Bonhoeffer: A Rebellious Patriot

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a brilliant young man from Germany, and already held a doctorate degree by age twenty-four. He had opposed the Nazi regime since its inception; even within the same week that Hitler was inaugurated as Chancellor, Bonhoeffer hosted a radio address in which he warned his country against falling into nationalistic idolatry. He was taken off of the air mid-sentence. He held out this opposition because he loved his country, and could not bear to see it be soiled by fascism. Years later, Bonhoeffer left Germany and came to the United States in 1939 to come study and teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York. This would have been a great time to not be in Germany for obvious reasons. Bonhoeffer also could have had a very prestigious and comfortable academic career. However, in the same year, he decided to return to Germany, and wrote these words to his mentor Reinhold Niebuhr: “I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”

Upon his return to Germany, he continued in resistance against the Nazi movement. Bonhoeffer was eventually imprisoned for this insubordination in 1943. During this time, he wrote many letters and essays that we still have today. On July 21, 1944, he wrote “It is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith.” Within a year of writing this, he was executed. Bonhoeffer loved Jesus, he loved his country, and he was willing to die for both. I’m sure there were many times in which Bonhoeffer wished to escape all of the awful things he experienced, but his deeply rooted conviction in Jesus drove him to remain in the turmoil that was taking place. The seeds that he planted later grew into endeavors such as the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Apartheid movement, and other commitments to justice.

Bonhoeffer was an insubordinate patriot. Sometimes the most patriotic thing that can be done for one’s country is to resist dark powers that seek to exploit a country under the guise of nationalism. We Americans observe Veteran’s Day as multitudes of men and women have made sacrifices for the United States, many even giving their lives. The way of Jesus invites the world into non-violence, and yet we can and should still honor those who have made sacrifices and have seen horrific violence, not because they hate what is in front of them, but because they love what is behind them. We were not made for violence or killing, this is why people who survive combat often come back with PTSD. If we are to take Jesus seriously, we must honor and respect these people who have suffered, and do all that we can do in order to humanize and serve our brothers and sisters who have fought.

What could be more honoring to Veterans than doing what we can to defend equity and freedom in the United States for which so many have laid down their lives? Jesus does not want a Christian nation, but for people of all nations, tribes, and languages to work for healing, universal flourishing, and reconciliation. To follow Jesus does not mean to hate one’s country, but it does mean to oppose nationalistic propaganda that seeks to manipulate the lives and sacrifices of those in the military, and imperialistic agendas that aim to use military and violence for personal gain. Indeed, in the age of the American Empire, this is something that must be taken seriously by followers of Jesus. May we look to Bonhoeffer as we write this chapter of history.