Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been one of my heroes in the faith for years. His book Life Together was one of the most formative spiritual sources in my early Christian life. In it he describes Christian community with unbridled passion. He knew first-hand the value of support and fellowship. He was a member of the underground “Confessing” church in Germany during Hitler’s tyranny. He taught in an illegal seminary training pastors to withstand the onslaught of fascism. Sixty-four years ago this month on April 9, 1945 he was led away by Gestapo guards to be hung. His last words to a fellow prisoner were, “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.” What an Easter message. Bonhoeffer was only 39 years old when he was executed.
Pope John Paul II barely escaped a similar fate when he was a seminarian in Poland. The Nazis did finally arrest the future Pope and he endured a labor camp until he was liberated. Liberation theology espouses a Christus Victor image of Christ’s atonement and resurrection. This image calls us to see Jesus as Liberator, victorious over sin and death. Christians have embraced the notion of Christ as Victor throughout the centuries, especially those who have been oppressed.
No offense, that means all of us. Certainly there are millions of Christians who have had and are enduring struggles the likes of which are beyond my comprehension, but the truth that we all know is that all of us are in a great battle between the forces of good and evil. We may not bear on our bodies the marks and scars of persecution, but we all have concerns over which we need Jesus to triumph.
It would do us well to remember Bonhoeffer and John Paul II as people who threw off the yoke of oppression and died well and entered the freedom of heaven. Bonhoeffer said it for the Pope and for us when we face death’s barrage, “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.” Christ as Victor reminds me of the end of the Mel Gibson movie, Braveheart. William Wallace, the Scotsman liberator who finally yields his life as a martyr to English oppression, cries out, “FREEDOM!”
However, just as much as I look forward to a heavenly victory, I am reminded, even scolded, by God that God wants liberation to occur in the here and now as much as in the hereafter. The sweet-by-and-by sounds great but if we don’t do something about humanity’s problems that are staring us in the face then we mock the Lord and His prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Bonhoeffer was jailed by the Nazis because he took liberation theology seriously enough to take part in the July 20, 1944 Abwehr plot against Hitler. The one question that informed Bonhoeffer’s ethics was, “Who is Jesus Christ?” How one answers that question was decisive for Bonhoeffer and so it should be for us. When we face the world’s ills and injustices, we have to make a stand in the power of Christ.
We are the hands and feet of Jesus, the mouthpieces and the ears. When Bonhoeffer was addressing the question of Christ’s identity the church in Germany was confronted with Nazism’s deliberate systematic annihilation of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, mentally disabled people and nearly everyone else who didn’t fit into Aryan culture. Most Christians in Germany went along with Hitler’s policies because they didn’t ask Bonhoeffer’s question. How can we answer freedom’s call today? Answer the question: “Who is Jesus Christ?” and we will live Easter Freedom.