Using torture to interrogate suspected terrorists. Intervening in other countries to stop genocide. Resolving ancient disputes and modern violence in the Middle East. Blowing the whistle on corporate crime. Restraining a rogue state. Confronting the crack dealers across town—or down the street.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has become the patron saint of hard cases, a guide to the ethically perplexed, an inspiration in a dilemma, a beacon in moral murk. His participation in a conspiracy to murder Hitler and his subsequent imprisonment and execution when the plot failed has become the defining moment of his short life. Bonhoeffer has much to offer us as we consider the terrible challenges of contemporary life. But he also offers us deep wisdom for living in the everyday as well.

Bonhoeffer was born into a genteel German middle-class family with a distinguished and even noble heritage on both sides. His father, Karl, was a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Berlin, and his family enjoyed a large home, servants, and all of the security and pleasure of the establishment—even during the difficult years for Germany following World War I.

Young Dietrich was an intellectual prodigy who astounded his lightly religious family by devoting his talents to theology—earning his Ph.D. at Berlin in 1927 and then his Habilitation (a sort of "crowning degree" that came with an invitation to teach) in 1930. He was also ordained in the state Lutheran church and spent short stints in pastorates in Barcelona and London as well as Germany.

He visited America twice, with Union Theological Seminary in New York City as his home base. Appalled by the Americans' lack of theoretical theological interest, he became impressed ...

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