On the Feast of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martyr
April 9, 2002
Gracious God, the Beyond in the midst of our life, you gave grace to your servant Dietrich Bonhoeffer to know and to teach the truth as it is in Jesus Christ, and to bear the cost of following him; Grant that we, strengthened by his teaching and example, may receive your word and embrace its call with an undivided heart; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Bonhoeffer the Impatient
A Poem from Prison: "Who Am I?"
Who am I? They often tell me I would step from my cell's confinement calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me I would talk to my warden freely and friendly and clearly, as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me I would bear the days of misfortune equably, smilingly, proudly, like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of, or am I only what I know of myself, restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds, thirsting for
words of kindness, for neighborliness, trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation, tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance, weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making, faint and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the other? Am I one person today, and tomorrow another? Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others, and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling? Or is something within me still like a beaten army, fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine.
Of all the great theologians whose struggles reflect my own, it is Bonhoeffer with whom I identify most. Caught in the moral struggle between the pacifism of his heart (and Jesus’ as well) and the enormity of the Nazi regime, he chose a path that ultimately ended in his death at the hands of the devil itself. He wanted very much to live as did Jesus, in a non-violent struggle against evil. In the end, he grew impatient with the slowness of redemption and chose to take matters into his own hands.
How like him I am. Waiting on God seems like Vladimir waiting on Godot . I guess that was Beckett’s rub.
"ESTRAGON: Nothing to be done.
VLADIMIR: I'm beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I've tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven't yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle."--Samuel Beckett Waiting For Godot
It’s not reasonable. I haven’t tried everything. I must do something. And so I take the struggle back and fail again. My choice, like St. Dietrich’s, is always to do something: fail in my power, rather than succeed in God’s.
Bonhoeffer the Deacon
In a letter from around 1928 that Bonhoeffer wrote while serving an internship at a German-speaking congregation in Barcelona, Spain, he says:
" I meet new people here daily. . . . One can see human beings here as they are, far away from the masquerade of the so-called Christian world--people with passion, criminal types, small people with small ambitions . . . people who feel homeless in both meanings of the word . . . real people. I can only say that I have the impression that they are much more under grace than under wrath but that the Christian world is much more under wrath than under grace." It is a diaconal vision that Bonhoeffer is reflecting--an alienation from the "masquerade" (his term) of the Church and a pastoral identification with the "homeless" of the world. The deacon’s charge from her bishop is "to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely…to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by…word and example, to those among whom [she] lives and works, and worships….To interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world." This interpretive dance, conducted on a cross-shaped ledge between Church and World, is misunderstood too often by the masked Christians, but embraced by the naked poor of the world.
Bonhoeffer knew what the Church does not: it is in the weak things of the world, the things most despised that God has chosen to reveal divine glory. It is in the crucified carpenter, the failed Messiah, that the Reign of God appears. The homeless wanderer, despised by the religious and political powers and murdered, abandoned by all but a handful of crying women and a single, bewildered man, is triumphant Son of Man. The earth shook at the absurdity of it all.
Bonhoeffer the 21st Century Christian
For Christians of the third millenium, alienated from the emptiness of secular materialism as well as the masquerade of Christendom, the overriding question of our time is: What is the meaning of faith? We have lived through the death of liberal humanism, and watched with a mixture of horror and exuberance as its twin daughters, Marxism and Capitalism have writhed in their own death throes. We have seen the post-modern world so accept the notion of plurality of truths, that any demand on our part for the seemingly exclusive claims of Jesus is regarded as a quaint nostalgia for patriarchal Puritanism or a subversive attempt at theocracy. Jesus is truth, but so is Madonna and Enron and Homeland Security. Religion, as Bonhoeffer foretold, is dead. The world is full of religions, but its people are religionless.
The thing that keeps coming back to me, is what is Christianity, and indeed what is Christ for us today? The time when men could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or simply pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience, which is to say the time of religion as such. We are proceeding towards a time of no religion at all; men as they are now simply cannot be religious any more. Even those who honestly describe themselves as "religious" do not in the least act up to it, and so when they say "religious" they evidently mean something quite different.
Our whole 1900 year old Christian preaching and theology has always been a patter-perhaps a true patter-of religion. But if one day it becomes apparent that this a priori "premise" simply does not exist, but was an historical and temporary form of human self expression; ie we reach the stage of being radically without religion-and I think more or less the case already, else how is it, for instance that this war [WWII], unlike any of those before it, is not calling for any "religious" reaction?-what does it mean for "Christianity"?
It means that the linchpin is removed from the whole structure of our Christianity to date, and the only people left for us to light on in the way of "religion" are a few "last survivals of the age of chivalry" or else one or two who are intellectually dishonest. Would they be the chosen few? Is it on this dubious group and none other that we are to pounce, in fervour, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them the goods we have to offer? Are we to fall upon one or two unhappy people in their weakest moment and force upon them a sort of religious coercion?
If we do not want to do this, if we had finally put down the western pattern of Christianity as a mere preliminary stage to doing without religion altogether, what situation would result for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord of even of those with no religion? If religion is no more than the garment of Christianity-and even that garment had very different aspects at different period-then what is religionless Christianity? What is the significance of a Church in a religionless world? How do we speak of God without religion, ie.without the temporally influenced presuppositions of metaphysic, inwardness, and so on? In what way are we the Ekkesia, those who are called forth, not conceiving of ourselves as specially favoured, but as wholly belonging to this world? Then Christ is no longer an object of worship, but something quite different, indeed and in truth the Lord of the world.
The Pauline question whether circumcision is a condition of justification is today, I consider, the question whether religion is a condition of salvation. Freedom from circumcision is at the same time freedom from religion. I often ask myself why a Christian instinct frequently draws me more to the religionless than to the religious, by which I mean not with any intention of evangelizing them, but rather, I might almost say in brotherhood. While I often shrink with religious people from speaking of God by name-because that Name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I strike myself as rather dishonest (it is especially bad when others start talking in religious jargon; then I dry up completly and fell somehow oppressed and ill at ease)-with people who have no religion I am able to speak of God quite openly and as it were naturally.
Religious people speak of God when human perception is (often just from laziness) at an end, or human resources fail; it is really always the Deus ex machina they call to their aid, either for the so called solving of insoluble problems or as support in human failures-always, that is to say, helping out human weakness or on the borders of human existence. Of necessity, that can only go on until men can, by their own strength push those borders a little further, so that God becomes superfluous as a Deus ex machina. I have come to be doubtful even about talking of "borders of human existence" It always seems to me that in talking thus we are only seeking to frantically to make room for God.
I should like to speak of God not on the borders of life but at its centre, therefore not in death but in his life. On the borders it seems to me better to hold our peace and leave the problem unsolved. Belief in the Resurrection is not the solution of the problem. The church stands not where the human powers give out, on the borders, but in the centre of the village.
It seems that here Bonhoeffer is less a Lutheran with a Confessional and Catechetical faith, than an Anglican, choosing to live with ambiguity rather than the fable of certainty. Perhaps that is what it means to be a Christian in the third millenium: We know that religious language is no longer translatable to the religionless world. Most people live quite comfortably and securely without any thought of grace or redemption or resurrection. The kerygma of our time must be redemptive while living in the awareness that there is no sense of eternity left in the human breast. We are all the writers of Ecclesiastes and everything is vanity and a striving after wind.
Is that a possible task or a philosophical absurdity? It is both, I believe and it lays before us as the work to be done, the Gospel to be spoken to a world without hope. We are exiled to Patmos and we see visions of the Alpha and Omega, but we must find actions to make real those visions since words no longer suffice. It will be in redemptive action, identifying with the downtrodden and suffering that we will speak in this age. It is there, in the center of the human village that we, like Bonhoeffer will find God.
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