“Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Preface”

A Sermon by Rev. John E. Gibbons

Delivered on Sunday, April 7, 2019

At The First Parish in Bedford


A thought to ponder at the beginning:

“We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer


Opening Words

“Time is the most precious gift in our possession, for it is the most irrevocable. This is what makes it so disturbing to look back upon the time which we have lost. Time lost is time when we have not lived a full human life, time unenriched by experience, creative endeavor, enjoyment, and suffering. Time lost is time not filled, time left empty.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer



(John asked parishioners to choose a quotation from Bonhoeffer and read it.  Stacy Chandler and Vito LaMura volunteered.)


From Stacy:

I volunteered to read a Dietrich Bonhoeffer quotation this morning because I didn’t know anything about him. This was the one that I kept returning to, when I was perusing options.

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. Furthermore, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”

~Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from Letters and Papers From Prison


  • When a friend lost her husband of 15 years in a tragic bike accident, well-meaning people told her, you’re young, you’ll move on. She was dumbstruck by this advice.
  • When another friend lost her baby, well-meaning people told her that it was God’s Will and she could just have another baby. This never helped her feel better.
  • Why would they want to forget? Why should they avoid the pain?
  • When I was working as a medical social worker, I worked primarily with terminal cancer patients. Many of them were reluctant to talk about their death with their loved ones, so they talked to me. I was always relieved when they eventually found a way to open up to spouses, parents, and children about their fears and hopes related to their imminent death. The candid conversation was a gift for both sides.
  • Death cannot be avoided. So why should we avoid the pain that reminds us that we once had that person in our lives– “a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain” ?


from Vito:

“Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. It would even seem that this is virtually a sociological-psychological law. The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other. The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances. The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.”

“If we look more closely, we see that any violent display of power, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind; indeed, this seems actually to be a psychological and sociological law: the power of some needs the folly of others. It is not that certain human capacities, intellectual capacities for instance, become stunted of destroyed, but rather that the upsurge of power makes such an overwhelming impression that men are deprived of their independent judgment, and…give up trying to assess the new state of affairs for themselves.”



In the U.S. Holocaust Museum there is a sign, it hangs on a wall in our Common Room, and it’s on the back of your order of service; and it lists Early Warning Signs of Fascism.  They are:

  1. Powerful and continuing nationalism
  2. Disdain for human rights
  3. Identification of enemies as a unifying cause
  4. Supremacy of the military
  5. Rampant sexism
  6. Controlled mass media
  7. Obsession with national security
  8. Religion and government intertwined
  9. Corporate power protected
  10. Labor power suppressed
  11. Disdain for intellectuals and the arts
  12. Obsession with crime and punishment
  13. Rampant cronyism and corruption
  14. Fraudulent elections

This list, created pre-Trump, is based on research into the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini, Salazar in Portugal, Franco in Spain, Suharto in Indonesia, and Pinochet in Chile; and while it is a bit controversial and does not take into account the ways things are decidedly different in the US today, still you can’t help but notice some ominous similarities.

In this illiberal era of authoritarianism, greed, and kakistocracy (government by the least capable), there is resurgent interest in the history of resistance, be it the non-violent resistance of Gandhi and King, and the resistance of those who defied the Nazis.

For several years I’ve been aware of a performer named Al Staggs who re-enacts episodes from the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and we are fortunate that Al Staggs will be with us next Sunday.  He comes from New Mexico and we’ve collaborated with the Harvard Divinity School in bringing him here.  After the briefest of introductions, his performance will be the entirety of next Sunday’s service.  Please come and please invite your friends.

Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 and executed on April 9, 1945 – just two weeks before Hitler’s suicide and the end of the war.  He was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, spy, martyr, and Protestant saint whose life, death, and writings have inspired documentary films, biographies for adults and young adults, scholarly assessments, even a new graphic novel.  In anticipation of next Sunday, I’ve immersed myself in all things Bonhoeffer.

What is most remarkable about Bonhoeffer is that, though he would join a conspiracy that tried three times to assassinate Hitler, his primary motivation was not political but faithfully and obediently theological.

And so I’ve tried to absorb some of Bonhoeffer’s theology but, I tell you, these German Lutheran theologians cause me to think it miraculous that I was allowed to graduate from the Harvard Divinity School.  But then Bonhoeffer was decidedly unimpressed by American theological education!

To whet your appetite for next Sunday and give you some context, this morning I will give you a thumb-nail sketch of Bonhoeffer.

Dietrich – and many biographers refer to him by his first name – was one of eight Bonhoeffer children.  His parents valued education, music, culture, athleticism, and rationality.  His father was a pre-eminent Berlin psychiatrist.  Like most everyone they were Lutheran but not church-goers.

Fascinated by eternal questions, Bonhoeffer determined as a teenager that he would be a theologian and even signed his name, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian.”  His father was unimpressed and suspected his son would waste his life secluded and unengaged with the excitement of the 20th century.

Bonhoeffer regarded most aspects of church life as boring, rote, unreal.  He imagined a theology that was enlivening, relevant, and real.

When he was 18, he and his brother travelled to Italy where, at the Vatican, he observed passionate Christians of diverse nationalities worshipping together. This was quite unlike the German church.  He began to glimpse a universal Christian church, united in community.  A key to understanding Bonhoeffer is that “ideas and beliefs were nothing if they did not relate to the world of reality outside one’s mind.”

In 1930, at age 23, too young to be ordained, he travelled to the U.S. where he studied at Union Seminary in New York (where our Parish Minister Annie studied).  Liberal American theology seemed flabby to him, but he made great friends.  Frank Fisher was an African-American student who introduced him to Abyssinian Baptist in Harlem which captivated Bonhoeffer and showed a vital faith that seemed absent in other churches.  He even taught Sunday school there.  And Bonhoeffer loved gospel music and bought records he took home to Germany.  Traveling with Frank Fisher, Bonhoeffer was introduced to the perversity of American racism.

Another friend made at Union was Jean Lasserre, a French student.

One of Bonhoeffer’s brothers was killed in the First World War, just two weeks after his deployment.   The rise of Nazism must be seen in the light of Make Germany Great Again after the humiliation of Versailles. Thus it was quite unusual for a German and a Frenchman to become good friends.  One day with Lasserre, they saw the film version of the anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front and, in its depiction of horror, together they wept.

Bonhoeffer began to develop a theology that was both active and demanding.  The Bible was not about history or about abstract beliefs but, in his view, it speaks in the present tense to you in your life circumstance now.  The Sermon on the Mount is the essence of Christianity and what is expected of us regarding prayer, justice, and care of the needy.  We should live in a noticeably different way than other people because the followers of Jesus should hold to a much higher standard of conduct – the standard of love and selflessness that Jesus himself would embody when he died on the cross.

Bonhoeffer distinguished between cheap grace and costly grace.  Cheap grace is lip service, going to church and feeling pretty good about yourself.  Costly grace is what the gospel demands: It is “the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all he has.  It is the pearl of great price….”  Cheap grace is Easter without Good Friday, superficial.  Costly grace is necessarily sacrificial.

As for the selflessness of Jesus, Bonhoeffer’s theology called for the church to exist for others and for us to live for others.  He preached of the “worth of the worthless and the worthlessness of (that which the world considers) worthy.”  This would mean an affinity for otherness and marginalized people – foreigners, African-Americans, the poor, the oppressed and, most especially in the circumstances of the 1930’s, Jews.

He imagined a “religionless Christianity.”  He planned, but never succeeded, in visiting Gandhi in India.

Bonhoeffer was a conundrum:  he was too pious for the liberals and too worldly for the evangelicals.

Bonhoeffer also developed a theology “from below,” that we ought be informed not only “from above” by intellect and insight but also “from the underside” by exposing ourselves to darkness, disappointment and failure.  Bonhoeffer’s sermons were weighty and heavy.  I’m told, however, that Al Staggs has found evidence of Bonhoeffer’s sense of humor as well!

His was a kind of precursor to what we now call “liberation theology.” Do you remember me quoting Sister Simone Campbell, one of the Nuns On the Bus who advised people of faith to “walk toward trouble,” that we live lives of love when we allow our hearts to be broken by listening to the stories of those who live lives other than our own?

After returning to Germany from America, Bonhoeffer taught confirmation in a working class neighborhood in Berlin.  And he developed other international and ecumenical relationships, serving German churches in London and in Barcelona.

Two days after Hitler became Reich chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address which explored the meaning of the Fuhrer, the title meaning of course “leader” but with many German associations.  Bonhoeffer distinguished between leaders whose authority derives from subservience to God’s will and those who are self-serving mis-leaders.  For reasons unknown but suspicious, his radio address was cut off before he could finish.

Anti-Semitism, a malignant feature of European culture for centuries, and worsened by Luther, metastasized.  Hitler called for the boycott of Jewish businesses.  Bonhoeffer’s 91-year old grandmother famously pushed aside Hitler’s SA brownshirts to shop where she’d always shopped.  “No one will tell me where to shop!” she declared.  Aryan Paragraphs, which denied deeds and club memberships and many things to Jews (as well as Poles, Serbs, Russians, and Slavs, and which had existed since the 19th century in Europe and in America, too) tightened so as to remove non-Aryans from many professions and all participation in public life.  The final solution loomed.

Dietrich’s twin sister, Sabine, had married a Jew who later was baptized a Christian; but as the noose tightened it was arranged for them to escape to England.

The advance of Nazism also led to the co-opting of the German church.  In the theology of Martin Luther there was the assumption that both church and state were ordained by God; and thus the church mostly went along when the Reich created a Reich Church and installed its sympathizers as bishops; banned all members of Jewish descent; eliminated the Old Testament, scourged the Jews, made Jesus into a more manly Aryan man; put Mein Kampf on church chancels and swastikas on their steeples; and required loyalty oaths of the clergy.

As there were many intellectuals, and gentry, and even military officials who were appalled by Hitler, so too there were Christian resisters, but not nearly enough.  I recall UU theologian James Luther Adams reminding us that in those years there was but one journal in Germany with a Unitarian name, and it was a Nazi publication.  A cautionary tale.

With other dissenters, like Karl Barth and Martin Niemoller (who later wrote the famous “I did not speak up when they came for others”), Bonhoeffer established what was called the Confessing Church (they confessed their obedience to the gospel) which in 1934 issued the Barmen Declaration that attempted to distance the church from the state.  Some members rescued Jews but ineffectively and soon the Confessing Church was declared illegal and many of its leaders were sent to concentration camps.

Bonhoeffer, meanwhile, created a Confessing seminary in Pomerania where ordinands developed spiritual disciplines, lived and ate together, practiced Christian community, including singing and listening to the gospel records Bonhoeffer brought back from America.  Soon, the seminary too was declared illegal and went underground.

Bonhoeffer declared that there are three ways for the church to relate the state:  First, by questioning the legitimacy of state action and holding the state accountable.  Second, by helping those who are harmed by the state.  And, third, by “sticking a spoke in the wheel” and putting an end to injustice.

“If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead.  I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”

In 1939, with much support from others who wished to save him from the situation in Europe, Bonhoeffer returned to the US.  Almost immediately, he felt uncomfortable, homesick, and convinced that if he wanted to be part of a post-Nazi German future, he needed to be with his people in Germany.  Against all reason and only weeks after he had arrived, when most others were fleeing Germany, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany on the last ship to sail from America to Europe.

Inexorably, Bonhoeffer moved from confession to conspiracy.  Confession without action was complicity with evil and cheap grace.  God demanded more.  It was time to drive a spoke in the wheel, to grab the wheel from the madman.

Dietrich’s family was well-connected.  Hans Dohnanyi, his brother-in-law, married to his sister Christel, worked in the German Justice Department, but was part of the resistance.  He got Dietrich a job in the Abwehr, the German intelligence agency, which ironically also became a center of resistance.  This saved Dietrich from conscription and he became a double-agent, allegedly using his international connections to get information for the Nazis but, in reality, allowing him to travel and stay in touch with others in the resistance.

Many of his friends thought he had sold out to the Nazis, when in fact he was with the resistance.

Having inside knowledge, Bonhoeffer was the first person to alert westerner authorities to the horror of the Holocaust.

It was determined that Hitler must be killed.  For Dietrich, this was entirely theological.  It was what God called him to do.

There were at least three attempts.  Disguised as a gift of brandy, a bomb was placed on Hitler’s plane.  It failed to go off.  Then, on a suicide mission, one of the conspirators placed a bomb in his coat and, in a meeting with Hitler, activated its timer.  Hitler unexpectedly left the room.  The bomber hurriedly found a restroom and disarmed the bomb.

The third attempt, in July 1944, placed a bomb in a briefcase in Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair conference room in Prussia. The bomb was but six feet from Hitler but had been moved against a heavy wooden table leg that deflected its blast.  Four people were killed but Hitler, singed and his pants shredded, survived.  He declared himself immortal.

Dietrich was arrested in 1943 and spent the remainder of his life in prison, transferred from Tegel to Buchenwald to Regensburg to Schonberg to Flossenburg.

He ministered to other prisoners and to his jailers.  He wrote prolifically.  He met and lovingly and faithfully corresponded with his fiancé, Maria von Wedemeyer.

On April 9, 1945 at Flossenburg, not three weeks before Hitler committed suicide and Germany surrendered, Bonhoeffer was court-martialled, stripped naked, and at dawn hung.  The prison chaplain said he had never seen anyone more composed than Dietrich as he prayed before his execution.

The same day, his brother-in-law, Dohnanyi, was hung by piano wire.  His brother Klaus was murdered by the Gestapo two weeks later.

To another prisoner, Dietrich said, “This is the end, but for me, the beginning.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who began his life with an insatiable curiosity about eternity, now belongs to the ages.  His life and death challenge us to respond: To what sacrifice are we called now?


Closing Words

“Time is the most precious gift in our possession, for it is the most irrevocable. This is what makes it so disturbing to look back upon the time which we have lost. Time lost is time when we have not lived a full human life, time unenriched by experience, creative endeavor, enjoyment, and suffering. Time lost is time not filled, time left empty.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer