It’s Nazi Germany, 1937. Adolf Hitler’s influence is rapidly rising as he engages in maneuvers—both political and military—to prepare for the invasion of Poland two years later, as well as the start of World War II in Europe. Imagine this time of turmoil, when the church in Germany is being pressured by the Nazi party for its conformity and support. A young man, only 31 years old, publishes a book called Nachfolge—in English titled The Cost of Discipleship. Many of us feel a cost to following Christ, but few so keenly as this book’s author: Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer declared at age 13 that he wanted to be a theologian. Already we see the evidence of resolve in this boy, as he remained steadfast to that desire, eventually entering university (first Tübingen, then Friedrich-Wilhelm) and studying under the guidance of theologian Reinhold Seeberg. He was influenced by many great thinkers of his day and of the past, including Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and Karl Barth.
During the 1930s, young Bonhoeffer began to see the rise of Nazi fascism in a sharp light, and he found himself in a position to make the plight of the German church—and the Jews within it—known to an international audience. Two days after the appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor of the German Republic, Bonhoeffer gave a famous radio address, in which he made this bold declaration:
If he [the leader] understands his function in any other way than as it is rooted in fact, if he does not continually tell his followers quite clearly of the limited nature of his task of their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his follower, who would always make him their idol—then the image of the leader [Führer] will pass over into the image of the misleader [Verführer], and he will be acting in a criminal way not only towards those he leads but also towards himself. . . . He must radically refuse to become the appeal, the idol, i.e. the ultimate authority of those whom he leads.
Before he could complete this powerful speech on leadership, the radio signal was mysteriously disconnected.
Bonhoeffer, frustrated with the lack of response from the German church to the Nazi regime, soon took a position as pastor of two churches in London, and in 1939 he moved to United States to join a seminary in New York. He came to see his journey to America as a mistake, and went back to Germany on the last available boat across the Atlantic. In Germany he was harried by Nazi authorities and was prohibited from any further speaking engagements or published works. On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested.
He was imprisoned for two years, though he still kept an active ministry—both as a pastor and an author—as he was able. Eventually, his connections with a conspiracy to assassinate the Führer were discovered, and the Gestapo moved him to a concentration camp. How did a man who loved Jesus and his church so deeply, who wrote as a passionate pacifist, who penned a magisterial work on ethics—how did he come to be linked with an assassination plot?
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Today we remember Bonhoeffer as a martyr, having been hanged by the Nazis seven years after he penned those words. His theology of costly discipleship proved true. Yet his story and legacy are preserved, and they encourage generations of Christians to count the cost of following Christ, then to follow him to the utmost of their ability.
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