By Rick Kern
For those fortunate enough to have read the Christian classic, “The Cost of Discipleship,” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his incendiary line from the spiritually provocative masterpiece, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die,” has become a sort of classic within a classic. And while it may be among his most routinely quoted statements, it is but one of many epic anecdotes from a man who talked what he walked. Bonhoeffer’s books, letters, and ideas are regularly cited and sermonized and have been for decades. Frankly, when someone simply gives what he lives, they tend to inspire and garner an exceptional degree of respect, especially when what they live incites the world against them and gives them the gallows in return — which was where Bonhoeffer’s way of life took him.
As esoteric as it sounds, the simple truth is that the man died long before the noose was ever placed around his neck as he both wrote about and lived that which he believed. Christ bid him come and die — and he did, he died daily! His willingness to pay serious dues and practice all he preached to serve the God he loved has made him an iconic figure. Not in the idolatrous sense, rather in the same manner we look to the Apostle Paul as an example of the faith. In fact, Paul urged believers to imitate him in verses such as 1 Corinthians 4:16 and 11:1, and Philippians 3:17.
People who are so compellingly set apart to the Lord that their love for Him creates a passionate “aloneness,” are usually people who are willing to lay it all on the line. Additionally, it’s not uncommon for them to have a very strong gravitational field. Bonhoeffer’s love for God and related insights were so captivating as to be spiritually daunting, compelling, and engaging. Accordingly, Bonhoeffer’s life and times drew Dr. Michael S. Haggard, PhD, Director of Mid America Baptist Theological Seminary — Northeast Branch, to author the deeply insightful read, “Pastors Against Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Church Struggle in Nazi Germany.”
While Haggard has been an enthusiast of Bonhoeffer’s life and works since the late 1990s, he was largely unfamiliar with his work and writings until that time. “I knew nothing about Bonhoeffer for years until the late 1990’s when I read a book that had some of his quotes footnoted,” Haggard explains. “I looked up some of the titles of the books and I thought they were interesting.” He adds, “I remember reading some of those quotes and one of those quotes was, ‘When Christ calls man, He bids him come and die,’ and that struck me as being profound. So, I ordered some of his books from the bookstore and I’ve since read a number of his books and I immediately became a diehard fan of Bonhoeffer and all the books that he has written.”
Like many, Dr. Haggard was profoundly moved and inspired by his new-found hero’s spiritual insight and the fact that Bonhoeffer’s love for Jesus cost him his life. However, there was another dimension of this servant/leader that arrested his attention — his leadership under the mounting pressure brought on by the looming threat of persecution. Bonhoeffer literally lived and ministered in the Valley of the Shadow of Death and feared God more than the bourgeoning evil that was swallowing his beloved Germany.
“I did some research and one of the things that I love to study is leadership,” recalls Haggard. “I decided to do a dissertation on Bonhoeffer’s leadership covering a ten-year period from 1933 through 1943 when he was arrested.”
Again, what really captured Haggard’s imagination and inspired him was this renegade clergyman’s underground spiritual leadership. “Because to talk about leadership under pressure, during persecutions, during civil disobedience, Bonhoeffer did all those things,” Haggard explains.
“It’s an interesting study to explore how, in a crisis state, what do I do when the government tries to control the Gospel message, tries to control the church? Do I conform or do I resist? Continuing he notes that, “He actually had to answer that question during that period of time in his life. He wrote a lot, he wrote personal literature and all sorts of different things, so you can read what he did in the time period. And you can feel what his heart struggled within that difficult time in his life.”
Haggard summarized and boiled down the net effect of Bonhoeffer’s ministry during the Nazi occupation that truly won his heart. “All of that was pretty encouraging for me because it was interesting and fascinating to study. It was leadership during Christian persecution. He took the test well and I think there’s a lot that we can learn from his experience and leadership.”
Among the many highly effective ministerial responsibilities Bonhoeffer assumed during Hitler’s reign of terror, was the leadership of an underground seminary. “The churches asked Bonhoeffer to lead a seminary and Bonhoeffer did that for years from 1935-1940,” says Haggard. “A lot of his students were jailed but he continued to lead the seminary under the radar until finally conscription decimated his students and so he really had no students left.” He adds, “We learned that you can stand for Christ and you can lead for Christ in a very difficult period of time when the government is using its power to control the Gospel message and shut the church down, and stop the church from producing candidates for pastoral ministry.”
Ironically, Germany in the 1940s boasted a culture that esteemed intellect and learning, artistic prowess, and philosophical insight. In many ways it bears more than a cursory resemblance to contemporary America which is one of the reasons Haggard was enthralled with Bonhoeffer. “We are still being motivated by his quotes even 70-plus years after his death of course. He died in a concentration camp by hanging about a month or two before World War II ended,” says Haggard. “He made the ultimate sacrifice but I think that the things he wrote, and the things he said, and the example that he set — we still find it precious today and we are still studying it today. He continues, “So I think that for some of us God may call us to live to a particular task of leadership even when things look very dire for us — but if God can use us in that capacity, we can reach millions. God can let us use Bonhoeffer to reach millions of people, millions of believers, through difficult times and that I think those times are coming to us in our future. And we are going to look at his example and be inspired by it.”
Can one man make a difference in a nation that denies its citizens basic rights, makes war against its neighbors, uses its power to destroy the Jewish race, tries to control the message of the Christian church, and kills Christian leaders who resist? All of these events occurred in the nation of Germany, beginning with Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.
And as they did, in an effort to conform the Protestant Church to the racial ideals of National Socialism, Hitler led a campaign to nazify the Protestant Church in Germany. Shockingly, as he did, there was no great outcry on behalf of the Jews or against the Nazification of the Protestant Church. But that does not mean no one stood on behalf of the Jews, for the sanctity of the German Protestant Church, or for God.
In Bonhoeffer’s case, he had a rare and realistic grasp on the centrality of the cross in the life of the believer.Thus, he wrote much on the cost of discipleship and when persecution came, Bonhoeffer lived by his own words and paid that cost.
“It was just one man who was called to a difficult task in a difficult time period, and he did that task well,” says Haggard. “So well in fact, that it did cost him his life and that we are still talking about his life today, it is still very much inspired by the works that he wrote.” He adds, “You can have no better testimony than that.”
A life changing and challenging read, “Pastors Against Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Church Struggle in Nazi Germany,” is available from both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. You can order your copy from Amazon at www.amazon.com/Pastors-Against-Hitler-Bonhoeffer-Europe-Germany/dp/0692172270 and from Barnes & Noble at www.barnesandnoble.com/w/pastors-against-hitler-michael-s-haggard/1129260094?ean=9780692172278.
Bonhoeffer’s life and message had the spiritual chops to triumph through the agonizing challenges of Nazi Germany. He preached what he called, “costly grace,” and clearly defined its nemesis, “cheap grace.” “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”