As part of my PhD studies at Dallas Baptist University in 2013 I traveled to England to spend time at Regent’s Park College at Oxford University. While there we visited London and Westminster Abbey. Above the Abbey’s great west door stands 10 statues to the “modern martyrs.” Including in these ten figures who gave their life for their Christian faith is a statue of a Lutheran, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer, a scholar and pastor, lived in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich. Over the course of the 1930s he grew dissatisfied with the institutional church’s acquiescence to the rising power of the state. He was bold in critiquing how the state was becoming malformed as it infringed on the rights of civil society including the work of the church. In 1933 he published a controversial essay “The Church and the Jewish Question” which placed him in direct opposition to the rising persecution of Jews in Germany.
In opposition to the rising control of the state over the church he established an “illegal” seminary and trained pastors in community. It was during this time he wrote his well loved work “Life Together.” He also developed and cultivated ecumenical connections believing that if the global Christian community stood together the evils of Nazism would be exposed and rejected.
Eventually Bonhoeffer came to the difficult conclusion that the most faithful thing he could do was participate in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. This plot was almost successful but Hitler survived and Bonhoeffer was imprisoned. It was during this time he wrote his “Letters and Papers from Prison” and began the monumental task of work on “Ethics.”
As the Reich was falling Bonhoeffer was hung, by direct order of Hitler, at Flossenbürg Concentration Camp on April 9, 1945, just days before the Soviet forces would have taken the camp.
We commemorate Bonhoeffer on this day for his courageous stance against fascism. He stood firm against an understanding of the state that would come to dominate all the spheres of life including the important work of the church and civil society. His famous quote “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself” resonates with us as we see systemic injustice in our world and also as we enter the Triduum.
Jesus Christ was crucified by empire. Yet on the night before he died he knelt at his disciples feet and washed them. Humbling himself and showing what true leadership is. To give oneself away for the life of the world.
Bonhoeffer had opportunity to flee his fate. He could have found ways to ignore the systemic injustice of his time. But he chose instead to look and see. To live together in community with others and push back against a state ready and willing to sacrifice an entire people for its ends. He is a witness and a martyr. And on this Maundy Thursday an example for us all of what washing our neighbors feet will invite us to consider.
In this time of COVID-19 we are challenged to serve our neighbors by staying home. A seemingly small sacrifice but one that is proving itself essential. During this time also we are seeing great acts of service to neighbor as churches and communities run foodbanks, create masks, and leaders adapt to ensure the faithful can participate in worship online together.
As we come through this crisis we will be challenged to be the church in walking with communities in the grief that will follow. Bonhoeffer provides us good counsel in how to be community working for justice. His insights of the role of the church in civil society, clearly grounded in his Lutheran faith, are something we will be developing within NT-NL Synod, ELCA and at Briarwood Retreat Center/Briarwood Leadership Center. We, like Bonhoeffer, have a word for our time. A word against the wheel of injustice. And God’s Word endures forever.