Faith is a sense of complete confidence or trust in someone or something. The story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer illustrates the power of the strength of faith, and shows how strong faith can develop deep courage.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who was born in Germany in 1906. As a boy Bonhoeffer was very musical. When he was 14 he shocked his family by announcing that he wanted to become a priest. After he graduated from the University of Berlin he spent time in Spain and America which broadened his outlook on life. He admired the churches involvement in social justice and helping those who were oppressed.
In 1931 he returned to Berlin where, at the age of 25, he was ordained a priest. When Hitler was elected in 1933 he stood against his philosophy and criticised Hitler in a radio broadcast a few days after the election. The broadcast was cut off mid-air.
Bonhoeffer set up the confessing church, a breakaway from the protestant church in Germany which sought to stand as an opponent to the German Christian movement, which supported the Nazis. In practice it was hard to take any action against the Nazis in Germany and Bonhoeffer took up a position in London.
After a couple of years he felt called to return to his native country despite the struggles and the storm clouds that were gathering on the horizon. Members of the confessing church either fled or were arrested. Bonhoeffer was stripped of his right to teach and condemned as an enemy of the state.
In 1937 the confessing church’s seminary was closed down and Bonhoeffer escaped, moving around Europe organising private seminaries.
Bonhoeffer was afraid he would either have to take an oath to Hitler or suffer arrest and so fled to the United States. However, he soon felt guilty in taking refuge abroad. He believed he must have the courage of his convictions and practice what he preached:
“I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. … Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilisation may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilisation. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.”
He got involved with a small German resistance movement that sought to make contact with the British. When he helped some Jews escape from Germany into Switzerland, Bonhoeffer was arrested. He was imprisoned for a year and a half during which time he wrote and had his writings smuggled out. In one of his letters he outlined his Christian philosophy:
“There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behaviour. Christians are called to compassion and to action.” (Letters from Prison, p.16)
He was moved to Flossenburg concentration camp where he continued his ministry to fellow prisoners continuing to live his life with a deep sense of faith and spirituality. Payne Best, a fellow prisoner who was a member of the British army wrote:
“Bonhoeffer was different, just quite calm and normal, seemingly perfectly at his ease… his soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison. He was one of the very few men I have ever met to whom God was real and ever close to him.”
Bonhoeffer was court-martialled and sentenced to death by hanging on April 8th 1945. His final words were:
‘This is the end – for me the beginning of life.’
His life ended with the same faith and courage with which he had lived it.
What do you think was most admirable about Bonhoeffer’s life?
When have you experienced a sense of faith, trust or confidence? what is the bodily quality of faith? A sense of solidity or stability, ease or peace? How does it feel in the mind?
What are the sources of faith or trust in your life? For many this may include people, places, ideals, values, meaning, spirituality, Religion or a ‘philosophy of life’.
How can you deepen and develop the strength of faith and trust in yourself?
See if you can activate a state of faith in the face of uncertainty by invoking it in yourself, using a word, phrase, image or a body memory.