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Letter: Like rose petals sharpen rose

petals

Your life characterized by rose petal strewn paths? Do you spend endless summer days among rainbows and unicorns, daisies woven throughout braids of hair, dancing somewhat aimlessly in a circle hand-in-hand with other like – and-empty- minded, flipped-out folks?

Rose petals don’t sharpen rose petals. Iron does. That’s the truth of an ancient proverb of which one commentator said that what is envisioned is someone who cares enough – you might say ‘gives a rip’ enough – to confront his neighbor, thus “influencing his manner, appearance, deportment, and character, sharpening his wit, controlling his conduct.”

In contrast, G.K. Chesterton describes our current age as “a miserable truce,” wherein “everyone is walking on eggs, afraid to offend and suppressing the truth on account of this fear.”

Like this iron-sharpens-iron truth is this similar ancient Hebrew proverb which is usually – and wrongly – translated:

“A man that has friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother.”

Wrong. At least the first half.

The implication is amiableness; get-alongness; a smiley-face, best-foot-forward likeableness that certainly offends no one but rather is found by everyone as, well, friendly.

A good ol’ Joe.

Forever smiling, sun always shining, the number of Facebook friends stupefying – surely this guy epitomizes what it means to be a friend.

Wrong.

Observes one commentator, “the maxim means that the man of many friends, who lays himself out to make friends of bad and good alike, does so to his own ruin.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a friend.

“Facing the greatest evil of the 20th century” – Hitler’s Germany – Bonhoeffer was repeatedly assailed by the pressure from friends and foes alike, “mayn’t we all get along?”

Bonhoeffer’s answer: ‘mayn’t.’

In fact, Bonhoeffer would write, “I find myself in radical opposition to all my friends.”

IMAGE SOURCE

“As the shadow of the Third Reich fell across Germany,” as described in “Bonhoeffer – Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” by Eric Metaxas, Hitler’s intentions became crystal clear to Bonhoeffer, but the ingratiating, fawning, blurring, co-opting and conceding compromises of his friends to Hitler’s advances began paring the list of those Bonhoeffer believed could truly be counted on.

One who made the cut and joined Bonhoeffer as a traveling companion – in fact became Bonhoeffer’s best friend – on his “long and lonely road” was Franz Hildebrandt who, within the first five minutes of the two meeting for the first time, began to argue and according to Hildebrandt “we never stopped arguing from that day (December 16, 1927) until we were separated by exile and war.

“You could not be a friend of Dietrich’s if you did not argue with him.”

Got a friend like that?

For the rest of the post…

In the Summer 2014 Edition of the publication, International Bonhoeffer Society Newsletter, there is a review of Charles Marsh’s book, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The reviewer is Javier Alejandro Garcia (Doctoral Student at the University of Cambridge, England). Garcia wrote that “a distinctive feature of this biography is its closer examination of Bonhoeffer’s close friendship with Eberhard Bethge…Marsh inquires further, however, into the exact nature of Bonhoeffer’s feelings for Bethge. Although tactfully never putting a name to such feelings, he nevertheless insists on the question.”

Since the publication of Strange Glory, there has much speculation of the sexuality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Garcia’s words are helpful in this regard…

Despite Marsh’s implicating interpretation of the facts and correspondence, the matter remains complex. For one, it must be recognized that our modern conception of homosexuality cannot be superimposed onto  Bonhoeffer’s time, where the norms of male relationships, would have been entirely different. Certain behaviors, such as sharing a bedroom or bank account (only two of the many examples provided), would not have raised the questions then that they may now. Our intensified cultural sensitivity to this topic should not provoke assumptions about a culture and time significantly distinct from our own.

Moreover, several factors in Bonhoeffer’s life complicate this claim. Whether actively, as in the case of his eventual fiancé Maria von Wedemeyer, or passively, as in his epistolary exchange with Elizabeth Zinn, Bonhoeffer pursued romantic relationships with women. His love letters to Maria contain such moving affection that renders the authenticity of his emotion undeniable. In the same vein, Bethge maintained a clear platonic stance towards his friend. Although ever a faithful and obliging companion, Bethge resisted Bonhoeffer’s possessiveness and prioritized his marriage over friendship. Ultimately, such retrospective speculation proves futile, as we will never know what exactly Bonhoeffer felt for Bethge, except for the obvious fact of close friendship. Indeed, it would behoove us to heed Bonhoeffer’s warning against such prying psychological curiosity.

What then are the readers to make of this possibility? Nothing much, in this author’s opinion. The conjecture changes nothing of the enduring impact of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology.   

December 2019
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