The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Learning about Bonhoeffer's life

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Pfarrer [pastor]; Berlin-Charlottenburg 9; 43 Marienburger Allee.” The name and address of his home were the last scribbles by Dietrich Bonhoeffer just before his execution in 1945. When I studied in Berlin, Germany, my parents visited, and we went to the former Bonhoeffer house. Our welcome was intimate and personal. We stood in the rooms where he slept and played, and, in his later years, worked and smoked.

When I returned to Duke University, Durham, N.C., in the spring, I was fortunate to be enrolled in a seminar on Bonhoeffer. On our first day of class I gave a description of his home. I also was introduced to Bonhoeffer by learning about his home, family and life.

Theologians, martyrs and saints often seem to me amazingly impressive, yet far too lofty and inaccessible. Bonhoeffer is different because he is real to me. The impact of his life and work is incredible because I feel the reality and authenticity of his struggle and faithfulness.

The seminar on Bonhoeffer, taught by Hans Hillerbrand and Robert Bacher, challenged my faith. Through the academic study of this 20th century martyr, my classmates and I found ourselves questioning and evaluating faith as we struggled with an understanding of ethics and theology.

Besides the accessible and genuine nature of his life, Bonhoeffer has affected me so greatly because of his leadership and radical activism. He didn’t live for validation and acceptance from the world. At the same time, he was as human and earthly as each of us. He demonstrated a life that was “in but not of” this world. His life in Christ was one of costly grace, not leading to pleasantry and ease. Bonhoeffer lived faithfully until the abrupt end of his life at the hands of Adolf Hitler. The accounts of his execution describe him gracefully and fearlessly leaving life on Earth.

His humility helped him, as he acknowledged the complexity and struggle of this world. As he participated in a plot to kill Hitler, Bonhoeffer asked his pastor friends to grant him forgiveness for his involvement. His understanding of his call from God wasn’t one of clarity and certainty, but yet he wasn’t paralyzed by such struggle.

I’ve been enlivened, invigorated and inspired by Bonhoeffer’s life and works. Learning about him has challenged my youthful and simplistic understanding of Christianity and increased my understanding of the questions of ethics.

Bonhoeffer opposed the popular understanding of the Beatitudes, which was that they should be seen as an unattainable goal or a measure of human sinfulness. He didn’t agree that they should only be used to illumine sinfulness. Rather, he argued, the Beatitudes are to be lived and engaged. Just as Bonhoeffer held high expectations of realizing the Beatitudes, so we must understand his example of faithfulness to the gospel not as a legacy or a lofty goal but as an expectation for the reality of our lives.

Bonhoeffer’s life and discipleship encouraged and inspired me to follow the call of Christ. My classmates and I have a greater, more complex understanding of the church. This church must be pure, holy, confessing and faithful to Christ—rather than to the world.

A number of my friends have sought my opinion about taking the Bonhoeffer class at Duke this coming fall. I can’t encourage them enough. I’m so thankful for the witness of Bonhoeffer and for the Duke seminar. I hope we all will continue to learn from Bonhoeffer—not just as a legacy, but as an intimate example of how to struggle and to live with Christ at the center of our lives.


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Embracing diversity