It’s no secret that our Christian faith can be inspired and informed by those who have come before. One of my favorite sayings of our faith is that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). Thankfully that cloud of witnesses is made up of people just like you and me. Just as the Bible is full of flawed heroes of faith, so too are some of the Saints that have come before us. Thank God for their honest lives, for their flaws as well as their faith, so that, even though we are to strive for it, we know perfection is not a requirement to follow Jesus.
Starting in November of 2021, I took on the privilege, awesome responsibility, and at times incredibly frustrating task of teaching faith studies to four sections of 8th graders. During the second trimester we studied ethics, both situational and individual. I chose Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a hero of faith for us to study using the excellent graphic novel The Faithful Spy by John Hendrix as our guide. I highly recommend this book for young teens to adults as a great introduction to Bonhoeffer’s life, the atrocities of Nazi Germany, the difficult wrestling each of us must do as we consider our faith commitments, and the realities of the world we inhabit.
Through reading and discussing this book, and Bonhoeffer himself as a person of faith from recent history, we discussed what it means to be a follower of Jesus when authoritarian leaders co-opt the gospel of peace for their own agenda of war and oppression. We thought about what it means to follow the teachings from the Bible, especially the Ten Commandments, and when, if ever, it might be the right thing to break one. Bonhoeffer specifically wrestled with the commandment not to kill. Many of the students thought that while killing was still wrong, it might be the correct thing to do to prevent the death of others. Not everyone agreed, but the conversation was enlightening as it allowed students the opportunity to think about rules not being set in stone.
For parents who teach and expect their children to follow rules, this conversation might seem a slippery slope. Are our children allowed to break family rules if it helps someone else? Or are we only okay with breaking family rules when to do so would mean saving a life? For instance, if our children are only allowed to swim in the backyard pool when adults are around, what do they do if a friend falls into the pool and needs help when there are no adults nearby? Certainly, I do not mean that rules are meant to be broken, but perhaps there are some valuable conversations to be had around principles or convictions that at times might outweigh the rules we have been taught.
We explored how Bonhoeffer was influenced by scripture and inspired by his world travels to craft his own vision of how the Church might be. We memorized his last words, “This is the end, for me, the beginning of life.”
Bonhoeffer is such an important Christian for us to read and to remember in the Church today. His courage and witness to power is an example all people of faith need. His writings about God’s grace and about our communal life together inform who we can be as the Church.
From the author’s note, “Dietrich was moved to take action in the face of injustice, even though he initially felt no injustice himself. This position was so radical, it eventually cost him his life.” May we all be inspired by the witness of Bonhoeffer in our own faith to take action in the face of the many injustices of our world today.