For Such a Time as This
About the Guest
Silence in the face of evil, is evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act, is to act." Eric Metaxas, author of the best-selling book Bonhoeffer, shares more from the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor in the 30s who was executed by the Nazis for conspiring to overthrow Hitler.
Eric MetaxasEric Metaxas is the New York Times bestselling author of Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. His writing was first published in Atlantic Monthly, and has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Regeneration Quarterly, Christianity Today, National Review Online, Beliefnet and First Things. The American Booksellers Association chose Metaxas's The Birthday ABC as a 1995 Pick of the List and Amazon.com honored his Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksg...more
Silence in the face of evil, is evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act, is to act.
For Such a Time as This
Bob: The 1930’s were a time of great political upheaval in Germany. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was studying theology in the United States; but he made the decision to go back home, even though doing so meant that his life was in danger. Here’s Bonhoeffer‘s biographer, Eric Metaxas.
Eric: He doesn’t know if he’s going to live or die; he doesn’t know what’s going to happen. He’s not thinking about romance, but he falls in love. He gets engaged. Really, he felt that, “This is an act of faith, in a way—in a time when we don’t know if we’re going to live or die—to do this unto God. I’m not going to live in fear; I’m just going to do what I believe God is calling me to do as though there is a future (whether there is or isn’t).” Just around this time, he gets arrested.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, February 3rd. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. Eric Metaxas joins us today to tell us the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a story of war, of intrigue, of conspiracy, and a story of love. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You know, I was trying to figure out, “When was it that I first heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer?” because it’s not a name that you grow up hearing about. I think the first time I heard about Bonhoeffer was when somebody talked about the concept of “cheap grace”.
Bob: One of the things that Bonhoeffer was known for—he talked about “cheap grace.”
Bob: I remember that phrase sticking with me and thinking, “I’ve seen evidences of people who take the Gospel as less than serious—less than life-transforming.” That’s what Bonhoeffer was talking about when he talked about “cheap grace”.
Dennis: I think my first introduction to Bonhoeffer came through one of his quotes. In fact, that was going to be one of the ways I introduced our guest today, Eric Metaxas. Eric joins us again on FamilyLife Today. Eric—
Eric: Great to be here. Thank you.
Dennis: What’s your favorite quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer?
Eric: Well, it’s hard to say. If I had to pick one, probably it would be—he says, “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.”
Dennis: Wow! I hadn’t heard that one. Here are two of my favorites, “It is the righteous man who lives for the next generation.” And then one that I recently passed on to my children, while apologizing for the condition of the culture that we’re passing on to them, was this statement by Dr. Bonhoeffer, “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”
You know, he really was a brilliant man. I’m grateful, Eric, that you spent a good bit of your adult life researching his life to introduce us to him. You’ve written a book called Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. You’ve written more than 30 children’s books—been a contributor to the Veggie Tales series. One thing I wanted you to comment on—you just wrote a new book, Socrates in the City. This really comes out of a series of pre-evangelistic meetings you’re now holding in New York City? You’re kind of a missionary to New York City; aren’t you?
Eric: Yes. It’s like Billy Graham is an evangelist. I’m a pre-evangelist. I never thought of that before. Actually, in New York City, where I live with my wife and daughter, I realize that there’s a need for biblical thinking. There’s not much of it going on. I said, “What if we had a speaker series that we do in these sort of fancy clubs and have hors d’oeuvres and piano music and invite speakers like Chuck Colson or Oz Guinness?”
We’ve been doing this for 11 years, and we’ve had some of the most magical evenings. I can hardly exaggerate it. People walk out saying, “That was magical. That was the best one yet.” I keep hearing that over, and over, and over again. Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
I thought, “If we just examine our lives”—we, as believers, know that, “If I examine things honestly, I know Who is truth.” So I said, “Let’s just do that.” We’ve been doing it for all these years; and I kept thinking, “Someday we’ve got to get some of these talks into a book. They’re just too good to have just for 200 people.”
Honestly, other than my talk, these are some of the most wonderful talks you will ever hear or read. Socrates in the City is the title.
Dennis: One of the things I was looking forward to asking you—and this is going to be kind of out-of- the-ordinary. You’ve so studied this man’s life that I would like to ask you one of my favorite questions I like to ask men, “What is the most courageous thing (do you think) Dietrich Bonhoeffer did in all his life?”
Eric: If I had to point one, sort of in the natural or in the flesh, I would say his decision to leave New York City in 1939. He goes back there a second time, really, to escape the coming war. His decision to go back to Berlin—to go back to Germany after he had escaped—in the natural, from our point of view, that has to be the most courageous thing.
Maybe for him, I think, he would probably say that was the most difficult decision. Maybe not the most courageous, but the most difficult because he really was trying to hear from God; and it was not easy. This one was a very complicated thing.
Bob: For those who haven’t read your book and don’t know Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s story—he was born in Germany, and grew up, and studied theology as a young man. He had a PhD by the time he was 21—came to New York and studied theology at Union Seminary in New York, went back to Germany. Then, as you said, he escaped as the war was coming.
We really should get into some of that because in some of these pre-war years, what was happening with the Nazi party in Germany—the whole experience where the church windows were shattered in Germany at the ordering of Hitler—these were formative in Bonhoeffer’s thinking about, “How do we respond to this as believers?”
Eric: Right; and things were changing in Germany very dramatically. Bonhoeffer was constantly asking the Lord to show him, “Now what do I do? Now what do I do?” The Nazis were getting more and more powerful, and Bonhoeffer was speaking out against them. But as the ‘30s are winding down, the Nazis are becoming much more powerful. The kind of battle that he was fighting in 1933 and ’34—that was now passé. This is a new battle. It led him, finally, to join the conspiracy—the official conspiracy—against Adolf Hitler.
Now, he’d been providing moral support—he’d been sort of involved, but he had never officially joined the conspiracy. When the war comes, Bonhoeffer comes back to Germany. He decides, “Okay, God’s calling me back to Germany.” His brother-in-law—and this is where it just gets so fascinating, especially for students of World War II.
He becomes a double-agent. His brother-in-law says, “Okay, I’m going to hire you to work for German military intelligence. You’re going to look like somebody who is serving the Third Reich in time of war. All the Nazis are going to think, ‘Okay, you didn’t pick up a rifle and go into the war, but you’re serving us in a different way.’ But I know, and you know, and our family knows, what you’re really doing and what I’m really doing—we are involved in a secret conspiracy against the Nazis.”
It’s an extraordinary thing that Bonhoeffer made the leap in his wrestling with God, “What do I do?” to finally say, “I believe God is calling me to enter a conspiracy to kill the head of state.” This is a big thing. A lot of people, theologically, don’t understand how he got there. In the book, I think, I explain this; but it takes some time to understand how somebody, in wrestling with God, could come to this conclusion. Bonhoeffer did. From this point on, he’s a double-agent. He is somebody who is underground. On the surface, he looks like he’s serving the Third Reich; but we know he’s doing just the opposite.
It’s just an amazing story, and amazing to me, that he decides to go there—that he decides to do this.
Bob: Eric, somebody today who would read Bonhoeffer’s story and would say, “There is evil in our own country; and maybe I should take up a rifle and aim for a political leader, or aim for the head of the abortion clinic, or—Are they justified in what they are doing, based on what Bonhoeffer did, or was he somehow pushing the boundaries beyond where he should have pushed them?
Eric: Yes, I’m glad you brought that up. I think that the situation with Bonhoeffer is so dramatically different from anything where we are today. Again, people love to be sloppy. People love to take shortcuts. If you want to use Bonhoeffer as an excuse to pick up a gun and kill somebody, I’m sorry. You know, Bonhoeffer and God are not going to support you in that.
Bonhoeffer’s story—we don’t—We need to know the full story because he didn’t do what he did lightly. He did it very reluctantly, but he knew that millions of Jews were being killed; and he knew that somehow Germans needed to do something. It, ultimately, led him into this conspiracy; but he was—I think anybody like Bonhoeffer, when they’re doing this, it’s a last resort. They’re not happy about it. They just feel like this is ultimately, “What I must do.”
It’s theologically complex. I hope I explain that in the book. It’s probably not the kind of thing we could explain in a short sound bite. It’s heavy.
Dennis: The story takes a fascinating turn, almost like a spy movie, at this point because Bonhoeffer falls in love with a young lady who is 18 years younger than him.
Eric: Yes. Yes, it’s funny to think that in wartime—
Dennis: Right in the midst of all of this!
Eric: Yes, it’s sort of a crazy time. You can just imagine—and actually, maybe we can’t imagine because things are so pacific in our generation—that we think what’s all exciting and crazy is nothing compared to what they were living through. They were living through kind of a living hell. I mean, it’s hard for us, really, almost impossible, to imagine.
In the midst of this turmoil, he falls in love. Now, he thought he would never get married. He was kind of convinced that he’s just serving God and things are so tumultuous that he doesn’t know if he’s going to live or die. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen. He’s not thinking about romance, but he falls in love with Maria von Wedemeyer. I had the privilege of meeting her elder sister in Germany a couple of years ago; and in two weeks, I’m going to meet her younger sister in New York City, if you can believe it.
But Bonhoeffer didn’t anticipate this. So now, he gets engaged. Really, he felt that, “This is an act of faith in a way—in a time when we don’t know if we’re going to live or die—to do this unto God. I’m not going to live in fear. I’m just going to do what I believe God is calling me to do as though there is a future (whether there is or isn’t).”
Just around this time (as you know, since you read the book), he gets arrested. He’s in prison, and they’re writing these letters back and forth. He’s pretty convinced that he will eventually get out of prison because he wasn’t arrested for the plot to kill Hitler. He was arrested for his involvement in an operation to get seven Jews out of Germany—this heroic effort to save the lives of these German Jews. That’s a far cry from being involved in a plot to kill Hitler. That plot was not uncovered for more than a year after he was imprisoned. Once that plot was uncovered, of course, Bonhoeffer’s days were numbered.
Bob: Was his plot one of a number of plots? I remember the movie Valkyrie coming out a couple of years ago. Was it the same plot or a different one?
Eric: Well, there were a number of attempts to kill Hitler. I write about a number of them in the book. They are some of the most fascinating stories, and that’s why I put them in the book. I said, “This makes great reading, and it helps you get context on what was going on during this strange time in history.” You think that there are no Germans doing anything, but there were a number of Germans participating in these baroque efforts to kill Hitler. It’s amazing!
Bonhoeffer was in prison when the Valkyrie plot, which was the last of them, fails. I write the story of the Valkyrie plot in the book. It’s just, again, an unbelievable story. It was the result of the failure of that plot that led to Bonhoeffer being named as one of the conspirators. Now he’s transferred to the Gestapo prison. It’s much more difficult—much more of a Draconian situation. He was in a military prison before that; and it really wasn’t so bad, all things considered—but once he gets transferred to the Gestapo prison, it’s pretty awful.
You know, it’s an underground prison in Berlin. People were being tortured. Bonhoeffer himself was not tortured, but he was threatened with torture. It was an awful place, an absolutely awful place. In February of 1945, the Allies are bombing Berlin so tremendously that the Germans decide they’ve got to transfer all these prisoners from this Gestapo prison. So he’s from there taken to Buchenwald, which is a concentration camp, where he meets a whole other cast of characters.
The last part of the book is my favorite part just because it is such a fascinating and strange story. It’s like a movie—What is going on? Where are these people going? What’s going to happen? It really is just an extraordinary ending.
Bob: His most famous book, the one that we know best today, is the book The Cost of Discipleship. At what point in all of this did he write that book?
Eric: That’s what I call the “golden era” of Bonhoeffer. He was, in the mid-30’s – or, I guess, in the latter part of the ‘30s—‘35, ’36, ’37 and ’38. He was the leader of an illegal seminary. It was an underground seminary of the confessing church. Those are the good guys who did not go along with the Nazified state church.
In the course of leading this seminary, he’s trying to train these young men, not just to be religious figures, but to be men of God—to be disciples of Jesus Christ. It was during this period that he wrote this book with the title The Cost of Discipleship. In fact, the German title, Nachfolge, is just Discipleship. What does it mean to belong to the Lord—to be a disciple of Jesus? It doesn’t mean, you know, you just know the Scriptures because the Devil knows the Scriptures; and he can quote it.
It means to live in obedience to the Word of God, to know the Word of God, to know the Lord, and then to live your life for the Lord. Bonhoeffer understood that that’s what it is to be a Christian leader—that’s what it is to be a man of God. He was trying to train these young men. It was during this period that he wrote that book and, then, also his famous book Life Together.
Bob: Of course, with no idea that what he’s writing is going to be put to the ultimate test.
Eric: No. I think it’s funny—and I think you see this in my book, if you read it—there are moments where Bonhoeffer seems to have premonitions. I don’t mean in some kind of a ghoulish way, but he seems to know that he’s in the palm of God’s hand. He seems to know that, like everyone who is chosen by God, we are walking a precarious path. To walk with the Lord, you don’t know what’s ahead; but you know that, “to know the Lord, is to die to self.”
He was walking with this. I think there’s no other way, really, of putting it than to say that he knew that. We need to know it, too. We need to know that our life really does belong to the Lord, and that we die to self, and we give Him our lives. So we have to ask ourselves, “Do we really give Him our lives, or do we just say that?” Bonhoeffer, I think, really did it.
Dennis: I’m trying to picture myself in prison, writing love letters—writing about marriage. A friend of mine sent me some quotes from letters and papers from prison that he [Bonhoeffer] had written. He wrote this from prison, “It is not your love that sustains the marriage; but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”
Dennis: And then another statement that he made and, I mean, again, I’m just picturing where he is and how clear-thinking; but he says, “Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy ordinance through which He wills to perpetuate the human race ‘til the end of time. In your love, you see only your two selves in the world; but in marriage, you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to His glory and calls into His Kingdom.”
I mean, I read that and I went, “Wow!”
Eric: Yes; you see, this is the thing with Bonhoeffer. There’s a level of intensity. It seems that every other sentence, you need to get your highlighter out. He really—you can’t read him, you know—
Eric: That’s really one of the reasons I think the Lord called me to write this book—is to make Bonhoeffer accessible to people who might be put off by some of the density of his writing—to humanize him so that when you do read Bonhoeffer, you feel like, “I know this guy!”
I also put in tons of Bonhoeffer quotes in the book to whet people’s appetites because he is such a treasure! He has written so much that is a value to us. I want to lead people to reading Bonhoeffer himself because I think it will bless the church forever and bless this generation if the church becomes the church. I think that by reading Bonhoeffer, you can’t help but be led in that direction.
Dennis: So, how’d he die?
Eric: Well, in April of ’45, he’s removed from Buchenwald; and he’s traveling around in this van with these guards. They’re trying, really, to escape the encroaching red and Allied forces, which are making Germany thinner and thinner by the day. Finally, on April 8th, he is taken to Flossenburg Concentration Camp on the express orders of Hitler, simply for revenge because the war is ending and Hitler is only three weeks from suicide.
He’s condemned to death for his role in the involvement to kill Hitler. At dawn on
April 9, 1945, he is hanged. He’s hanged in a concentration camp. His body is thrown on a pile because the crematorium was broken that day. He joins these other victims of the Third Reich; and I think Bonhoeffer would think of it as an honor to die—to join the victims of the Third Reich in the way that he did.
Ultimately, his story is not meant to be a sad story. God doesn’t give us stories to depress us or to make us sad but to inspire us to say, “Look at this life! This is a man who lived his life full-out in obedience to God, and so can we!” God is no respecter of persons. He doesn’t say, “Hey, Bonhoeffer’s something; and you’re not.”
No; on the contrary, we are all called to live lives of obedience to the Lord, whatever that means for us. We’re all different. I’m not Bonhoeffer and neither are you, but neither are we supposed to be. We’re supposed to be who we are, in obedience to the Lord. I really believe this story is powerfully inspiring. There’s something about Bonhoeffer’s life which is powerfully inspiring and ultimately leads us closer to God.
I end the book, actually, with a quote from a sermon that he wrote in 1933, where he talks about death and how death is the most terrible thing imaginable, unless it is transformed by faith. If it’s transformed by faith in Jesus Christ, it’s completely different. We know that we’re going to be with Him—for Whom we are created and by Whom we are created. That’s utterly different!
If you’ve already died to self, to go to be with the Lord is the greatest thing; but we need to know that. He’s preaching this in 1933, and how much more does he know this in 1945? It’s really clear Bonhoeffer knew who he was in Christ, and he really lived that. I do believe God calls us to live that ourselves. This story is meant to be an inspiration to the church today. This is God saying, “You can live your life like this. That’s why I created you!”
Dennis: Dietrich Bonhoeffer died at the age of—
Dennis: Thirty-nine. In a very real sense, as you researched him, he became your mentor.
Eric: Well, you can’t avoid it. I think that that happens to folks who are reading the book. This is my greatest joy and it’s been my prayer—that the Lord would use the story of this man of God to draw His church closer to Himself. You can’t escape it because when you’re spending all this time with Bonhoeffer, you’re also spending time in the Lord’s presence. It’s inescapable. If you’re spending time in the Lord’s presence, guess what? You’ll change! That’s God’s will. Yes, that makes me happy to think that.
Bob: This has been a great treat for our listeners and I know for our staff, as well. They appreciate you being here. (Applause)
Dennis: Thanks for being with us, Eric. I hope you’ll come back and join us and maybe take us into Socrates in the City sometime?
Eric: There’s a lot to talk about there. Anytime—I would be delighted to do that. Thanks for having me!
Bob: For listeners who have not yet read your book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we’ve got the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Go online at FamilyLifeToday.com for more information on how to get a copy of the book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or call toll-free 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY”. When you get in touch with us, we’ll let you know how you can get a copy of the book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer sent out to you.
If you don’t already have a copy of Dennis Rainey’s book, Stepping Up: A Call to Courageous Manhood, we’ll let you know how you can get a copy of that book as well. It’s a great guide for men about what it means to stand up and be God’s man. Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com; or call toll-free 1-800-FL-TODAY.
And we want to add a quick word of thanks to those of you who help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today. We appreciate you and are glad to have you tuning in each day. We want to thank you, as well, for getting in touch with us and letting us know how God is using this program in your life. To those of you who help support the ministry with donations, we appreciate that as well. In fact, this month, we are making available as a thank-you gift to any of you who can give a donation to support FamilyLife Today, a couple of books that have tips on romance—a book for husbands and a book for wives.
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We hope you have a great weekend. Hope you and your family are able to worship together this weekend, and I hope you can join us back on Monday when we’re going to be joined by pastor and author Chip Ingram. We’re going to talk about love, and dating, and sex—how things are in the culture and how things ought to be biblically.
Chip: I want them to know there is a right way. God is not down on them. He wants to put His arm around them, but you do have to do it His way. There are consequences of living in ways that the culture tells you—that promise great stuff and bring destruction.
Bob: I hope you can be here as we have that conversation.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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