The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


More than a martyr

Through his words, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reveals his many facets

This month closes the centenary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s birth, Feb. 4, 1906. Many know that he was hanged April 9, 1945, as a plotter against the Nazi regime, but is Bonhoeffer as martyr the full measure of the man?

Is martyrdom why PBS airs a documentary about him and USA Today gives him a full-page article? Is his death sufficient cause for an opera in his name or a statue in Westminster Abbey? Does the drama of prison and execution truly explain the Bonhoeffer phenomenon?

Let’s step back a moment and consider: Which Bonhoeffer do we actually meet across his 39 years? Is it the pastor, the patriot, the poet, the professor, the pursuer of peace or some other? Several Bonhoeffers seem to surface. It’s time to hear from him—or them.

Bonhoeffer certainly is the pursuer of peace, first as a pacifist seeking to prevent war, then a plotter seeking to end it. The time is summer 1934, the place Fanø, Denmark, and the meeting an ecumenical council. Bonhoeffer, 28, fearful that war is fascism’s course and Europe’s fate, speaks to delegates on The Church and the Peoples of the World.

“How does peace come about?” he asks. “Through a system of political treaties? Through the investment of international capital in different countries? Through the big banks, through money? Or through universal peaceful rearmament in order to guarantee peace? Through none of these, for the single reason that in all of them peace is confused with safety.

“There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to mistrust, and this mistrust in turn brings forth war. To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself.

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