In Memoriam: Bonhoeffer’s “Who Am I?”

Bonhoeffer in Prison

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.

Bonhoeffer’s Last Words, Before He Was Hanged (69 Years Ago Tomorrow)

Source: German Federal Archive
Source: German Federal Archive

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.

A Reason to Praise: “Vicarious Representation”

Sanctorum Communio

At the age of 21 Dietrich Bonhoeffer successfully defended his doctoral dissertation, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church. (Click on the cover image at right for more information about the book.) Bonhoeffer’s biographer Eberhard Bethge notes that Karl Barth said of Bonhoeffer’s early work:

I openly confess that I have misgivings whether I can even maintain the high level reached by Bonhoeffer, saying no less in my own words and context, and saying it no less forcefully, than did this young man so many years ago.

I’ve been reading excerpts from Sanctorum Communio (translated into English), from The Bonhoeffer Reader. And… wow. It’s unbelievably good–and would be even if Bonhoeffer had written it years later, but it’s especially remarkable coming at the age of 21.

For now, one quotation will suffice. This is Bonhoeffer on the “vicarious representation” of Christ:

God does not ‘overlook’ sin; that would mean not taking human beings seriously as personal beings in their very culpability; and that would mean no re-creation of the person, and therefore no re-creation of community. But God does take human beings seriously in their culpability, and therefore only punishment and the overcoming of sin can remedy the matter. Both of these have to take place within concrete time, and in Jesus Christ that occurs in a way that is valid for all time. He takes the punishment upon himself, accomplishes forgiveness of sin, and, to use Seeberg’s expression, stands as surety for the renewal of human beings. Christ’s action as vicarious representative can thus be understood from the situation itself.

In recent weeks I’ve gotten more consistent in fulfilling this blog’s original intent to offer Worship Leading Wednesdays each week. I’m not sure if in my capacity as worship leader–whether past or present–I would necessarily read the above paragraph in a service of worship… but it sure does inspire me to praise God, with a spirit of gratitude for the miraculous work of the cross.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Pacifist, Nazi Resister (MOVIE)

Bonhoeffer Movie

My wife recently checked out a Bonhoeffer DVD for me, which we started watching the other night. We’re halfway through, and it’s already quite moving. First Run Features put it out, called Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Pacifist, Nazi Resister (pictured above).

Here is the film synopsis:

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the first, and strongest, voices of resistance to Adolf Hitler. An acclaimed preacher, pacifist and author, Bonhoeffer came to the famed Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem on a teaching fellowship. When Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in 1932 he had a new awareness of racial prejudice and challenged Christian churches to stand with the Jews in their moment of need. Bonhoeffer eventually joined the unsuccessful plots to assassinate Hitler and was executed three weeks before the end of the war.

Here’s part of the movie, “Bonhoeffer Speaks Out Against Hitler”:

You can find the DVD here (affiliate link) or, most likely, at your local library. With how much Bonhoeffer I’ve been reading lately, it’s been nice to watch a filmic representation of his life–although further study of his life and struggle against Nazism is not for the faint of heart.

This is the fourth post in “Tuesdays in Lent with Bonhoeffer.” See the first one (on forgiveness) here. The second post covers Bonhoeffer’s early life, here. Some brilliance from 19-year-old Dietrich is noted here.

Excerpts from a Catechism by Bonhoeffer

DBW 11In 1932 Dietrich Bonhoeffer co-wrote a draft for a catechism called, “As You Believe, So You Receive.” The catechism is “for students in a confirmation class and yet is intended not only for them.” Bonhoeffer and his co-writing friend Franz Hildebrandt wrote it as a Lutheran catechism, but almost all of it is ecumenically appropriate.

Here are a few excerpts:

What is the gospel?

This is the message of God’s salvation that has appeared to us in Jesus Christ and has been conveyed to us through his Spirit. This is the message of the kingdom of God that is contested in the world and intended for God’s righteous. This is the message of God’s will, which speaks today and decides over life and death.

How does Jesus of Nazareth help me today?

To know about Jesus does not yet mean to believe in him. Merely considering him to be true is, of course, lifeless. Faith depends not on lifeless letters but rather on the living Lord who stands commandingly before us, above all doubt about the Bible and its stories.

Why is actually Jesus the Lord?

He is the answer to every human question. He is the salvation in all the sufferings of the world. He is the victory over all our sins. In him, you have God himself in his power and the human being in complete powerlessness.

Does the church, then, act according to the will of Christ?

The church knows today more than ever how little it obeys the Sermon on the Mount. Yet the greater the discord in the world becomes, the more Christ wants to have proclaimed the peace of God that reigns in his kingdom. The church still continues daily in prayer for the return of its divine Lord, and he lays his hand upon it, until he leads the church to its fulfillment.

What do we know of eternal life?

Whether we want it or not—as truly as God lives—our life has come under God’s judgment and has been sustained by God’s hand. Not flesh and blood, but rather spirit, soul, and body are to rise up from the dead. We know not when the hour will come, but the church looks forward with all creation to a new earth and a new heaven.

The catechism is short–barely 10 pages in volume 11 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. (This particular catechism is also included in The Bonhoeffer Reader.) But even in its brevity there is much to take in, and the “carefully focused reading” that the introduction to the catechism calls for is greatly rewarded.

A Bit of Brilliance from the Boy Bonhoeffer

The Bonhoeffer Reader

At the age of 19 Bonhoeffer wrote a paper called, “Paper on Historical and Pneumatological Interpretation of Scripture.” When I was 19 I was just about to stumble upon the Hegelian dialectic, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know what “pneumatological” meant. Bonhoeffer was getting warmed up.

The Bonhoeffer Reader (pictured above) leads off with that paper, which Fortress Press has available as a sample on its Website, here (pdf). The Reader is “self-consciously a theological reader,” keeping specifically in mind “the general reader or beginning student of Bonhoeffer.” Here, by the way, are the seven major sections of the Reader:

  • Part 1, Student Writings: Berlin, Barcelona, New York
  • Part 2, University Lectures
  • Part 3, Ecumenical and Pastoral Writings
  • Part 4, Theology and the Third Reich
  • Part 5, Christian Life and Community
  • Part 6, Christian Ethics and Public Life
  • Part 7, Theology from Prison: Worldly, Religionless Christianity

The Reader excerpts all of Bonhoeffer’s major works, at length. Sanctorum Communio, his dissertation, is here, as well as DiscipleshipLife TogetherLetters and Papers from Prison, lectures, talks, and even a draft of a catechism he co-authored. It is rich.

Back to the 19-year-old Bonhoeffer. “Paper on Historical and Pneumatological Interpretation of Scripture” is engaging, dense, and refreshing, even if occasionally unclear or in want of a re-write here and there. Bonhoeffer wrote the paper in 1925 when he was a student in Berlin. In it he reflects on the historical-critical method of interpreting Scripture that was so popular in early 20th century Germany, as well as the idea of Scripture as God’s word, i.e., the locus of revelation–what Bonhoeffer calls “pneumatological interpretation.” Of the latter he writes:

The first statement of spiritual interpretation is that the Bible is not only a word about God but God’s word itself. In some way the decisive concept of revelation must be introduced here. When revelation is found, the extraordinary enters and its power is self-evident. The past is made present or—better—the contemporaneity and trans-temporality of God’s word are recognized.

As impressive as Bonhoeffer’s command of theology and language already is his use of Latin and Greek throughout the paper (which the editors of The Bonhoeffer Reader are gracious enough to translate).

The bit of brilliance that most inspired me was an almost throwaway clause where Bonhoeffer refers to God as the one

for whom the terms “God spoke” and “it became so” are identical.

Of course on a semantic and grammatical level it is not true that “God spoke” and “it became so” are identical, but Bonhoeffer’s point is that the phrases are, in fact, one and the same. God, as others have put it, spoke creation into being, so that his speaking and its becoming are one and the same act. Bonhoeffer would later develop this idea in his 1932-33 Creation and Fall lectures, also excerpted in the Reader. In a section not found in the Reader, Bonhoeffer would write,

That God creates by speaking means that in God the thought, the name, and the work are in their created reality one. What we must understand, therefore, is that the word does not have ‘effects’; instead, God’s word is already the work. What in us breaks hopelessly asunder–the word of command and what takes place–is for God indissolubly one. With God the imperative is the indicative.

It seems that even this early paper contains some buds that will more fully bloom in his later writing.

The paper closes:

Scriptural understanding, interpretation, preaching, i.e., the knowledge of God begins and ends with the plea: “Veni creator spiritus” [Come, Creator Spirit].

Scripture, for Bonhoeffer (and for us), is “where God speaks and… where it pleases God to be personally revealed.” In the moment that God speaks, it becomes so, and God is revealed.

This,” the Scripture readers say each Sunday, “is the Word of the Lord.”

Thanks be to God.

This is the third post in “Tuesdays in Lent with Bonhoeffer.” See the first one (on forgiveness) here. The second post covers Bonhoeffer’s early life, here. I describe the series more here. The Bonhoeffer Reader can be found at Amazon here (affiliate link) or at Fortress Press’s page here

A Short Note on God’s First Greek Words

The Greek of Genesis 1:3 reads,

καὶ εἶπεν ὁ θεός Γενηθήτω φῶς. καὶ ἐγένετο φῶς.

In English it reads, “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.”

The Septuagint straightforwardly translates the Hebrew, which is:

ויאמר אלהים יהי אור ויהי־אור

The Greek καὶ is versatile. The first καὶ in Genesis 1:3 is connected to what precedes it in 1:2 (darkness over the deep), but not necessarily inextricably so. In other words, one could leave it untranslated when going into English, with 1:3 beginning just, “God said….” The second  καὶ in 1:3, however, seems to be more closely related to what precedes it. “And there was light” follows immediately upon God’s calling for light. God said it, and it happened.

Susan Brayford, in her LXX Genesis commentary (Septuagint Commentary Series, Brill) writes:

God’s first words bring light into being in order to counter the darkness that was over the earth. In the first words attributed to God, LXX-G establishes a formulaic speech pattern that continues throughout the chapter, namely, a verb in the third person imperative (let x be), followed by ‘and,’ and concludes with a verb in the aorist (and x was). The pattern, similar to that in the MT noticed by Westermann and others, not only represents God as an orderly creator, but more importantly, as a powerful creator whose very words accomplish actions.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has much to say about this in his Creation and Fall lectures on Genesis 1-3. On Tuesday I’ll post about his take on the link between God’s speech and the resulting creation.

Tuesdays in Lent with Bonhoeffer: His Early Life

Bethge_Bonhoeffer BioUntil recently I haven’t known much about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life, let alone his early years. I’m working my way through Eberhard Bethge’s thousand-page biography of Bonhoeffer. I’ve just finished reading about his early years and his first year as a university student.

Bonhoeffer was born on February 4, 1906. He was a twin (Sabine was his twin sister). Including Dietrich, there were eight (!) Bonhoeffer children. The death of his older brother Walter in World War I “left an indelible mark,” as Bethge tells it, on the 12-year-old Dietrich and his family–especially his mother.

Bethge describes a Bonhoeffer family who had money (servants, a summer home, a large house) but who were by no means ostentatious. Nor were the children spoiled, according to Bonhoeffer’s biographer. He writes:

The children’s day followed a disciplined pattern; they always knew where they were, and the routine never struck them as restrictive, for they also knew that their parents arranged happy surprises and outings every now and then.

Dietrich was a talented pianist and played the lute, so well that “for a time both he and his parents thought he might become a professional musician.”

At the age of 17, Bonhoeffer went to the University of Tübingen for a year, where his father had gone. Bethge notes that Bonhoeffer’s “priority was philosophy.” The prologue of the Gospel of John especially interested Bonhoeffer, who also took classes on the Psalms and Old Testament theology, among others. But primarily his foundation in that first year was philosophical:

That indeed summed up Dietrich’s year in Tübingen. It was characterized by his wide range of interest, without a firm commitment to any particular area, and by a persistent exploration of the epistemological field.

Bonhoeffer would continue his education at Berlin, beginning his dissertation at the age of 19 and completing it in a year and a half. He successfully defended that work at the age of 21.

This is the second post in “Tuesdays in Lent with Bonhoeffer.” See the first one (on forgiveness) here. I describe the series more here. Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer can be found here (Amazon affiliate link) or here

Tuesdays in Lent with Bonhoeffer: Forgiveness

Bonhoeffer Collected SermonsOn November 17, 1935, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached at the gymnasium-turned-chapel of the Finkenwalde Preachers’ Seminary. His text was Matthew 18:21-35. In this “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant,” Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive the person who sins against him. I imagine Peter is already mustering all he can, and maybe even now proud of himself, when he asks, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Seven times to forgive the same person! Peter thinks that’s a lot and we probably do, too. (Haven’t they figured out by now how to stop hurting me?) But if God has forgiven us our “debts,” as Jesus’ parable shows, we are to forgive others their debts. Though this is 12 chapters removed from the Lord’s Prayer of Matthew 6, I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t some sort of extended riffing on “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

Both this parable and the Lord’s Prayer conclude with fairly stern words. Here’s Matthew 18:

34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.

Here’s the conclusion Matthew has Jesus making from the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:

14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

I don’t know whether Bonhoeffer did this deliberately or not, but I’m struck that in his sermon on Matthew 18, he adopts a similarly direct tone. He begins invitingly enough:

Right here at the beginning of this sermon, let us quietly and honestly ask whether we know anyone from our own circle of friends and family whom we have not forgiven for some wrong that person might have done us; a person from whom we once separated ourselves in anger—perhaps not even in open anger, but in quiet bitterness, thinking: I cannot stand it any longer; I can no longer have anything to do with this person.

I wish I could have been there. Because I really want to know how long he paused before he preached next:

Or are we really so inattentive that we say we do not know anyone like this? Are we so indifferent to other people that we do not even know whether we are living in peace or at odds with them? Whether one after another may not someday stand up and accuse us, saying: You separated yourself from me in discord—you could not tolerate me—you broke off fellowship with me—you found me unsympathetic and turned away from me—I once did you wrong, and you left me alone—I once wounded your honor, and you broke with me—and I could not find you again—I often looked for you, but you avoided me—and we never spoke frankly with each other again, but I wanted nothing more from you than your forgiveness, and yet you were never able to forgive me. Here I am now, and I am accusing you—do you still even know me?—Whether or not in that particular hour names will come back to us that we hardly recognize anymore— many, many wounded, rejected, poor souls whose sin we did not forgive. And among these people perhaps even a good friend, a brother or a sister, one of our parents?

Ahem. It’s getting awfully dusty in here! you can hear Bonhoeffer’s seminarians say.

From here Bonhoeffer unpacks the rest of the passage. We are to identify with the “roguish slave” of Jesus’ parable, he says. We can see other people’s sins, but we are blind to our own.

What hope do we have, then?

Here is a single sentence (at least in its English translation) in the sermon’s final paragraph. Its length would probably lead my erstwhile preaching professor to several uses of the proverbial red pen, but do read it slowly:

My dear friends, those who have experienced what it means for God to lift us up out of a great sin and to forgive us, those to whom God has in such an hour sent another brother or sister to whom we might then confess our sin, whoever knows how a sinner resists such help because the sinner simply does not want to be helped, and whoever nonetheless has experienced how a brother or sister genuinely can release us from our sin in God’s name and in prayer—that person will surely lose all inclination to judge or to hold grudges and will instead want but one thing: to help bear the distress of others, to serve, to help, to forgive—without measure, without qualification, without end—such a one can no longer hate sinful brothers and sisters, but will instead want only to love him all the more and to forgive them for everything, everything.

May God lead us, who have been forgiven so much, to be merciful toward others.

Tuesdays in Lent with Bonhoeffer

Three Lenten companions
Three Lenten companions

I’m late to the Bonhoeffer party, but now I see what everyone’s been talking about. What a guy. I’ve had his Discipleship before me as I’ve worked my way through the Sermon on the Mount (see here). I interacted with his thought at greater length here, wondering how he might read “turn the other cheek” in light of Russia’s occupation of Ukraine.

Fortress Press has sent me the above three volumes for review at Words on the Word. I will review them, in due time, but I’m posting now to say: on Tuesdays during Lent I’ll post something Bonhoeffer-related. It may be as short as a quotation, or it may be as long as a mini-essay in which I interact with some facet of his life or writing.

Tuesdays are my day off, so while Bonhoeffer has very much been informing my preaching on Matthew so far, what I post here in coming weeks will not necessarily relate to (my) preaching. One of his books I’ll interact with is his Collected Sermons, however.

If you scroll back up to the top of this post, to the right, just under the search bar, is a subscribe option you can select to receive notifications of new posts. Just type in your email address (it won’t get shared elsewhere) and then click Subscribe/Follow. You can also follow Words on the Word via Facebook here.

I’m looking forward to interacting with more Bonhoeffer in the coming weeks. Check back again tomorrow for the first Tuesday in Lent with Bonhoeffer.

UPDATE: Here is the first post, on Bonhoeffer on forgiveness.