Seventy one years ago this month, a quiet theologian who was designated a ‘special prisoner’ of the Fuehrer, heard his name called. He knew what it meant. He was forced to strip naked and was marched to the gallows. He was by all accounts one of the most promising theologians of his day. He was engaged to be married.
One of the last official documents Adolf Hitler signed before he killed himself, was the death warrant of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was part of a group who conspired (and failed) to assassinate Adolph Hitler. It’s complicated to weight whether or not it was right for man of God to participate in a plot to kill someone. I have often thought of Ehud the ancient Judge in Israel who used deceit to get close enough to stab Eglon King of Moab.
The thing I remember when I think of Bonhoeffer though is the fact that he put his life on the line. The doctor at the prison camp where Bonhoeffer was killed confessed that he had never seen man face his own death as Bonhoeffer did.
In his final letter from Tegel prison, he could write:
Please don’t ever get anxious or worried about me, but don’t forget to pray for me – I’m sure you don’t. . . You must never doubt that I am travelling with gratitude and cheerfulness along the road where I’m being led. My past life is brim-full of God’s goodness, and my sins are covered by the forgiving love of Christ crucified. I’m most thankful for the people I have met, and I only hope they will never have to grieve about me, but that they, too, will always be certain of, and thankful for, God’s mercy and forgiveness.
We have one last glimpse of Bonhoeffer on April 7th 1945, in the
schoolhouse at Schönberg in the remote Bavarian hinterlands, where he had been brought after a two months‚ stay in Buchenwald. Here he and a group of other prisoners, including the British Military Intelligence officer, Captain Payne Best, celebrated the Sunday after Easter with a short service. Bonhoeffer read the set texts: Isaiah 53:5 “With his wounds we are healed”, and 1 Peter 1:3 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
But then two guards arrived to summon him to leave. There was only time to ask Captain Best, if he survived, to take a short message to England, and to remember him to his ecumenical partner and friend, Bishop George Bell of Chichester: “Tell him that for me this is the end but also the beginning – with him I believe in the principle of our Universal Christian brotherhood which rises above all national interests, and that our victory is certain.”
He was then taken back to the notorious concentration camp Flossenbürg, where on the same night he was to be arraigned, convicted, condemned to death, and in the gray dawn of the following morning, April 9th, executed by hanging.
Bonhoeffer has no known burial site. But his courageous faith in the power of God’s forgiveness has proven in subsequent years to be an inspiring source of healing and cure for the sins of his nation and his church.
Lord give us all the courage to speak truth to power and then entrust our very lives to you…