On April 8, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was taken by two men to be led to his execution. He had been asked to perform a final service on Quasimodo Sunday – the Sunday following Easter. One of his fellow prisoners, Payne Best, describes the scene:
“He had hardly finished his last prayer when the door opened and two evil-looking men in civilian clothes came in and said:
‘Prisoner Bonhoeffer. Get ready to come with us.’ Those words ‘Come with us’ – for all prisoners they had come to mean one thing only – the scaffold.
These final words of Bonhoeffer are considered some of his most famous. They are the words of someone who was faithful to his calling up until the very end. They are the words of someone who lived as he preached. They are the words of someone who was confident in his relationship with God – knowing that there was hope of life after death.
For Bonhoeffer, death only found meaning in light of faith. In a sermon he preached in London many years before, he said, “Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.” Ever the curious and thoughtful one, in the same sermon he even posed the question: “How do we know that dying is so dreadful? Who knows whether, in our human fear and anguish we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly, blessed event in the world?”
At his execution, the camp doctor at Flossenbürg wrote, “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.” This was a man who truly believed what he preached. He followed his own directive, that “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
What does it mean to face struggle and hardship with dignity and to be faithful to one’s calling? From Bonhoeffer’s last moments, there are several takeaways:
- Hardship and suffering is not the end. In leadership, there are always going to be struggles and hardships along the way. While death may not be the lived reality we face in our day to day leadership, there are people who will try and “kill” or undermine our leadership. A major aspect of the Christian narrative is the belief that there is hope in the resurrection.
- To experience death is to experience life. The moment our leadership faces death in one area can mean life in another. Christ calls us to die to ourselves so that we may find life. What new beginnings are around the corner when an opportunity ends?
- Dignity is found in submission to God. Bonhoeffer was able to face his last moments because of the foundation he had built on his identity in God. It was a lifelong journey of immersion, of questioning, of reflection, of teaching, of failure, and of victory. It was that submission to God that allowed him to face his end with not just dignity, but also humility.