On this day 240 years ago the Declaration of Independence was adopted after long weeks of deliberation within Continental Congress. On such an historic occasion I bet you thought I might look at something that honors the history of the United States. But that’s not what I am going to be looking at that today. Instead I will looking at the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer as he was presented in Focus on the Family Radio Theatre’s production, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Cost of Freedom.
Now I know what some might be thinking, why am I talking about a German theologian on America’s Independence Day. Why I am not talking about George Washington, John Adams or Thomas Jefferson? That will be revealed in time, but first a little personal history of how I was introduced to this audio drama.
My family had purchased audios from Focus on the Family before, mainly The Chronicles of Narnia which were being produced around the same time and I remember listening to The Cost of Freedom was when very young. I say that because I recall listening to it on cassette tapes, and that was a long…long…long time ago (sarcasm is hard to express via text). I don’t remember exactly how old was anymore, but looking at the release dates of the productions I was younger than 10. While it was not the norm for children our age and generation to be listening to audio drama, my brother and I were the exception. And it was thanks to the people at Focus on the Family that I was able to learn about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
For those don’t know Bonhoeffer was German theologian and pastor, known for his resistance against Hitler and the Nazis regime. He paid the ultimate price and being executed only a month before Germany’s surrender to the Allies. The Cost of Freedom starts off with the allusion of the theologian’s death in which a military officer is heard stating the charges of Bonhoeffer’s treason and that the penalty for such an offense was death by hanging. After the pounding of a gavel, the sound the rope straining against the weight of suspended body can be heard. It is a sobering mental image to start off, and this knowledge remains in the back of the mind of the listener as they learn about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and how the events and influences of his life, both as boy and as an adult made him into the man he would become. All in all Focus on Family demonstrated excellent storytelling and the Peabody Award it received for this audio drama was well deserved.
One thing that remained with me till this day was conversation that occurred within the story between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the fictional character Philippe who was based off of French pacifist pastor Jean Lasserre whom Bonhoeffer interacted with in 1930-31 while he was at Union Theological Seminary in New York. It starts when Philippe calls into question Dietrich’s view of following both Christ and his Country, asking what he would do if his government were to condone something that would be contrary to Christianity.
“Imagine a situation where you have to choose between your government or your faith? Which do you choose? Are you a German first, or a Christian?”
Later after experiencing racial prejudice through being refused service at diner because his African American companion, he and Philippe continue their discussion. In this conversation Bonhoeffer expresses that if the situation he witnessed happened in Germany with blessing of the government, he as follower of Christ would have to speak out against such actions. He goes on to say,
“Our allegiance must be to the eternal, to Christ himself over and above all things. I am a Christian first and foremost, a German second. And I can only hope to God that the two will never oppose each other.”
While the conversation itself fictional, it does reflect events that took place as well as the beliefs of Bonhoeffer that can be found in his writings as well as actions.
Two days after Adolf Hilter was elected as Chancellor of Germany, Bonhoeffer gave a radio address entitled “The Young Generation’s Altered Concept of Leadership.” In it he introduced the idea of the Führer Principle which described the younger generation’s desire for a leader who could provide the authority to solve the problems their country was facing in the aftermath of the Great War aka WWI. But the authority was not derived by God but rather was derived from the leader which made him a messianic-like figure. As a result Bonhoeffer explains,
Thus the Leader points to the office, but Leader and office together point to the final authority itself, before which Reich or state are penultimate authorities. Leaders or offices which set themselves up as gods mock God and the individual who stand alone before him, and must perish. (Metaxas p. 142)
It can be said the Führer Principle is around even today, although it would have to be renamed the President Principle. Many in the U.S. look to the individual and the office of President to be the savior of the country’s problems. However no can fully put their faith into one person, because they have the potential to lead people astray. The people of Germany put their faith in Hitler and it led to the greatest atrocities the world had ever seen up until that time. As Christians we should respect authority, but we should also remember there is a heavenly authority that takes precedence. The greatest service anyone can do for one’s country is stand up for what’s right even if their country opposes them.
Dr. Karl-Hermann Muehlhaus summed it up best in his paper “True Patriotism- Aspects of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life and Theology” saying,
…(Dietrich Bonhoeffer) was truly German and loved his country very much, but even more he was a Christian, and his love to his country was qualified by his even greater love to God who has revealed himself in Christ, and by his belonging to the universal church, the body of Christ, which comprises all nations, peoples and races. (p. 1)
Know that that true hope of those who profess faith in Christ is not found in political leaders, but in the God of the universe.
“This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance (and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.” (I Timothy 4:9-10)
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas
“Patriotism and the Führer Principle” by Walker Wright
“True Patriotism- Aspects of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life and Theology” by Dr. Karl-Hermann Muehlhaus