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January 18, 2019

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on a weekend getaway with confirmands of Zion’s Church congregation in 1932. Photo courtesy of German Federal Archives/Creative Commons

(RNS) — The four saddest words in the English language are “what might have been.…”

Eighty years ago, as war clouds gathered over Europe, the 33-year-old Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, then a faculty member at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, returned to his native Germany after a short stay in the United States.

At the time, Bonhoeffer believed his church’s response to Hitler and Nazism was marked by weakness and cowardice. He saw his country consumed by a monstrous cancer that had devoured nations and had already murdered many hundreds of people on its way to murdering millions.

In 1917 Karl-Friedrich and Walter were called up. Because of their numerous contacts, the Bonhoeffers could have influenced the course of their sons’ military career to some extent, but the boys insisted on enlisting in the infantry, where the need was greatest. They joined the Fifth Regiment of Guards at Spandau, with no intention of becoming officers. With a heavy heart their parents let them do so; they did not want “to try to play Providence.”

After a short time of training, they were sent to the front.

…Walter was wounded in the advance on 23 April 1918. (He died from injuries on April 28)

…His death seemed to break his mother’s spirit. She spent weeks in bed at time…

…Karl-Friedrich was wounded in the October battles of 1918, but his injuries proved to be slight.

Seventeen-year-old Klaus was also called up and, after a brief period of training, served as an orderly at General Headquarters in Spa.

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 27-28.

Gradually, however, the war began to have a grim impact on the Bonhoeffer family. In 1914 their uncle Otto Bonhoeffer in Dussedorf and their mother’s sister, Aunt Hanna Countess von der Goltz, received bad news, and the children heard of cousins killed or severely wounded in action. As the war dragged on, the older brothers, who were still in school, approached military age.

At the end of 1916 faint hopes clung to the possibility of peace. 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 26.

(About a 6 minute read; reading full quote extends post to about 11 minutes)

Please note: Bonhoeffer was a brilliant and compassionate German theologian. He was among the few Germans with the courage to openly and publicly oppose the Nazis after they had consolidated their hold over the nation. He was hanged for it.  This post is about his sharp insights into the mentality of Hitler’s followers — insights that I believe are especially relevant today. 

In an earlier post today, I defended stupid people from our cultural tendency to attack and debase them.  The post prompted one of Café Philos’ readers, Galtz, to respond with a long quote of Bonhoeffer’s that seemingly analyses “stupid people”.  But please don’t be misguided by Bonhoeffer’s and mine use of the same word, “stupid”, to describe a certain type or class of persons.  We are not using the word to mean the same thing at all.

What Bonhoeffer means by “stupid”, I mean by “willfully stupid”.  In turn, what he means by “dull” is what I mean  by “stupid”.  Once that is seen, I believe it becomes clear to any reader of both posts that Bonhoeffer and I are in complete agreement.

Now, let’s take a look at Bonhoeffer’s views. He begins by noting that “against stupidity we are defenseless”.  This is because stupid people cannot be reasoned with: “reasons fall on deaf ears” — an insight that he drives home in brilliant detail.

First, the stupid person simply does not feel any need to believe facts that contradict his or her assumptions.  Even if the facts are irrefutable, the stupid person simply pushes them aside as inconsequential, as incidental.

Moreover, the stupid person shows no signs of possessing an intellectual conscience about his behavior: He feels no shame or guilt for what he does.  Instead, he is likely to feel smug and self-satisfied, and then to go on the attack, becoming critical of the views presented to him. Because of that he becomes dangerous for his attacks might involve violence.

Based on all my experience of people, Bonhoeffer is spot on here. Stupid people behave precisely as he says they do.  They did in his age, and they still do today, a fact that indicates this sort of stupidity — which I myself call “willful ignorance” — most likely has its roots in our DNA, and can be considered part of human nature.

So how do we “get the better of this stupidity?

For the rest of the post…

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.”

For the rest of the article…

Martin Luther (1483–1546)

One of the great rediscoveries of the Reformation — especially of Martin Luther — was that the word of God comes to us in the form of a book, the Bible. Luther grasped this powerful fact: God preserves the experience of salvation and holiness from generation to generation by means of a book of revelation, not a bishop in Rome.

The life-giving and life-threatening risk of the Reformation was the rejection of the pope and councils as the infallible, final authority of the church. Luther’s adversary, Sylvester Prierias, wrote, “He who does not accept the doctrine of the Church of Rome and pontiff of Rome as an infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures, too, draw their strength and authority, is a heretic” (Luther, 193). It followed that Luther would be excluded from the Roman Catholic Church. “What is new in Luther,” Heiko Oberman says, “is the notion of absolute obedience to the Scriptures against any authorities; be they popes or councils” (Luther, 204).

This rediscovery of the word of God above all earthly powers shaped Luther and the entire Reformation. But Luther’s path to that rediscovery was a tortuous one, beginning with a lightning storm at age 21.

Fearful Monk

On July 2, 1505, on the way home from law school, Luther was caught in a thunderstorm and was hurled to the ground by lightning. He cried out, “Help me, St. Anne! I will become a monk.” Fifteen days later, to his father’s dismay, Luther left his legal studies and kept his vow.

He knocked at the gate of the Augustinian hermits in Erfurt and asked the prior to accept him into the order. At 21, he became an Augustinian monk. At his first Mass two years later, Luther was so overwhelmed at the thought of God’s majesty that he almost ran away. The prior persuaded him to continue.

But this incident of fear and trembling would not be an isolated one in Luther’s life. Luther himself would later remember of these years, “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction” (Selections, 12).

Luther would not be married for another twenty years — to Katharina von Bora on June 13, 1525 — which means he lived with sexual temptations as a single man till he was 42. But “in the monastery,” he said, “I did not think about women, money, or possessions; instead my heart trembled and fidgeted about whether God would bestow his grace on me.” His all-consuming longing was to know the happiness of God’s favor. “If I could believe that God was not angry with me,” he said, “I would stand on my head for joy.”

Good News: God’s Righteousness

In 1509, Luther’s beloved superior and counselor and friend, Johannes von Staupitz, allowed Luther to begin teaching the Bible. Three years later, on October 19, 1512, at the age of 28, Luther received his doctor’s degree in theology, and von Staupitz turned over to him the chair in biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg, which Luther held the rest of his life.

As Luther set to work reading, studying, and teaching Scripture from the original languages, his troubled conscience seethed beneath the surface — especially as he confronted the phrase “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:16–17. To Luther, “the righteousness of God” could only mean one thing: God’s righteous punishment of sinners. The phrase was not “gospel” to him; it was a death sentence.

But then, in the work of a moment, all Luther’s hatred for the righteousness of God turned to love. He remembers,

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” . . . And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which [the] merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”

He concludes, “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”

Standing on the Book

Luther was not the pastor of the town church in Wittenberg, but he did share the preaching with his pastor friend, Johannes Bugenhagen. The record bears witness to how utterly devoted he was to the preaching of Scripture. For example, in 1522 he preached 117 sermons, the next year 137 sermons. In 1528, he preached almost 200 times, and from 1529 we have 121 sermons. So the average in those four years was one sermon every two-and-a-half days.

Over the next 28 years, Luther would preach thousands of sermons, publish hundreds of pamphlets and books, endure scores of controversies, and counsel innumerable German citizens — all to spread the good news of God’s righteousness to a people trapped in a system of their own merit. Through it all, Luther had one weapon with which to rescue this gospel from being sold in the markets of Wittenberg — Scripture. He drove out the moneychangers — the indulgence sellers — with the whip of the word of God, the Bible.

Luther said with resounding forcefulness in 1545, the year before he died, “Let the man who would hear God speak, read Holy Scripture.”

For the rest of the post...

by Stanley Hauerwas

Bonhoeffer For Us?

“Yet one may wonder how Bonhoeffer should be read by those in the ministry in our time. The challenges he faced are so different from the everyday tasks incumbent on those in the ministry in our day. Bonhoeffer confronted the Nazis and Hitler – it is hard to imagine a more dramatic conflict. Dangerous though it may have been, those confronted by the Nazi’s knew what sides they needed to be on. We seldom enjoy such clarity. The result is often a stark divide between activities associated with pastoral care and the social witness of the church.

Those in the ministry today must negotiate a very different world than the world Bonhoeffer encountered. We are unsure who our enemy is, or even if we have an enemy. We lack the clarity Bonhoeffer enjoyed – which, of course, is not a bad thing. But it leaves us confused about how to discern in the world in which we live what the primary challenge facing the church may be. Bonhoeffer saw quite early who the enemy was, though he was surrounded by many who did not see what he saw in the Nazis. Indeed, one of the interesting questions for Bonhoeffer’s relevance for pastors in our time is what enabled him to see the threat Hitler represented.”

For the entire article…

Bonhoeffer, who joined his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi in a resistance group led by Maj. Gen. Hans Oster, was hanged April 9, 1945, at the Flossenbürg concentration camp, weeks before World War II formally ended. He had been linked to the failed attack on Hitler that took place July 20, 1944, by documents the Gestapo found after the event. Ironically, Bonhoeffer was in prison at the time, following his arrest for “undermining the military” 14 months earlier.

According to the German state broadcasting organization Deutsche Welle, “Bonhoeffer’s Christian theology influenced the post-war period like no other of his generation,” adding the cleric “preached the presence of Christ in the world and laid the foundations for an interdenominational church image to which today both conservative and progressive theologian profess.”

A paradox of Bonhoeffer’s life is that he had an “out” from being involved in a Germany ruled by National Socialism. In 1939, as war broke out in Europe, Bonhoeffer was a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He could have remained in the United States, but told his American friends, “I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany,” according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Yet, his New York experience left its mark, Deutsche Welle said. While in Manhattan, Bonhoeffer’s “faith shifted. He became profoundly fixated on, and influenced by, the famous Sermon on the Mount and the notion of living in Christ’s image. Bonhoeffer later wrote that ‘until New York I was a theologian but not yet a Christian.'”

Writing in Leadership Journal, Chris Nye, a pastor in Portland, Oregon, notes, “Bonhoeffer was a paradoxical figure. He was non-violent, but participated in a plot to kill Hitler. He was cosmopolitan (he loved music, the theater and literature of all kinds) and yet he was a monastic thinker who led students in solitude.”

For the rest of the post…

“I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”

In June of 1939, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was safe and sound in the United States. He could have remained there but on June 20, 1939, he made the “fateful decision” to return to Nazi Germany. Why? In a letter to Reinhold Niebuhr, he gave the following explanation:

I have made the mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people…Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose, but I cannot make this choice in security.

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16: Conspiracy and Imprisonment 1940-1945, 1.

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