Breakpoint: Like many giants of faith before us, God calls us to embrace this tempest of living while yet imperfect

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of the military interrogation prison at Tegel, outside Berlin, in the summer of 1944). / Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin/File Photo
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of the military interrogation prison at Tegel, outside Berlin, in the summer of 1944). / Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin/File Photo

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a famous 20th-century Christian, was a dynamic and occasionally controversial theologian who became a household name because of his character and courage. When it mattered the most, in a time when many of his fellow Germans — including pastors and priests — embraced Hitler and the Nationalist ideas of the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer stood with conviction.

After the Nazi rise to power in 1933, the bulk of German Protestant groups submitted to the oversight of pro-Nazi leaders. These so-called "German Christians" compromised the eternal truths of God to a racist, statist and eugenicist totalitarian regime. Because of their compromise, they were left free to practice their faith, as long they did not transgress Nazi doctrine.

Bonhoeffer, with others such as Martin Niemöller and Karl Barth, did transgress. They also stood against compromising churchmen. Bonhoeffer helped found the dissident Confessing Church and underground seminaries and was among those who published the defiant Barmen Declaration. Rejecting his earlier pacifism, he took on an active role in resistance to Hitler's tyranny, eventually joining the plot to assassinate the madman.

Though Bonhoeffer has been rightly praised for his faithfulness and courage in each of these activities, his most courageous act may have been simply going home. In the early years of the Nazi terror, Bonhoeffer went first to the United Kingdom and then the United States, taking up teaching positions in a free, safe part of the world.

His conscience, however, did not let him remain in safety while his nation was facing and committing such evil. In 1939, just weeks before the war began, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany. Writing to the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, he explained, "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."

Despite his courage, Bonhoeffer wasn't perfect. His theology, at times, strays and is puzzling. In fact, one of his most important co-laborers, Karl Barth, had his own theological complications and moral failings. This is a theme that frequently emerges in Christian history. Figures as prominent as Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr., though used by God in incredible ways, were flawed in behavior and belief.

This fits well with the heroes described in Holy Scripture. The author of Hebrews, in chapter 11, offers a list of champions for God that is rightly described as the Bible's Hall of Faith. Even the best of the list, men like Abraham and Moses, are as famous for their flaws as their victories. In the cases of some who are included, like Samson, Gideon and Jephthah, it's difficult to understand how they are even heroes. Yet there they are included among the others.

The danger in refusing to honor the imperfect isn't just the temptation to whitewash others' sins while excusing our own. It's also the temptation to wait for an imaginary tomorrow when everything is just right rather than working today to oppose what's wrong. And it is here that we can learn another lesson from Bonhoeffer. In his book "Ethics," he called on Christians to be faithful in the here and now, writing, "Do and dare what is right, not swayed by the whim of the moment. Bravely take hold of the real, not dallying now with what might be. Not in the flight of ideas but only in action is freedom. Make up your mind and come out into the tempest of living."

For Bonhoeffer, the Christian faith must be lived in the time and place in which God places us. In that sense, courage and faith are inseparable. We must do the right thing, even if the cost is great and even if we feel inadequate for the task.

God has called you and me into this tempest of the living. As James instructs, Christianity is not merely believing the right things but doing them, empowered by the Spirit given to us in Christ Jesus. This will mean risk. It may mean failure. But it's through the imperfect faith of his people that God is at work renewing his world.

From Breakpoint, Dec. 14, 2023; reprinted by permission of the Colson Center, breakpoint.org.

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