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When the Nazis padlocked the doors of the Confessing Church seminaries in Germany in the Autumn of 1937, Dietrich Bonhoeffer took theological training underground and opened his own seminary in Finkenwalde. Before the Gestapo shut it down in 1939, Bonhoeffer managed to train 67 seminary students.1These 67 seminarians and Bonhoeffer formed a band of brothers that could not be torn apart, although some of them were arrested, some were dispersed by the Nazi oppression, and several were conscripted into army service and spread across the globe by World War II.2

Bonhoeffer was on the Nazi watch list. He was tracked closely and he was eventually forbidden to publish or preach or lecture. So to stay in touch with his former students and pastor friends, and to continue their pastoral training, Bonhoeffer resorted to a form of circular letter. First, he typed and carbon-copied each post, then he added a handwritten greeting and signature. These “personal letters” were more like theological articles published under the nose of the Nazis and distributed to his Finkenwalde brotherhood and to other closely connected pastor-friends. At its height these “personal letters” were distributed to 150 readers.3

In the fury of the Führer, pastors in the Confessing Church had been stripped of any official identity, and many were pressed into the military and forced to fight for the very Nazis they hated. Seeing no way around it, many volunteered for military service. The “illegal pastors” that didn’t join willingly were branded by the Gestapo as “unemployed,” a label that rushed a conscripted soldier to the very front lines of the escalating war.4 Needless to say, the lifespan of pastors connected to Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church was not long under Hitler.

Yet in spite of the scattering of the Finkenwalde seminarians, Bonhoeffer worked tirelessly to track the activities of his friends, to keep the circle informed of the latest news of their brotherhood, and to provide encouragement to them. And so Bonhoeffer turned to these circular letters, often opening them with the latest news of whom among them had been killed in the war.

During the Advent of 1942, just a few months before he was finally arrested and sent off to a Nazi prison — where he would be tried and then eventually killed — Bonhoeffer drafted and distributed one final circular letter to his Finkenwalde seminarians.

What do you say to dispersed and lonely pastors, who are serving illegally in secrecy? What do you say to friends forced into Nazi military service? How do you comfort the brotherhood when they learn friends have died in the forsaken war? How do you address the daily anxiety, the persecutions, the threats, and the loneliness felt by the scattered fellowship?

Bonhoeffer was aware that the real danger of the horrific daily anxiety, the constant threat of death, and the unceasing war, was how these forces conspire to callous and deaden the soul’s affections. Shepherds with such disheartened souls were of little use in leading God’s thirsty people to springs of joy.

This was one of the many battles Bonhoeffer fought in the final years of his life. One theater was a battle against Hitler. Another theater was a battle for his friends. The battle was against acedia in their hearts, against the temptation to spiritual apathy and sloth, and against the temptation to simply surrender to all of the pressures. Bonhoeffer had his own plan for taking down Hitler, but to battle the lethargy in his friends, Bonhoeffer pointed their thoughts towards Advent and to the believer’s joy in Christ.

Such a joy is fitting for suffering. “The joy of God,” he wrote to them, “has gone through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable.”

What follows is Bonhoeffer’s final circular letter to his friends, written on November 29, 1942.

Dear Brother …

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