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By Sue Sprang

This is one of the two hardest articles I can remember having to write. The first was when, as a newspaper reporter, I covered my first story of the death of a child who was killed in an accident. With that story I had immediate deadlines to meet and had to move quickly to gather information, talk to the family, write the article and follow-ups. So it was weeks after the tragedy that I was finally able to think about it and could grieve. 

The following story took place last fall… but I wasn’t hampered by deadlines. I labored over this piece. Changed things. Set it aside for days at a time. Sometimes became physically ill or lost sleep. But, finally, I have finished it. It became clear to me that to do the Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer justice and to honor his life and death, the truth needed to be told. I couldn’t, in good conscience, water down the words and actions of a man who literally died for the sake of the Gospel. It might offend a few folks; it might be affirmed by others. But here it is.  It is my own and I own it. 

MACKINAC ISLAND – On Oct. 6-8 of last year, pastors, rostered lay leaders, and spouses from our synod traveled to Mackinac Island with their peers from the Northern Great Lakes and Southeast Michigan Synods to share in learning, worship, reflection, and rest.  

Dr. Matthew Becker, professor of theology at Valparaiso University, served as the event’s keynote speaker. The presentations focused on Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), German Lutheran pastor and theologian who struggled with the call of the Church and followers of Christ during the rise and rule of Adolph Hitler and fascism in the 1930s-1940s. 

The sight and sound of Lake Huron’s waves lapping at Mackinac Island’s shores helped make an ideal setting for learning, worship, and contemplation.

Acknowledgement was made that the event’s planners were aware of the stress felt by many clergy in relation to the current political and religious climate in the United States. How does a pastor act, what do they say when poles are being pulled further apart, sometimes cracking into deep chasms within the congregation and in the community?

The easy answer is: “Look to Christ.”

The hard answer is: “Look to Christ.”

What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ? That was Bonhoeffer’s challenge, and that was a challenge presented to those gathered in a large room on a beautiful island, seemingly idyllic and removed from the rest of the world.

Banned by the government from serving a Lutheran congregation or teaching at German universities, Bonhoeffer continued to study, preach, and teach about the meaning of discipleship – which can sometimes be at odds with the world. In this case, he does not back down on speaking against Hitler, Nazism, and the injustices being set against the Jews, the mentally and physically challenged, non-Aryans, those who assisted the oppressed, those challenging Hitler, and anyone else who didn’t fit into Nazism’s narrow definition of who is or is not worthy of taking up space in the world.

Looking for a leader who would help them rise from the destruction and humiliation foisted upon their nation at the end World War I, the German people were drawn to Hitler, a charismatic politician who promised to help Germany rise to power again, convincing them that he was the only person who could make this happen. 

To bring this into a more contemporary reference, Becker asked if perhaps Hitler could have espoused the slogan “Make Germany Great Again”. There were certainly parallels with our society’s current “Make America Great Again” fever. 

This statue of Bonhoeffer in prison clothes, before he was stripped and hanged, stands at St. Peter Church in Hamburg, Germany. Sculptor: Fritz Freer

In Germany, Jews, homosexuals, immigrants, the media, the physically and mentally challenged, those who spoke against the government, and others deemed unacceptable to the human race became the scapegoats for the nation’s woes. Misinformation and lies about the scapegoats were perpetuated, non-government controlled media were not to be trusted and were shut down, hate and mistrust flourished, the head of state became a person to worship, and Germany took what it wanted by military force, backstabbing, and broken promises. There are certainly parallels to what is currently happening in the United States.

It is under this pall that Bonhoeffer and other clergy and theologians put their Christian faith into words and action. Bonhoeffer turned again and again to Jesus’s own words and actions – and  was convinced without a doubt that evil prevailed in the form of Adolph Hitler and those who worked alongside him to wipe out nearly 11 million people whose only crime was considering themselves to be human beings.

When reading the Gospels, it isn’t hard to surmise that, for Jesus, words and actions of compassion, acceptance, and inclusion are paramount. He models these human-lifting assets, while calling those who proclaim his name to do the same.  

Jesus draws a variety of characters to his table – the poor and disenfranchised, a rich young ruler, a Roman soldier, widows, foreigners, the sick in mind or body or spirit, women and children, religious leaders, tax collectors, lepers – and all are seated. Everyone’s there. While many gratefully accept the meal Jesus offers, others keep themselves separated, crossing their arms across their chests, refusing to acknowledge their need for the sustenance being offered and loathing those who find shelter in Jesus’s love and compassion.

Jesus sets a model not only for Christians, but for all of humanity: treat others the way you want to be treated. It seems simple, but, ironically, it’s our humanness that gets in the way of our humanity. When those in power incite hate, intolerance, mistrust, and violence; convince us that only they have the answers to our problems; and convince us that only a small circle of human beings are worthy of existing, we can be drawn into their web and allow their destructive rhetoric become our own. 

This puts us at odds with Jesus.

And so, being at odds with Adolf Hitler and being vocal in that opposition, meant that Bonhoeffer was an enemy of the state. He was imprisoned at Buchenwald concentration camp, then was moved to the Flossenberg camp, where he was executed at the age of 39 – only two weeks before the camp was freed by U.S. forces.

Above the Great West Door of Westminster, a sculpture of Bonhoeffer joins ranks with nine other contemporary Christian martyrs, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and St. Oscar Romero. Sculptor: Tim Crawley

Witnesses to Bonhoeffer’s hanging say his faith was unwavering and he spoke his final words strongly and eloquently: “This is the end—for me the beginning of life.”

Herein was the challenge to those gathered on Mackinac Island, a place seemingly far away from the rest of the world: How does the church respond to the vehement hate prevalent in our society and the impact that hate has on humanity? How do clergy carry out their ministry in settings where those who have fallen for the rhetoric of those in power and those who hold fast to a Gospel of humanity and compassion worship and fellowship side-by-side? 

What are any of us willing to risk for the sake of Jesus Christ? Or just for the sake of being human and humane? These were questions that each person took back to the mainland to consider. Each person had to decide for themselves what they would risk. 

Bonhoeffer (and others) have set the bar very high for us. Jesus has set the bar as high as it can go.

Some thoughts from Bonhoeffer to consider while on our journey:

“The church is church only when it is there for others.”

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

“The church community speaks up for the vulnerable, stands up for the suffering.”

“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.” 

“God will not hold us guiltless.” 

“Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

“The cross alone is our theology.”