"I heard someone say yesterday that the last years had been completely wasted as far as he was concerned. I'm very glad that I have never yet had that feeling, even for a moment," Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in April of 1944.
Horrified by the Nazi treatment of Jews, the German Lutheran pastor would join the conspiracy against Hitler and ultimately be hanged in a prison camp the next year.
He was a man who lived for otherworldly rewards. The doctor at the concentration camp would later recount of him: "At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God."
Eric Metaxas, author of the monumental, authoritative, humbling and inspirational biography "Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy," observes: "Bonhoeffer thought it the plain duty of the Christian -- and the privilege and honor -- to suffer with those who suffered." So convinced was Bonhoeffer of the truth of the Gospel that it transformed his life.
That life serves as an inspiration. Amidst the cruelties of the 20th century, great men and women lived. But recognition of courage and humble service should not and cannot be a thing of history. The world continues to need heroes. The world continues to need people who act on their beliefs and on their faith, whatever the cost.
Just this year, Shahbaz Bhatti, the highest-ranking Christian in Pakistan, was murdered. He was outspoken against Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws, which metes out harsh punishment to critics of Islam. For his courage, he gave his life. But not unlike Bonhoeffer, he did so with peace. Shortly before his death he said: "I am ready to die for a cause." He continued: "I'm living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights. So these threats and these warnings cannot change my opinion and principles."
Most of us won't perish in a concentration camp or be shot down outside our mother's house as Bhatti was. But in the past few days I have found myself surrounded by men and women whose lives are lived for others.
Take, for instance, the people of the Northwest Center in Washington, D.C., a pregnancy center and maternity home. They provide a whole host of services to women, children and men: material needs, job training, educational assistance and housing. Established 30 years ago by graduates of Georgetown University, with a modest budget and more demand than it can ever possibly meet, it has served more than 40,000 people.
At its fundraising dinner this year, the Center honored Congressman Dan Lipinski, a Democrat from Illinois, for being a staunch defender of the most innocent human life. In his acceptance speech, Lipinski in turn honored the real heroes of the fight for life and family in a country beset by a culture of death: the volunteers and those who make Northwest Center and its services possible. But even more so, the mothers -- those parents who bravely say yes to the lives with which they have been entrusted. Who, whatever the circumstances that brought them to pregnancy, surrender themselves to service.
"I believed no one supported my choice to choose life," a very pregnant Sharnece Ward explains. Ward has faced most obstacles a single mom can have. The father of her child gave her a litany of reasons to abort. "Planned Parenthood was recommended." She lost her job and housing. But she managed to find the Northwest Center and its "effortless support," the help "my family wouldn't give me." She's living there, at no cost. Suffering from gestational diabetes, she is getting the basic and additional health care she needs through the Center's help. And in addition to the parenting skills, she's continuing her education. She was determined to be the mother she already was, despite the option so many around her were all too insistent she pursue.
No political party owns social justice. Every individual is called to serve and defend the cause of life. In the face of evil and confusion, we often just need to encourage one another -- help each other with the support and resources -- to answer the call. Bonhoeffer's example reminds us of this. A contemporary martyr in a far-off country reminds us. A mother reminds us. In service, in courage, there is peace. Be not afraid, as a wise, saintly man of the last century implored.