truth: The Enduring Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer


Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life left a vital legacy of civil courage rooted in transcendent truth. His death is an example of joyful hope amidst suffering.

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Today is the seventieth anniversary of the execution of the German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Along with Bonhoeffer, six other members of the German resistance, including Hans Oster, Karl Sack, and Wilhelm Canaris, were killed by the Nazis at the Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9th, 1945. Although seventy years have passed, Bonhoeffer’s life and death continue to have deep significance for us today.

From the very beginning, Bonhoeffer was a staunch critic of Hitler and the Nazis. The day after Hitler was elected chancellor, Bonhoeffer gave a radio address in which he sharply criticized the currently fashionable and tyrannical understanding of the autonomous “Leader” (Führer). In Hitler’s rise to power, Bonhoeffer detected a dangerous connection between the will of the masses and an idolatrous concentration of power devoid of accountability and responsibility to any higher authority.

This conception of the Leader as an “office” was qualitatively different from previous ideas of divinely instituted political authority. The Leader was the expression of the individual will par excellence, and in his person vicariously represented the fulfillment of the masses. In this way, the mass individualism manifested itself in a kind of collectivism, with the Leader acting as lord over the masses.

Among other things, argued Bonhoeffer, such an ideology ignored “the eternal law of individuality before God,” which is violated when a leader “takes on superhuman responsibility, which in the end will crush him.” The basic God-given task of government is to protect and promote the freedom and vitality of other institutions of social life, not to colonize and tyrannize them. Bonhoeffer thus opposed any totalizing ideology that attempted to subjugate all of human life and existence to political authority: “Where the state becomes the fulfillment of all spheres of human life and culture, it forfeits its true dignity, its specific authority as government.”

Fighting Nazism within the Church: A Call to Civil Courage

As he continued to oppose the Nazis and their policies of centralization, Bonhoeffer was one of the leading voices in the Confessing Church movement. The Confessing movement opposed the Nazification of the church through reorganization and imposition of various policies, including racial requirements for officeholders that would bar Jews from the pastorate. In this context, Bonhoeffer worked to defend both the freedom of the church and the dignity of all people.

With his friend Franz Hildebrandt, whose Jewish ancestry would have closed the pastorate to him under these new laws, Bonhoeffer opposed the German Christian party in church elections. Ahead of the pivotal church elections of 1933, Hildebrandt drafted a pamphlet that juxtaposed slogans of the German Christians with texts of Scripture. The German Christians, wrote Hildebrandt, say that “a godless fellow-countryman is nearer to us than one of another race, even if he sings the same hymn or prays the same prayer.” The Bible, by contrast, says “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother (Mark 3.35).”

Bonhoeffer echoed these sentiments in his arguments against the imposition of Aryan requirements on the church. When discussing Nazi anti-Semitism, Bonhoeffer maintained that the church was responsible for rendering “service to the victims” of state action, no matter their creed or ethnicity: “The church has an unconditional obligation toward the victims of any societal order, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.”

In 1942, a few months before his imprisonment, Bonhoeffer penned a reflection on a decade of Nazi rule, “After Ten Years.” In this letter, which was sent to his friends in the resistance, Bonhoeffer articulated a stirring vision of human flourishing and institutional freedom in sharp opposition to Hitler’s ideology. He called for the “civil courage” needed to stand up to the totalitarian tyrants who would sow injustice and reap misery. “Civil courage,” wrote Bonhoeffer, “can grow only from the free responsibility of the free man.”

This conception of freedom, however, was not one of radical individual autonomy in opposition to or supremacy over God’s will for human life. Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, Bonhoeffer observed, “one thing has emerged that seems certain: in the common life of human beings, there are laws that are stronger than everything that believes it can supersede them, and that it is therefore not only wrong but unwise to disregard these laws.” At times, it might be difficult to apply such abstract natural law principles to a concrete ethical situation. But such situations are rare, and these exceptional circumstances tend to reinforce rather than undermine the validity of such orders.

Marriage and Political Authority

One of these laws of the created order that Bonhoeffer recognized and affirmed was the institution of marriage. The changes in the social order and the upheaval of war and industrialization had placed marriage and family in a precarious position. Bonhoeffer cited the prevalence of voluntary childlessness and dissolution of familial bonds, in part due to the influence of radical individualist and socialist ideologies, as evidence that “marriage and family are experiencing a violent crisis,” as he put it in a 1932 lecture. Even amid such travails, however, Bonhoeffer steadfastly defended marriage as foundational to God’s purposes in the world. Marriage, like the church and the realm of productive labor, places limits on and sets the framework for responsible political action. As Bonhoeffer put it:

Marriage and work exist from the beginning under an appointed divine mandate that must be performed in faithful obedience to God. For this reason marriage and work have their own origin in God that is not established by government but is to be acknowledged by it.

Only an idolatrous view of political authority would imbue such earthly powers with the right of defining and redefining a God-given institution like marriage. Instead,

For the sake of Jesus Christ a special right preserves marriage and with it the family and preserves work and with it economic life, culture, science, and art. That means government possesses for this realm only regulative but not constitutive significance. Marriage is contracted not by government but before government.

Government’s role is thus to protect and promote pre-governmental institutions such as family, work, and church that preserve and promote human flourishing.

This conception of marriage was not some abstract or otherworldly ideal. In fact, even in the context of his opposition to Hitler and involvement with conspirators against the regime, Bonhoeffer took concrete steps that demonstrated his convictions about marriage and the world. In 1943, shortly before his arrest and imprisonment, he became engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer. Even when the world seemed as if it were to end tomorrow, Bonhoeffer still affirmed marriage today.

Writing to Maria on August 12, 1943, from Tegel prison, Bonhoeffer confesses that their marriage “can only be a token of God’s grace and goodness, which summon us to believe in him.” Hope for the future, wrote Bonhoeffer, demands faith:

the faith that endures in the world and loves and remains true to that world in spite of all the hardships it brings us. Our marriage must be a “yes” to God’s earth. It must strengthen our resolve to do and accomplish something on earth. I fear that Christians who venture to stand on earth on only one leg will stand in heaven on only one leg too.

In this way Bonhoeffer meant to illustrate the connection between this world and the next. This world belongs to God and it matters to him, and what we do here in some real way has significance for eternity. Through his life, including his proposed marriage, as well as his writing, Bonhoeffer has left a vital legacy of civil courage rooted in transcendent truth.

Grounded in the Hope of Eternity

Because of his vibrant Christian faith, Bonhoeffer recognized death as “the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace.” But far from instilling a quietist or otherworldly orientation, the rooting of Bonhoeffer’s faith in the peace of eternal life engendered in him a radically engaged and sacrificial disposition toward the world.

Bonhoeffer’s life and death, grounded in the hope of eternity, were deeply affirming of the significance of life in God’s world. “The Christian’s field of activity is the world,” said Bonhoeffer. It is in the world that “Christians are to become engaged, are to work and be active, here that they are to do the will of God.” For this reason, “Christians are not resigned pessimists, but are those who while admittedly not expecting much from the world are for that very reason already joyous and cheerful in the world, for that world is the seedbed of eternity.”

Bonhoeffer was executed at the age of 39, filled not with bitterness but with a deep sense of hope about God’s purposes in the world. “It may be that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow,” he wrote, but “only then and no earlier will we readily lay down our work for a better future.” It is this world- and life-affirming hope amid suffering and loss that is, perhaps, his greatest legacy.

Dr. Jordan J. Ballor is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He is currently finishing a project on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and natural law and is author most recently of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action)

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