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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.”

Daring to Do the Good

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.

Bonhoeffer’s Christmas

christmas1942

One of my favorite Bonhoeffer photos was taken at Christmastime in 1940 at the Ettal Monastery, which Bonhoeffer visited from time to time and where he wrote the bulk of his book Ethics. Bonhoeffer was a gifted pianist, though at one time by his family to have a future as a concert pianist. His close friend Eberhard Bethge was quite proficient on the flute and introduced Bonhoeffer to what became some of the latter’s favorite music.

Between the two men are three children of Bonhoeffer’s sister, Christine von Dohnanyi. One of the children, Christoph, became Music Director and Conductor of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.

Music-making was always part of the life of the Bonhoeffer family. They sang hymns and even whole cantatas as part of family life. Schubert, Brahms, Beethoven: All had a place in the family musical evenings. Several siblings played instruments. Dietrich even did some composing. His maternal grandmother had studied piano with Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt and passed along her love of music to her daughter Paula, who made sure all the Bonhoeffer children were bathed in good music during all their childhood.

Christmas, of course, was a highlight of the musical year for the Bonhoeffer’s. The hymns of Advent and Christmas were all sung every year. Yes, there were a few gifts exchanged but it was music which bound the family together in the spirit of Christmas. Good music, rich music, music of Bach and Handel and several German composers of Christmas hymns.

For us, Christmas has become a time of tension and rush, a time of anxiety about how much we’re spending on gifts and anticipation about what we’re going to receive. No wonder our spirits so often feel impoverished during this, our most exciting — but shallow — season.

Music and meditation on Scripture take time and discipline but pay dividends too rich to describe. Christmas, the birth of hope, deserves no less.

 

One of the inescapable lessons Bonhoeffer and his friends had learned since the beginning of the Nazi reign was that they were in far less control of their own lives than they had thought in their younger years. What once seemed a basic right, that of planning one’s own life, was now seen as a pipedream.  They could do little to determine what each day would bring or what they might be doing tomorrow.

Such loss of freedom could be accepted as mere fate or, as Bonhoeffer is encouraging, it can be freely chosen and affirmed as an expression of faith. The former leaves one inclined to ignore personal responsibility — a fundamental sin in Bonhoeffer’s view — while the latter means one continues to respond to (be responsible to) God.

When we live by faith, we live as if each day were our last and simultaneously as if our tomorrow is gloriously beautiful. Bonhoeffer remembers that Jeremiah spoke of great destruction for Jerusalem, even while telling the exiled Israelites in Babylon to settle down and make good lives for themselves.

It may be, of course, that it is not we who will get to enjoy the wonderful tomorrow, at least not on this earth, but the next generation. Bonhoeffer might well have had Abraham in mind at this point. He was promised the land, though his clan did not in fact  possess it for more than four centuries. Nonetheless, god the the surety of tomorrow, whenever it may come.

Realizing that, we do not lose heart at the troubles the present day may bring. We wait patiently and responsibly through them, knowing that Jesus Christ has gone ahead to prepare a place for us. Thank you, Lord!.

Writing in 1942, after ten years of active resistance to Hitler, Bonhoeffer sought to summarize in a set of mini-essays some of the most basic lessons he and his friends had learned. The shortest of these he called “On Suffering.”

There is no question that their lives had been deeply troubled by the Nazis, that they had long been in danger of arrest, imprisonment, and — because they were involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler — execution. For ten years suffering had been a substantial theme in their lives and the possibility of even greater suffering loomed over every day.

Yet this essay is the shortest of them all. Here it is in full:

It is infinitely easier to suffer in obedience to a human command than in the freedom of one’s very own responsible action. It is infinitely easier to suffer in community with others than in solitude. It is infinitely easier to suffer publicly and with honor than in the shadow and in dishonor. It is infinitely easier to suffer through putting one’s bodily life at stake than to suffer through the spirit. Christ suffered in freedom, in solitude, in the shadow, and in dishonor, in body and in spirit. Since then, many Christians have suffered with him.

Suffering is easier, Bonhoeffer writes, if it comes from being under the authority of another rather than from one’s own free choice. Why would that be? Because suffering by choice means both bearing the responsibility and having to resist the temptation to escape by making a new choice.

Suffering is easier, he says, in community than in solitude. We are reminded that the opening line of his book Life Together was a quote from Psalm 133 — “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!’ Solitude is good and enriching only when it is experienced in the context of community. If we are alone because we simply are friendless or because we are cut off from our friends against our will, the suffering is magnified by the sense of isolation.

And it is easier to suffer publicly and with honor than in hiddenness and dishonor. Suffering unknown to others emphasizes our aloneness and suffering dishonorably emphasizes the fact that we have chosen our suffering for all the wrong reasons. Honor, sad to say, is a word nearly gone from our vocabulary. Only military folk still speak of it. Most of the civilian world has discarded honor in favor of greed and selfishness. Much of our pain, then, comes from our own foolish choices and thus is accompanied by guilt, even if we’re barely aware of it.

Physical suffering is easier to bear than spiritual. Working my way through a battle with cancer and kidney failure, I applied a lesson I had learned long ago from a friend, Ray Anderson. I began each day by affirming, “This is the day the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.” It was not a pleasant battle but actually not as hard as some might think. I just thanked my Lord each day and took whatever came my way. Spiritual suffering, however, is more difficult because when things are amiss spiritually, we are unable to thank God or turst God. Than we are thrown back into an even deeper sense of being alone.

“Christ,” Bonhoeffer concludes, “suffered in freedom, in solitude, in the shadow, and in dishonor, in body and in spirit.” All suffering was brought together in the suffering our our Lord Jesus Christ. And here is our great comfort, our great strength: We, as followers of Jesus, as those who walk his path with him, suffer with him, sharing his pain even as he shares ours.

Many years ago, I sat in the very back row of a conference with 9,000 other college students. I was exhausted from trying very hard to live a good Christian life. I felt very lonely. And then they sang a promise from God — as if a choir of 9,000 angels singing just to me — “I’ll never, no never, no never forsake you.”

When the Lord of the Universe sends 9,000 angels to sing his promises to me, I tend to pay attention. . .   thank you, Lord.

Writing in 1942, when the full horrors of Hitler and his henchmen were fully apparent for all to see, Bonhoeffer wrote a series of “mini-essays,” reflecting on what he and his friend had learned during their ten years of resistance to the Nazis.

One of those essays was entitled “Sympathy” but, interestingly, his first sentence is about wisdom. I miss hearing the word “wisdom” in our public discourse these days. It seems we may have despaired of becoming a people of wisdom, probably because we have lost hope that such as thing as wisdom even exists. It is my prayer that the Church will rise to the occasion and begin to fill that great gap in our Western — or is it only the American? — culture.

Wisdom, Bonhoeffer notes, is usually only learned through experience, through what we in the US have often called “the college of hard knocks.” One implication of that fact is that few people can see the right course of action in advance, only in the middle or even after the situation that so needed wise intervention. A second implication, says Bonhoeffer, is that few people have a genuine capacity for sympathy.

Lacking wisdom, we tend to underestimate the suffering that various situations bring to the human spirit until those situations begin to impinge on our own lives. Bonhoeffer lists several rationalizations by which people tend to keep the sense of threat at a distance as long as possible, and thus keep sympathy from developing very fully.

He writes:

From a Christian perspective, none of these justifications can blind us to the fact that what is decisively lacking here is a greatness of heart. Christ withdrew from suffering until his hour had come; then he walked toward it in freedom, took hold, and overcame it. Christ, so the Scripture tells us, experienced in his own body the whole suffering of all humanity as his own – an incomprehensibly lofty thought! – taking it upon himself in freedom.

Greatness of heart, he is suggesting, means walking toward suffering, not fleeing from it. We do not believe, of course, that our own suffering will have the universal implications which marked Jesus Christ’s suffering. Yet there is an essential dimension to the suffering of the Christian which does in fact have meaning beyond itself.

Bonhoeffer goes on to say that “if we want to be Christians it means that we are to take part in Christ’s greatness of heart. . .” That is the key, that is the factor which transforms Christian suffering into something more than merely personal pain. This is a familiar theme in Bonhoeffer: our participation in Christ’s reality. When we choose to walk toward suffering, our own or someone else’s, we do so as followers of the Christ who goes before us. We walk his path with him into the sacrifice that unites us with those in pain.

I’ve not written much in this blog in the last month because my attention has been captivated by our presidential elections here in the US. I am horrified at the results and believe trump will do serious harm to our nation and to other nations which have some connection to us. One of the many ways in which I find him to be antithetical to the Christian way is that he wants to protect Americans from the suffering that might come from welcoming refugees into our country. he does not care much that their suffering is widespread and intense. All he cares about is that we Americans ought to be sheltered from suffering on their behalf.

How very, very deeply our president-elect is unlike Jesus Christ. . .

 

 

, in the responsible action that in freedom lays hold of the hour and faces the danger, and in the true sympathy that springs forth not from fear but from Christ’s freeing and redeeming love for all who suffer. Inactive waiting and dully looking on are not Christian responses. Christians are called to action and sympathy not through their own firsthand experiences but by the immediate experiences of their brothers, for whose sake Christ suffered.