Author Eric Metaxas on Bonhoeffer, The Prophet and Spy
By Amy Reid with Scott Ross
The 700 Club
Germany, 1939. Hitler’s rise to power stunned everyone with its speed and ferocity. The world watched in horror as the Nazis bullied first a nation and then a continent. But in Germany, a resistance was building that worked to dismantle the Third Reich from the inside. Their primary aim: assassinate Hitler. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and pastor, was a leader in the cause.
The 700 Club's Scott Ross sat down with author Eric Metaxas is to discuss his new bestseller on Bonhoeffer’s life of faith.
Scott Ross: Bonhoeffer, subtitle: “pastor, martyr, prophet, spy”. Wow. Why Bonhoeffer? Why do you want to do this?
Eric Metaxas: Today, as Christians, we need role models; there’s something about Bonhoeffer. To me, he’s the ultimate role model for Christians today.
Bonhoeffer grew up in an educated and artistic family in Germany. His father was a distinguished brain chemist, while his brother worked with Albert Einstein to split the atom. Bonhoeffer chose the field of theology.
While doing postgraduate studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York, he was surprised by what he found or rather what he didn’t find.
Ross: (reading from Bonhoeffer) “In New York, they preach about virtually everything. Only one thing is not addressed or is addressed so rarely. I have yet been able to hear it, namely the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin, forgiveness, death, and life.” That sounds like today.
Metaxas: That’s 80 years ago; he wrote those words about the state of mainstream Protestantism in New York City.
While he didn’t find sound theology in most of the churches in New York, he was inspired when he went to an Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.
Metaxas: For the first time in his life, he sees African Americans worshipping, the Gospel preached with fire, with power. Everything about it touched his heart, moved him. He went every single Sunday. Not just to worship, but to teach Sunday school. I think he taught some adult Sunday School, so he got very involved.
Ross: This is a white German in a black church in the beginning of the 1930s, right?
Metaxas: It’s amazing. He really was gripped by the whole idea of the racism and race relations in the U.S. There was nothing to compare this to in Germany. In other words, this was an American problem. Of course, just a couple of years later, Hitler becomes chancellor in 1933 and everything changes. Suddenly now Bonhoeffer was facing, in Germany, exactly what he saw here. He saw a group of people, the Jews, being made to be second class citizens, and he was, from day one, vocally fighting against it -- one of the few Christians who understood what he saw.
Ross: He had foreknowledge. It was almost like a prophetic insight into what was coming in Germany in regard to Hitler. He read it early out.
Metaxas: I believe it was a prophetic insight.
Ross: And it cost him.
Metaxas: It always does.
Ross: To try to tell the German church, what became the Reich church, that Hitler was evil. Nobody was buying this then.
Metaxas: No, it’s a stunning thing to see how the churches and how the conservatives were co-opted and snowed by Adolf Hitler. Hitler was a genius in that he was profoundly cynical to the bottom, and he used the churches brilliantly.
Bonhoeffer helped found the confessing church, which opposed Hitler and Third Reich, primarily their anti-Christian and anti-Jewish stands. But even within the confessing church, Bonhoeffer was almost alone in recognizing the depth of the problem.
Metaxas: He was always a step ahead and trying to rally them to take a stand. A few times he succeeded, but mostly he was alone.
Ross: Another issue that obviously came to the fore was identification with “the gospel comes first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” That cost him.
Metaxas: Bonhoeffer is reading the scriptures and trying to show his fellow Christians that in the church there is neither Jew nor Greek, there’s neither Jew nor Gentile. If a Jew wants to be a part of this church, we are obligated as Christians to welcome him in, to worship with him. This is the place Bonhoeffer said, “The church is the place where Jew and Christian stand together.” Now, not only could the Nazis not see this, but many in the church could not see this.
He wrote a circular letter where he’s basically saying that what the Nazis have done to the Jews in Germany they have done to God’s people. The burning of the synagogues, this is an attack on God.
Ross: How did he become a spy?
Metaxas: 1939 comes around and Bonhoeffer realizes he will be drafted, but he would not fight in Hitler’s war.
Bonhoeffer sailed to safety in America, but after only 26 days there, he was on the last ship to cross the Atlantic before the war started.
Metaxas: He’s seeking the will of God, and the Lord calls him back to Germany. He knew, “I will have no peace in New York.” Well, Bonhoeffer’s family were all very, very involved in the conspiracy against Adolf Hitler. He had been providing the moral support, but this was the moment of decision. “Do I take another step?”
Bonhoeffer joined the Abwehr, German military intelligence, as a double agent. He acted as a courier for the Third Reich, but used these opportunities to make contact with the Allied Forces across Europe.
Ross: He had it absolutely resolved in his mind philosophically, spiritually, biblically that he could justify being involved in a direct assassination plot.
Metaxas: Oh, yeah.
Ross: How did he resolve that with say Bible verses, Romans 13, that says you’re supposed to obey those in authority?
Metaxas: Even many good Germans had no idea what was really going on, but Bonhoeffer knew. He thought, “If I, as a Christian, am unwilling to get my hands dirty to protect scores of thousands and millions of innocent Jews, I will not be able to stand before a holy God.” To have some fussy theological argument about, “Well, do I do…?” Sometimes God requires you, in obedience, to take action.
But before the assassination plan could be carried out, Bonhoeffer was arrested and sent to Tegel Military Prison.
Metaxas: He was involved in trying to get a number of Jews out of Germany to safety.
Bonhoeffer was still in prison awaiting trial on July 20, 1944, when the plot to assassinate Hitler failed.
Metaxas: Now the entire conspiracy, which has been working on and off for practically 10 years, is completely exposed. At that moment, of course, Bonhoeffer’s days are numbered.
Bonhoeffer was transferred to a Gestapo prison and then to a concentration camp. On April 9, 1945, with the sound of American guns in the distance, Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging under the direct order of Hitler. Less than three weeks later, Hitler committed suicide and Germany surrendered to the Allies.
Metaxas: It’s really tempting for us to look at this as a great tragedy. It’s so sad, but I think that Bonhoeffer himself would rebuke us for having that point of view. And he would say, “Yes, there’s a sadness, but to serve God with everything you have unto death is the greatest joy of life.”
Ross: What’s the message of his legacy to 21st century Christians or non-Christians?
Metaxas: He’s the ultimate witness to a world that is not Christian. That he calls people to God with an authenticity that is literally, in my experience, unique. It’s a very, very important thing for us to understand that this man was prophet of God and he was utterly obedient to the Lord. For me, the joy of telling the story is to rediscover Bonhoeffer for a generation that never knew him.
Ross: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the real thing.
Metaxas: The real thing.
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