By Harriet P. Gross
If Judaism had saints, I would be highly tempted to nominate Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But since we don’t, the best I can do is to tell you why I think he’s a candidate for Jewish appreciation.
The American Luther Research Center, headquartered here in Dallas, has been sponsoring a series of annual lectures as a lead-up to 2017 when there will be worldwide recognition of Martin Luther’s revolution against his own Catholic church, the action that resulted in the Protestant Reformation. Bonhoeffer was the core of this lecture, fourth in the series.
People of many faiths know that Luther, a German priest, took issue with certain Catholic practices of his day, especially “indulgences” — the then-common way for believers to buy their way out of church-ordained punishments for their sins. On Halloween in 1517, he hammered his famed “95 Theses” onto the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg.
This year’s local lecture, “Luther Then — Bonhoeffer Now,” was given by Dr. Larry Rasmussen, a minister who — after a long career of seminary teaching — now promotes “green religion” as director of a project on environmental ethics that he calls “earth-honoring Christianity.” With Luther, he says, Christian faith moved into enlightenment, as priestly power was challenged by laymen’s actions. “Enlightenment can overcome problems, making possible human struggle for human well-being,” he said. “Liberation theology begins with seeing God from the perspective of the suffering.”
Bonhoeffer, born almost 400 years after Luther demonstrated that Christianity could, and should, be different from the way the Catholic Church was operating at the time, might be his spiritual descendent. Speaking of this latter-day Lutheran as though he were still alive, Rasmussen said, “He doesn’t talk about individuals coming of age, but of the world coming of age. He doesn’t turn to a parental God for a bailout.”
Without a rescuer God, humans must take their own power seriously. And this is what Bonhoeffer did as Adolf Hitler rose to his own powerful heights: He publicly warned the German people that they were being asked to give over their souls to someone who wanted total worship from them. When Hitler’s “State Church” barred men with any Jewish connection from serving as its pastors, Bonhoeffer developed his opposing “Confessing Church” and began to train new young pastors. The Nazis closed down his seminary in 1937, but Bonhoeffer kept on educating students illegally to lead a religion criticizing the existing church — just as Luther had done so long before him. In 1940, the Gestapo barred him from public speaking or preaching, and declared all his writings illegal.
Another three years passed before Bonhoeffer was actually arrested and sent to Buchenwald for trying to help escaping Jews. But a connection between him and an unsuccessful attempt on Hitler’s life resulted in an execution ordered by the Fuhrer himself. On April 9, 1945, just a short time before Allied liberation, he was hanged at Flossenburg prison — a martyr to freedom of religious thought and action at age 41.
Rasmussen also likened Bonhoeffer to the modern-day Luther — MLK Jr., — as well as the historic one: all three believed that people shouldn’t go only to God when they are in trouble, but must also find power in their own abilities. He called Bonhoeffer’s approach to Christianity “an ethic of responsibility” that has environmental as well as religious connections in our current age.
Bonhoeffer has never been a candidate for Yad Vashem recognition as a Righteous Gentile because he never saved any specific individual Jew or group of Jews. But he willingly gave up his life for a cause — that of on-site opposition to the man, and the regime, that killed so many of us. He went to his death saying that “suffering has become a better key for understanding the world than happiness has ever been.” Had he been a Catholic instead of a Lutheran, I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer would already be an officially recognized saint.