The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, After Ten Years (December 1942)
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, Germany in 1906. He was a star student who earned his doctorate in theology when he was just 21. In 1930, he went to New York City to study at Union Theological Seminary. He didn't think much of the school, but he loved the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he taught Sunday school, learned gospel music, and started to think about the role of social justice in Christianity.
He went back to Germany, and he was ordained in 1931, when he was 25 years old. But a couple of years later, Hitler rose to power, which caused a huge rift in the German Evangelical Church. The big debate was not about Hitler's racist policies toward Jewish people, per se, but whether the Church should continue to convert and baptize Jewish people. Everything about the history of Christianity pointed towards "yes" — proselytizing, converting, and baptizing were central to the religion. But a group of hard-core Nazi followers within the German Evangelical Church decreed that only Aryan people should be welcomed into the church, no matter what. Bonhoeffer opposed the pro-Nazi contingent within the Church, and he was outspoken in his opposition to the Nazis and Hitler especially. Two days after Hitler was inaugurated as the chancellor, Bonhoeffer — who was then 26 years old — got on national radio and gave a speech about the danger of following any leader who demanded a cult-like following, saying that such a leader could easily become a "misleader." The German authorities cut him off during his speech.
From then on, he worked tirelessly to oppose the Nazi regime. He wrote essays and gave lectures about the obligation of the Church to fight social injustice and to fight for non-Christians as well as Christians. He worked to publicize the truth about what was happening under the Nazis, sending updates to his friends and contacts outside of Germany, because he was afraid that the international community would believe the propaganda by powerful Nazi supporters in the German Evangelical Church. In 1933, he turned down a position in Berlin in protest because only Aryan pastors were allowed to serve. He had succeeded in forming a splinter group within the Church called the "Confessing Church," which was opposed to the Nazi regime, but slowly more and more of his friends within the Confessing Church cowed to Hitler's influence.
Frustrated and lonely, he accepted a position in London. He returned to Germany two years later, in 1935, but his work was becoming increasingly difficult. He was banned from Berlin and from any public speaking. He trained young, radical pastors in secret. After the widespread violence and burning of synagogues in November of 1938, known as Kristallnacht, some Christians maintained that this was the curse of the Jewish people, since they were responsible for Jesus' execution. Bonhoeffer had no patience with that argument. He said that the Nazis were simply evil and that Christianity had no place in their doctrine.
By 1939, the situation had gotten so dire, and Bonhoeffer's opportunities were so limited, that he decided to leave Germany and come to the United States, where he had been offered a position at Union Seminary. As soon as he got there, he changed his mind, convinced that he was being a coward. He went back to Germany and started working as a double agent. On the surface he was working for German Military Intelligence, for the Abwehr, the rival to the Schutzstaffel (or SS). In reality, Bonhoeffer was spreading information about the German Resistance, as were many other members of the Abwehr, including its leader. Despite a lifetime of pacifism, Bonhoeffer finally joined in the attempt to assassinate Hitler, convinced it was the only option.
He was arrested in 1943 on much smaller charges of misusing his position as an intelligence agent. He was in prison for 18 months, where he continued to write, and his writings were smuggled out of prison and later published as Letters and Papers from Prison.
In 1944, after an attempt to assassinate Hitler failed, the extent of Bonhoeffer's work in the resistance movement came to light. The SS uncovered the extent to which the Abwehr was working to undermine the regime, and Hitler ordered them all executed. Bonhoeffer's final message was to a friend and bishop in England: "This is the end — for me the beginning of life." He was killed on April 9, 1945; three weeks later, Hitler committed suicide, and one month after Bonhoeffer's death, Germany surrendered.
In prison, he wrote: "We have learned a bit too late in the day that action springs not from thought but from a readiness for responsibility."
Source: The Writers' Almanac with Garrison Keillor: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2011/02/04
Bonhoeffer standing in the prison yeard
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
Like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell me of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my thoat,
Yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
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 contemptible 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!
On December 19th 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his bleak underground prison in the cellars of the Gestapo headquarters in central Berlin, began to write a Christmas letter to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer. In it he included a poem to be shared with his parents called By the Powers of Good, "which has been running through my head in the last few days". It was to be his final greeting. The last verse goes as follows:
While all the powers of good protect us
Boldly we'll face the future, come what may.
At even and at morn God will befriend us
And never fails to greet us each new day!
The sixth Christmas season of the war was a terrifying time of impending overwhelming disaster. In the circumstances, the seven short verses of this poem expressing Bonhoeffer's affirmation of God's enduring and comforting presence have to be seen not as just a conventional expression of escapist pietism, but, rather, a most moving and timely confession of faith. It begins:
The powers of good surround us in wonder,
Comforted and kept beyond all fear,
So I will live with you in these days
And go with you to meet the coming year.
The old year still fills our hearts with terror.
We carry still the burden of these evil days.
O Lord, give our chastened souls your healing
For which you have so gracefully created us.
Gratefulness: A Source of Strength
First: Nothing can console us when we lose a beloved person and no one should try. We have to simply bear and survive it. That sounds hard but is in fact a great consolation: When the hole remains unfilled, we remain connected through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the gap, because he keeps it empty and so helps us to sustain our old communion, even through pain.
Then: The more beautiful and fulfilling our memories, the harder the separation. But gratefulness transforms the agony of memory into a quiet joy. We should avoid burrowing in our memories, just as we do not look at a precious gift continuously. Rather, we should rather save them for special hours, like a hidden treasure of which we are certain. Then a pervading joy and strength will flow from the past.
To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential. But on the other hand, knowledge of an apparently trivial detail quite often makes it possible to see into the depth of things. And so the wise man will seek to acquire the best possible knowledge about events, but always without becoming dependent upon this knowledge. To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom.