Posts Tagged ‘Bonhoeffer’

A fellow student of Bonhoeffer, Paul Metzger from Mulnomah Seminary in Portland OR has just podcast an interview with me related to my soon-to-be- out book.

Here’s the link:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/uncommongodcommongood/2018/01/bonhoeffer-evangelicals-mikehayes/ .

I hope you enjoy it and tell others about it.



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As many of you know, the days of this blog are numbered. I’ve exhausted all the options for cancer treatments and am now on a fairly (very?) short time table. I’m not really ill yet, just always tired. But I’m not tired of Bonhoeffer! Looks like my book (“Dietrich Bonhoeffer: a Biblical Appreciation”) should be in print by March. I am deeply indebted to John Matthews for his great encourage and extensive practical help.

At this particular stage in life, one’s thoughts return often to memories and often to some of the fundamental issues of life. Much on my mind recently has been Bonhoeffer’s poem called “Who Am I?”

Fellow prisoners looked at him and said he is a man of strength, poise, confidence, and faith. He looked at himself and saw a very different person.

“Or am I only what I know of myself? Restless, yearning and sick, like a bird in its cage, struggling for the breath of life, as though someone were choking my throat; hungering for colors, for flowers, for the songs of birds, thirsting for kind words and human closeness, shaking with anger at capricious tyranny and the pettiest slurs, bedeviled by anxiety, awaiting great events that might never occur, fearfully powerless and worried for friends far away, weary and empty in prayer, in thinking, in doing, weak, and ready to take leave of it all.”

The answer, of course, is that both were true. As he said elsewhere in LPP, he could hold multiple emotions and perspectives simultaneously.

In the end, however, his questions about identity really didn’t matter much. We cannot establish our identity by cataloging our various personal qualities.

Remember  Moses asking the Lord, Who am I that I should have this Egypt assignment? And the Lord answered, I am with you. That’s the key!

“Who am I?” asked Bonhoeffer. “They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, you know me, O God. You know I am thine.” That’s the key!

So here I sit, having just experienced my last Christmas surrounded by a beautiful family, knowing that 99.9 per cent of my life is now nothing but memories. And the memories are covered with tears, most of joy, some of sorrow. The tears have been tucked away all along, awaiting this time when I cannot hold them back any longer.

One of those memories long cherished is of the time shortly after giving my life to the Lord in 1962. I “saw” Jesus standing about 20 feet before me with arms outstretched as if to welcome me. But I didn’t know how one walks toward a vision. So for 55 years I’ve wondered if someday I might find myself wrapped in his loving arms.

Somehow in the last few weeks I’ve discovered that my head is leaning hard against my Lord’s chest. And for the first time I’ve called him Daddy. And I’ve dared to say, from deep in my heart, I am a beloved child of the Lord. Until now, to claim to be anything but a servant was just too audacious for me.

And I can say with Bonhoeffer, Whoever I am, you know me O God; You know I am thine.”

And the rest is detail.

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I am 75 years old, have lived a long, full, rich life, despite my own personal shortcomings (all by the grace of God), and am now the recipient of the news that there are no further treatments available for my cancer. Ever hear a word that sounds more terminal than “terminal?”

I have been sustained throughout these past five years by several Bible verses which have become extremely important to me. “This is the day the Lord has made; I WILL rejoice and be glad in it.” (Thanks to my friend Ray Anderson at Fuller for this.) “To live is Christ; to die, gain.” “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loves us.” “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

Also important to me has been an observation from Bonhoeffer which, though a bit lengthy, I quote:

29 May 1944 DBWE vol. 8, pp404ff

“I hope that despite the air raids you both are enjoying to the full the peace and beauty of these warm, summerly days of Pentecost. Inwardly, one learns gradually to put life-threatening things in proportion. Actually, “put in proportion” sounds too negative, too formal or artificial or stoic. One should more correctly say that we just take in these daily threats as part of the totality of our lives. I often notice hereabouts how few people there are who can harbor many different things at the same time. When bombers come, they are nothing but fear itself; when there’s something good to eat, nothing but greed itself; when they fail to get what they want, they become desperate; if something succeeds, that’s all they see. They are missing out on the fullness of life and on the wholeness of their own existence. Everything, whether objective or subjective, disintegrates into fragments. Christianity, on the other hand, puts us into many different dimensions of life at the same time; in a way we accommodate God and the whole world within us. We weep with those who weep at the same time as we rejoice with those who rejoice. We fear – (I’ve just been interrupted again by the siren, so I’m sitting outdoors enjoying the sun) – for our lives, but at the same time we must think thoughts that are much more important to us than our lives. During an air raid, for example, as soon as we are turned in a direction other than worrying about our own safety, for example, by the task of spreading calm around us, the situation becomes completely different. Life isn’t pushed back into a single dimension, but is kept multidimensional, polyphonic. What a liberation it is to be able to think and to hold on to these many dimensions of life in our thoughts. I’ve almost made it a rule here for myself, when people here are trembling during an air raid, always just to talk about how much worse such an attack would be for smaller towns. One has to dislodge people from their one-track thinking – as it were, in “preparation for” or “enabling” faith, though in truth it is only faith itself that makes multidimensional life possible and so allows us to celebrate Pentecost even this year, in spite of air raids.”

So here I sit. There are tears but my wife can still bring laughter from way down inside me. I feel badly that I’ll not get to see my grandchildren even through Jr. Hi., yet already my spirit is beginning to anticipate the joy that lies before me. I have a wide range of emotions and not one of them compromises the others. Thank you, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for articulating the “multidimensional life.”

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Looking over some of the poetry of John Milton (1608-1674)  yesterday evening, I stumbled over one I hadn’t read in many years. It has no title or date so far as I know but obviously comes from near the end of his life.

The lines that grabbed my attention were:

I am old and blind; /Men point at me as smitten by God’s frown; /Afflicted and deserted of my kind; /Yet I am not cast down.

I am weak, yet strong; /I murmur not that I no longer see; /Poor, old and helpless, I the more belong, /Father supreme, to Thee.

John Donne (1572-1681), whose life barely overlapped with that of Milton, wrote a short poem which is both amusing (as a play on his own name) and yet profound. I’ve long found it a delight.

A Hymn To God The Father

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin by which I have won
Others to sin? and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
Swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done,
I fear no more.

A good many years later Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) sat in prison and wrestled with the question of which was the real Dietrich, the frightened or the brave. He built his question into a poem but could not really answer the question. He concluded the poem, entitled “Who Am I?” with these solemn words:

Who am I? They mock me these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, you know me, O God. You know I am thine.

As I ruminate on those odd words from my doctor (“There are no more treatment options for your cancer”) I find a variety of Bible verses rise to the top of my consciousness for a few days, only to be supplanted soon by others. These past few days it has seemed  I can summarize what has been or at least has been intended as my life story: “Here am I, Lord.”

The rest is detail.

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Thanks to my friend John Matthews, a small publishing house in Minneapolis has expressed interest in my Bonhoeffer manuscript. I’m reviewing the text now to get it ready to send off. Kinda’ scary!

My purpose in writing the book was to look at Bonhoeffer’s life and writings through evangelical eyes (though I’m no longer sure what the word “evangelical” means). I’ve tried to do a careful job of showing that Bonhoeffer’s last works (Ethics and Letters and Papers) were no more radical than his earliest writings, dating back at least to 1928. I hope I’ve also effectively shown that even in his most radical ideas, Bonhoeffer (though not being an evangelical) was not far from the best of American evangelicalism.

For example, when I first became a Christian in the early 60s, there was an idea I heard often: “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship.” I liked it then and I like it now. It is not substantially unlike Bonhoeffer’s idea of “religionless Christianity.” It’s so close, in fact, that I am actually puzzled that evangelicals haven’t been excited about it.

Eric Metaxas did little to help, mouthing the old view that Discipleship and Life Together are good books while claiming Bonhoeffer would be embarrassed to know that anyone takes seriously his last works. I hope the day comes when Metaxas realizes what a foolish view he has propounded.

I’ll let you know if my book ever makes it into print!

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By far, my most popular blog entries have been the two on Bonhoeffer’s brief paragraph on stupidity. As I was working my way through Bonhoeffer’s writings in my blog, they just happened to come up during last year’s campaign season. More than a year old, they are still getting hits.

I think the reason is that, in our polarized situation in the US, each side finds the other to be blind, dim-witted, unreasonable, and just plain stupid. Disagreement has become cause not for compromise but for condemnation.

“Against stupidity,” noted 18th century German scholar Friedrich Schiller, “the gods themselves contend in vain.” Bonhoeffer’s point almost precisely! I say “almost” because Bonhoeffer was speaking of a specific kind of stupidity, that of the blind followers of a tyrant. It is a major theme in Bonhoeffer’s thinking that there is no morality without responsibility. We cannot claim to be moral people if we are letting someone else be responsible for us.

He wasn’t speaking, of course, of those who are truly needy and cannot take care of themselves. Instead he has in mind those who are willfully stupid, who voluntarily turn over responsibility for their lives to someone else. He was surrounded by such people as Germans by the millions came to view loyalty to Hitler as the highest value in life. If Hitler said something, it was accepted uncritically as true. If Hitler called for a certain action (such as the destruction of the Jews) it must be the right thing to do.

If you had asked a Hitler loyalist whether he was being morally responsible, he would have insisted that he was being more moral than ever in his life. Until it was too late, most Germans in the 1930s really believed they were doing the right thing in entrusting their own sense of right and wrong to Hitler.

Thirty years later Martin Luther King Jr. commented that “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Those who are fundamentally irresponsible are pleased with themselves. And they are very dangerous, as Schiller and Bonhoeffer taught us, because they will not see reason or value truth.

So, in our political situation, about a third of American adults trust Trump, even though he has lied more times since announcing his candidacy than anyone can count. They are sure he is trying to do the right thing, even though his life story proves beyond any possible doubt that he is crooked, deceitful, manipulative, and immeasurably greedy. They don’t mind that he is blatantly using his position to enhance his own wealth because it just shows what a good businessman he is. Having surrendered their own judgment and their own sense of responsibility to him, they will go to any lengths to defend the indefensible in him.

That is willful stupidity and it cannot be countered by rational argument. But it can be countered by prayer, if only the faithful will learn how to pray more deeply than the usual, “Please help me, Lord, to get over this cold.” If only we will learn to pray. . .

Having read this far, you’ve seen what a jam I’m in. I bemoan the fact that in our day we tend to think people are stupid if they differ radically from us. And yet here I am, thinking it is obvious that Trump, like Hitler before him, has made his followers into mindless loyalists. I don’t suppose you’ll let me off the hook even though I’m confessing my sin, will you?


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For those not yet convinced of the danger Trump presents to American democracy, here are words written by Eberhard Bethge about the beginning of Hitler’s tyranny in 1933:


The day before the Reichstag fire, it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s turn to preach. Taking as its text ‘The people with you are too many for  me’ (Judges 7:2), his sermon on Gideon remained imprinted on the minds of his students:

    Do not desire to be strong, powerful, glorious and respected, but let God alone be your strength, your fame and your honor . . . . Gideon, who achieved faith in fear and doubt, kneels with us here before the altar of the one and only God, and Gideon prays with us: ‘Our Lord on the cross, be thou our one and only Lord.  Amen.’

    “Out of this controlled chaos, within a short time Hitler had changed the legislature into a tool of his will. In the wave of enthusiasm for the new national era, the German people submitted to one decree after another, one law after another, in the illusion that they were experiencing a new freedom. In fact, they were being deprived of numerous rights.
    On the night of 27 February [1933], behind an impenetrable police cordon, the Reichstag was burned to the ground. The following morning Hitler declared his most ominous emergency decree, the ‘Reich President’s Edict for the Protection of People and State.’ To remain in force ‘until further notice,’ the edict remained in effect until 8 May 1945. It abolished virtually all personal rights protected by the constitution. It made the concentration camps possible. In the 5 march election, the majority of Germans accepted de facto the terms of paragraph 1 of the edict of 28 February 1933:

    Therefore restriction of personal freedom, of the right of free speech, including the freedom of the press, of the right of association and of public assembly, intervention in the privacy of post, telegraph and telephone, authorization of house searches and the confiscation and restriction of property, beyond the hitherto legal limits, will henceforward be admissible.

    This gave Hitler the supreme powers he desired. All that remained to be seen was whether he would have the necessary basis to implement them or would fail to exploit them.

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