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The Summit Lecture Series: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce

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The inability of education, self-actualization, rules, freedom, motivation and incentive to make us the sort of people we need to be becomes obvious when we look at examples of the types of lives that we need to live.

Two such examples are the lives of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce – both chronicled by biographer Eric Metaxas.

Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor during World War II who also was part of three conspiracies to assassinate Adolf Hitler – a very awkward position for a pastor/theologian to find himself in.

When Hitler attempted to lead the church, Bonhoeffer protested that the only Head of the Church is Christ. He was also part of several groups who smuggled Jews out of Germany. All this eventually landed Bonhoeffer in jail and subsequently at the hands of the Nazi executioner.

Metaxas actually begins Bonhoeffer’s story with his memorial service – a very interesting way to begin one’s life story. He did this because of two reasons: 1) Dietrich’s parents, Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer, were not aware that their son had actually died at the time of his service. They knew that he had been taken captive, but had heard varying reports on what had happened to him. And, by this point, the Allies had decimated Berlin. As a terrible twist of fate, the Nazi’s had killed Bonhoeffer less than two weeks before the fall of the Third Reich. All this to say, the lines of communication were at their worst.Dietrich Bonhoeffer William Wilberforce

So, Karl and Paula received the undeniable report that their son was dead when they heard the announcement on the BBC – the BRITISH Broadcasting Company. The co-leaders of the Allied forces were going to be broadcasting a memorial service in their son’s honor. That’s the second reason… these were Germany’s enemies that were going to memorialize a German. This, despite the fact that Winston Churchill had painted a public picture that all Germans were evil Nazis, in order to keep the British morale up. Yet, right after the war ended, the Bishop of London was about to officiate a service for a German. Here is how Metaxas puts it in his biography:

“As the couple took in the hard news that the good man who was their son was now dead, so too many English took in the hard news that the dead man who was a German was good. Thus, did the world again begin to reconcile itself to itself.”

Another example of someone who lived a life as an example of how we ought to live was William Wilberforce. He lived his life with what he called his two great aims: The Abolition of Slave Trade in Britain and the Reformation of Manners, or virtue.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce by John Rising

You see, by this time in London’s history, the inner city was an awful place to live – WAY worse than inner city Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York today. Commonplace were things like public drunkenness, nudity, sex, and rape, beating of women and children, children were chained to machines for 16-hours-a-day to work. And it was all accepted as just the way life was. Life was atrocious, especially for women, children, immigrants, minorities, and animals.

Then Wilberforce jumped into office. He served for 40 years. And, soon after his years of service, England ushered in what we now call the Victorian Era. This was a time in history known for the public’s reclamation of chastity and virtue. Women’s sexuality was protected. Children were unchained in the factories and sent to school.

In other words, culture changed.

By the end of Wilberforce’s life, God had granted him success in both of his great aims, with slavery abolished throughout England and the ushering in of the Victorian Age – an era that truly reflected his – and God’s – character.

This was captured in the movie Amazing Grace, when an old and fragile William Wilberforce paid a visit to the Duchess of York. When he approached the Duchess, she had her six-year-old daughter with her. The little girl was playing on the floor, and even though Wilberforce was brittle and in terrible health, he got down on his hands and knees and played on the carpet with the little girl.

This little girl was named Victoria – the future Queen of England.

Metaxas summarized this moment like this:

“And so here on the miniature plain of the carpet and a prophetically fitting tableau of domestic happiness, the child who would lend the future era her name met the man who would lend it his character.”

The question is: How do we live lives like these?

To purchase the entire Summit Lecture Series on DVD, go to: summit.org

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