Who is your Favorite Dead Person?

I have yet again submit myself to the sporadic blogger syndrome (otherwise known as S.B.S.-made it up). And for this I apologize, especially to those who read this to remain updated on my life, as well as the ministry with h2o Church at Kent State. Hopefully, I will remain faithful as I have sought to do before, in the coming months.

Anyway, let us move forward to the topic of this brief blog, and that is to discuss one of my favorite dead people (perhaps top three), namely Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Maybe you have heard of him, or maybe not. At any rate, I went to go see the author of Bonhoeffer’s most recent biography this past week with my some of the guys from my life group. Eric Metaxas, the author of this biography, entitled his talk “Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, and the gospel”. Metaxas has written on William Wilberforce too, who was one of the leaders in abolishing the African slave trade. To put it simply, both Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce were Christian revolutionaries. Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer were both men who changed the culture of their time because of the profound effect of the gospel on their personal lives. For they both were awakened to the wretched oppression of their own times and cultures. This, I think is why Metaxas decided to study these men, so that others might be inspired and moved to action by their lives.

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I loved hearing Metaxas talk about both men, but he spent the majority of the time on Bonhoeffer since that was his most recent biography. Metaxas spoke in brief about each period of Bonhoeffer’s and traced his growth and evolution as a man and as a Christian. Bonhoeffer’s story does not simply entertain me, it captivates me. In the past two years I have sought to read much of Bonhoeffer’s writings. I have read his Cost of Discipleship, Life Together, and finally his Ethics. His writings have convicted and led me to the deeper waters of the Christian life. These works were a direct result of his unique experiences both in Germany and in America. Metaxas noted a period of his life while in America when he went to a African American church in New York City and was astonished by their lives. For what he saw was a group of people who suffered on a daily basis (because of segregation, discrimination, and the like) and yet those same people were the nothing like what he saw in Germany. At last he had seen a people who were living out the effects of the truth of the gospel.

One of the things I love about Bonhoeffer was his tremendous devotion to allow God to form him. Bonhoeffer allowed the experiences that God brought him through to take root in his heart and have their full and lasting effect on his life. He was not simply an academic (who by the way received his doctorate at 21) and a scholar, but a disciple of Jesus and a deep believer that what he knew should directly inform how he lived. This is dramatically evident in his life. Bonhoeffer was one of the few Christians of the time who responded to the injustice brought on by the Nazi Regime. He knew that saying “Jesus is Lord” meant that Hitler was not, and it was this truth that called him into action. Bonhoeffer writes in Ethics of his concept of Christian Responsibility. He knew of this reality deeply, for he himself was responsible for where he was and what he was going to do with what was given to him. There was no disconnect between his polished theology and how he lived his life.

Perhaps what I love most about Bonhoeffer is how he sought to justify his rationale in his cooperative attempt to assassinate Hitler. For it is this that remains the question for many of us when we hear his story. We ask, “A Christian tried to kill another person?” in hopes of either condemning or justifying Bonhoeffer’s actions (for that would make us feel slightly more at ease), but it is Bonhoeffer himself who dismantles our theology in this regard. Bonhoeffer early in his life, was indeed a pacifist (to a certain degree). This is evident in his sermons and earliest writings. We are more comfortable with this today aren’t we? Pacifism seems to be the mainline, orthodox doctrine of thousands of evangelical Christians. For we read the Sermon on the Mount and it seems hardly arguable. What changed in Bonhoeffer then? And why is it that so many people love him, even though he may not fit into the neatly packaged ethic of pacifism that we have manufactured? We are right to be perplexed by Bonhoeffer for this reason alone: Bonhoeffer did not seek to justify his involvement in the cooperative attempt to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer echoes the Apostle Paul’s words when he states the following in 1 Corinthians 4:3-4, But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For i am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted.

Bonhoeffer’s responsible action in standing up for the Jews was between himself and God. He could not, with a clear conscious, deem his actions justifiable before God nor before others. It is because of this that he was misunderstood then, and perhaps even more misunderstood today. We would do well to emulate his courage and his boldness, and to act on what we profess to believe, no matter how radical. For Bonhoeffer, if Jesus was indeed Lord, then that changed everything, including what his response would be to a tyrannical leader. Bonhoeffer believed deeply, and acted profoundly.

This is how Bonhoeffer has inspired me, and continues to inspire me. He is one of my favorite dead people by far. Who is yours?

2 comments

  1. You might be interested to look up an episode of the Phil Vischer Podcast, in which Eric Metaxas was interviewed (within the last three months)… I really enjoyed the radio interview, anyway..

    As for my own “favorite dead person,” I might put Abraham Lincoln high up on the list. Have you read much about him? I have the sense that you might also enjoy one of his biographies (“Team of Rivals” is especially good, in my opinion).

    1. Eric, thanks for your comment! I did look up that podcast and am going to listen to it. And yes, I have heard of that biography, mainly because of the movie that is out that I really want to see!

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