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Lesson 20 – Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maximilian Kolbe
Scope: Although the age of martyrdom ended in the 4th century, there have always been Christians who have died because of their fidelity to their Christian belief and vocation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister who was placed in a concentration camp by the Nazis and died there shortly before the camp’s liberation in 1945. Documents that he wrote in captivity, had smuggled out, and were later published as Letters and Papers from Prison form a moving collection of thoughts about what it means to be a Christian and live in a world with so much evil. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan priest, sacrificed his life at Auschwitz to save that of a man who was the father of young children. He has been formally canonized by the Catholic Church. The stories of Bonhoeffer and Kolbe give us glimpses of modern people willing to sacrifice everything for the truth as they understand it.
Although the so-called age of martyrdom ended for Christians in the 4th century with the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire, there have been martyrs all over the world and in every age.
Over the centuries, many men and a few women who tried to bring Christianity to areas where it was not established have been martyred.
- We find such people in central Europe and Scandinavia as Christianity expanded beyond the frontiers of the Roman Empire.
Especially beginning in the 16th century, there have been martyrs in the New World, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
- The Catholic Church has canonized groups of martyrs in Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, and Uganda.
- A good example in what is now the United States is the Jesuit Isaac Jogues, martyred in upstate New York in 1646.
There have also been martyrs in Christian areas.
- During the Protestant Reformation, both Protestant and Catholics died at the hands of hostile Christians.
- There were numerous deaths of clergy and laity in repressive regimes, such as the Soviet Union and other countries of the Warsaw Pact, some of which we are just beginning to learn about.
- This lesson focuses on two men who were martyrs during the Third Reich in Germany, one Protestant and one Catholic.
- Over the centuries, many men and a few women who tried to bring Christianity to areas where it was not established have been martyred.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an important Christian figure and writer in Germany before and during World War II.
- Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister.
- He studied theology in Germany and at the Union Theological Seminary in the United States, traveled to Italy, and served as a pastor to congregations in Spain and England, as well as Germany.
- His pastoral work made him somewhat suspect of even the most authoritative modern theologians, for example, Karl Barth.
- After Hitler took power, Bonhoeffer was active in what was called the Confessing Church, which rejected the Nazi-dominated state church.
- He was a leader of an underground seminary.
- Two of his influential books were The Cost of Discipleship and Ethics.
- Bonhoeffer was involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, and he was arrested by the Gestapo in the spring of 1943.
Bonhoeffer remained in prison until he was hanged by the Nazis in April 1945.
- Most of his time in prison was in Berlin, and he was thus occasionally able to see his parents, friends, and fiancée.
- He wrote many letters and poems, and quite a few of them were smuggled out of the prison by a sympathetic guard.
These documents, as well as letters written to Bonhoeffer, were collected after the war and published, in several iterations, as Letters and Papers from Prison.
- Many of these letters dealt with matters of the moment, such as requesting certain foods or telling friends and family about his health.
- In general, they were upbeat, suggesting that his arrest was a misunderstanding that would be cleared up.
- A few months before his arrest, Bonhoeffer had written that the man who stands fast in difficult times is the one whose standard is not reason or conscience or freedom but who is willing to make any sacrifice in exclusive allegiance to God.
- His arrest taught him the necessity to live a life of trust (faith).
- Bonhoeffer became increasingly wary of what he called “religiosity,” recalling that the Hebrews did not utter God’s name.
- He found himself reading the Old Testament more than the New and pondered why behavior that is praised in Hebrew scripture is ignored or condemned in the New Testament.
Bonhoeffer, in his later letters, introduces an idea that seems oxymoronic to many – religionless Christianity.
- The world has “come of age” and is a secular world.
- What do God and Christianity mean in a secular world, a world without the religious premise?
- Bonhoeffer draws a comparison of circumcision as a requirement for salvation for the Jews and religion as necessary for salvation in modern times.
- He feared that God was viewed as a God of the gaps, and as the gaps narrow, so God is squeezed out of modern life.
- Are most modern people concerned about the concept of the salvation of the individual?
- It is wrong and un-Christian to attack modernity; the question is: Who is Christ in this world come of age?
- For many Christians, redemption has come to mean freedom from cares and fears because of the promise of a better world beyond the grave.
- The biblical God is a weak and suffering God.
- Maximilian Kolbe, another martyr of the Third Reich, was a Polish Franciscan who was starved at Auschwitz in 1941; in 1982, he became St. Maximilian Kolbe when Pope John Paul II canonized him.
- Kolbe joined the Franciscan Order (Conventuals) as a young man and received a doctorate in Rome.
- He had a deep Marian devotion and founded an organization called Knights of the Immaculate (Mary).
Kolbe realized the importance of media and founded a newspaper for Catholics in Poland.
- It later reached a circulation of hundreds of thousands.
- Eventually, the newspaper was published in other countries.
- Kolbe decided to found a new Franciscan monastery near Warsaw known (in English) as Marytown, and it soon became the largest Franciscan house in the world.
- Kolbe set out to establish a mission in Japan and to print a newspaper there, eventually settling on the outskirts of Nagasaki.
- He returned to Poland and, continuing to believe in the value of new media in the spread of Catholic piety, he established a radio station.
- By this time, the Nazis were in control of neighboring Germany, and in his newspaper columns, Kolbe criticized the Third Reich for its persecution of Jews and establishment of concentration camps; he also criticized Stalin for the horrors that were occurring beyond Poland’s eastern border.
- In 1939, Kolbe was arrested but set free.
In 1941, he was arrested and transported to Auschwitz.
- Kolbe, like other detainees, was known by his number 16670.
- Despite prohibitions of prayer, he heard confessions, prayed with inmates, and even held masses.
One day, one of the men in Kolbe’s barracks escaped, which meant that 10 men would be selected to be starved to death in a hellish dungeon.
- One man chosen to die was Francis Gajowniczek, who cried out that he had a wife and two children.
- Kolbe asked to take this man’s place and was allowed to do so.
- With the other nine, Kolbe was left to starve to death; he was the last to die, killed by a lethal injection, comforting the others and praying to the end.
- Francis Gajowniczek survived past the end of the war and spent many years telling Kolbe’s story.
Maximilian Kolbe was canonized by his fellow Pope John Paul II in 1982, and Francis Gajowniczek was present for that ceremony.
- The martyrs of the Third Reich discussed here are only two of many who were killed for their beliefs. They show us the truth of Tertullian’s belief that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church in modern times as well as in the early Christian centuries.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison.
- Diana Dewar, The Saint of Auschwitz.
Question to consider:
1. Should all Christians be conscious of the possibility that they will be called to sacrifice their lives in order to remain faithful to God?
Next Lesson: From Slavery to Martin Luther King.