13 March 2012

Poems for Lent (18): ‘Christians and Pagans,’ by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer ... interesting questions for Lent from a poet-theologian

Patrick Comerford

When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, preached at King’s School, Canterbury and broadcast live on BBC Radio 4, on the first Sunday of Lent [26 February 2012], he took as his text a reflection by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the nature of true freedom and what it means that “the truth shall set you free.”

Quiet contemplation and learning to release the “fictions” of our lives are part of the Lenten practice.

He recalled how in 1939, Bonhoeffer was in New York, exploring whether he should stay there as pastor to the German emigrants. By then, the young German theologian was deeply unpopular with the Nazi regime, making broadcasts critical of Hitler and running a secret training institution for pastors in the Confessing Church who could not accept the way that the Nazi state was trying to control the Church.

After a tumultuous inner struggle, and after only a month in New York, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany, knowing he was going back to extreme danger. Six years later, he was executed in a concentration camp. He left behind one of the greatest treasures of modern Christianity in his letters and papers from prison.

In a poem he wrote in July 1944, he sketched out what he thought was involved in real freedom – discipline, action, suffering and death. The freedom he was interested in is the freedom to do what you know you have to do.

Freedom, he says, is “perfected in glory” when it is handed over to God, Archbishop Williams recalled. And this finds its climax in the moment of death, when we step forward to discover what has been hidden all along – the eternal freedom of God, underlying everything we have thought and done.

For my Poem for Lent this morning, I have chosen Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Christians and Pagans,’ written in July 1944.

One translator, however, rightly said that this poem should in fact be called ‘Christians and Others,’ as the contrast for Bonhoeffer is really between the true Christian disciple and those others of “normal” religiosity, who still maintain their traditional expectations of how God should act to soften their pains and griefs.

In reflecting on this poem, two young women pastors, the Revd Simone Sinn and the Revd Rolita Machila, both working in the Department for Theology and Studies of the Lutheran World Federation in the Department for Theology and Studies, spoke about Lent as “a time to concentrate on what is essential in our faith and for our lives ... a time when we try to refocus our attention on what is important in life and try to concentrate on what really matters ... Lent is a time to concentrate on what is important in our lives and in our faith.”

This reflection is introduced on her blog by the Revd Jane Stranz, who has worked from July 2002 to October 2011 with the language service of the World Council of Churches in Geneva (2002-2011) and is now working in Paris with the Fédération Protestante de France based in Paris.

The two pastors say that, in a succinct way, this poem sheds light on three fundamental questions: In the first part, what does it mean to be human? In the second, what does it mean to be Christian? And finally, who is God?

They summarise these as three different encounters between people and God, three questions that are inter-related yet distinct.

We might be drawn into God’s story by listening to the biblical accounts of the life, passion and death of Christ during this Season of Lent, at the Eucharist, by standing with the least who are hungry, thirsty, who are foreign or naked on all days of our lives. Bohoeffer says: “Christians stand with God to share God’s pain.” But they say this needs further meditation and spiritual exploration, and may even be read as sef-critical question, for, as they ask: “Do we Christians actually do that?”

Interesting questions for Lent, indeed.

Christians and Pagans, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in July 1944:

People turn to God when they’re in need,
plead for help, contentment, and for bread,
for rescue from their sickness, guilt, and death.
They all do so, both Christian and pagan.

People turn to God in God’s own need,
and find God poor, degraded, without roof or bread,
see God devoured by sin, weakness, and death.
Christians stand with God to share God’s pain.

God turns to all people in their need,
nourishes body and soul with God’s own bread,
takes up the cross for Christians and pagans, both,
and in forgiving both, is slain.

* Note: Translated in A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (eds GB Kelly and FB Nelson (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1990), p. 549.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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