You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘letters and papers from prison’ tag.

We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.

~ Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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…

“The Church is the Church only when it exists for others…not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison

 

Jimmy Dorrell is longtime executive director of Mission Waco/Mission World, which battles poverty and homelessness at home and abroad. Also pastor of The Church Under the Bridge, he serves on the faculty of Baylor University.

I get a lot of letters from inmates, mostly friends and acquaintances I’ve known from Church Under the Bridge, Mission Waco or my neighborhood. Most are incarcerated for small, non-violent crimes, though there are some exceptions that include even life sentences. While some letters are appeals for commissary money or other personal requests, many are filled with deep expressions of repentance, grief or loss. Some are a cry for meaningful dialogue about life, dreams, faith and family.

These are the letters that often move me to shared pain and prayer for them. These are the reflective thoughts I wish we all could write.

Besides the Apostle Paul, two other inmates who have deeply influenced my life and theology also wrote letters from prison. Both used pen and paper to express their deep lament over social injustice and a cry for change. Both were world changers and prophets in their times when some people of faith seemed to have compromised truth.

In the book, “Letters and Papers from Prison,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer shared deep insights during his incarceration in a Nazi prison in the early 1940s. As a young German pastor and theologian speaking out against Hitler’s dictatorship and horrific euthanasia of the Jews, he was hanged in 1945 along with others for their plot to assassinate the German Fuhrer.

Bonhoeffer’s views were driven by his theology in Christ in whom God and the world are reconciled. God is a suffering god whose works are found in this worldliness, not only in a future heaven. His teachings and writings, including his well-known book, “The Cost of Discipleship,” have had profound impact on Christians, challenging them to engage against systemic injustice in our own culture based on love of Christ.

From prison he wrote, “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others . . . not dominating…

For the rest of the post…

“It is infinitely easier to suffer in obedience to a human command than in the freedom of one’s own responsibility . It is infinitely easier to suffer with others than to suffer alone. It is infinitely easier to suffer publicly and honourably than apart and ignominiously. It is easier to suffer through staking one’s life than to suffer spiritually. Christ suffered as a free man alone, apart and in ignominy, in body and spirit; and since then many Christians have suffered with him.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, After Ten Years in Letters & Papers From Prison, 14

Joel J. Miller

Theology That Sticks

“I  believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil. For that purpose he needs men who make the best use of everything. I believe God will give us the strength we need to resist in all times of distress. But he never gives it in advance, lest we should rely on ourselves and not on him alone.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, After Ten Years in Letters & Papers From Prison, 10. 

“Christ suffered as a free man alone, apart and in ignominy, in body and in spirit; and since then many Christians have suffered with him.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, After Ten Years in Letters & Papers From Prison, 14. 

“Christ kept himself from suffering till his hour had come, but when it did come he met it has a free man, and mastered it. Christ, so the scriptures tell us, bore the sufferings of all humanity in his own body as if they were his own–a thought beyond our comprehension–accepting them of his own free will. We are certainly not Christ; we are not called to redeem by our own deeds and sufferings, and we need not try to assume such an impossible burden. We are not lords, but instruments in the hand of the Lord of history; and we can share in other people’s sufferings only to a very limited degree. We are not Christ, but if we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ’s large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and by showing a real sympathy that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. The Christian is called to sympathy and actions, not in the first place by his own suffering, but by the sufferings of his brethren, for who sake Christ suffered.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, After Ten Years in Letters & Papers From Prison, 13-14. 

“We must allow for the fact that most people learn wisdom only by personal experience. This explains, first, why so few people are capable of taking precautions in advance–they always fancy that they will somehow or other avoid the danger, till it is too late. Secondly, it explains their insensibility to the sufferings of others; sympathy grows in proportion to the fear of approaching disaster. There is a good deal of excuse on ethical grounds for this attitude.

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, After Ten Years in Letters & Papers From Prison, 13. 

September 2019
S M T W T F S
« Aug    
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
2930  

Archives

Twitter Updates

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.