Who Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

By July 18, 2019

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and leading theologian who found himself torn apart emotionally by what was going on in Nazi Germany. Long story short, he made the decision to try and do something about it and ended up getting arrested, tried and killed by the Nazis.

But in between these two historic pivot points, a significant transformation took place within Bonhoeffer on the road from his ivory tower observations of Nazi atrocities and his decision to join the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

Bonhoeffer, you see, underwent a sort of personal conversion. As he observed the senseless suffering all around him in the early years of the Nazi movement, he came to a point where he could no longer reconcile his inactivity with his faith. After a considerable struggle — he didn’t really want to make trouble — Bonhoeffer made the decision to go from academician to activist, confronting head-on the genocidal ideation of the Nazis.

The key to understanding the crux of Bonhoeffer’s story in a relatable way lies within that deep existential struggle — and how his thinking evolved. In Bonhoeffer’s letters from Prison, circa 1942, just three years before his death, he recounts the details of this internal struggle and how he faced the cost of his own discipleship.

These letters, received and kept by his friend, Eberhard Bethge, were brought to light after he died, and in these writings, we see firsthand the story of a man who believed from his very core that Christians should not retreat from the world but act within it. In word and deed, Bonhoeffer demonstrated what it means to go from being an admirer of Jesus to a follower of Jesus.

This was Bonhoeffer’s gift to us — and the basis of his strong influence and inspiration for Christians across a wide spectrum of ideologies that have made him one of the leading theologians of all time.

Bonhoeffer knew as he made this decision — and all the ones after it that propelled him down this new path of concrete action — that the cost of his discipleship would be high. And it was. In fact, he paid the ultimate price for his choice to “walk the walk” of Jesus in his time. He was executed in 1945 by the Hitler regime, just as the Nazi regime was collapsing.

Regardless of his untimely and dramatic end, Bonhoeffer’s struggles made him one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. His book, “The Cost of Discipleship,” is now considered a modern-day theological classic and is required reading for most seminary or theology students.

Join us THIS Sunday, July 21, when performing artist Al Staggs will present “A View from the Underside: The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” during our 9:30 and 11:00 am Sanctuary Services.

In this highly-acclaimed, original one-person dramatization, Staggs will invite us into the prison cell where Bonhoeffer, awaiting execution, reveals his personal struggles with faith, evil, injustice, and God.

Through Staggs, we’ll have an opportunity to sit with prisoner Bonhoeffer, feel his moral outrage against the Nazi treatment of Jews, and gain perspective on his journey from observation to action — and the deeply moral commitment that ultimately cost him his life.

You’ll leave this heartwrenching-yet-inspiring presentation pondering your own faith journey — what it might take for you to move from being an admirer of Jesus to being a follower — and what the cost of discipleship might be for you.

Al Staggs has performed this work worldwide for churches, synagogues, colleges and organizations including the Chautauqua Institution; Trinity Church, New York; the National Cathedral in Washington, DC; the International Arts Festival in Caux, Switzerland; Riverside Church, New York as well as more than one hundred colleges and seminaries and hundreds of churches representing a wide diversity of denominational affiliation. 

As we contemplate Staggs’ presentation, it seems timely and important for each of us to ask ourselves, How does our Christianity call us into the struggles of the world today? What are the issues that are ours to confront? How would Jesus ask us to resolve the moral and ethical dilemmas we face in our lives every day? 

And then, on the lighter side . . .

Following the depth and heaviness of his Bonhoeffer presentation, Staggs will be back at 2:00 pm in Wesley Hall with a completely different tack — his afternoon presentation, “Laughter is the Best Medicine” an assortment of zany comedic impressions of timeless and unforgettable characters such as Robin Williams, the Church Lady, former Presidents Bush, Carter, and Clinton, George Burns, Jim Varney (“Ernest”), and many more.

What’s more, it is Staggs himself who draws the unlikely connection between these two very different presentations. “Despite the context of Bonhoeffer’s life of danger, his subversive political activity, and his imprisonment, he often cited the importance of humor for emotional and spiritual survival,” Staggs explains. “In one of his famous ‘Letters and Papers from Prison,’ Bonhoeffer encourages his best friend, Eberhard Bethge, to ‘spread hilaritus all around.’

“Discovering this attribute about a man whose legacy I’ve greatly admired only caused me to respect him even more, since this quality made him much more human,” Staggs continues. Bonhoeffer’s love of humor confirmed to me that his love of levity likely gave him significant strength during the challenges he faced in his brief life.”

When you come to church on Sunday, July 21, come prepared to think, to feel, to ponder, to laugh, and to feel very proud of your church and its Goostree Lecture Series for bringing forth programming of this caliber at no charge to the congregation. 

All Staggs will have books and DVDs available for purchase in the Garden after each Worship service and following his 2:00 pm presentation in Wesley Hall.


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