February 2006 Special Issue on Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia


February 2006— Vol. XII: Special Issue on Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dear Friends,

Instead I now send you my own tribute to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which will be the text of my presentation on Saturday 18th. There is no registration fee, and refreshments will be served. You are all cordially invited to attend.
John Conway

Bonhoeffer’s Last Writings from Prison

On December 19th 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his bleak underground prison in the cellars of the Gestapo headquarters in central Berlin, began to write a Christmas letter to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer. In it he included a poem to be shared with his parents called By the Powers of Good, “which has been running through my head in the last few days”. It was to be his final greeting. The last verse goes as follows:

While all the powers of good protect us
Boldly we’ll face the future, come what may.
At even and at morn God will befriend us
And never fails to greet us each new day!

This poem has since become a popular and well-loved hymn in many countries, and is included in the latest compilation of the Anglican Church of Canada, Common Praise, no 265. But, of course, in this form, it cannot reproduce the desperate situation in which it was composed. My purpose today is to describe the context in which this and Bonhoeffer’s other remarkable final poems and papers were written, in order to shed light on the theological and personal pilgrimage of this intrepid witness, who at any minute could be faced with the imminence of his own trial and execution

The sixth Christmas season of the war was a terrifying time of impending overwhelming disaster. In the circumstances, the seven short verses of this poem expressing Bonhoeffer’s affirmation of God’s enduring and comforting presence have to be seen not as just a conventional expression of escapist pietism, but, rather, a most moving and timely confession of faith. It begins:

The powers of good surround us in wonder,
Comforted and kept beyond all fear,
So I will live with you in these days
And go with you to meet the coming year.

The old year still fills our hearts with terror.
We carry still the burden of these evil days.
O Lord, give our chastened souls your healing
For which you have so gracefully created us.

It was a time of impending overwhelming disaster for the prisoner, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He had already been imprisoned for nineteen months, mainly in Cell 92 of Tegel prison on the outskirts of Berlin. He had been arrested in April 1943 on suspicion of being involved in smuggling Jewish refugees to Switzerland. The investigations had dragged on without resolution for a year and a half. But then in October 1944 he had been transferred to the far more ominous Interrogation Centre of the Gestapo’s main headquarters in downtown Berlin. He now faced the even more serious charges of abetting the conspiracy which had unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate the Führer, Adolf Hitler, a few months earlier. He would likely be arraigned before the Chief Justice of the People’s Court, Roland Freisler, whose vindictiveness had already sentenced thousands to death for treason against the Volk, and was to do the same to Dietrich’s brother, Klaus. In the meantime the Gestapo was relentlessly trying to entrap him into incriminating confessions about his friends and relatives. What kind of a faith could withstand such ruthless pressures and still witness to God’s powers of goodness?

It was a time of impending overwhelming disaster for Maria.

She was only twenty. She had been brought up on her family’s scenic rural estate in Pomerania, where she could ride her horses through the woods and fields. But the 1941 campaign of the German army against the Soviet enemy brought this idyll to an end. Within a year her adored father and her elder brother Max had been killed on the eastern front. She was sent to help her grandmother on another estate, and there met Pastor Bonhoeffer, who was nearly twice her age. Their relationship was very formal, and for a long time she addressed him as “Herr Pastor”. But when her mother sensed that something might develop, she forbade them to meet for a year. Maria was far too young. But even before this edict could take place, Dietrich was arrested miles away in Berlin. Her fiancé a traitor to his country? Opposed to the cause for which her father and brother had died? As Dietrich realized, his fate made her situation “bewildering, terrible, unimaginable”.

It was a time of impending overwhelming disaster for the church. Ever since 1933, Bonhoeffer had seen church leaders betray the church’s traditional doctrines in order to curry favour with “the winds of change”. Bishops had used their episcopal authority to discipline pastors who stood up uncompromisingly for Christian orthodoxy. Theologians had argued that the church must regain its popularity by moving with the times, and shedding all kinds of mediaeval morality and conventions. Only the Confessing Church minority stood firm. But, as Bonhoeffer knew, opposing such heresies, which distorted or abandoned the Gospel for the sake of current political correctness, was going to be a costly discipleship. Too many church members failed to realize that the Nazi creed was based on hatred and violence. In 1937, the leader of the Confessing Church, Martin Niemöller, was arrested and later sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. All over the country, Confessing Church pastors and congregations were being harassed and intimidated because they stood fast to their principles. They were chiefly opposed to the attempts to Nazify the church and to compel it to accept racist antisemitic ideas. Bonhoeffer was appalled when bishops called for Christian pastors of Jewish origin to be banished from their parishes, or the laity relegated to separate services, at the very time when these men and women needed sympathy and comfort to overcome their isolation. He condemned the failure of the church to stand in solidarity with these victims of hatred and discrimination. He was immensely shocked when the churches instead gave their support to the Nazi wars of conquest and destruction. Above all, it was the wanton violence against the Jews, witnessed in silence by the majority of church members, which convinced him that he must join those who wanted to use force to overthrow such an evil regime. After war broke out, Bonhoeffer was virtually alone in praying for Germany’s defeat. The bitter legacy of the churches‚ capitulation was to last for many years.

It was a time of impending overwhelming disaster for the city. From the end of 1943, British bombers took advantage of the long dark nights to launch their almost incessant attacks on one part of Berlin or another. Night after night, the city reverberated with the noise of droning airplanes, the howling of air-raid sirens, the sharp cracking explosions of anti-aircraft guns, the frenetic flickering of the searchlights, the menacing whine of bombs being dropped, the sickening thud of their impact on tenements, offices and houses, the pervasive irremovable dust, smoke and ash drifting across the ever increasing ruins. Whole streets disappeared under piles of cascading rubble. The smell of burning pervaded everywhere. Power was disrupted. Water lines spewed aimlessly for hours on end. By Christmas it was very cold and heating supplies had virtually vanished. The mood of the people was traumatized, gray and exhausted. The unpredictability of not knowing when or where the next bomb would fall took a terrible toll.

And yet, Bonhoeffer could still write:

Advent is a time especially dear to me. Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, does this, that or the other, but the door is shut and can only be opened from the outside.

As we now recognize, Bonhoeffer’s period of imprisonment proved to be a source of theological discovery and reflection. His letters to his friend Eberhard Bethge, secretly smuggled out of the prison by a friendly warder, gave him an opportunity to explore, albeit in an unfinished form, some of the radical, even provocative ideas, prompted by his experiences and disillusionments of the previous ten years living under Nazi rule. He clearly wanted these writings to be preserved, and luckily Bethge, then serving in the German army in Italy, was able to send most of them back to his wife in Berlin, with instructions to bury them in the garden, from where they were subsequently recovered after the war was over. It was these Letters and Papers from Prison, which were to be translated in English by the end of the 1940s, and which established Bonhoeffer’s reputation as the most challenging voice of his era.

Bonhoeffer’s insights about the future of theology, of the church and of Christian witness were in fact a continuation of his significant theological contributions of earlier years. His book The Cost of Discipleship, written in 1937, is an extended meditation upon the Sermon on the Mount. It is deservedly popular as a guide to a disciplined Christian life, and expresses his deep faith that the Christian must not compromise his or her beliefs when faced with the pressures and temptations of the contemporary world. But in the following years, as the political crises became more overwhelming, Bonhoeffer recognized the danger of seeking personal salvation alone and isolating Christian holiness from events in the surrounding world. By 1944 he had come to see that “it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to believe.” Clearly, he could affirm that salvation is not be to be found in seeking rescue or removal from the evils of this life. It was in part this realization that spurred him on to seek for a wider and more authentic answer to the questions he had raised before.
By April 1944, Bonhoeffer had been forced to realize that his hopes for an early release, despite his many connections with the Berlin social elite, were in vain. The legal aspects of his interrogation and possible trial had become so convoluted that little progress could be expected. Furthermore he had to recognize that the Nazi state no longer acknowledged the earlier norms of jurisprudence, but rather at this stage of the war, the sole decisive factor was the arbitrary and unpredictable will of the Führer. He could only expect, at best, to be incarcerated for a lengthy period. But he remained cheerful, and looked forward to the opportunity to concentrate on his theological reflections, despite the absence of any theological library. The result was one of his most creative periods.

For the next few months, Bonhoeffer embarked on a wide-ranging theological exploration in a series of letters exchanged with Bethge, which were challenging to many of his own and his church’s preconceptions. His thoughts took on a much more radical tone, not merely because of his own dire predicament, but also because of the disastrous situation outside. But we should be wrong to infer that these last writings were the product of his stressful and seemingly hopeless situation, resulting in a breakdown of nerve, or in an overstressed mind. To be sure he very much felt the pain of his isolation from the rich and supportive family life he had enjoyed before, and undoubtedly he shared with Luther those moments of Anfechtungen, or spiritual assaults, from which his sure faith rescued him. But his sufferings were in reality more mental and moral than physical. He never glorified suffering for its own sake, in contrast to some forms of Christian asceticism. In fact, the evidence is clear that this outburst of theological creativity tied in with his earlier patterns of thought, and was part of his vision of what his church and society might become.

In 1939 he had noted that, with the imminence of war, “Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization might survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization”. Three years later, his worst predictions had come true. The war’s physical, moral and spiritual devastations, all combined to demand a new stocktaking. Germany would be defeated, but Christian civilization would not survive. So he could note: “What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today”. It is clear that the answers of earlier days would no longer suffice.
The collapse of the western form of Christianity led him to the conclusion that the “religious a priori” of mankind, on which Christianity had based its preaching and theology for 1900 years, could no longer be sustained. The Constantinian panoply of power which had upheld the religion of the church for so long was not credible. Since the world had come of age, what was required was a religionless form of Christianity. “But what does this mean for the Church? And how can Christ become the Lord of the religionless?” In his view, it was not only the mythological concepts of the Christian message, but religious concepts in general which were problematic. “Modern man has learnt to live without recourse to the working hypothesis‚ called ‘God’. The clergy still try to claim that the world cannot live without the tutelage of ‘God’. But in fact He has been marginalized, and pushed out of the world, or relegated to being a remote impassive observer. . . . We cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur.”

Even more radical was Bonhoeffer’s challenge to the traditional views of God’s omnipotence. In the circumstances of total violence and destruction, his thoughts revolved around the cumulative and appalling suffering of so many men, women and children at this crucial stage of the war. From his contacts with the anti-Nazi resistance, he had learnt of the dreadful crimes committed by his countrymen against millions of Jews, Poles, Russians, gypsies and the mentally handicapped. He was equally aware that millions of his own countrymen, including members of his family, had been misled into losing their lives in the service of this infamous regime. How could this suffering be reconciled with a loving Christ? It was a time when the perennial questions became even more insistent: “Where is God in all this? Why doesn’t he intervene to put a stop to it?” It was just at this critical juncture that Bonhoeffer heard the news that the planned assassination of Hitler had failed. The likely consequences were all too clear, and the tone of his thinking and writing was from then on increasingly filled with foreboding. His preoccupation with suffering and death becomes even more forceful. The imagery and significance of Christ’s crucifixion became ever more real. Out of this came his shortest but perhaps most memorable poem, written in the same month, Christians and Others.

All men go to God in their distress,
seek help and pray for bread and happiness,
deliverance from pain, guilt and death,
All men do, Christians and others

All men go to God in His distress
find Him poor, reviled, without shelter or bread,
watch Him tormented by sin, weakness and death.
Christians stand by God in His hour of grieving

God goes to all men in their distress,
satisfies body and sould with His bread,
dies, crucified for all, Christians and others,
and both alike forgiving.

We should note that the title of this poem is rather unfortunate, and the English translations even more so. Christen und Heiden, Christians and Heathen, does not address the relationship of Christianity with other religions. Equally unfitting is the alternative, Christians and Pagans. The contrast is really between the true Christian disciple and those others of “normal” religiosity, who still maintained their traditional expectations of how God should act to assuage their pains and griefs. Hence I prefer the less colourful word, Christians and Others.

Bonhoeffer’s motive for writing this poem arose out of his bible readings and meditations on the subject of suffering. He was certainly not just preoccupied with his own fate, but rather overwhelmed by the lethal prospects which all his friends in the resistance movement now faced. He knew enough about personal anguish to give authenticity to his statements on suffering. His purpose was to clarify his understanding of the theologia crucis. In three short verses he is outstandingly successful.

In their distress all men turn to God. Verse one reflects the universal human desire for relief, for removal of the pain, for cessation of the suffering, for deliverance from death. This makes their religion a form of spiritual pharmacy.
But all too often these prayers are not answered. By 1944 the mass murders seemed unstoppable. Christ was being tortured and crucified anew on Nazi Golgothas. Why did not God respond to such heartfelt petitions, but instead seemingly remained silent?

Bonhoeffer’s answer, in his letter of July 18th, while not exactly new, is equally audacious and thought-provoking. “God allows himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and this is exactly the way, the only way in which he can be with us and help. Matthew 8:17 [This is to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah,”He took our infirmties and bore our diseases] makes it crystal clear that Christ helps us not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering”. To be a Christian is to stand by Christ in his hour of grieving, on the cross, in jail, in the bombed-out streets and concentration camps. This is a reversal of what religious man expects of God. But . “Man is summoned to participate in God’s suffering at the hands of a godless world. This is what makes a Christian what he is”. It is not church practices, religious activity, or creedal conformity which makes a person a Christian but identification with God’s suffering in the world.

Certainly Bonhoeffer knew well that the sufferings and deaths he was daily made aware of could not be ascribed to the moral failings of the individuals concerned. Rather these tribulations had, and have, to be understood as the result of collective human willful sinfulness. But God has not withdrawn into a remote impassivity. Rather, God suffers alongside his creation.

God suffers too.

All men go to God in His distress
find him poor, reviled, without shelter or bread,

The most compelling example of God’s suffering is, of course, the Passion of Jesus upon the Cross. Here, as verse 2 alludes, all men

watch him tormented by sin, weakness and death.

This theology of the Cross is not new, and the poem emphasizes two central themes of the Passion: first, that Jesus the man suffers a cruel and horrible death, and God does not intervene; second, that, on the Cross, Jesus not only bears our griefs and carries our sorrows, but does so, not for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world.

What is new, and indeed even more striking, is that, in this poem, as elsewhere, Bonhoeffer forsakes the dominant tradition about the doctrine of the Atonement. For a thousand years the western Christian church had followed the teachings of St. Anselm, reinforced by the 16th century Calvinist theologians, which upheld the penal substitutionary theory of Jesus‚ sacrifice on the cross. Jesus paid the price for man’s wickedness and unholiness. He acted as our Advocate with the Father. He is the propitiation for our sins This deep-set imagery is found throughout the art, hymnody and liturgies of both Catholicism and Protestantism.

But Bonhoeffer completely avoids the use of this imagery and vocabulary. He makes no references to the juridical, legal, or commercial metaphors of this interpretation with its view of a wrathful God demanding a sacrifice and propitiation, in payment for the price of sin. Here, on the cross, Jesus is the suffering servant, bearing our griefs, carrying our sorrows, wounded for our transgressions, and forgiving our transgressions. It was no accident that Bonhoeffer should deliberately have invoked the Old Testament witness of Isaiah. The path to salvation is to be found by seeking to restore the wholeness of creation, by binding up the wounds caused by sin and death. It is an act of love for all mankind, when the salvation of the world is brought about by taking up the burden of human sinfulness, and thereby reconciling mankind to God. But it is also the way in which God triumphs in the world.

By carrying this burden, Jesus extends his mercy to all mankind.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi.

(In parenthesis, the “normal” – religious – translation makes this a plea to remove, or take away, the sins of the world. But an older understanding calls for the word “tollis‚ to hold its original sense – to carry the burden of sin, and thereby to witness to the power of love.)

What should the responses of Christians be? Not like others, who merely pass by, to whom the sight of a dead Jew on a cross is nothing. But Christians in this situation of crisis have a particular and significant calling. As the last line of verse 2 states, Christians must

stand by God in His hour of grieving.

This is a very special form of discipleship. Not passively by-standing as onlookers, but rather standing by and alongside, that is, wholeheartedly committed to their crucified God in His hour of grieving. In the German phrase, this is the true form of “Mit-Leid‚. His mother Mary and his disciple John were the first to take up this role.

Stabat mater, dolorosa
iuxta crucem lacrimosa.

In a letter written to Bethge shortly after the poem was completed, Bonhoeffer expanded on these cryptic lines.

“This is what distinguishes Christians from others. Jesus asked in Gethsemane, “Could you not watch with me one hour?‚ This is a reversal of what the religious man expects of God. Instead, man is summoned to share in God’s suffering at the hands of a godless world”.

True faith is therefore found by men and women who are committed to participate in the sufferings of God in the secular life. Christ’s followers are called to a salvific expiation for the sins of the world, watching with Christ in Gethsemane. It is a witness that extends across the centuries, from the death of Jesus on the Cross to the martyrdom of modern Christians, such as Bonhoeffer himself, in the killing fields of today.

This is what truly marks a Christian disciple, “not in the first place thinking of one’s own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up in the way of Jesus Christ, into the messianic event”.

But where shall we find the strength and the grace to become such disciples? Verse 3 of the poem boldly asserts that, despite the sins we have all committed, despite the barriers we have all erected, despite all our efforts to behave like others, religiously, nevertheless

God goes to all men in their distress.

Moreover, in his institution of the sacrament of the last supper, by sharing with us his Body and his Blood, he has given us the power to share in his pain and suffering. Thereby he

satisfies body and soul with His bread

and leaves us this memorial of himself, a full perfect and sufficient witness for the sins of the whole world.

But God does not come to men and women, as they would so often wish, to remove their pain and sufferings. Only in the messianic age will every tear be wiped away. Until then, Christ grants to his followers, through his Eucharist, the power to stand with him, as he suffers at the hands of a hostile world. And as we do, we will realize an even greater truth. Despite all that we, men and women, have inflicted on our Christ, he looks down on us from the Cross

crucified for all, Christians and others
and both alike forgiving.

Christ’s forgiveness is not some quasi-legal procedure, a particular transaction at some stage and external to the actual relationship, but rather the totality of God’s accepting of humanity. This cannot be a sentimental or easy matter, for it is directed to those who have degraded and tortured him. But the cross reveals God’s forgiving love which refuses to be overcome by the evil in human lives and the world. The work of Christ is to bring healing and deliverance, and thereby to restore the imago dei in us all. This is the work of salvation, and the effective means of reconciliation between God and the world.

In these ideas, we can surely hear the overtones of Luther’s theologia crucis, itself derived from much earlier understandings of the Atonement, such as those of Irenaeus. This theme is outlined in the final short chapter of The Cost of Discipleship. Jesus restores the image of God in us, first by his total identification with humanity in incarnation, and then by calling us into fellowship and discipleship with himself, even to the sharing of his passion and death.

When Christ calls a man, he bids he come and die.

In October, Bonhoeffer was transferred to the far more ominous and menacing Gestapo prison in central Berlin. But the evidence that we have is that his own faith and trust in his crucified Lord led him to identify more and more with the future hope of resurrection beyond death. So he could therefore face the inevitable testing through suffering by affirming his belief in God’s guiding hand, and the assuredness of God’s nearness. In his final poem By the powers of Good, the central verse takes up this issue

But, should you offer us instead the bitter cup
Of suffering, filled to the brim and overflowing,
We will accept it gratefully without flinching
From your good and ever-loving hand.

In his final letter from Tegel prison, he could write:

Please don’t ever get anxious or worried about me, but don’t forget to pray for me – I’m sure you don’t. . . You must never doubt that I am travelling with gratitude and cheerfulness along the road where I’m being led. My past life is brim-full of God’s goodness, and my sins are covered by the forgiving love of Christ crucified. I’m most thankful for the people I have met, and I only hope they will never have to grieve about me, but that they, too, will always be certain of, and thankful for, God’s mercy and forgiveness.

We have one last glimpse of Bonhoeffer on April 7th 1945, in the
schoolhouse at Schönberg in the remote Bavarian hinterlands, where he had been brought after a two months‚ stay in Buchenwald. Here he and a group of other prisoners, including the British Military Intelligence officer, Captain Payne Best, celebrated the Sunday after Easter with a short service. Bonhoeffer read the set texts: Isaiah 53:5 “With his wounds we are healed”, and 1 Peter 1:3 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

But then two guards arrived to summon him to leave. There was only time to ask Captain Best, if he survived, to take a short message to England, and to remember him to his ecumenical partner and friend, Bishop George Bell of Chichester: “Tell him that for me this is the end but also the beginning – with him I believe in the principle of our Universal Christian brotherhood which rises above all national interests, and that our victory is certain.”

He was then taken back to the notorious concentration camp Flossenbürg, where on the same night he was to be arraigned, convicted, condemned to death, and in the gray dawn of the following morning, April 9th, executed by hanging.

Bonhoeffer has no known burial site. But his courageous faith in the power of God’s forgiveness has proven in subsequent years to be an inspiring source of healing and cure for the sins of his nation and his church.