Dietrich Bonhoeffer: questioned the proper role of a Christian in the midst of political turmoil
Today (Sunday 9 November 2008) is Remembrance Sunday, and the setting for the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral Dublin was Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. In addition, the choir sang “They shall grow not old …” from The Fallen by Laurence Binyon to a setting by Peter Parshall, and a funeral motet by Tomas Luis da Victoria.
As canon-in-residence, instead of preaching, I used the following reflection:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a theologian, spiritual writer and Lutheran Pastor who played a central role in the conscientious struggle against Nazism. He questioned the proper role of a Christian in the midst of political turmoil. Today is the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, 9 November1938, when synagogues and Jewish businesses were burned throughout Germany. Bonhoeffer immediately travelled to Berlin to investigate the destruction, despite having been forbidden to do so. On his return, he found his students discussing the theory that Kristallnacht had resulted from the curse which had haunted the Jews since the crucifixion of Christ. Bonhoeffer rejected the theory. Instead, he called the attack on the Jews an example of the “sheer violence” of Nazism’s “godless face.” Bonhoeffer died at the hands of the Nazis in April 1945.
Included in the collection of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s prison writings are two poems written in Tegel Prison in Berlin in mid-July 1944, when he was at the mid-point of his imprisonment. The first poem, Who Am I?, expresses his own strange and strained relationship with his pending martyrdom:
Who Am I?
Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They also tell me
I would talk to my warders freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.
What makes this so affecting is that he tells us of the doubts and terrors that afflicted him, yet we know of the eerie serenity and equanimity with which he mounted the scaffold to face his own hanging.
Although that the other poem he wrote at this time, Christians and Unbelievers, is less well known, it strikes me as somewhat more pertinent to our times. After all, I hope, there are few of us who will ever face the same situation as he did.
Christians and Unbelievers
Men go to God when they are sore bestead,
Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning or dead:
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.
Men go to God when he is sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead:
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.
God goeth to every man when sore bestead,
Feedeth body and spirit with his bread,
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead:
And both alike forgiving.
In a letter written on 18 July 1944, Bonhoeffer offered his own analysis of the ideas he was trying to develop in these verses. He explained:
“The poem about Christians and Unbelievers embodies an idea you will recognise: ‘Christians range themselves with God in his suffering; that is what distinguishes them from the heathen.’ As Jesus asked in Gethsemane, ‘Could ye not watch with me one hour?’ That is the exact opposite of what the religious man expects from God. Man is challenged to participate in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world. He must therefore plunge himself into the life of a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion or trying to transfigure it. He must live a ‘worldly’ life and so participate in the suffering of God. He may live a worldly life as one emancipated from all false religions and obligations. To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of asceticism (as a sinner, a penitent or a saint), but to be a man. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.”
And so, our approach towards God serves also, perhaps more importantly, to understand something of the world as it must appear to him – with billions of souls, besides our own, beset on all sides by sin, crying out for help. Bonhoeffer summons us to live in this world, filled as it is with sin and wickedness, rather than to pine for the next, to lift our gaze to see and feel the suffering of others around us.
Bonhoeffer tried to end his letter on a hopeful note, but the final lines are heart-breaking:
“When we speak of God in a non-religious way, we must not gloss over the ungodliness of the world, but expose it in a new light.
“Now that it has come of age, the world is more godless, and perhaps it is for that very reason nearer to God than ever before.”
I conclude with Some quotations from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
In normal life we hardly realise how much more we receive than we give; life can be rich only with such realization. (Letters and Papers from Prison)
To be silent does not mean to be inactive; rather it means to breathe in the will of God, to listen attentively and be ready to obey. (Meditating on the Word)
It is not necessary that we should discover new ideas in our meditation. It is sufficient, and far more important, if the Word, as we read and understand it, penetrates and dwells within us. (Life Together)
When we come to a clearer and more sober estimate of our own limitations and responsibilities, that makes it possible more genuinely to love our neighbour. (Letters and Papers from Prison)
There is not a place to which the Christian can withdraw from the world, whether it be outwardly or in the sphere of the inner life. Any attempt to escape from the world must sooner or later be paid for with a sinful surrender to the world. (Ethics)
You have granted me many blessings; let me also accept what is hard from your hand. (Prayers from Prison)
The first call which every Christian experiences is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. (The Cost of Discipleship)
Earthly possessions dazzle our eyes and delude us into thinking that they can provide security and freedom from anxiety. Yet all the time they are the very source of anxiety. (The Cost of Discipleship)
The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists of listening to them. Just as love of God begins with listening to his word, so the beginning of love for our brothers and sisters is learning to listen to them. (Life Together)
From God we hear the word: “If you want my goodness to stay with you then serve your neighbour, for that is where God comes to you.” (No Rusty Swords)
Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others, we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as ourselves. (The Cost of Discipleship)
We have learned a bit too late in the day that action springs not from thought but from a readiness for responsibility. (Letters and Papers from Prison)
Our enemies are those who harbour hostility against us, not those against whom we cherish hostility … As a Christian I am called to treat my enemy as a brother and to meet hostility with love. My behaviour is thus determined not by the way others treat me, but by the treatment I receive from Jesus. (The Cost of Discipleship)
So long as we eat our bread together, we shall have sufficient even for the least. Not until one person desires to keep his own bread for himself does hunger ensue. (Life Together)
In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things, the figure of him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger. (Ethics)
The believer is neither a pessimist nor an optimist. To be either is illusory. The believer sees reality not in a certain light but as it is, and believes only in God and God’s power towards all and over all that is seen. (No Rusty Swords)
There remains an experience of incomparable value … to see the great events of world history from below; from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer … to look with new eyes on matters great and small. (Letters and Papers from Prison)
Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offence, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favour of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong. (Sermon on II Corinthians 12: 9)
There is no way to peace along the way to safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. (Address at Fano)
The followers of Christ have been called to peace … And they must not only have peace but also make it. And to that end they renounce all violence and tumult. In the cause of Christ nothing is to be gained by such methods … His disciples keep the peace by choosing to endure suffering themselves rather than inflict it on others. They maintain fellowship where others would break it off. They renounce hatred and wrong. In so doing they over-come evil with good, and establish the peace of God in the midst of a world of war and hate. (The Cost of Discipleship)
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. He acknowledges the role of Canon Mark Gardiner, Dean’s Vicar of Christ Church Cathedral, in the compilation of this meditation.