This was easily my favorite book of 2011. It was published in 2010, but I got to it late. The pastor, martyr part I knew (having read Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship years ago), the spy part surprised me, but it was the prophetic role that stunned me.
Abraham Heschel informs us that “The prophet was an individual who said no to his society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness, and syncretism. He was often compelled to proclaim the very opposite of what his heart expected. His fundamental objective was to reconcile man and God.”
This is what defined this brilliant German pastor and theologian; a man not of his times, a man beyond his times, but a man for his times. A man who saw deeper and further in, who took a stand that the majority balked at, and who understood with unerring and unnerving accuracy the trajectory of his nation, his culture, and more importantly, his church.
As I read this book I could not shake the feeling that I was not just reading a story about a prophet, I was holding in my hands something much more profound and troubling than that. And by its end I was convinced: this was as much fore-telling as it was post-telling. It seemed to me to be prophesy disguised as biography. As I read the story of this man who in obedience lost his life for saying no to the swelling current of his culture, the question kept surfacing: am I being given a glimpse into our own future?
This biography left me to wonder, did Bonhoeffer lay out a path not only to inspire but to emulate? Granted, the lines are not so crisp and clear as they were in his day. But, to be honest, they did not get clear until the die was well and truly cast. That’s what distinguishes the prophet, he sees several years ahead of the game. In his day it was a choice between the German church and the Confessing Church. In ours the labels would be different since it isn’t about the worship of nation as much as it is about idolizing culture. The choice would then seem to be between the Acculturated church or the Faithful church.
A few months before his arrest in 1943 he wrote an essay in which the prophetic tone is almost deafening. This is after five years of blatant genocide against “subhumans”: “The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts. For evil to appear disguised as light, charity, historical necessity, or social justice is quite bewildering to anyone brought up on our traditional ethical concepts, while for the Christian who bases his life on the Bible it merely confirms the fundamental wickedness of evil.” In our day, the categories have shifted and narrowed, but the killing continues apace.
And to us who may not see the issues with the same stark prophetic clarity he issues a challenge: “Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God—the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God.”
The specific choice we make may very well not be the same as his. He studiously refused to impose his individual ethical imperative on his brothers knowing that we must each give an account for our own acts or omissions. But fundamentally, the only answer that Bonhoeffer’s life allows is a total and unequivocal yes to God who in the words of this martyr-prophet calls us to come and die.
Os Guiness comments on the perhaps not so remarkable paucity of prophets. “Prophets tear through social complacency and moral rottenness like bolts of lightning. But such occurrences are rare today as modern people sleep untroubled beneath a million lighting rods.” After reading this biography with its sobering prescient weight one’s prayer might very well be, “Lord, send us more prophetic preachers in our own day lest without clear vision we perish.”