‘I heard someone say yesterday that the last years had been completely wasted as far as he was concerned. I’m very glad that I have never yet had that feeling, even for a moment,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in April 1944.
Horrified by the Nazis’ treatment of Jews, the Lutheran pastor would join the conspiracy against Hitler and ultimately be hanged in a prison camp in April 1945.
He was a portrait of peace — the peace of a man who lived for otherworldly rewards. A doctor at the concentration camp would later recount: “At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
Eric Metaxas, author of the monumental, authoritative, humbling, and rallying biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, observes: “Bonhoefer thought it the plain duty of the Christian — and the privilege and honor — to suffer with those who suffered.” So convinced he was of the truth of the Gospel, it transformed his life.
His life serves as an inspiration. It challenges us, as Metaxas offered at a recent Becket Fund for Religious Liberty dinner, to live as though we truly do believe what we say we believe. (Metaxas was being honored for shining a bright light on Christian witness in our culture, because people — like those at the Becket Fund — devoted to the good tend to prop up the good.)
Amidst the cruelties of the 20th century, great men and women lived. But the witness of courage and humble service need not and should not and cannot be a thing of history. The world continues to need heroes. The world continues to need authenticity. Are we who we say we are? Believers. Americans. People of good faith. All of us.
Just this year, Shahbaz Bhatti, the highest-ranking Christian in Pakistan, was murdered. He was outspoken against Pakistan’s blasphemy law. For his courage, he gave his life. But not unlike Bonhoeffer, he did so with peace. Shortly before his death, he said: “I am ready to die for a cause.” He continued: “I’m living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights. So these threats and these warnings cannot change my opinion and principles.”
Most of us won’t die in a concentration camp or be shot down outside our mother’s house as Bhatti was. But in the past few days in the Northeast I have found myself surrounded by men and women whose lives are lived for others.
Such as the people of the Northwest Center in Washington, D.C., a pregnancy center and maternity home. They provide a whole host of services to women, children, and men. Material needs, job training, educational assistance, and housing. Established 30 years ago by graduates of Georgetown University, with a modest budget and more demand than it could ever possibly supply, it has served 44,000.
The center honored Democratic congressman Dan Lipinski at its fundraising dinner this year for being a defender of the most innocent human life, but he turned around and honored the real heroes against the threats to human life in a country where abortion is legal and the conscience rights of Americans are under threat. Yes, he meant the volunteers and those who make the Northwest Center possible. But even more so, he meant the mothers. Those parents who bravely say yes to the lives with which they have been entrusted. Who, whatever the circumstances that brought them to pregnancy, surrender themselves to service.
“I believed no one supported my choice to choose life,” a very pregnant Sharnece Ward explains. Ward has had most of the obstacles a single mom can have. The father of her child gave her a litany of reasons to abort. “Planned Parenthood was recommended.” She lost her job and housing. But she managed to find the Northwest Center and its “effortless support,” the support “my family wouldn’t give me.” She’s living there — at no cost. Suffering from gestational diabetes, she is getting the basic and additional health care she needs through the center’s help. And in addition to learning parenting skills, she is continuing her education. She is determined to be the mother she already was, despite the option so many around her were all too insistent that she pursue.
In honoring the editor of The Human Life Review, New York Catholic archbishop Timothy Dolan wrote: “The building up of a culture of Life must flow first and foremost from a loving, courageous, and humble heart — yes, in imitation of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary.”
That comes first and foremost with a full-on “yes.”
It’s the lesson for the college grad this month. It’s the lesson for the politician. It’s the lesson for the professor who lectures the politician who has stood up for some of the predominant civil and human-rights issues of our day — as just happened at my alma mater, the Catholic University of America, even before the Catholic speaker of the House could make it to campus.
No political party owns social justice. Nor even does politics itself. It’s what every individual is called to serve and defend. In the face of evil and confusion, we often just need to encourage one another — help each other with the support and resources — to answer the call. Bonhoeffer reminds us. A contemporary martyr reminds us. A mother reminds us. Waste not a moment.
In service, in courage, there is peace. Be not afraid, as a wise saintly giant of the last century implored.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through United Media.