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Church leader's opposition to Nazis up for discussion by Western Pa. group

Nazis hanged Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1945, after they learned of his role in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler.

The clergyman remains controversial to some Lutherans who are strict adherents to teachings about God and government and how government is to be regarded.

Members of the Western Pennsylvania Lutheran CORE Fellowship will host a conference about Bonhoeffer's teachings. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Theology in the Church of Today” begins at 9:30 a.m. Saturday in St. Mark's Lutheran Church, Butler.

Bonhoeffer opposed the Nazi regime when it took power in 1933. He criticized Hitler's persecution of Jews, and he helped establish the anti-Nazi Confessing Church. He was banned from public speaking or publishing in the early 1940s.

German officials arrested and imprisoned Bonhoeffer in 1943 for his role in a German resistance organization. A 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler's life led to the discovery of his role in trying to overthrow Hitler. He was hanged on April 9, 1945, less than a month before Germany's unconditional surrender.

The Rev. Warren L. Smith, pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in McKeesport and an organizer of the conference, said Bonhoeffer's actions as a Lutheran theologian warrant continued discussion because historically, “For Lutherans, there's a strong adherence to political civil authority.”

Smith said he was born the day the Nazi regime executed Bonhoeffer.

“Germans and Lutherans had a strong adherence to government leaders. Government is a gift of God. Government authority is a gift-of-God type thing, God's administration of civic affairs,” he said.

The official Bonhoeffer website describes him as a martyr.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website dedicates a page to him, saying that Bonhoeffer “was one of the few church leaders who stood in courageous opposition to the Fuehrer and his policies.”

Smith said that he has “mixed feelings” about Bonhoeffer.

“I admire him for his stand for the Christian faith against the evils of Nazi Germany and the destruction of Jews,” Smith said. However, late in his life, Bonhoeffer “turned toward religionless Christianity. I guess that's a struggle for me. I struggle with that.”

CORE is a group within the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America that Smith said adheres “to Scripture on moral and ethical issues in the Christian faith,” including being pro-life and marriage as being between a man and a woman.

Smith said CORE, which says on its website it has more than 5,000 members, also works with the North American Lutheran Church, formed in 2010. It broke away from the Evangelical Lutheran Church after it said it would allow gay clergy. “There's still a pretty fractured relationship with the ELCA and CORE,” Smith said.

Main speakers at the conference will be The Rev. Eric Andrae, a campus pastor at First Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in North Oakland, rector of the Augsburg Academy of Pittsburgh and a founding member of the Bonhoeffer Centennial Committee of America; and the Rev. Paul R. Hinlicky, Tise professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.

Tickets for the conference are $18 in advance with registration and $20 for walk-ins. Tickets include lunch. For more information, call Smith at 412-673-5647 or 412-373-5271. Checks can be sent to St. Luke's Evangelical Lutheran Church, P.O. Box 187, Saxonburg, PA 16056.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or [email protected].


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