In 1937, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned some extreme words: “When Christ calls a person, he bids him come and die.” Unfortunately, those words were personally prophetic. In April 1943, the Gestapo arrested Bonhoeffer. He spent the next two years in prison and concentration camps. By special order of Heinrich Himmler and with probable direct knowledge of Hitler himself, two primarily responsible for the Holocaust, the Nazis tragically hung Pastor Bonhoeffer at a camp in Flossenburg, Germany.
Afterward, they burned his body in a pile because the crematorium was inoperative. Just a few days later, the Allies liberated the camp.
Practically, what do Bonhoeffer’s words in his fine work, “The Cost of Discipleship,” mean for us? Similar to alarming images used by Jesus and other authentic faith teachers, Bonhoeffer’s striking language at heart means that true religious faith must make a real life difference. Practical and noticeable change in how we live day-to-day is the point of Christian or any other faith-related “calling” or vocation.
Bonhoeffer’s notion of a Christian being radically obedient to the teachings of Jesus has everything to do with love and respectful expression. Notice that the price has to do with one’s own life. In contrast, radical manifestations of alleged faith rooted in violence, hatred and exclusion are dead wrong.
The cost of discipleship is not in the lives or well-being of others, such as someone killing or hurting someone else, allegedly in the name of God. In vivid contrast to such delusion, genuine expressions of faith benefit others by caring for them and meeting their needs. Lives are enhanced, not lost or harmed.
Outside of the New Testament, the first chapter of “The Cost of Discipleship” might be one of the most important writings for Christians in any era or at any age. Further, prioritizing a transformed life of thanksgiving applies across faith lines.
For his Christian readers, Bonhoeffer distinguishes between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” Essentially, cheap grace is the perception that God’s acceptance, forgiveness and favor results from some easy mental assent to a doctrine or belief without any impact on a person’s life. It is “grace without discipleship,” without actually endeavoring to follow the teachings and model of Jesus.
In contrast, God’s actual grace is life-altering. Acknowledging God’s grace is a beginning, not an end in itself. Experiencing and responding to God’s grace is a daily and life-long process involving hard work. Accepting such true grace is a choice. The consequence should be discipline toward a changed life, one that is focused on practical acts of love and caring.
Bonhoeffer is one who has “standing” to provide an opinion about bona fide religious faith. He lived in a time when his beloved German homeland deteriorated into a fanatical and isolationist nationalism fueled by hatred and led by a demagogue. Bonhoeffer was troubled by the general silence of the institutional church of his time, which the Nazis attempted to co-opt with some success.
In “Bonhoeffer: Pastor. Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” Eric Metaxas cites a chilling birthday tribute to Hitler from an April 1939 official publication of the nationalistic German Reich Church: “[We celebrate] with jubilation our Fuhrer’s fiftieth birthday. In him God has given the German people a real miracle worker.” What an abomination. The fascist government, with complicity of the so-called church, worked to silence faithful, authentically Christian critics of the regime, such as Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer was a gentle and peaceful man who loved his country. Nevertheless, he actively and strongly opposed the extreme tyranny, outrageous prejudice and ecclesiastical hypocrisy of his day. He was part of a significant movement that opposed all that Hitler and his extreme brand of nationalism stood for and represented.
In 1939 and with help from American friends, Bonhoeffer was in the United States, far away from his imperiled country. He was teaching at Union Seminary in New York. By that time, he was well-known and well-liked in many international circles as a rising theological mind and author.
The situation in Germany by 1939, six years after Hitler came to power, was beyond dangerous. Friends begged him to stay in the United States, where he was making a difference then and potentially into the future. Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer chose instead to return to his home. His selfless choice was an act of true love rooted in faith for his misdirected country and its people.
In addition to teaching us about grace, Bonhoeffer lived gracefully despite his challenging circumstances. Prison anecdotes indicate that he was gentle, calm, courageous and prayerful. He helped fellow prisoners as well as some of the guards.
What do saints like Bonhoeffer teach us? Whether in times of extreme peril or simply in our own neighborhoods, how we live makes a difference. If we adhere to a faith or religious tradition, then we should purposefully act like it.
Helping people in need and treating others kindly and with respect are paramount components of a faith-based life. Similarly, endeavoring to live gently and peaceably while being willing to bravely oppose injustice are marks of an authentic religious life.