Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew what it was like to be an exile. Born in 1906 in Breslau, Germany, he was raised to love his country. But in thirty-nine short years on this earth, Dietrich watched his country change before his eyes. He was a teenager during the Great War (what we now call World War 1), and he watched as his homeland not only lost the war but was blamed and punished for it. He lived through the crippling effects of the Treaty of Versailles and the inflation that crushed his country afterwards.
In 1930, Bonhoeffer traveled to New York City to study theology. He knew that America was an enemy during the Great War, so he arrived with a list of arguments prepared to defend his beloved Germany against the accusations that she was solely to blame for the war. He arrived a noble patriot ready to defend his country, but in the end, he would learn how to live as an exile.
During his year in America, Bonhoeffer developed a friendship with a young black student named Frank Fisher. As he spent time with Fisher, he learned the plight of African-Americans in the 1930s. He wrote, “The separation of whites from blacks in the Southern states really does make a rather shameful impression . . . the conditions are really rather unbelievable. Not just separate railway cars, tramways, and buses south of Washington, but also, for example, when I wanted to eat in a restaurant with (Frank) I was refused service.”[i]
Experiencing life with those who lived like exiles in their own land was life-changing for Bonhoeffer. He returned home a different man. He understood that exile is not optional, it was part of what it meant to follow Jesus. He repeatedly risked his life to resist the evils of his nation because he believed that “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” He understood that exile is not easy. As he later wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”. He knew that exiles are not alone, writing that "It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.” And he knew that exile is not forever. Just before he was hanged for treason, he said, “This Is the end—for me, the beginning of life.”
By God’s grace this is not Nazi Germany. But we’re fooling ourselves if we think that we aren’t exiles too. The truth is, we may not feel as exiled as Bonhoeffer did, or Peter did, or the Christians in Asia Minor did, but the facts haven’t changed. Christians in Poquoson, Virginia in 2020 are as exiled as they’ve ever been. So with God’s help, let’s learn to live faithfully in our exile.
[i] John Hendrix, The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler (New York: Amulet Books, 2018), 32.