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Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Adolf Hitler, and the Judgment of God

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian most known for his book The Cost of Discipleship and his involvement in the plot to assassinate Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, suffered a great deal at the hands of the Nazis, including his eventual execution. In the summer of 1937, just as the Gestapo was arresting Bonhoeffer's friends, the pastor preached about God's judgment in Psalm 58 — but he didn't say what a modern American might expect.

"The wicked are perverse from the womb; liars go astray from their birth. ... O God, break their teeth in their mouths; pull the fangs of the young lions, O LORD. Let them vanish like water that runs off; let the arrows they aim break in two. ... The righteous will be glad when they see the vengeance; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. And they will say, 'Surely, there is a reward for the righteous, surely, there is a God who rules in the earth'" (Psalm 58:3, 6-7, 10-11).

So how did Bonhoeffer, a Christian who lost his life trying to assassinate Hitler, apply this verse to his own life? Did he rail against Hitler's evil? Not exactly. (For the full letter, read Meditating on the Word, a compilation of Bonhoeffer's works compiled and translated by David McI. Gracie.)

"Is this fearful psalm of vengeance to be our prayer? May we pray in this way? Certainly not! We bear much guilt of our own for the action of any enemies who cause us suffering," Bonhoeffer declared in a sermon on July 11, 1937.

This message is powerful, given what had happened to Bonhoeffer in the months — and even days — before. In January 1936, he lost his grandmother — who defied a Nazi boycott of Jews by shoving through brownshirts to buy strawberries from a Jew. Throughout 1937, the Gestapo carried out interrogations, house searches, confiscations, and arrests against Bonhoeffer's seminary students. Ten days before this sermon, they arrested his friend and fellow pastor Martin Niemöller (the man famous for the "first they came for the Jews ..." poem).

"Even in these times of distress for the church, we must confess that God himself has raised his hand in wrath against us, in order to visit our sins upon us: our spiritual indolence, our open or hidden disobedience, our great lack of discipline in daily living under his Word," the pastor declared.

Bonhoeffer added, "How then should we, who are guilty ourselves and deserving of God's wrath, call down God's vengeance upon our enemies? Will not this vengeance much more strike us? No, we cannot pray this psalm. Not because we are too good for it (what a superficial idea, what colossal pride!), but because we are too sinful, too evil for it!"