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Yesterday, we looked the struggle of Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he was first arrested and confined to a prison cell. He even wrote out a possible suicide note…
Such notes do not recur during the next period. But for a good quarter of the year the tension remained: would he be able throughout the interrogation to keep to the version of events which had previously been agreed with Hans von Dohnanyi and Joseph Muller? The three prisoners were indifferent gaols but family and friends kept them informed with a laborious but successful system of reports on the current state of the interrogations and the possible intentions of the of the interrogators (Eberhard Bethge, Costly Grace, 116).
For Bonhoeffer life in a prison-cell in the Berlin suburb of Tegel was at first harrowing. As a prisoner who had no experience even of life in a barracks, Bonhoeffer really missed soap and fresh linen. He had practiced living alone voluntarily often enough. But his situation was now different: first, complete solitary confinement. The guards were not allowed to talk to this “political” prisoner.
What help were his accustomed spiritual exercises now? On a scrap of paprer preserved from those early weeks are the words:
“Suicide, not because of consciousness of guilt but because I am already dead, draw a line, summing up.”
Tough and athletic as he was, he had always been afraid that he would not be able to withstand ill-treatment or tricks of interrogation and would perhaps betray friends who were still in a position to continue the conspiracy. Perhaps killinh himself was even a duty?
Such notes do not recur during the next period… (Bethge, Costly Grace, 116).
More in the next post
Bonhoeffer’s Cell in Tegel Prison
photo source: Christian Kaiser Verlag
Can we be a Christian and not be devoted to fellowship with other Christians? According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it was impossible to be a follower of Jesus Christ apart from life in the fellowship of local believers: “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.“ This was more than mere theory for Bonhoeffer because he had the opportunity to develop a community of believers while he was the director of the Preachers’ Seminary.
The Seminary was located at Zingsthof by the Baltic Sea when it opened on April 26, 1935. It relocated in Finkenwalde, near Stettin in Pomerania on June 24 of the same year. The Gestapo eventually closed the Seminary in September of 1937. During the period of its existence, Bonhoeffer desired a “genuine experiment in communal living.2] It was Bonhoeffer’s desire that the experiment in the Seminary would provide a foundation for the German church after the war. Bonhoeffer realized that biblical community would provide the fresh life the church would need.
This realization led to a burning desire to put the findings of this “experiment” into writing. This led to his classic book, Life Together which was written a year after the Seminary was shut down. Bonheoffer wrote the book in only four weeks, while he stayed in the home of his twin sister, Sabine in Gottingen. The book was first published in 1939.
In Life Together, Bonhoeffer appealed to a variety of Biblical references that point to the fact that community with fellow followers of Jesus is a crucial element of Christianity. For example, chapter one begins with Psalm 133.1: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.” Psalm 133 is a song of ascents. That is, it spoke of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem to worship together. An important component was that people of different backgrounds were to be united in fellowship.
This was key to Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the Church because Jesus died on the cross to secure such fellowship. The whole purpose of redemption in Jesus Christ was to save the enemies of God throughout the world, and in anticipation of eternal life, believers “are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians.”
It is a privilege because “the physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.” The early Christians understood this truth. Even before the Holy Spirit was poured out on the followers of Jesus on the day of Pentecost in the city of Jerusalem there was community for “they all joined together constantly in prayer” (Acts 1.14). This group included the eleven disciples (verse 13) “along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and with his brothers.”
It is significant that both genders were represented here because the cultural barrier between male and female was abolished through mutual participation in the church. Verse 15 indicates that the total number of disciples was around one hundred and twenty. Thus, within weeks of the resurrection of Jesus, his people, made up of varied backgrounds, gathered waiting for the power of the Holy Spirit.
Then on the day of Pentecost, the brothers and sisters “were all together in one place” (Acts 2.1). The Holy Spirit came upon them with power. Peter, empowered with the Holy Spirit, stood before thousands and proclaimed the Good News about Jesus. The result was that about three thousand people turned to Jesus for salvation (Acts 2.41).
Among the early disciplines of the early church was a devotion to the “fellowship” (Acts 2.42). The Greek word for “fellowship” is “koinonia”. It means “fellowship”, “communion”, “participation”, “sharing in” and “close relationship”. This “communion” is possible only because believers are united through their salvation in Jesus.
Christian fellowship is a crucial and joyful element for the follower of Jesus.
 William J. Larkin Jr., IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Acts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 44.
The disciple is dragged out of his relative security into a life of absolute security (that is, in truth, into the absolute security and safety and fellowship of Jesus), from a life which is observable and calculable (it is, in fact, quite incalculable), into a life where everything is unobservable and fortuitous (that is, into one which is necessary and calculable), out of the realm of finite (which is in truth the infinite) into the realm of infinite possibilities (which is the one liberating reality). Again it is no universal law. Rather it is the exact opposite of all legality. It is nothing else than bondage to Jesus Christ alone, completely breaking through every programme, every ideal, every set of laws (58).
The disciple simply burns his boat and goes ahead. He is called out, and has to forsake his old life in order that he may “exist” in the strictest sense of the word. The old life is left behind, and completely surrendered (58).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Dallas M. Roark, Ph.D. is Professor of Philosophy at Emporia State University.
Two of his other books are The Christian Faith and Introduction to Philosophy. An online version of his Introduction to Philosophy can be found at http://www.emporia.edu/socsci/philos/text.htm. Published in 1972 by Word Incorporated. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
Chapter 6: The Church’s Brand of Discipleship Bonhoeffer’s most famous work published during his lifetime was The Cost of Discipleship (Nachfolge), which achieved a wide reputation for him. It is a serious work and in some ways a work of “hard sayings.” It contains a profound interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount plus an exposition of Matthew 9:35-10:42, and sections on the “Church of Jesus Christ” and the “Life of Discipleship.”
The Black Church’s Influence on Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dr. E. Forrest Harris, Sr.
Director of Kelly Miller Smith Institute on the Black Church
Vanderbilt Divinity School
and President, American Baptist College
Every Christian faces the theological task of forging a coherent world view that overcomes racial and cultural barriers blocking freedom, justice and love in the human community. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to the United States in 1930 as apostgraduate fellow at Union Theological Seminary he was absorbed in this theological task. He was deeply concerned about religious ideologies supporting Nazism and the theological implications for anti-Semitism for the Christian church in Germany. Bonhoeffer was in New York during the height of the Harlem Renaissance in literature and music. This renaissance in turn gave voice to the diverse experiences of black suffering in America.
Bonhoeffer discovered in the black church that theology is autobiographical in character, expressed in preaching, singing and worship. These art forms of Christian expression were celebrations of stories that united the secular and the sacred in black”s quest for God’s justice. Bonhoeffer saw this when he visited the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church, under the leadership of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. Located in the richness of New York’s black Harlem community, Abyssinian provided Bonhoeffer a rare view of the liberating qualities of black religion. The stories and songs of the black church gave voice to the struggle for justice in America. The ethos of the black church so impressed him and so deepened his understanding of the Christian church that he later referred to his experiences there as a movement of “great liberation.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that Christianity is not Christianity if the living Jesus isn’t included. I assume this means the resurrected and glorious Jesus. Christianity also always involves the process of discipleship…
Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ (The Cost of Discipleship, 59).