The Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?”
March 13th, 1943: Adolph Hitler visited Germans troops amassing for an assault on the Russian front and met a Major General named von Tresckow, who during lunch inquired of one of Hitler’s aides if he would mind delivering a present of brandy to an old friend in Berlin celebrating an anniversary. The aide agreed to do so, and as Hitler and his entourage boarded the plane home, one of the general’s adjutants gave Hitler’s aide a package containing not brandy but a bomb, set to detonate in half an hour. For some reason, the bomb never exploded, and Hitler survived yet another attempt on his life. Within a few weeks most of the perpetrators of the plot would be imprisoned by the Gestapo. Among those caught within their evil clutches was one of the world’s foremost theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer could have lived a very different kind of life. The son of power and privilege, born to a historic, aristocratic family, Bonhoeffer earned the equivalent of a Ph.D. in theology by the time he was 22. He soon secured a fellowship to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York, then returned to Germany briefly as a professor, before taking a prestigious, but less-pressured position as pastor of a German-speaking congregation in London. Bonhoeffer could have used that vantage point to become a world-renowned figure. He could have gained for himself a worldwide reputation as a catalyst of the fledgling ecumenical movement, could have become one of the foremost religious figures of his age. But when the dissident German Confessing Church needed someone to direct a small unofficial seminary, someone willing to train ministers to pastor congregations who rejected Hitler’s ascendancy, Dietrich Bonhoeffer agreed to take the job. He certainly enjoyed more of what we would call “freedom” by living in London; but he understood that true freedom for him entailed the encumbrance of investing his life in the corporate life of a dangerous and endangered spiritual community in a hostile and morally-degenerating environment.
Bonhoeffer’s seminary was eventually closed by authorities; some participants were imprisoned, others burrowed quietly into the deep forest to continue their study. Bonhoeffer was offered a way out. Several of the leading American theologians sought to secure his safety by means of a teaching position in the United States. He found himself enjoying the peace of America in 1939, found himself among friends intending to keep him here and thereby save his life. Prestigious offers came his way from several leading American universities, and certainly America offered Bonhoeffer many of the opportunities his heart had long desired: time and freedom to write, read, teach, think, the chance to explore intellectually the great issue of how to apply the ancient principles of Christianity to life in the modern world. But even as he enjoyed the marvelous freedom afforded him by our American culture, his heart remained fixated on the plight of his German brethren. He wrote in his journal: “We cannot after all separate ourselves from our destiny, here less than ever . . .”
Freedom for Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant taking virtually the last boat back to Germany in July of 1939. As Bonhoeffer himself phrased it, “When Christ bids one to come and follow him, he bids him to come and die.”
Bonhoeffer retreated to a hunting lodge deep in the forest where he wrote and taught a small splinter group of seminarians, the last vestige of the illegal seminaries the Confessing Church had developed. Then came an amazing offer, to be employed by the German intelligence service Abwehr (our equivalent of the CIA). This intelligence service was, in fact, the center of the German resistance movement, and though Bonhoeffer’s ostensible role was to exploit his many foreign contacts to glean information useful for the German war machine, in truth his role was to communicate to foreign governments via their church officials information about the status and intentions of the German resistance movement. How could a Christian pacifist, a man whose stated goal was to sit at the feet of Gandhi and learn the ways of nonviolent resistance, find himself working for the intelligence service of the German war machine?
Because Bonhoeffer asked himself a question: do I value my righteousness more than I value my obedience unto God? Bonhoeffer knew he could have sat safely on the sidelines and grieved over the Nazis’ atrocities, could have quietly protested Hitler’s madness. Bonhoeffer could have secretly cheered for those involved in the dirty work of trying to undermine Hitler’s government while remaining pure and unsullied himself, praying on the sidelines. But to take such a role would have been to evade his responsibility as a Christian, because he understood that to be a disciple of Christ is to bear one’s cross, which means that one is called to act. Bonhoeffer decided, a Christian cannot simply stay uninvolved on the sidelines, holding to pristine principles. On occasion, one must even surrender the ideal of one’s own righteousness in the battle against unrighteousness. Thus it was that a German Christian pacifist preacher found himself a member of the German resistance, recognizing that real life and real faith involves defining one’s cross through real obedience to God, an obedience that may entail relinquishing even one’s own sense of righteousness in order to answer God’s call to act decisively against evil in a tragic world.
Bonhoeffer went a step further. He expressed his willingness, if necessary, to be involved in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. He knew that if the plan failed, his life was over. If the plan succeeded, his career was over, for the German church would not allow him to fill the role of pastor and theologian if he were revealed to be a murderer. But whether his actions cost him his life or his career, Bonhoeffer’s sense of obedience to God and to God alone, meant that he must bear his cross of engaging in a lesser evil to defeat a greater.
In the midst of all this intrigue, Dietrich Bonhoeffer did a very stupid thing. He fell in love. In the midst of a desperate race between those within the German leadership trying to kill Hitler and Hitler’s henchmen trying to find those opposed to their madman’s leadership and eliminate them, Bonhoeffer’s life intersected that of a beautiful young German woman, Maria Wedemeyer, who was seventeen years younger than he was, a mere eighteen years old, one of his former students in a catechism class. To fall in love was crazy, incredibly ill-timed, certainly unplanned, but Bonhoeffer lost his heart to her anyway. In January of 1943 they announced their engagement. In April of 1943 Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Gestapo. Was it foolish to fall in love, to enter into an engagement amidst such a dangerous atmosphere? Yes – and no one appreciated the incongruity of his situation more than Bonhoeffer. But some parts of our cross fall more or less into our lives unplanned and unanticipated and must be accepted, heedless of the inconvenience of the timing. Bonhoeffer knew he must embrace love and life even amidst the darkness and danger of his world.
Oddly enough, Bonhoeffer was not arrested for trying to kill Hitler. The Gestapo had long hated the Abwehr intelligence unit of which Bonhoeffer was a part, and had sought some excuse for attacking it. When they learned that the Abwehr had been spiriting Jews to Switzerland on the pretense of employing them as intelligence couriers, they arrested several of the key intelligence leaders, including Bonhoeffer, on the mistaken assumption that these intelligence officers must be making a fortune in kickbacks from the rich Jews they were befriending, because (to the Gestapo’s warped sense of values) there would be no other reason for doing such a thing. For several months Bonhoeffer played a dangerous game. His role was to play the part of an innocent theologian in over his head, caught up in an intelligence scheme far beyond the scope of his expertise. Others were to claim that the entire operation was designed to plant spies in European cities. The head of the Abwehr, the very fount of resistance against Hitler, was to confirm that everything had been done with an eye toward counter-espionage. For awhile, this elaborate ruse worked. Then the Gestapo happened upon written material that named Bonhoeffer and other intelligence officials as key players in the German Resistance. From that moment on, Bonhoeffer’s life was doomed.
Or was it? Freedom seemed to come to Bonhoeffer in yet another way. His family enacted a plan they had held in abeyance for months, for Bonhoeffer, with the complicity of a guard, to escape the prison and live underground until the war was over. Supplies were stashed, plans were finalized, but just at the moment Bonhoeffer was preparing to escape, he received news that his brother and brother-in-law had been arrested by the Gestapo and were sure to be tortured. Bonhoeffer couldn’t accept freedom, thinking of the reprisals sure to be foisted upon his family if he took the course of escape. He refused to flee to freedom. He chose instead to bear to the bitter end the cross he believed that God had given him.
Still, there was hope, hope for liberation through the movement of the Allied forces. But the only apparatus that was working smoothly in the last days of Nazi Germany was the system of vengeance. Bonhoeffer was transported to Flossenburg, the Gestapo prison camp, where he was executed by hanging, on April 9, 1945, a mere three weeks before Hitler’s own death. He wrote a last message to a friend: “For me, this is the end, but also the beginning of life.”
A certain givenness marks all of our lives – genetics, family background, regional and cultural heritage, but nothing more determines the direction of our lives than our values. Our values ultimately define the type cross that we carry or do not carry. Time after time, Bonhoeffer could have chosen a path other than the one he chose. He could have stayed free in London, could have stayed free in America, could have stayed out of the Resistance, and had he done so, he would not have escaped his cross, but would have simply carried another kind of cross, for none of us can escape carrying a cross. In each crossroad moment Bonhoeffer chose the path that he believed to be most purposeful, most true to the Kingdom of God, however painful. No other alternative cross would have been as tragic, as costly, meaningful and true. All of Bonhoeffer’s alternatives offered opportunities that resonated with what he wanted to do. Every alternative offered him more freedom. On the other hand, in every crucial choice there was the voice of Jesus praying in Gethsemane, “Not my will, but thine be done.”
We in our superficial age have been told that we can have it all. In truth, all choices carry an element of restriction, even tragedy. Every choice of marriage, vocation and service means that we accept certain paths and reject others. Our commitments mean that we choose certain responsibilities and eschew others. Every affirmation is also a denial. And we cannot choose not to bear a cross. The choice to love means caring and caring involves vulnerability and vulnerability involves pain – there is no way around that basic, tragic equation. If we choose not to love, then we carry a cross of shallow meaninglessness, we live a life without purpose. Everyone bears a cross defined by the cumulative meaning of their choices. To love Christ is to deny one’s self, take up one’s cross and follow. The way of Christ’s cross is the way of life, but this way of life entails the death of many of our own desires.
Many of us think of ourselves as independent thinkers, when in fact our thoughts reflect the views of friends and interest groups, whose opinions define us more than our inclinations or the call of God. Most of us try to find our cross within the anonymity of the herd. We look to our friends, our social group, our politically correct enclave, to provide us with our perspective. Many of us want to say, let me be defined by some group to whom I can turn over my freedom. Let my opinions be defined by somebody else’s opinions, let their view be my view, their perspective be mine. I don’t want to choose my own cross; let somebody choose one for me. I don’t want to think my way through tough choices. Give me a group to whom I can turn over my freedom! Yet to be obedient unto God means that you must choose your cross in individualized obedience to your call — and to nobody else’s. But it is so hard to maintain our freedom and our obedience in genuine faith to God. We cannot live just any way and bear Christ’s cross. We have to surrender our unrighteousness; we may have to surrender many of the cherished ideas we have entertained about our own righteousness. Even the principles that we think are righteous have to be surrendered in obedience to God’s call. That’s what the terrible freedom of faith and the terrible freedom of the cross is about.
Most of us will find the cross of Jesus Christ in the neediness of those around us. To love people, to care for people, to invest in people, is to open yourself up to pain and disappointment, which is the very cost of discipleship. Yet you will not find God’s face simply in “doing good.” You must find God’s face in service to people by rooting your service in obedience unto God. You will find God in loving others as you are pulled into people’s neediness by the power of God’s call. You will not find God’s face merely in shallow service, but only in an agonized faithfulness to Christ’s love that may run counter to your every natural inclination.
In our fragmented, polarized world, it is hard for us to decide for ourselves, “How do I act as a moral creature?” All I can say to you is, you must be completely open to the call of the living God. You cannot look to anyone else to give you the cross that only God can give. Yet the cross God gives you is the heart of the very meaning and purpose of your life. I leave you with words that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from the darkness of his prison cell:
“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learned the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward people. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?”
Bonhoeffer’s words are as relevant today as they were when he penned them years ago. Those who would follow Christ, let them deny themselves and take up their crosses and invest in a dangerous spiritual community. We cannot avoid carrying a cross. If we do not choose the cross of Christ, then the cross we bear with our lives will be one of lesser value, carried to no good purpose. A thought to consider in this Lenten season.