What does it mean to be “in” the world but not “of” it?
How are we as Christians to engage with our world while staying true to God’s calling in our lives?
Sometimes we may think of Christians as pacifists, or we might feel that Christians should stay out of politics and the public sphere in order to remain untainted.
But the life of one prominent theologian demonstrated that Christians are called to be deeply involved in their culture in order to influence current events.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Germany in 1906. The son of a prominent psychiatrist, Bonhoeffer grew up amid the academic circles of Berlin and soon found himself at a university, pursuing his own studies.
As a young man, Bonhoeffer was fascinated by the study of theology and announced his intentions to become a minister when he was only fourteen-years-old.
After spending several years studying and preaching abroad, he returned to his native Germany in the early days of the Nazi regime.
From the beginning of the Nazi Party’s rise to power, Bonhoeffer refused to remain silent. He spoke out against the regime’s violent anti-Semitism and became a public spokesman for the Confessing Church.
The Confessing Church was the head of German Protestant resistance to the Nazi regime.
Although Hitler attempted to make German churches puppets in his plans, Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church stood firm and resisted Nazi ideology.
At a time when many Christian leaders in Germany caved to Hitler’s demands in the name of “keeping the peace,” Bonhoeffer fiercely defended those who were being persecuted by the Nazi regime and reminded the German church of God’s truth.
But in many ways, Bonhoeffer still thought of himself as a pacifist. He began to operate a secret seminary after authorities prohibited the Confessing Church from holding services and teaching, however, he took a step away from public life in doing so.
As the Nazi regime rose to power and World War II loomed on the horizon, Bonhoeffer wrestled with his own beliefs about activism, as well as the idea of “cheap grace,” which he saw being peddled in many churches around Germany.
“Cheap grace,” according to Bonhoeffer, was a view of God’s grace and forgiveness that allowed Christians to lapse into ethical apathy.
Bonhoeffer believed that the idea of cheap grace was behind the “Christian worldliness” that plagued many churches under the Nazi regime.
How could it be Christlike to stay out of politics and public life in a time when the Christian ethic was so necessary?
“I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people,” Bonhoeffer confessed as he reflected on the church’s need to take a stand.
“The Church was silent when it should have cried out because the blood of the innocent was crying aloud to heaven,” Bonhoeffer wrote. “She is guilty of the deaths of the weakest and most defenseless brothers of Jesus Christ.”
At the moment when Bonhoeffer was truly struggling to understand his role as a Christian in the fight against Nazi ideology, he was introduced to a secret group committed to removing Hitler from power.
Bonhoeffer found his place in the resistance, surrounded by believers and non-believers alike who were working to protect Jews and take down the Nazi Party. He finally felt as though he was living the life God had called him to — and he no longer called himself a pacifist.
Bonhoeffer signed on with the German SS as a double agent. While he pretended to collect information about churches throughout Germany, he really helped Jews and other persecuted groups escape from the regime.
As time went on and World War II raged, Bonhoeffer eventually found himself involved in several plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Although he once would have avoided taking such drastic action, he believed God had called him to this specific role.
As God willed, however, the assassination plots failed, and Bonhoeffer was arrested with other resistance members. He spent two years in Nazi prisons, yet continued his work of writing and evangelizing even as he suffered.
Some of Bonhoeffer’s best-known works, including Letters and Papers from Prison and The Cost of Discipleship, were written from prison as he reflected on the nature of Christian action and God’s call for His people to be involved in their world.
“To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way…but to be a man — not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us,” Bonhoeffer wrote. “It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.”
Bonhoeffer was executed in 1945, shortly before World War II ended. However, his legacy lives on in the lives of Christian activists and all those who work “in” the world while remaining not “of” it.
Through his life and writings, Bonhoeffer provides an example of Christian action that we can benefit greatly from in our current cultural climate.