Bonhoeffer and Resurrection

This year on Holy Thursday many of us remembered the 75th anniversary of the execution in Flossenberg concentration camp of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian who resisted the Nazi regime in Germany. Although such a martyrdom may seem more appropriate to Good Friday, I would like to suggest that Bonhoeffer’s story fits perfectly into our celebration of Resurrection.

Born on 4 February 1906, Bonhoeffer’s spiritual journey began when as a teenager he decided to be a theologian. But somewhere on the journey, particularly through engagement in ministry, the academic became a pastor, and – in his own words – the intellectual became a Christian.

The Nazis’ anti-Semitism and attempt to Nazify the churches turned the pastor into a resistance fighter. Though a pacifist he realised that a coup and even killing Hitler was necessary. In 1939 he joined the Abwehr, German military intelligence, a hotbed of anti-Nazi resistance. He also attended ecumenical meetings in neutral Sweden, where he set up a conduit between the German resistance and the Allies through Anglican Bishop George Bell. He informed Bell of the plans to overthrow Hitler.

The conspiracy failed. Bonhoeffer and fellow members of the resistance were arrested and imprisoned. As the likelihood of survival faded, Bonhoeffer came to reflect on death. He distinguished death from outside – in his case imminent execution – from what he called a death from within, a readiness to die to self. Shortly before his execution on 9 April 1945, he passed on a message to Bishop Bell through a fellow prisoner: “This is the end, for me the beginning of life”. He added, “I believe in universal Christian brotherhood which rises above national interests and I believe that our victory is certain.” 

Reading Bonhoeffer, particularly his prison writings, one is struck by a certain ironically heroic sanctity, that combines a desire to live with a readiness to die for the Gospel, a devotion to the risen Christ.

Today we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection. What has Bonhoeffer to do with this? I think there are two elements. The first is Bonhoeffer’s faith in the risen Christ, a Christ whose resurrection affirms the certainty of “our victory” – and a willingness to align himself with Christ crucified. This kind of resurrection faith calls us to go beyond mere remembering. The second is perhaps more about us. For many of us inspired by his writings and above all his life, Bonhoeffer in a certain sense lives. He lives in those who, in many places, have been inspired to put their faith into action in the conflicts and struggles of history. In times where making moral choices are difficult and costly, particularly where choices we face are between bad, worse and disastrous. And he lives in memories as a model, a challenge and a reassurance that ordinary people can serve God in extraordinary, often terrible, times.

That’s a kind of resurrection. It’s also, among followers of the Risen Christ who face up to challenges, a definition of martyrdom, an affirmation of sainthood.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.
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