PDF Breakfast with Bonhoeffer: How I Learned to Stop Being Religious So I Could Follow Jesus

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It would even be said that the only good German—if one needed to use the phrase—was a dead German.

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That lack of nuance was also part of the hellishness of war. But now the war was over. And even as the full, unspeakable evil of the Third Reich was coming to light, the other side of things had to be seen too. Part of the restoration of peacetime thinking was the ability to again see beyond the blacks and whites of the war, to again discern nuance and shades, shadows and colors.


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And so today in Holy Trinity Church—just off Brompton Road in London—a service was taking place that was incomprehensible to some. To many others it was distasteful and disturbing, especially to those who had lost loved ones during the war. The memorial service being held today on British soil and being broadcast on the BBC was for a German who had died three months earlier.

Most of them still knew nothing about it. But here in London were gathered those few who did. They had slipped out of Germany before the war, driving at night across the border in Switzerland. The dead man took part in arranging their illegal flight—although that was among the most negligible of his departures from National Socialist orthodoxy—and he helped establish them in London, where they settled. The man counted among his friends a number of prominent persons, including George Bell, the bishop of Chichester. Bell arranged the service, for he had known and loved the man being honored.

The bishop met him years before the war when the two were engaged in ecumenical efforts, trying to warn Europe against the designs of the Nazis, then trying to rescue Jews, and finally trying to bring news of the German resistance to the attention of the British government. Just hours before his execution in Flossenburg concentration camp, the man directed his last words to this bishop.

That Sunday he spoke them to a British officer, who was imprisoned with him, after he performed his last service and preached his last sermon. In her time the wife had given birth to eight children, four boys and four girls. The second son had been killed in the First War, and for a whole year his young mother had been unable to function. Twenty-seven years later, a second war would take two more boys from her.

The husband was the most prominent psychiatrist in Germany.

They had both opposed Hitler from the beginning and were proud of their sons and sons-in-law who had been involved in the conspiracy against him. They knew all the dangers. But when the war at last ended, news of their two sons was slow to arrive in Berlin. A month earlier they had heard of the death of their third son, Klaus.

But about their youngest son, Dietrich, they had heard nothing. Someone claimed to have seen him alive. Then a neighbor told them that the next day BBC would broadcast a memorial service in London. It was for Dietrich.

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At the appointed hour, the old couple turned on their radio. Soon enough, the service was announced for their son. That was how they came to know of his death. As the couple took in the hard news that the good man who was their son was now dead, so too, many English took in the hard news that the dead man who was a German was good. Thus did the world again begin to reconcile itself to itself.

The man who died was engaged to be married. He was a pastor and a theologian. And he was executed for his role in the plot to assassinate Hitler. It gave him a certainty of judgment and manner that cannot be acquired in a single generation.

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He was a doctor and she was a teacher, and they came from very wealthy, intelligent, and socially connected backgrounds. Other members of her family were connected to royalty, the military, and very famous artists and philosophers. As Karl held the chair in psychiatry and neurology at the university and served as the director of the hospital for nervous diseases, the Bonhoeffers raised their family together. The house is big, the children develop normally, we parents are not too old, and so we endeavor not to spoil hem and to make their young years enjoyable.

Paula homeschooled the children until they were at least 7 or 8 before sending them to public schools. Their house employed a governess, a nursemaid, a housemaid, a parlor maid and a cook. He would fill my little pitcher with the raspberries he had toiled to collect, so that I would not have less than he, or share his drink with me. When we read together, he pushed the book in front of me, though it made his own reading difficult, and was always kind and helpful if asked for anything.

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There was more of an emphasis on a personal relationship with God than the formal churchgoing Lutheranism that was so popular in Germany then. The Bonhoeffers did not place an emphasis on going to church, but rather practiced their study at home. The daily Moravian Bible devotions, containing a passage from both Old and New Testament, was a practice Dietrich held from childhood until the end of his life.


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  • Selflessness, generosity, and helping others were central to the family culture. This spiritual instruction, however, was sourced solely from Paula Bonhoeffer. Karl was a scientist through and through, and was wary of anything beyond what you could experience with your senses.


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    In fact, their relationship was quite harmonious. The faith that Paula Bonhoeffer possessed spoke for itself, for it expressed itself in the way that she lived. There was no place for false piety in the home, and mere churchgoing held no appeal. She was an encouragement to him even through the dreadfully dangerous actions he would undertake later, knowing that his life was at risk.

    Dietrich did well in school but could be ornery at times. He likes fighting and does a great deal of it. When he was fourteen, he announced to his family that he wanted to become a theologian. Nevertheless, he continued to be well respected in his academic circles for being surprisingly grounded in an interest in things far beyond his years.

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    At 18, Dietrich spent a semester in Rome, which began to stir up many questions for him. He was captivated by the life of the Catholic church, and began asking the question he would ask for the rest of his life: what is the church? This was his first glimpse of the church beyond the Lutheran Protestant Church of Germany.

    The idea of a church defined by racial identity and blood—which the Nazis would violently push and so many Germans tragically embrace—was the enemy to the idea of the universal church. The openness that Bonhoeffer brought to this idea of church—and to the Roman Catholic Church—was hardly typical of German Lutherans.

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    One must consider every possibility and avoid predisposing oneself to where it might lead. During Holy Week, he wondered about the Reformation and whether it went wrong when it officially became a church rather than remaining a sect. This laid groundwork for his future, when the German Lutheran Church would become so intertwined with the state that it seemed to cease any other identity.

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    He would face a dilemma like the early Protestants of whether to remain united with the institution or break away. After he returned from his semester in Rome, he enrolled at Berlin University, where many of his family members had attended, and earned his doctorate at the age of During this time, his twin sister Sabine married a young Jewish lawyer, which would make the upcoming challenges of the war all the more personal for the Bonhoeffer family.

    While overloaded with schoolwork, Bonhoeffer still lived at home and continued to receive encouragement from his family. He was also required to do some parish work and elected to do more than was asked of him rather than opting for the minimal assignment. Embarrassingly, children from other classes would abandon their own and opt to join his.

    He started to wonder if he should be a pastor rather than an academic, but his father and brothers declared that it would be a waste of his intellect.