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Why people are still talking about this theologian who plotted to kill Hitler
Seven decades after his execution for his part in a plot to assassinate Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer continues to inspire Christians and others around the world with his message of spirituality and faith - photo by Mark A. Kellner
Seven decades after his execution for his role in a plot to assassinate Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer continues to inspire Christians and others around the world with his message of spirituality and faith.

Bonhoeffer, who joined his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi in a resistance group led by Maj. Gen. Hans Oster, was hanged April 9, 1945, at the Flossenbrg concentration camp, weeks before World War II formally ended. He had been linked to the failed attack on Hitler that took place July 20, 1944, by documents the Gestapo found after the event. Ironically, Bonhoeffer was in prison at the time, following his arrest for "undermining the military" 14 months earlier.

According to the German state broadcasting organization Deutsche Welle, "Bonhoeffer's Christian theology influenced the post-war period like no other of his generation," adding the cleric "preached the presence of Christ in the world and laid the foundations for an interdenominational church image to which today both conservative and progressive theologian profess."

A paradox of Bonhoeffer's life is that he had an "out" from being involved in a Germany ruled by National Socialism. In 1939, as war broke out in Europe, Bonhoeffer was a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He could have remained in the United States, but told his American friends, "I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany," according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Yet, his New York experience left its mark, Deutsche Welle said. While in Manhattan, Bonhoeffer's "faith shifted. He became profoundly fixated on, and influenced by, the famous Sermon on the Mount and the notion of living in Christ's image. Bonhoeffer later wrote that 'until New York I was a theologian but not yet a Christian.'"

Writing in Leadership Journal, Chris Nye, a pastor in Portland, Oregon, notes, "Bonhoeffer was a paradoxical figure. He was non-violent, but participated in a plot to kill Hitler. He was cosmopolitan (he loved music, the theater and literature of all kinds) and yet he was a monastic thinker who led students in solitude."

One of Bonhoeffer's most famous books, "The Cost of Discipleship," contains a controversial quotation on grace.

"Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves," he wrote. "Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."

In the years following Bonhoeffer's death, theologians and advocates across a spectrum of Christian thinking have lionized him as a hero of the Nazi resistance. But Victoria J. Barnett, who directs programs on ethics, religion and the Holocaust at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum argued in a Washington Post essay for a more nuanced view. Barnett was an editor of the 17-volume English language series of his writings and sermons, "Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works."

"I read Bonhoeffer as a good man and a brilliant theologian, a man who questioned the very legitimacy of the Nazi regime in early 1933 precisely because of its persecution of German Jews but who then wrote and spoke surprisingly little on the issue in the ensuing years," Barnett wrote. "Although his writings call to activism, he seldom took an activist role."

But in one of several essays at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website, Barnett touches on the essence of Bonhoeffer's impact on Christianity.

Bonhoeffer, she wrote, "leaves a legacy unique among theologians and church activists. As hardly any other Christian thinker in history, Bonhoeffer articulated a theology that truly confronted his times and he did so not with the benefit of hindsight, but during the Third Reich itself. We are left with many questions about where this life would have led."
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