Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) is best known as a martyr, theologian, and political conspirator. The diversity represented by these attributes is reflective of Bonhoeffer's brief life, cut short at the age of 39 by Nazi gallows. Despite the brevity of his life, Bonhoeffer left behind a rich written legacy, comprised of 16 volumes of theological and spiritual thoughts and insights, letters, papers, sermons, and poems. Two of his best-known works rank as spiritual classics: Discipleship (also known as Cost of Discipleship) and Life Together. Bonhoeffer's legacy has left an imprint on the spiritual and religious lives of many who read his works and study his theological perspective, and his own life serves as a model of religious and spiritual development across the human life span.
A person's work cannot be separated from his or her life, without, however, reducing one to the other. This is especially true with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was born into an upper-middle class family in 1906, a few years before the outbreak of World War I. His father was a well-respected professor of psychiatry at the University of Berlin in Germany, where Bonhoeffer would eventually teach as well. Much to the surprise of his family-who had little religious background-Bonhoeffer chose to study theology. After completing his first dissertation titled Sanctorum Communio-hailed by Karl Barth as a "theological miracle"-at the age of 21, Bonhoeffer lived for a year in Barcelona, Spain, serving as an assistant pastor to a German congregation.
Before starting his career as a professor of theology at Berlin University, Bonhoeffer spent a year at Union Theological Seminary in New York for postdoctoral studies. This year was marked by two friendships that proved to be very influential for Bonhoeffer's theological and spiritual development. One of the friendships was with the French pacifist, Jean Lasserre, who impressed Bonhoeffer by taking the Sermon on the Mount literally. The other, an African American by the name of Frank Fisher, opened Bonhoeffer's eyes to the pervading racism against African Americans and their struggle against such injustices. Marked by these friendships, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany and became increasingly aware of and opposed to the rise of Nazism and its radical discrimination against Jews. Bonhoeffer refused cooperation with the Nazi regime, and was thus forced into underground work, agreeing to serve as the head of an illegal seminary for the "Confessing Church."
Understanding that war was becoming not only a likely possibility but a desired goal of the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer became actively engaged in international ecumenical efforts for peace, and was scorned at home by Nazi supporters and labeled as "anti-German." As his awareness grew about the manifold atrocities committed by the Nazis-primarily against the Jews, but also against other dissenting groups and individuals in politics, religion, and society at large-Bonhoeffer decided to participate in a political conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. His group was discovered, however, and after spending two years in a Nazi jail, Bonhoeffer was executed in 1945, only days before the arrival of the Allied troops.
BONHOEFFER'S THEOLOGICAL AND SPIRITUAL LEGACY
Bonhoeffer has influenced and inspired generations of theologians and laypeople around the world with his theological and spiritual insights, as well as his life. A variety of thinkers, even those in opposition, have used Bonhoeffer to support their work. These differences in understanding and using Bonhoeffer are primarily due to the unfinished nature of Bonhoeffer's final and most controversial writings: Ethics and Letters and Papers From Prison.