Bonhoeffer’s Christmas


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.

A New Kind of President

Here in the US, we are as stunned as were the British in the days after the Brexit vote. The election of trump just did not seem possible. His flaws seemed too obvious and his qualifications to be non-existent. Unfortunately, his main opponent, Hillary Clinton, was simply not liked by very many people so, rather than cast a vote for an unpopular candidate, too many people stayed home.

Clinton got more votes than did trump but his were more strategically placed, so he won what we call the Electoral College. (It is an antiquated system that made sense 200 years ago but now, in a age of extremely rapid transportation and communication, just seems bizarre.)

Hitler became Chancellor of Germany not by election but by appointment by President Hindenburg. Bonhoeffer and a few others saw from the beginning how evil he was but in the eyes of most people he was merely unlikable, like trump. When Hindenburg died a year later, Hitler declared himself both Chancellor and President. He then called for an election in which he suppressed opposition and won the vote.

In the meantime, however, he had shown two things about himself. One was that, just as Bonhoeffer had seen, he was a cruel tyrant, bitterly vindictive and strongly xenophobic. The other was that, just as he had promised,he created jobs, greatly reduced crime, and raised the morale of the German people.

Or, to be more precise, he raised the morale of those who did not see that he created jobs by starting a major military buildup and re3duced crime by ruthlessly punishing anyone even suspected of a crime. As we have sometimes seen in this country, when the government fights for law and order but not justice, the result is cruelty.

So, as America moves into a period when we are led by someone who is much like Hitler was in the beginning, I would ask all of you — including and maybe especially those of you in other countries — to pray for us. Would you please?

“The receptivity of the masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.  As soon as you sacrifice this slogan and try to be many-sided, the effect will piddle away, for the crowd can neither digest nor retain the material offered. In this way the result is weakened and in the end entirely cancelled out.”  (Hitler, Mein Kampf, Vol. 1, chap 6, sect 4)

These are the words of Hitler in 1924. In 1942 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was writing about the lessons learned after ten years of resisting Hitler. He wrote that it is impossible to deal with stupidity, the willful stupidity of a people who have surrendered to a tyrant who rules by intimidation, hatred . . .and slogans.

We know that the proto-tyrant of 1924 became the real tyrant of 1942, with the year 1933 being the pivotal year. That was the year that Hitler became Chancellor and thus began to have the power to enact the ideas he had written nine years earlier.

A people, such as the millions of trump supporters, who willfully surrender their minds and hearts to a tyrant become stupid. Sometimes that stupidity is dangerous and damaging. In Germany it led to a terrible war and a Holocaust whose immeasurable cruelty we still can’t quite grasp.

The danger right now for America is that, for the sake of his own ego, trump may be unleashing the forces that return us to the unfinished Civil War. Hitler was deliberate. trump, I believe, has simply been made stupid by his own thoughtless self-manipulations. It is as if, feeding solely off the noise of the crowds, he is simply mesmerized. His is not a studied evil, as was Hitler’s, but it is extremely dangerous nonetheless because he is unleashing the dark side of an America he can’t begin to understand.

The obvious problem, of course, is that those forces are now unleashed and will bear some sort of awful fruit whether or not trump wins the election. America is in a lose-lose situation. The Republicans, especially once they were goaded on by the Tea Party, paved the way by their recalcitrant opposition to Obama. Even they are shocked by what they have created.

The problem in the Republican Party goes back at least as far as Reagan. He, like Hitler, lived and worked on the basis of a small handful of slogans and cliches. His “trickle-down” economics, so favored by the economists who bought the thinking of Milton Friedman, turned out just as one should have expected: The rich got richer, the middle class experienced a temporary boom, which the wealthy quickly squeezed and strangled because they were now empowered to gain unlimited wealth.

Even as they preyed upon and nearly destroyed the middle class, the wealthy continued to increase their wealth and did so at an ever-increasing pace. It ought to frighten us that the wealth of the 1% grew even faster during the economic meltdown of 2007-08. If we do not act soon to curb the growing income equality gap, the damage may escalate drastically.

Thanks for favoring greed, you dear Republicans.

I’ve left this blog unattended for too long! Frankly, I’ve been caught up in trying to figure out what it means that the American political system has produced two presidential candidates who are unpopular. At the least, it means that the United States is in a period of cultural bewilderment. And during such a time, those who represent the worst in society — people of hate and meanness and prejudice — are encouraged to yell their foolishness into the public forum. The chaos is emphasized when one of our two major political parties chooses a candidate who deliberately builds his campaign on the very hate which threatens the public order.

As I listen to the Republican candidate speak, my mind often goes to Bonhoeffer’s words on stupidity. There is nothing to be gained by arguing with stupidity, he asserts. The stupid are not those who simply lack intelligence but, far worse, those who have chosen to be mindless. Reasoning with them, we might say, is speaking a foreign language which they don’t even want to understand. And rational people cannot speak the native language of the willfully stupid because it truly makes no sense.

It is in this context that I now read Bonhoeffer’s paragraphs on “The Sense of Quality.” When we lack the courage to observe a genuine sense of boundaries, “we perish in an anarchy of human values.” We must ask immediately what boundaries Bonhoeffer has in mind. He leaves us no doubt: his uses of the words “rabble” and “nobility” say it all.

Is this some sort of snobbish elitism? Ordinarily, I would say Bonhoeffer is certainly in danger of that but now, with our chaotic and mean-spirited campaign fowling the spiritual air in America, I find myself saying Bonhoeffer is exactly right.

He writes of Germany in words that fit today’s American situation perfectly: “In other times it may have been the task of Christianity to testify to the equality of all human beings; today it is Christianity in particular that should passionately defend the respect for human boundaries and human qualities.”

Equality is an idea that is fundamental to the grand American experiment. We dare not let it go. To sustain a culture and a political system based on equality, however, requires a great deal of mutual trust. We must trust that each person is genuinely interested in furthering the common, equal good. Right now in the US, that trust is at a very low level. When hatred and meanness are unleashed and encouraged, the fabric of society which underlies our political system is in danger of being shredded.

What does Bonhoeffer mean by the nobility? And what difference does that make here in the US, where we have no class clearly demarked “nobility”? He writes,

“Nobility arises from and exists by sacrifice, courage, and a clear sense of what one owes oneself and others, by the self-evident expectation of the respect one is due, and by an equally self-evident observance of the same respect for those above and those below”

That’s not what we might have expected him to say. The first marks of nobility are sacrifice, courage, and a clear sense of what one owes oneself and others. True nobility is not self-serving but self-sacrificing, not cowardly but courageous, and not privileged but indebted. For the opposite qualities we have a good example: the Republican candidate.

In Bonhoeffer we see the best understanding of noblesse oblige, the sense that nobility (of status or character) brings with it an obligation both to oneself and to others.

Did Bonhoeffer really believe that he ought to be self-sacrificing? He risked and lost his life serving an ungrateful, willfully stupid people, when he could have stayed safe in America for the duration of the war. He was truly noble. . .