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Archive for January, 2017

It was inevitable that the constant struggle against Nazi evils — made all the worse by the popularity of the Nazi regime in its first ten years — would wear down those who had recognized the  Hitler’s wickedness from the beginning.

Petty people, who define themselves by what they are against rather than what they are for, seem to thrive on conflict and confrontation. Those who are more mature and who know the good they are pursuing, find it to be a great strain when circumstances force them into the unnatural posture of opposition.

When matters are deeply serious and drearily prolonged, death itself becomes no longer an enemy but almost a temptation because it seems to promise relief and rest. “We can no longer hate Death so much; we have discovered something of kindness in his features and are almost reconciled to him. Deep down we seem to feel that we are his already and that each new day is a miracle.”

“Who stands firm?”, Bonhoeffer had asked earlier in After Ten Years. Only the one who stands “in faith and in relationship to God alone,” the one who knows and accepts that he “is called to obedient and responsible action.”

When death becomes a temptation, only a few will stand firm in their active resistance to evil. Bonhoeffer’s hope — and commitment — was that when death came, it would find him “completely engaged in the fullness of life, rather than by accident, suddenly, away from what really matters.”

Or, to put it in language John Wayne* would understand, he wants to die with his boots on.


  • For those outside the US, John Wayne was an film actor who became a symbol of the rugged individualism on which America prided itself in its first two centuries. the attractive ideal of the rugged individualist still lingers in American dreams, though the realities of modern life tie us together in so many and such complex ways that now all we have left is a wistful memory of the good ol’ days.

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Ten years of resisting Hitler, watching the tyrant’s popularity grow during that whole time, must have been exhausting for Bonhoeffer and the others who never gave up fighting for truth and justice. In fact, however, it was not.

His mini-essay entitled “Optimism” helps us understand why Bonhoeffer remained strong. He recognized that it seems “more sensible to be pessimistic” as a way of protecting oneself against disappointment. Nonetheless, Bonhoeffer was firmly committed to optimism.to him it was “a power that never abandons the future to the opponent but lays claim to it.”

Those who despair of building a better future become irresponsible and therefore end up increasing their future problems. They do not accept the “responsibility for ongoing life, for building anew, for the coming generations.”

Responsibility, you will recognize, is a major theme in Bonhoeffer’s thinking. We are called to be responsible to God for ourselves. This is not self-centeredness, which would be the case if Bonhoeffer were arguing that we are responsible to ourselves. No, we will answer to God for ourselves. And we had better be able to answer, “Yes, Lord, I accepted responsibility for my present, my future, and for generations to come.”

“It may be,” concluded Bonhoeffer,”that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; only then and no earlier will we readily lay down our work for a better future.”

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A few months ago someone gave me a copy of a literary journal called Image. In it was an article by Kathleen Housley called Daring to do the Good: the Knight and the Theologian.”  I glanced at it, put it on my Stack of Good Intentions, and forgot about it.

I declared yesterday a Stack Day, one of those days when I attack the Stack of Good Intentions and try to whittle it down to a reasonable bulk. I discovered the journal and read the article. And it’s good!

Bonhoeffer mentioned in Finkenwalde lectures and then again in Letters and Papers an 19th century novel by the Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter, in in the US — if at all — by his novel Rock Crystal. The book to which Bonhoeffer is drawn is a long, slow-developing novel called Witiko. It is about a real 14th century Bohemian knight and traces his long and arduous battle to become a man of integrity, a “whole man,” in Bonhoeffer’s words.

Housley notes that Bonhoeffer read a great deal of Stifter and found great comfort and encouragement in his writings. She surmises that Witiko may have appealed to Bonhoeffer in large part because he so identified with the knight. When Bonhoeffer’s fiancee Maria read the book, she made the same comment. The book “reminds me of you,” she wrote to Bonhoeffer, “that’s why I can’t help liking it too. . .”

To be a whole person o0ne must be able to recognize one’s center. That is no small task. We have to sort out both ideas and feelings, both private and relational. We have to recognize the distinction between a conviction and a hope, both of which can be covered with murky clouds of doubt.

For Bonhoeffer, it became increasingly clear that his center lay in relationship with Jesus Christ or, more precisely, in Jesus Christ himself. There is something humbling but strengthening about such a realization. It means recognizing that we are not whole within ourselves but only within our communion with Christ.

Bonhoeffer wanted to believe that communion with Jesus Christ brought with it a communion with brothers and sisters in Christ but the painful irony of his life was that, once imprisoned, Bonhoeffer was increasingly isolated from any kind of fellowship. Nonetheless, Bonhoeffer’s sense of being joined center-to-center with Christ gave substance to his own center. He knew who he was because he knew who Jesus was.

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