I knew when I was preaching through the Sermon on the Mount recently that I would make good use of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. I had no idea that a single question I asked would lead me–in my quest for an “answer”–so far into the life and writings of Bonhoeffer.
Of War and Peace: Which Bonhoeffer? (Revisited)
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
I wondered: does “turn the other cheek” apply just on an interpersonal level, or at a state level? I turned to Bonhoeffer, who rejected a privatized read of Jesus’ words. In 1937′s Discipleship he wrote:
The overcoming of others now occurs by allowing their evil to run its course. The evil does not find what it is seeking, namely, resistance and, therewith, new evil which will inflame it even more. Evil will become powerless when it finds no opposing object, no resistance, but, instead, is willingly borne and suffered….
Should Ukrainians (or other oppressed peoples) just let themselves be invaded (or oppressed)? I struggled with Bonhoeffer’s words:
There is no thinkable deed in which evil is so large and strong that it would require a different response from a Christian. The more terrible the evil, the more willing the disciple should be to suffer. Evil persons must be delivered to the hands of Jesus. Not I but Jesus must deal with them.
And yet in 1945 he was hanged for his involvement in a conspiracy to kill Hitler. This was not the “no opposing object” and “no resistance” that Bonhoeffer had talked about in Discipleship.
But maybe Bonhoeffer differentiated between evil done to him and evil done to others? Should the Christian be willing “to suffer” in the former instance but willing to act and resist on behalf of another in the latter instance?
As I asked these questions a month and a half ago, I found my own response to Matthew 5 and “turn the other cheek” to be more tension-filled than I would have liked.
Is There a Resolution to the Tension in Bonhoeffer?
I had been hoping that further study of Bonhoeffer would help me to find some writing where he would essentially repudiate his non-violence stance in Discipleship, saying instead something like, “But when others are oppressed, take up force to eliminate evil, if necessary.”
Bonhoeffer never said any such thing. In fact, on July 21, 1944, the day after a bomb intended for Hitler failed to kill him, Bonhoeffer wrote from prison (about that 1937 book) to his good friend and biographer-to-be Eberhard Bethge:
Today I clearly see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by it.
He still stood by it. Did he mean he also stood by the line from that book, “Not I but Jesus must deal with them”? Was not his involvement in an effort to bomb Hitler a way of trying to deal with him? (Note: I’m not sure I fault Bonhoeffer either way.)
After a Lenten discipline of reading Bonhoeffer (and sections of his biographies) slowly and meditatively, I’m no closer to a resolution of such tensions than I was when I first discovered them. If anything, I’ve been encouraged to see other readers of Bonhoeffer wrestling with the same sorts of questions. This question of whether a ready-to-use-violence Bonhoeffer is consistent with the turn-the-other-cheek Bonhoeffer is, in fact, a fruitful question in Bonhoeffer studies.
What I’ve Found Instead
Tension in Bonhoeffer notwithstanding (and I’m actually coming to appreciate it), I’ve been deeply moved at nearly every turn as I’ve delved more deeply into the life and writings of an activist pastor.
- An inspired and passionate preacher, not afraid to tell the truth about life and about Jesus
- A brilliant writer, already evident at age 19 and age 21
- An eloquent catechist and Christian educator
- A brave and gutsy man, who valued the life of others more than his own
- A gifted poet with incisive awareness of the human condition
His preaching has encouraged mine. His deliberateness in pastoral care and visiting congregants has inspired me. I used one of his catechisms for our church membership class (his writing in that context was met with appreciation by all of us). His courage has bolstered mine, even if I don’t face the sort of trials that he did.
And, best of all, he has pointed away from himself and to the cross of Christ, so that my appreciation for Bonhoeffer doesn’t finally center on Bonhoeffer himself. Rather, through the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer–no doubt inhabited again by the Holy Spirit–I have come to see and know and love Jesus more deeply.
As Bonhoeffer says of the early disciples, listening to Jesus on the mountainside:
They have only him. Yes, and with him they have nothing in the world, nothing at all, but everything, everything with God.
Amazingly, I made it through high school and college without reading Elie Wiesel’s Night. Having just found a copy in good condition at a local used bookstore, I plan now to read it. My recent reading of Bonhoeffer has revived my interest in Holocaust and genocide studies.
(Yes, I know it's a reality of "white/male privilege" to be able to choose when to think about oppression and to make "studies" out of genocide.)
I may or may not report back here again about Night, but I expect it to be a powerful read.
…besides the Septuagint itself, is this spot right here. It’s the Web presence of The International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies (IOSCS). The IOSCS is “a nonprofit, learned society formed to promote international research in and study of the Septuagint and related texts.“
Membership in the organization is affordable (especially for students). They put out an annual journal (some volumes of which are freely available here), offer a yearly prize, and link to some useful LXX resources here.
The IOSCS home page is updated fairly regularly with news of publications, conferences, and other announcements. Check it out.
Apologies in advance for the scatalogical nature of this post. But I’m trying to get back to Family Fridays on this here blog, and nothing says family (at least our family) like this actual conversation that took place in the kitchen yesterday:
3-year-old son: Daddy, can you help me?
Me: Hold on… I’m getting your sister some food.
3-year-old son: Some poop?
Me: <Trying to stifle laughter>
3-year-old son, wanting to be heard and still awaiting my response: POOP???
Me: No… some FOOD.
3-year-old son: OHHH. I thought you said you were going to give her some poop.
Can’t make this stuff up.
Renate Bethge’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Brief Life, is about as short a Bonhoeffer biography as there is. Renate’s husband was the late Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s dear friend and biographer. Renate is also Bonhoeffer’s niece.
Whereas Eberhard’s bio is well over 900 pages, Renate’s Brief Life is under 90. It’s laid out nicely, with lots of photographs, wide margins, and quotations from Bonhoeffer’s writing and correspondence. Given how little text is actually on a page, it’s a quick read.
The book offers a succinct overview of Bonhoeffer’s life, yet it does not lack substance in its brevity. Highlights for me were the overview of his parents (and their character, and its effect on Bonhoeffer), a chapter called “Contacts with Jews,” and the personal touch of including some of Bonhoeffer’s correspondence. His beautiful poem “Who Am I?” is re-printed here in its entirety.
There are brief mentions of his writings: Life Together, Ethics, and Letters and Papers from Prison (but not, surprisingly, Discipleship). Page 87 offers a nice one-page summary chronology of Bonhoeffer’s life.
If you want to look at a couple sample pages from the book, Logos Bible Software has put some up here and here. (This book will soon be offered in Logos as part of its forthcoming Bonhoeffer Studies Collection.)
Someone looking for biographical detail will want to look elsewhere, but this only claims to be a “brief” biography, which has value especially for folks like me who are coming seriously to Bonhoeffer for the first time. As I continue to read through Eberhard Bethge’s biography, it was nice to put it aside for a bit to get a quick overview of all of Bonhoeffer’s life.
In July 1944, less than a year before Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death (69 years ago today), Bonhoeffer wrote a poignant and self-probing poem called, “Who Am I?” It is found in his Letters and Papers from Prison. Here it is, in its entirety:
Who Am I?
Who am I? They often tell me
I step out from my cell
calm and cheerful and poised,
like a squire from his manor.
Who am I? They often tell me
I speak with my guards
freely, friendly and clear,
as though I were the one in charge.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bear days of calamity
serenely, smiling and proud,
like one accustomed to victory.
Am I really what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless, yearning, sick, like a caged bird,
struggling for life breath, as if I were being strangled,
starving for colors, for flowers, for birdsong,
thirsting for kind words, human closeness,
shaking with rage at power lust and pettiest insult,
tossed about, waiting for great things to happen,
helplessly fearing for friends so far away,
too tired and empty to pray, to think, to work,
weary and ready to take my leave of it all?
Who am I? This one or the other?
Am I this one today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? Before others a hypocrite
and in my own eyes a pitiful, whimpering weakling?
Or is what remains in me like a defeated army,
Fleeing in disarray from victory already won?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest me; O God, I am thine!
See my other Bonhoeffer posts here.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in the Nazi concentration camp of Flossenbürg on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the U.S. military came to liberate it.
John W. de Gruchy describes the lead-up to that day in his Editor’s Introduction to Letters and Papers from Prison (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, volume 8):
On October 8 [of 1944], Bonhoeffer was taken to the cellar of the Gestapo prison on Prinz-Albrecht-Straße, where he stayed until February 7, 1945. From then on, all correspondence came to an end, and contact between Bonhoeffer and the family and [Eberhard] Bethge was broken. From there Bonhoeffer was taken first to Buchenwald and then, via the village of Schönberg in Bavaria, to the Flossenbürg concentration camp, where he arrived on April 8. That evening he was tried by a hastily rigged court and condemned to death. Early the next morning Bonhoeffer was executed along with several other coconspirators.
He was hanged April 9. His family would not learn about it for several months.
The July before he had written to his trusted friend (and later biographer) Eberhard Bethge, one day after the failed assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. He wrote:
How should one become arrogant over successes or shaken by one’s failures when one shares in God’s suffering in the life of this world? You understand what I mean even when I put it so briefly. I am grateful that I have been allowed this insight, and I know that it is only on the path that I have finally taken that I was able to learn this. So I am thinking gratefully and with peace of mind about past as well as present things. …
May God lead us kindly through these times, but above all, may God lead us to himself.
His final recorded words before his hanging–appropriate in this Lenten season that is about to give way to Easter–were:
This is the end–for me the beginning of life.
This post is part of “Tuesdays in Lent with Bonhoeffer.” See other gathered posts here.