As Adolph Hitler rose to power in Germany, the church there was largely silent. By and large most leaders, even those in the church, supported Hitler and his leadership. Hitler capitalized on the spirit of the German people that was decimated after their humiliating defeat during World War I. Hitler promised the resurgence of Germany and her people. Even when the Third Reich began their program against the Jews the German people as a whole did not rise up in protest.
The Nazi party infiltrated church leadership and reordered religion in the spirit of the Nazi party. Nazi flags were hung in churches. Spies went to church services. Those who spoke against the regime were threatened or sent to prison.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer became a pastor in Germany just before the rise of Adolph Hitler. As a boy he had seen his brother leave to fight in World War I. His brother's death left a lasting impression on Dietrich. While Dietrich's grandfather was a pastor, his father was a famous psychologist and his home life was largely unreligious. When Dietrich announced that he wanted to study theology his family was generally against it.
Dietrich was a gifted student. He gained a doctorate at the University of Berlin at just 21 years of age. While others were unable to see the problems of the growing socialist movement, Dietrich had the insight to see its problems. Two days after Hitler was elected as chancellor of Germany, Dietrich warned the German people in a radio broadcast. His words were cut off mid-sentence.
Bonhoeffer used his international connections in order to inform others about the inner workings of the Nazi Party. On a visit to America a friendship with a black seminary student shaped his understanding about the duty of the church to aid those who were mistreated. Later Bonhoeffer assisted in helping Jews escape from Germany and was involved in several plots against Hitler's life. Each time these plots failed Hitler believed that it was a confirmation from God that he was doing the right thing.
With the help of another Lutheran pastor in Germany Dietrich started the Confessing Church, a church that separated itself from the state church in Germany. Dietrich spearheaded a seminary in order to train men as pastors. The seminary was ultimately destroyed by the Gestapo and the seminarians were drafted into Hitler's army. All of Dietrich's attempts to preserve the church and stand up for the truth ended in failure.
Dietrich's work in the resistance was learned by the Nazis. He was imprisoned, sent to the concentration camp, and hanged. He died just two weeks before the camp at Flossenburg was liberated by United States soldiers. Many see Dietrich as a modern day martyr as he died standing up for his belief in God's Word.
We may think that our day is much unlike the day when Hitler ruled, nonetheless we live in a time and day much worse. While 37 million soldiers and civilians were killed during World War I worldwide, 55 million unborn children have been killed by abortion in the United States alone since abortion became legal in 1973. The most dangerous place in America is in a mother's womb as one in four people there are killed. Are we willing to put our life on the line for what we believe in? Are we concerned? Do we say speak out for the unborn, pray, and work for change? Or like the Germans of a former day do we sit idly by?
On Reformation Sunday we will begin a 3-part series on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as we watch the movie, "Hanged on a Twisted Cross." We will consider the cost of discipleship and the price of following Jesus.
May God grant us courage to stand for the truth even as men like Bonhoeffer did.