The theologian set aside his nearly finished magnum opus while in prison, investing instead in creative writing.
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
“A Christian’s secular vocation receives new recognition from the gospel only to the extent that it is carried on while following Jesus.”
You may have heard these calls to a radical Christian life before, as well as other quotations from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is one of the most-quoted Christian theologians of the last 100 years, inspiring generations of believers. What you may not have heard is that Bonhoeffer spent his final months in Tegel Prison creating art.
Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo at his parents’ home in Charlottenburg, Germany, in April 1943. He had broken many German laws by helping Jewish neighbors and by using his position as a government intelligence officer to evade service in the Nazi army. Bonhoeffer was jailed until October 1944 at Tegel Prison north of Berlin in relative comfort, allowing him the time and space to read and write prolifically for most of his imprisonment.
After his participation in the now-famous Hitler assassination plot was exposed, Bonhoeffer was convicted of new crimes and was moved from Tegel to Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, then to Buchenwald concentration camp, and finally to Flossenbürg, where he was hanged with six others on April 9, 1945, just one month before Germany’s surrender to the Allied forces. Bonhoeffer’s short life came to a premature end.
A question haunts us: Did Bonhoeffer waste the last months of his life in prison by spending time on creative writing instead of finishing his best book, the much-anticipated Ethics? The Bible invites us to “number our days” (Ps. 90:12) and warns, “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then …