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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Not a Waste: Parallel Lives of Eric Liddell and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

   I'm probably not the first person to notice some striking similiarities between two men of honour born just after the turn of the century who also passed  away within two months of each other in the year 1945.  These men are Eric Liddell and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I will begin with a short summary of each man's life and then point out the common strands I observed while reading about them.
   Eric Liddell was born on January 16, 1902 to Scottish missionaries living in China.  His education from a young age took place with his brother at British boarding schools far away from his parents and sister, who continued to live and minister to the Chinese people.  Family visits took place infrequently during furloughs. Young Eric was not terribly academic, but he enjoyed the sport of rugby and running races.  In 1924, the eighth modern Olympic games were held in Paris, France, and Liddell was one of the members of the British team.  His best event would have been the 100 metre sprint, but when it became known six months before the event that the qualifying races would take place on Sunday, Liddell determined not to run. Instead he trained for the 200 metre and the 400 metre events, which would not require competing on the Lord's Day. After all of the celebrity that came through his gold medal performance in the 400 metre race, Eric Liddell remained humble.  He desired to use his athletic ability to connect people with spiritual truths.  He eventually went to various towns and regions in China to teach, preach, and provide basic medical care to its people. When World War II broke out,  Liddell made sure his wife and three young daughters were sent to safety in the West.  As the Japanese took over portions of China, they began to intern all Westerners.  Even in a concentration camp, Eric Liddell acted as a leader in organizing the internees and keeping up morale through sports, performing arts (plays were put on) and worship services.  With minimal food rations he kept up an incredible pace of service until it became apparent that he was burnt out.  He apparently had a brain tumour, which led to a fatal stroke on February 21, 1945.  He was 43 years old. [1]
   Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born on February 4, 1906 in Breslau, Germany.  Even though his family was not overly religious, young Dietrich (who was educated through home schooling and grammar school) decided to become a theologian at the age of 14.  He was gifted academically and attended different universities in Germany, writing two dissertations to become qualified as a professor.  When Adolf Hitler rose to power, Bonhoeffer was one of few German Lutherans to raise objections.  As early as 1933 he spoke out publicly against the tactics of the Fuhrer and had his radio broadcast suddenly cut in mid-stream.  Bonhoeffer continued to stand up for Jews and others persecuted by the Nazi regime and his movements were being monitored.  When he was given the opportunity to live safely in the United States, he thought better of it and returned to his homeland.  He was arrested in 1943. After a time in prison, he is moved to various concentration camps (Buchenwald, two others and finally Flossenburg).  Here he was executed by hanging on April 9, 1945, at the age of 39. [2]
   In which ways did these men live parallel lives?

  • They were both men of principle and integrity, even when it was costly to their worldly successes.
  • The both wrote books about a life devoted to Jesus Christ.  Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship in 1937, while Eric Liddell's Disciplines of the Christian Life was published after his death.
  • Each of these men had tremendous gifts, which were developed and harnessed for the furthering of God's Kingdom in the places where they lived.  Their gifts were not used to gain status in the eyes of the world but to draw people to the Truth.
  • Both of them endured suffering for righteousness' sake and both spent time in concentration camps half a world apart.
   I wonder if these two men ever would have opportunity to meet each other during their brief lives on this earth. They certainly would have understood each other as brothers in Christ.  I can imagine each one of them saying, like Saint Paul, "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (I Corinthians 11:1, NIV).

[1] An easy-to-read biography of Eric Liddell with the same title was written by Ellen Caughey in 2000.
[2] An exhaustive biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, 2010.

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