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The Cost of His Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45)

On July 20, 1944, the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler failed. The very next day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to Eberhard Bethge, his former student and future biographer. Bonhoeffer had been in prison since April 5, 1943. In the wake of the failure of the Valkyrie plot, Hitler led a crackdown on the resistance movement. Hundreds were immediately arrested; many in the movement already held in prison were moved to higher security prisons. Many were put on expedited paths to their execution. Bonhoeffer was one of them.

But on July 21, 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote about a conversation he had in America in 1930. He was in the United States to learn of theological developments. He was to spend the year at the patently theological liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He found it wanting. “No theology here,” he reported back to Germany. But he did find dear friends, and he found adventure on a road trip from New York to Mexico City.

Somewhere along the way, as they camped in pup tents and sat around a fire, they asked each other what they wanted to do with their lives. One of them, a Frenchman named Lasserre, said he wanted to be a saint. Bonhoeffer picks up the story from there in his letter to Bethge the day after the failed plot:

At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. . . . I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous or an unrighteous man, a sick man or a healthy man. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.

As we reflect on that list in that last sentence, there’s only one word we really like, “successes.” We tend to avoid the other things mentioned by Bonhoeffer, but those things are part of life, of “this-worldliness.” Bonhoeffer then adds that by living life in this way, “We throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of the God-man in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith.”

Bonhoeffer learned this in a very short time in a very short life. He died in his thirty-ninth year. While most people are only beginning to make their mark and offer their mature thought as they turn forty, Bonhoeffer never made it to that milestone.

Young Professor in Berlin

He was born into an academic family. His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a renowned psychiatrist at the University of Berlin. One of his brothers, a chemist, would go on to discover the spin isomers of hydrogen. The family home had a large library, a conservatory, and walls lined with very impressive looking oil portraits of his predecessors. Dietrich excelled as a student. He took his first doctorate as he turned twenty-one and a second doctorate three years later. He served in the academy, initially. But he loved the church.

As a young professor at the University of Berlin, he noticed an appeal for a teacher of a confirmation class at a Lutheran church in Berlin, on the other side of the tracks from where the Bonhoeffer family home stood. These were rough kids, who had already chewed through a few prospective teachers. The pastor was hoping to get an idealistic seminary student who didn’t have the better sense to not do this. Instead, the pastor and this band of prepubescent ruffians got a theology professor in wire-rimmed glasses and tailored suits.

Within minutes, Bonhoeffer had won them over. When the day came for their confirmation — a day the pastor was almost sure would never come — Bonhoeffer took them all to his tailor and got them all suits. He was the kind of professor who would just as soon pull out a “football” and hit the soccer pitch with his students as he lectured to them. During the time he spent in America, he got an armload of 78s of blues and negro spirituals. After the soccer games, he would spin records with his students and talk theology. For Bonhoeffer, education was discipleship.

Life Together

When the German Lutheran Church endorsed the Nazi party and became the Reich Kirche, Bonhoeffer quickly became a leader among the Confessing Church, despite his very young age. He lost his license to teach at the University of Berlin, and his books were placed on the banned book list. He was appointed the director of one of the five seminaries for the Confessing Church. At this seminary in Finkenwalde, he taught his students the Bible and theology, and he also taught them how to pray. Bonhoeffer saw these three things — biblical studies, theology, and prayer — as the essential elements of the pastoral office.

Eberhard Bethge, one of his students at Finkenwalde, exemplifies what he was taught by Bonhoeffer. Bethge wrote, “Because I am a preacher of the word, I cannot expound Scripture unless I let it speak to me every day. I will misuse the word in my office if I do not keep meditating on it in prayer.”

The Gestapo found out about the seminary at Finkenwalde and shut it down. Bonheffer spent the next year in his parents’ home. He wrote Life Together, memorializing what he practiced and what he had learned at Finkenwaldeab, and he visited his students and kept them on task with their studies and ministry.

Letters from Prison

The next years of Bonhoeffer’s life, 1940–1943, are debated. He joined the Abwehr at the urging of his brother-in-law. But it does not appear that he is actually much of a spy at all. He used his position to travel freely around the country — a way to keep up with his students and keep up with the churches they were pastoring. Then comes the contested episode of his life as he became part of a group seeking to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s role was not one of providing strategy — that was supplied by the other highly placed military and intelligence agency officials.

Bonhoeffer appears to be the pastor in the room, the one who gives the blessing on the undertaking they were about to embark on. Bonhoeffer wrestled with it, wondering if what they were doing was right and not at all presuming it was right and righteous. It was war, and these Germans were convinced that Hitler was an enemy to the German state and the German people, as well as to the other nations plunged into war. Whatever Bonhoeffer’s contribution was to this group, he did not make it presumptively or rashly.

The plots, like the Valkyrie plot, all failed. On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and sent to Tegel Prison. For the next two years, he would live in a 6’ x 9’ prison cell. He spoke of missing listening to birds. He missed seeing colors. Early in his time at Tegel, he despaired for his life. It was also in Tegel that Bonhoeffer wrote about living a “this-worldly” life. It was at Tegel that he spoke of learning to have faith in life’s failures, difficulties, and perplexities. At Tegel, he wrote poetry. He wrote a novel. He wrote sermons for weddings and baptisms — they were smuggled out and read by others at these occasions. Bonhoeffer’s time at Tegel yielded his classic text Letters and Papers from Prison.

In one of those letters, on June 27, 1944, he wrote, “This world must not be prematurely written off.” He was in a Nazi prison cell while Hitler was unleashing madness upon the world, and Bonhoeffer wrote about being a Christian in the world, in the time and place in which God had put him.

Cost of Discipleship

In 1936, Bonhoeffer published Nachfolge. It would be later published in English as The Cost of Discipleship. In it he declares, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

In Christ, we are dead. The old self and the old way is dead. And, in Christ, we are alive. After the Valkyrie plot, Bonhoeffer could write simply, “Jesus is alive. I have hope.”

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MEET THE CHRISTIAN THEOLOGIAN WHO TRIED TO ASSASSINATE ADOLF HITLER

In the 1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of Germany’s most famous pastors and theologians—at a time when German clergy were increasingly capitulating and buying into Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Bonhoeffer joined the Confessing Church, a movement resisting Nazism, and eventually joined a plot to assassinate Hitler.

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Image Via Shutterstock

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian most known for his book The Cost of Discipleship and his involvement in the plot to assassinate Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, suffered a great deal at the hands of the Nazis, including his eventual execution. In the summer of 1937, just as the Gestapo was arresting Bonhoeffer’s friends, the pastor preached about God’s judgment in Psalm 58 — but he didn’t say what a modern American might expect.

“The wicked are perverse from the womb; liars go astray from their birth. … O God, break their teeth in their mouths; pull the fangs of the young lions, O LORD. Let them vanish like water that runs off; let the arrows they aim break in two. … The righteous will be glad when they see the vengeance; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. And they will say, ‘Surely, there is a reward for the righteous, surely, there is a God who rules in the earth'” (Psalm 58:3, 6-7, 10-11).

So how did Bonhoeffer, a Christian who lost his life trying to assassinate Hitler, apply this verse to his own life? Did he rail against Hitler’s evil? Not exactly. (For the full letter, read Meditating on the Word, a compilation of Bonhoeffer’s works compiled and translated by David McI. Gracie.)

“Is this fearful psalm of vengeance to be our prayer? May we pray in this way? Certainly not! We bear much guilt of our own for the action of any enemies who cause us suffering,” Bonhoeffer declared in a sermon on July 11, 1937

This message is powerful, given what had happened to Bonhoeffer in the months — and even days — before. In January 1936, he lost his grandmother — who defied a Nazi boycott of Jews by shoving through brownshirts to buy strawberries from a Jew. Throughout 1937, the Gestapo carried out interrogations, house searches, confiscations, and arrests against Bonhoeffer’s seminary students. Ten days before this sermon, they arrested his friend and fellow pastor Martin Niemöller (the man famous for the “first they came for the Jews …” poem).

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“If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church
by Wendy McElroy

A destructive myth haunts World War II. It is that a flaw within the German character allowed the rise of Hitler and Nazism. How else can you explain the Holocaust coming from one of the world’s most cultured nations? Oddly, no one seems to consider Mussolini to indicate a flaw within Italians or view Stalin as proof of a Russian defect.

The ‘German character flaw’ is a destructive myth because it deflects attention from the crucial task of analyzing the dynamics that allowed Nazism to rise. It permits other nations to believe “it could never happen here.” But totalitarianism can happen anywhere, to any nationality. Understanding the evolution of totalitarianism involves institutional analysis, especially of the interrelation between institutions that were active or complicit in creating tyranny.

Two institutions are commonplace and powerful around the globe: the state and the church. In Hitler’s Germany, most churches went along with the Nazis. Some did so reluctantly, many were enthusiastic. But there was also dramatic resistance by churches and religious leaders who opposed Hitler at great personal risk. For example, the German Protestant Church became a battleground between the majority who supported the Nazis, either explicitly or implicitly, and a minority who resisted them. At the core of the conflict was the question of how the church should respond to the “Jewish question.”

No man spoke more eloquently on behalf of the civil liberties of Jews than the Protestant pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He became a prominent voice in ‘the Confessing Church’ that was founded when approximately 3,000 Protestant pastors broke off from the main religious body in protest.(Konfession is German for denomination.) Bonhoeffer reminds us that there are people of conscience and moral courage in every nation. He is also a window into the institutional dynamics of church and state that both facilitated and hindered Hitler.

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Trump is far from a Hitler, but an interesting read anyway ~ Bryan

Americans today might do well to heed Bonhoeffer’s warning.

Although he was in power for only a handful of years, Hitler and his Nazi government slaughtered millions. One of the more well-known victims of that slaughter was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed on April 9th, 1945, a few short weeks before Hitler’s own death.

Unlike many of Hitler’s victims, Bonhoeffer was not a Jew, but a Lutheran minister, scholar, and theologian who boldly spoke against Hitler’s policies. Bonhoeffer landed a position in the German government during WWII and subsequently used that position as cover for assassination attempts against Hitler.

While awaiting execution, Bonhoeffer recorded a number of his thoughts in a work we now know as Letters and Papers from Prison. One of these essays, entitled On Stupidity, records some of the problems which Bonhoeffer likely saw at work in Hitler’s rise to power:

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer

New Film Follows Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Final Chapter

Gary Blount, psychiatrist-turned-producer, has created a remarkable new film about the last days of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a Nazi concentration camp, told through the eyes of a British broadcast team.

Question: You have just produced a film about influential theologian and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer after years of studying his work. What has kept you so interested in Bonhoeffer?

Answer: Since first hearing the story more than 50 years ago, I’ve never hit a roadblock or detour.  (That is, once I got used to my Christian hero being a chain smoker.)

As with all of my heroes, I’ve constantly tried in one way or another to relate to Bonhoeffer, and I suppose this has gotten a bit easier as I’ve become acquainted with a few members of his family in Germany and England.

From the beginning, I’ve loved his hard-core faith and courage, but I confess I’ve also been increasingly wowed by his good taste:  Bechstein piano, Audi (okay DKW), and pet Saint Bernard.  And it was easy to relate to his need to move back in with his parents and his willingness to accept an adult allowance.  Dare I mention his eagerness to marry a girl half his age who was possibly smarter than he was  and a lot better looking?

You work as a psychiatrist in Minnesota. Do you have a particular interest in theology? Does your expertise in psychiatry give you particular insights into Bonhoeffer and his still-discussed ideas?

It seems to me there is a kinship between theology and psychiatry.  Many people seem convinced that neither one requires a degree or even specialized study.

Seriously, I love theological insights and, in fact, really look forward to hearing them occasionally from the pulpit.

You know, Bonhoeffer said some harsh things about mental health treatment, but some of his actions in prison reveal a more open stance.  For instance, recently I read that when he would learn from a fellow inmate in Tegel that a family member might benefit from a psychiatric consultation either to address a condition or simply mitigate what otherwise might seem to be a hopeless forensic situation, Bonhoeffer would find a way to refer the person to his father, the recently retired psychiatrist Karl Bonhoeffer.  I would put that in the practical theology column.

I recall a legendary professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota who would tell his residents and students:  “With this new patient, I don’t care who does the physical exam; I’ll do the history.”  That’s what I want to continue doing — focus on the dynamic story.

What is your film Come Before Winter about?

Our story is about the final chapter in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and what must have been the aching for deliverance by the Allies, who were rapidly closing in.  We felt our time frame might extract something of the essence of his life and the perspective which he seemed to seek — “the view from below.”  This view now includes more uncertainty, wartime cruelty, and vengeance.

Bonhoeffer had long been an outspoken foe of Hitler, and we chose to tell the story with the help of a couple of other anti-Nazis: seriously broken vessels Sefton Delmer and Otto John.  The latter has been called “the living link” between Bonhoeffer’s last days and the storyteller in England.

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Recasting the Movie: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Edition

Today, we’ll look at how a dead German theologian came into a resurgence of popularity–only to play an unexpected role in the Christian Right’s ongoing love affair with its own ego.

Westminster Abbey's 20th Century Martyrs. (By photographer- T.Taylor - Public sculpture, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link.)

Westminster Abbey’s 20th-century martyrs.

The Hero They Wanted.

In case you’ve never even heard of the guy, please permit me to whisk through his bio. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 and became a pastor and theologian in Germany. He vocally opposed the Nazis and even was involved in a major plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He got caught, imprisoned in various concentration camps, and finally executed in 1945 by the Nazis, and he is now all but a venerated martyr in several Christian denominations. His ideas influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa (among many other folks and movements). And to many Christians, he remains a very charismatic and enigmatic figure.

He had some very firm ideas about the importance of living one’s faith in the real world as well as about pacifism, and also some piquant observations to make regarding what he called the “complete failure of the German Protestant church” to stop or even impede the rise of the Nazi regime. At one point he escaped to America and then returned to Germany at the last second to help with the fight against the Nazis. During the last part of his life, he was hassled constantly by the German government, forced to report to the police, and even forbidden to speak in public. Eventually he joined the underground resistance, fulfilling the spirit of a sermon he’d preached long before about how martyrs’ blood was being “demanded” by the events of his time. His death was apparently very brave–though also apparently slightly embellished in the way that many of these sorts of iconic martyrdom accounts often are.

You can probably already see why the Christian Right would adore the guy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer plays directly into their fascination with recasting themselves as the beleaguered, pure-hearted heroes fighting an unthinkably evil regime for ultimate global stakes–with martyrdom not only possible but inevitable.

Eric Metaxas, an evangelical-leaning Christian who is clearly frantic to break out of his limited circle of influence as a Veggie Tales scriptwriter and right-wing radio host, has been on a Bonhoeffer kick of late. He wrote a biography of the man a few years ago that his fundagelical tribe went wild for but which actual historians roundly criticized; one of these scholars proclaimed his version of the man a “counterfeit,” while another claimed he’d “hijacked Bonhoeffer.” The irony is that Mr. Metaxas himself appears to think that liberals have actually done the hijacking–and that now he’s taking back his hero for the conservatives.

Thanks to his biography, terms like “cheap grace” are in vogue in fundagelicalism now in a way I sure never heard when I myself stood among them; Christianity Today, in reviewing the book, gushes about Mr. Bonhoeffer’s plaintive plea asking “Who stands fast?” and his demand that Christians make their entire lives “an answer to the call of God.” This sold out/on fire/uncompromising* quality combines seamlessly with Mr. Bonhoeffer’s heroism during World War II and his very early death at the direct command of Adolf Hitler himself.

You might well wonder what prepared Eric Metaxas to write such a book. I certainly do.

His personal biography page doesn’t list any educational credentials for the man at all beyond graduation from Yale. We don’t even know what he studied there, but we do learn that he upstaged Dick Cavett at his commencement. Obviously his background in Christian entertainment makes him the perfect person to write a popular biography of one of the most influential and complex figures in modern Christianity even though he can’t even read or speak the language that his idol used in his work–which is one of the primary and most basic requirements we should expect to see out of someone trying to be an academic. Another is that the would-be academic should be extremely familiar with the basic scholarly work already done on whatever his or her topic is. And still another is that his work should at least be free of obvious mistakes.

Just like apologist David Marshall before him, Mr. Metaxas lacks these basic qualifications. He is a person claiming expertise who apparently has very little in actuality. He’s smart, that much is clear–and clever. He’s just not anywhere near as prepared to write a book of this nature as he pretends to be. But the inexpert expert is, itself, a trope that feeds into fundagelical delusions of grandeur. Ah kin do jus’ as good as them book-larned edumacated expurts! you can all but hear them muttering.

I know how it is; I was there myself once. More importantly, I figured out exactly why I was there, too.

The Movie in Their Heads.

Unmoored from simple considerations like how their ideas tie into reality, toxic Christians are free to conceptualize their lives as epic movies. They cast themselves as heroes, everyone opposing them as villains, and their cause as divinely-blessed–even divinely-mandated.

For many years now, Christians inhabiting the right-wing fringe of the religion have been styling themselves as the brave crusaders fighting for the soul of America in Earth’s final wretched days. Even back in my day, we saw ourselves that way. We fetishized the Rapture and Tribulation,** waiting eagerly as every predicted date came and went without even remembering all the past disappointments. We correlated world events in our various checklists of what had to happen before Jesus finally kick-started the end of the world. We created and devoured diagrams about Bible verses and how they matched up with this or that natural disaster or war. If Israel’s leaders burped, we gasped and raced back to our Bibles to figure out what it meant in terms of the predictions we thought had been given to us. It always meant something, too–usually “oh my god, we’re another step closer to the Endtimes.”

We thought we lived in “the last days.” Spiritual battles were erupting all around us–angels and demons vying for the souls of every person alive. Prayer was their ammunition; fasting charged their weapons’ power cells. So Christians were vitally necessary in this battle, because without our efforts demons would win countless souls for their gruesome master. (No, we didn’t realize how weak and useless we made our god look by acting this way.)

In such an environment, any Christian, no matter how lowly or uneducated or mocked, could become a Big Damn Hero–a Prayer Warrior who could save other people’s lives, fight evil princes and principalities, and gain the ultimate of all rewards: eternal life and an exalted place in the heavenly kingdom. But this warrior would only receive that reward if he or she stood perfectly steadfast and did not waver in faithfulness. The forces arrayed against such a warrior could be incredible, and the hardships endured both many and excruciating. In the end, though, only one outcome was possible for a truly faithful servant.

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