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The Grounds of Courage

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
By Eric Metaxas
(Thomas Nelson, 591 pp., $29.99)

Early in January 1939, the precocious German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, age thirty-two, learned that all males in his age cohort had been ordered to register with the military. A dedicated opponent of the Nazi regime, he might have responded by declaring himself a conscientious objector, but there were two problems with such a course of action. The first was that Bonhoeffer, although pacifist by inclination, was not opposed to violence under all conditions; and he would later play an active role in the conspiracy led by German generals to assassinate Hitler. The second was that his fame in the Confessing Church (more on this below) might encourage other religious leaders critical of the regime to do the same, thereby bringing them under greater suspicion and undermining their efforts to prove that Nazi policies, and especially their rapidly intensifying Jew-hatred, were contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The solution was provided by America’s most illustrious theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Nine years earlier, Bonhoeffer had spent a year in the United States as a free-floating exchange student at Union Theological Seminary, arriving not long after Niebuhr had moved there from Detroit. He had made such a positive impression on Union’s faculty that Niebuhr jumped at the opportunity to bring him back. If we fail to offer him a job, he told Union’s president, Henry Sloane Coffin, Bonhoeffer will wind up in a concentration camp. This was not the stuff of run-of-the-mill letters of recommendation. Union extended the offer. Grateful to have a way out of his dilemma, Bonhoeffer booked passage, and in June 1939 found himself safe in America.

Safe, but unhappy. Bonhoeffer’s second visit to the United States lasted only twenty-six days. The reason was in part theological. Union was committed to a form of religious liberalism fully at odds with the fundamentalist versions of Protestant faith growing in places such as Oklahoma and Georgia; but if Niebuhr and his colleagues thought that in welcoming Bonhoeffer they were adding another liberal modernist, they were quite mistaken. Bonhoeffer simply could not abide the liberalism he found at Union. On his earlier trip to New York, he had written home that “there is no theology here.... They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria.” The only church that had moved him in New York was the black church, and in particular Abyssinian Baptist, where Adam Clayton Powell Sr. was the pastor. Once he discovered Abyssinian, Bonhoeffer spent every remaining Sunday of his youthful sojourn in Harlem teaching Sunday school and absorbing the living presence of Christ in its midst. Upon his return to Germany, he brought with him records of black gospel music that he played to his European friends every time he could.

Bonhoeffer’s disappointment proved to be even greater when he returned to the States in 1939. Niebuhr might be considered a deep thinker in the United States, but Bonhoeffer, we are told by his able biographer Eric Metaxas, got little or nothing from reading his books. “No thinking in the light of the Bible here,” he wrote in his diary during his second visit to Union. Again searching for an alternative, he went much further afield than Abyssinian, doctrinally if not geographically. Broadway Presbyterian, also located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, had been one of Union’s opponents in the culture war raging between fundamentalists and modernists during the 1920s, actively participating in the conservative campaign against the preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick, whose sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” had set out the modernist case. (The Rockefeller family, in response, funded the building of Riverside Church, Union’s neighbor and ally, and appointed Fosdick to be its pastor.)

In 1939, Broadway was led by Dr. John McComb, a premillennialist, or one who believed that Christians should withdraw from efforts to improve the world around them and wait instead for the harsh cleansing that would come when Jesus returned to earth and discovered how unfaithful his presumptive followers had been to his teachings. “This will one day be a center of resistance when Riverside Church has long since become a temple of Baal. I was very glad about this sermon,” Bonhoeffer said of his encounter with McComb. (A prophet on so many fronts, Bonhoeffer missed the boat on this one. Riverside still stands, while Broadway Presbyterian opted to keep its gay pastor in 1994, is currently led by a woman, and is guided by a mission statement welcoming people of all races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations, and committing itself to the promotion of a just society.)

Something more pressing than his disappointment with Union’s liberalism also cut short Bonhoeffer’s visit to Manhattan. God spoke to Bonhoeffer in ways that ran counter to the traditions of academic theology in which he had been trained. German theology in the first decades of the twentieth century was dominated by the writing of Adolph von Harnack. Like his own mentor Schleiermacher, Harnack approached the Bible as a historical text written in a particular place and time—a text that was subject, like all great works of literature, to exegesis. But from his first writings to his last, Bonhoeffer found such an approach thin gruel.

The Bible for him was a holy work, written by a living and vibrant Supreme Being who had sent His son to live among us and atone for our sins. Christianity, properly understood, was in his view not a religion, that is, not a set of moral precepts about the right way to live. God, not religion, is all that matters. We can do nothing to reach God, but He can reach out to us. Through our obedience to him, we may prepare ourselves to hear what He has to say. “I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions,” Bonhoeffer wrote to his brother-in-law in 1936. “One cannot simply read the Bible, like other books.... Only if we expect from it the ultimate answer, shall we receive it.” With views such as these, it is no wonder that Bonhoeffer felt called to return home. God was telling him what he had to do, and he had no choice but to do it.

In his beautifully constructed biography, Metaxas calls Bonhoeffer’s return to Germany in 1939 “the great decision.” Before he arrived in New York, Bonhoeffer was already his country’s most prominent theologian; in the German language, only Switzerland’s Karl Barth outranked him. After he went back to Berlin, Bonhoeffer added the roles referred to by Metaxas’s subtitle: martyr, prophet, spy. In 1945, the Nazis arrested Bonhoeffer, sent him to a series of prisons and camps including Buchenwald, and—two weeks before the Allied troops arrived at the Flossenbürg concentration camp—killed him. He was not yet forty. Bonhoeffer’s life and work are certainly inspiring, but there is more to learn from them than lessons about courage and resistance to evil. Precisely because his theological ideas were so conservative while his actions were so heroic, everything about Bonhoeffer raises difficult questions for anyone of a liberal persuasion who ponders the proper relationship between religion and politics.

Bonhoeffer’s role in creating the Confessing Church illustrates one of those questions: how intertwined should the church become with the state? As Hitler rose to power, he was strongly supported by those calling themselves German Christians. Overlooking Hitler’s pseudo-Nietzschean dislike of Christianity, the German Christians saw no conflict between a greater Reich and the teaching of Jesus. Militaristic at heart, they were sympathetic to calls for rearmament to defeat the Communist menace. Nationalistic in the extreme, they identified with that side of the Lutheran tradition that viewed church and state as interlocking partners dedicated to keeping order in society. Most important of all, at least for Bonhoeffer, they supported the “Aryan Paragraph,” the clause inserted by the Nazis in nearly all “private” organizations requiring them to exclude anyone with Jewish roots from membership. After a century and more of Jewish assimilation in Germany, a significant number of Lutheran pastors themselves came from Jewish backgrounds. They could form a church for themselves as baptized Christians, the German Christians believed, but they could play no role in the national church, even if they had previously been ordained in it. So the first great struggle of Bonhoeffer’s life was directed against the German Christians and their willingness to accommodate their faith to ruthless political power.

Despite its many precedents in the history of Christian—and Lutheran—anti-Semitism, the efforts made by the German Christians to construct an explicitly anti-Semitic Christianity were, theologically speaking, laughable on their face. There is, for one thing, the work of scripture known as the Old Testament. But the German Christians simply ignored it. “With its Jewish money morality and its tales of cattle merchants and pimps,” as Reinhold Krause, a German Christian activist in Berlin, put it, the Hebrew Bible had no authority. Neither did the Jewish words in all the Christian hymns—“hosanna,” for example. Jesus was stripped of his Jewish heritage, as was Paul, and was praised as the first great anti-Semite. “Into the oven ... with the part of the Bible that glorifies the Jews,” proclaimed Georg Schneider, another German Christian, “so eternal flames will consume that which threatens our people.” Here was a man who understood Heine’s insight that once books are burned so will people be—and relished it.

Like any good Lutheran, Bonhoeffer believed that states were necessary to secure conditions of social order. But when a state violated the prior order established by God, as the Nazis had clearly done, what should a Christian do? Bonhoeffer expressed his answer in an essay called “The Church and the Jewish Question” in 1933, which he wrote out of his disgust with the German Christians and their worship of naked power. Without Judaism, he declared, there could be no such thing as Christianity. Christians therefore had to stand in opposition to such explicitly anti-Semitic policies as the Aryan Paragraph. But Bonhoeffer went further. Christians, he continued, were under a positive duty “not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.” Any church that allied itself with an evil regime was not a church, and could not therefore speak for God. “What is at stake,” Bonhoeffer insisted, “is by no means whether our German members of congregations can still tolerate church fellowship with the Jews. It is rather the task of Christian preaching to say: here is the church, where Jew and German stand together under the Word of God; here is the proof of whether a church is still the church or not.”

The implications of Bonhoeffer’s thinking became obvious in May 1934, at the meeting that produced the famous Barmen Declaration and the birth of the Confessing Church. “If you find that we are speaking contrary to Scripture,” the Declaration proclaimed, “then do not listen to us! But if you find that we are taking our stand upon Scripture, then let no fear or temptation keep you from treading with us the path of faith and obedience to the Word of God.” Consistent with such a position, Barmen (as Metaxas summarizes Bonhoeffer’s views) “did not constitute a secession from the ‘official’ German church because calling it a secession would give an appearance of legitimacy to that ‘official’ German church. It was not the Confessing Church that had broken away, but the Reich church.” There could never be a kind of two-church solution in which the German Christians and the Confessing Church Christians competed for souls in a free marketplace of ideas. In this sense, Bonhoeffer’s religious convictions left no place for pluralism. He was anything but a believer in the separation of church and state, or in the need for the state to be neutral between religions, let alone between religion and non-religion. The church should be allied with the statebut it had to be the right church and the right state.

Since Max Weber, religious outlooks have been frequently characterized as either other-worldly (transcendental and utopian) or this-worldly (actively engaged with political and social questions). Bonhoeffer’s approach offered a combination of both. Speaking directly to the German Christians who were in conference on the Danish island of Fanø not long after the Barmen meeting, Bonhoeffer insisted that the church must listen to God and not to any political authority. At the same time, he also believed that Christians must take positions on such timely issues as matters of war and peace. This was not an easy line to walk. Political involvement usually requires compromise and negotiation. Searching for peace, at least in Bonhoeffer’s view, “means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God.” Bonhoeffer was making a plea for political engagement—but hardly in the way liberalism understands it. “He was not concerned here with the helpless exchange of open-ended questions,” wrote Bonhoeffer’s closest friend Eberhard Bethge, “but with the direct demand that certain decisions be risked.” One does not debate with God; one searches for what he is teaching and one obeys. The theological liberals at Fanø were as puzzled by Bonhoeffer’s teaching as the Nazis in attendance were outraged by it.

It is important to note that Bonhoeffer’s criticisms of theological liberalism would hardly make him an ally of today’s versions of religious conservatism. He would, one imagines, be utterly scornful of the politically tendentious piety of Pat Robertson, who sees little or no break between the teachings of Jesus and the platforms of the Republican Party. And the more moderate and accommodating evangelicalism of a figure such as Rick Warren would, I believe, appear to him as an example of “cheap grace,” the famous phrase he coined in The Cost of Discipleship to describe those who play up forgiveness and play down repentance. Were he with us now, Bonhoeffer would no doubt still dislike the goings-on at Union Theological Seminary; but he would be even more appalled, I think, by the religious culture of the mega-church, with its undemanding preaching and its insipid hymnology. (Bonhoeffer was an accomplished musician with a passionate love of the German masters.) This man was made of stern stuff.

It is only when we turn our attention from his struggles with the German Christians to his active involvement in the resistance after his return to Germany that we may begin to grasp why Bonhoeffer’s uncompromising theological positions pose as much of a challenge to contemporary secular liberals as they do to contemporary Christian conservatives.

The German resistance against Hitler at times seemed to resemble a large cousins’-club gathering. Germany’s leading generals, worried that Hitler’s aggressiveness would lead their country to catastrophe and jealous of the power exercised by the SS and its leaders, played the major role in opposing the regime. Nearly all of them came from the highest social circles of the German aristocracy. So did Bonhoeffer. When Hans von Dohnanyi, a judge on the Supreme Court and an adviser to the supreme military command, went in search of someone who might have sufficient cover to carry resistance messages abroad, he turned to his brother-in-law Bonhoeffer. After Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Nazis, who had become suspicious of his activities, he was first sent to the Tegel prison in Berlin, where his cousin, Paul von Hase, the military commandant of the city, made sure he was well-treated. All the aristocrats in Germany seemed to know each other, and Bonhoeffer knew them all.

Whether in Berlin’s posh Grunewald district or in the Junker-dominated areas of Pomerania, Bonhoeffer did not lack for contacts. That he relied on those contacts for the noblest of ends is beyond doubt. He took extraordinary risks, acting not only as a secret agent but also as a double agent. His humanitarian ideals involved him directly in dangerous missions to save Jews, some of whom he helped escape to Switzerland. Bonhoeffer used the contacts that he had developed in his ecumenical work to inform Western leaders of the existence of the resistance, and through those contacts he was able to reach Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary. (Neither Eden nor Churchill was receptive to the overtures.) But his most dramatic actions were still to come.

When key leaders of the Abwehr began discussing among themselves ways to kill Hitler, Bonhoeffer almost immediately entered into their conversations. One of the first attempts involved an effort by Fabian von Schlabrendorff, an aide-de-camp to General Henning von Tresckow, to plant a bomb on Hitler’s plane. (Schlabrendorff was married to the cousin of Maria von Wedermeyer, Bonhoeffer’s fiancée, and Tresckow was her uncle.) When that failed, they tried again, this time through a suicide mission involving a bomb inside an overcoat. This plan, too, came to naught. Meanwhile the Gestapo had been closing in on Bonhoeffer’s other activities. In April 1943 they came to his home and escorted him to the first of his prison cells.

Arrest did not end Bonhoeffer’s role in the resistance. He pretended to be a woolly-headed intellectual with his head in the clouds for the purpose of deflecting the Nazis’ attention from the most serious effort to kill their leader, the von Stauffenberg plan to plant a bomb under Hitler’s table at Wolfsschanze, his East Prussian hideaway. Unlike some of the other plots, this one’s failure was due more to bad luck than to indecision or impotence; Metaxas blames it on “a quirk of furniture design.” But with that failure, and with all the intelligence the Nazis were able to gather in its aftermath, Bonhoeffer was now understood to be a dangerous enemy of the state. He was executed on April 9, 1945, in the very select company of prominent German military officers such as Wilhelm Canaris and Hans Oster.


What gives an individual the courage to act as Bonhoeffer did? In his case there were many reasons for his valor, including his love of Western culture, his devotion to his family, and his strong sense of loyalty. But clearly included among the causes of this man’s bravery must be Bonhoeffer’s complete and absolute devotion to God. For him, as Metaxas writes, “the evilness of the Nazis could not be defeated via old-fashioned ‘ethics,’ ‘rules,’ and ‘principles.’” Bonhoeffer’s soul lived in a realm not only beyond utilitarian indifference but also beyond Kantian imperatives. The problem of evil was not one that human beings could solve. Even “religion,” with its commandments and its ethical duties, was in his view insufficient. It is not virtue we need to confront evil, nor is it some inner light: “all things appear as in a distorted mirror,” Bonhoeffer wrote in his Ethics, “if they are not seen and recognized in God.” This was true also of evil. Evil takes place in this world, but it can be grasped only when “we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously not only our own sufferings, but those of God in the world—watching with Christ in Gethsemane.” The best we can do in the most difficult of times is not to view ourselves as free agents possessed with choices, but as subjects of a God whom we trust without reservation.

With faith as deep and obedient as this, Bonhoeffer did not fear death. “Death is the supreme festival on the road to freedom,” he reflected toward the end of his life. Paradoxically, such a deeply spiritual preoccupation with the next world conferred upon him a this-worldly advantage: it helps, if you are engaged in serious and dangerous political deeds, to contemplate what might be in store for you, and to accept its likelihood. We can never know who, when tested, will prove strong, and who will not. But anyone familiar with the theological reflections that preoccupied Bonhoeffer throughout his life would not be surprised by his bravery. “Freedom, how long we have sought thee in discipline, action, and suffering; dying, we now may behold thee revealed in the Lord,” he wrote.

As admirable as Bonhoeffer’s actions were, there nonetheless remains something disturbing—we should be candid about this—in his willingness to jettison so many centuries of moral and ethical reflection on the good life and how it should be led. “Principles are only tools in the hands of God,” he wrote. “They will soon be thrown away when they are no longer useful.” But it is precisely because we recognize the fragility of ethical principles that we work to preserve and protect them when they are under attack. If all men were Bonhoeffers, ethics might be dispensable. But they are not, and so we need Kant and his successors. This is especially the case when we seek to counter the fragility of societies containing individuals who differ radically about the God in which they believe—if they believe in any at all. It is impossible not to be awed by the courage that Bonhoeffer’s faith in Jesus gave him, but that does not mean that we must all have faith in Jesus.

It has become popular in certain religious circles to point to Hitler’s hatred of Christianity, and in so doing to interpret the Holocaust as what inevitably takes place when people become too secular and turn away from Jesus. In this account, liberalism, indeed the entire Enlightenment out of which it grew, lacks the depth of commitment and the sense of the tragic necessary to come to terms with radical evil in its most brutal form. A way of thinking about politics that insists on the need for the state to remain neutral between competing conceptions of the good life, we are told, cannot find the resources to denounce a conception of life that is evil in its nature. The rules that apply for what Rawls calls a wellordered society have little or no relevance to a society in which everything that enables people to live cooperatively with others is turned upside down: even people making rational decisions behind a veil of ignorance could find themselves choosing Auschwitz.

Those who hold to this view believe that if there is any lesson to be learned from the life and times of Dietrich Bonhoeffer—and, to take another example, from the Catholic opposition to communism in the 1980s, in the Vatican and in Poland and elsewhere—it is that a confrontation with evil demands that beliefs be anchored in the laws of nature or the laws of God. Only when convictions are absolutely secure, this line of reasoning concludes, can we know what to do, and have the courage to do it. But nothing in liberal secularism is secure—and this is by design. For this reason, liberalism—and secularism—have no solution to the problem of evil. Confronted by monsters, a liberal instinctively wishes to reason with them.


Throughout his book, but especially toward the end, Metaxas turns this erudite and at times abstruse theologian into a living and tragic human being. I would be less than honest if I did not admit that bringing this man—and his intransigence on all the important questions of our time—so vividly to life raises awkward questions for the liberalism in which I put my own faith. How, precisely, would a Rawlsian have acted in those dark times? Must we not move beyond this-worldly conceptions of politics as a struggle for power to other-worldly concerns with repentance and days of judgment, if we are to grasp how the Nazis were able to combine their own rational plans to kill millions with satanically inspired ideas about a Thousand Year Reich, and also how some people were able to resist those plans? Is it possible to face death with courage without knowing that a better life awaits? Can one be loyal to one’s collaborators in the resistance without being loyal to some higher power? Can faith help overcome torture? Lurking behind all such questions is the major one: if the problem of evil is not one that humans can solve, have we no choice but to rely on God for help? Does Bonhoeffer’s greatness prove his rightness?

Yet when I put this book down, I realized that its author, no doubt inadvertently, had helped me to answer these questions. Bonhoeffer may have been convinced that God was telling him what to do, but I am not convinced. Ironically, Metaxas’s passion, the intensity of his engagement with his subject, wound up persuading me of the importance of the very autonomy that Bonhoeffer believed that we do not possess. Even if God told Bonhoeffer what to do, it was Bonhoeffer who chose God in the first place. It was not a humble servant of the Lord who involved himself in the resistance, but a singular human being who, for whatever reason, was able to know what to do when faced with the problem of evil.

It is important to note in this context that there is no simple relationship between faith and courage. The German Christians who collaborated with Hitler may have abused religion, but they considered themselves religious. At the same time, many—if not most—of the resisters to Hitler were not Christian believers and did not take orders from God. They included Prussian generals, and left-wingers (including even a few communists), and the student movement known as the White Rose. Their bravery had nothing to do with religion. One should come away from the Bonhoeffer story impressed by religion, but not in awe of it. The human picture is more complicated.

In this fine biography, Metaxas stays close to the story and refrains from any efforts at theory. All the more reason to read it: when it comes to the strengths and the limits of post-Kantian liberalism, we already have theory aplenty. But be careful what you read it for. You can understand this book, if you wish, as making the case for belief in an all-powerful God, though a biography is not a work of philosophy. But unless you read it also as a testimony to the capacity for choice that mortal beings may be called upon to exercise when evil looms among them, its larger and most stirring lesson will be lost.

Alan Wolfe is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article ran in the February 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.