Bonhoeffer . . . had the courage to do what almost no one else around him could do. He stood up for the Jews of Europe and today he is celebrated and cherished, while Hitler, who condemned him to death and who only believed in himself, is reviled as a monster.
That day in the bunker 66 years ago today, as the drugged-up Fuehrer celebrated his last birthday, he was alive and Bonhoeffer had been dead for eleven days.
But on that day—April 20, 1945—who was happy and who was at peace, Hitler or Bonhoeffer? For that matter, which of them is happy and at peace today? It's something chilling to think about, the contrast between these two Germans, between these two lives and these two deaths.
Bonhoeffer's example is a reminder that the peace of God is with us in all circumstances, and that it gives us the courage to transcend our circumstances as nothing else can. This precept has been reinforced for me during Holy Week this year in an unexpected way. In my study of the Reagan years and the end of the Cold War, I have been struck by the unique moral courage Ronald Reagan displayed in his determination to reduce (and ultimately eliminate) nuclear arms, and develop a defense against missiles rather than relying on what he called the "immoral" policy of mutual assured destruction, or MAD.
As recounted by biographers Paul Kengor and Martin and Annelise Anderson, Reagan's most important and effective decisions on arms negotiations were made against the advice of virtually all the experts in Cold War strategy, including his own top advisers. In the process of obtaining an unprecedented arms reduction agreement, he had to stay his course for years while the Soviets—as well as the media and his political opponents in the West—rejected and ridiculed his overtures.
In 1993, he told former speechwriter Peggy Noonan that "he had gotten through his presidency only with the help of prayer."
I've prayed a lot throughout my life. Abraham Lincoln once said that he could never have fulfilled his duties as president for even fifteen minutes without God's help. I felt the same way. (When Character Was King, p. 317)
At the end of his life, Reagan faced not execution but Alzheimer's. Paul Kengor points out that Reagan had only a very short time after departing office in which to reflect on his achievements and explain himself to posterity. But in thinking about that observation this past week, I had the overpowering sense that this was not a cause of despair or resentment for Reagan. The few who saw him after the Alzheimer's had taken hold depict a gracious, cheerful man whose wandering mind went to childhood pastimes and beloved interests. I am sure there were many difficult days; I am sure he would have spared Nancy every one of them if he could have. But I can imagine now, as I think we are able to only with time and experience, that for this man of deep faith, the preternatural knowledge of the peace and love of God was truly enough.
Easter falls on a day of the human calendar—a reminder that we celebrate it in the midst of endless turmoil and strife. Our troops celebrate it quietly in Afghanistan and Iraq, as do our airmen in Europe and the Middle East and our sailors at sea around the globe. War doesn't stop for Easter. Nor do cruelty, lies, politics, fear, or anguish. Good men are put to death; old bodies break down. But the peace of God passes all understanding, because the resurrection of Jesus Christ wasn't meant to change the temporal world by erasing our trials—it was meant to transform eternity by changing our hearts.