The new biography of Detrich Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, wasn’t my introduction to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life or writings, but it was my introduction to his parents’ life.
Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer bore eight children. Sons Klaus and Dietrich died in the Second World War. Their daughter, Christine, lost her husband, Hans von Dohnanyi, in the war. But neither Klaus nor Dietrich nor Christine’s husband had to die. They were not soldiers, nor were they Jews or any other sort of “undesirable.” Dietrich could have waited out the war at union Seminary in New York. Klaus was the chief counsel for Lufthansa Airlines and Hans was a judge. They could have done as others did, expressing their opposition in private and hoping for better days. Instead they joined the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler. The three of them, along with many others, were rounded up and executed.
This I knew. What Metaxas reveals is the way in which the elder Bonhoeffers formed their children in the freedom to live, and in the freedom to die, according to the call of Christ. They formed their children in freedom and then set them free. They, the survivors, lived with the terrible cost of that freedom. They would read the letters and dairies of their sons and son-in-law and know their part in raising children who could not keep silent, who could not look away, who would not use others’ inaction as an excuse for their own.
“The faith that Paula Bonhoeffer evinced spoke for itself; it lived in actions… ‘There was no place for false piety or any kind of bogus religiosity in our home,’ Sabine (Bonhoeffer) said. ‘Mama expected us to show great resolution.’ Mere churchgoing held little charm for her. The concept of cheap grace that Dietrich would later make so famous might have had its origins in his mother; perhaps not the term, but the idea behind it, that faith without works is not faith at all, but a simple lack of obedience to God. During the rise of the Nazis, she respectfully but firmly prodded her son to make the church live out what it claimed to believe by speaking publicly against Hitler and the Nazis, and taking action against them.”
I read that paragraph and wonder. I know how carefully I taught my children the faith. I do not know how faithfully I wish them to follow it. Believe, yes; act, maybe, but not if it means my child will be injured or killed. I do not think even now, after the last of my children has married, that I truly live in the freedom of their first and final identities, as men and women who answer, not to me, but to God.
They could have done as others did, expressing their opposition in private and hoping for better days.
This book would make a great gift for Christmas, because Christmas is a time when we consider not only the child Jesus, but the mother and father, Mary and Joseph, to whom God entrusted his care. Who would have blamed Mary for taking back her “Yes” to God once she realized the awful consequences. “Let it be done unto me,” she could have argued, “but not unto my son. He’s the only one I have.”
Who would have blamed Joseph for raising Jesus to be safe, to keep his head down and his mouth shut and his life off the Roman radar.
When Jesus disappears from the caravan taking the pilgrims home from the Jerusalem temple, Mary and Joseph turn around and go back, looking for their son. They find him in the temple, teaching the teachers. But it is their fear for his safety we hear when Mary says,
Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.
And when Jesus asks them, “Did you know that I must be in my father’s house?” they do not understand.
I don’t know that Paula Bonhoeffer understood. Dietrich’s letters from prison ask friends to care for his mother, who had already lost a son in the last war, in her suffering. From the cross, Jesus directs John to care for Mary.
I am grateful for this simple humanity. I share Mary’s anxiety and Paula’s tears, I know them. Where I long to join them and what I long to know is their holy freedom. Metaxas describes this way, “not a cramped, compromised, circumspect life, but a life lived in a kind of wild, joyful, full-throated freedom.”
The courage to raise a child in Christ and then let go when the child actually listens and follows Christ; that is true obedience, that is true freedom.
– Melissa Musick