Dietrich Bonhoeffer

"Going into the storm of our history"

Through the half-open door of one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.
Testimony of the Flossenberg prison doctor

On 9th April 1945, just days before the Allies liberated Flossenberg concentration camp, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged there by the Nazis for his part in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. He had been arrested two years earlier, having already engaged in three year's resistance activity against the Third Reich, and was held on the relatively minor charge of "subversive activity" until papers were discovered which linked him to the assassination plots. The letters and papers he sent to family and friends during his imprisonment are a remarkable testimony to a man who, throughout his life, was both profoundly rooted in his faith in Jesus Christ, and also absolutely (and in the end, fatally) committed to involvement in the world and its concerns.

In 1939, when it was apparent that the outbreak of war was imminent, Bonhoeffer was in America on a lecture tour (he was a young and emerging theologian). He was invited to stay there in safety, but chose to return saying:

I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.

In all his writings this theme of participation is fundamental - his theology is all concerned with Christ's participation in the human condition so that we might participate in Christ and, reconciled with God in Christ, might participate in the world in order to share in God's sufferings there. This gives his own political activities and their consequences a peculiarly matter-of-fact quality, neither heroic nor martyrish.

When people suggest in their letters that I'm "suffering" here, I reject the thought. It seems to me a profanation. These things mustn't be dramatised. I doubt very much whether I'm "suffering" any more than you, or most people, are suffering today. Of course, a good deal here is horrible, but where isn't it? Perhaps we've made too much of this question of suffering and been too solemn about it... I'm still discovering right up to this moment that it is only by living completely in the 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 righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. That's what I call "this-worldliness" - living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we through ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously not our own sufferings but those of God in the world - watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is true repentance; and that is how one becomes human and a Christian... when we share in God's sufferings through a life in this world.

Suffering, like prayer, was for Bonhoeffer a way of companionship with God and with those who could not avoid suffering. It was, therefore, simply a part of the "secret discipline" which undergirds action in the world, and which leads to the true freedom of life in Christ. Amongst some of his last papers from prison was this "station on the road to freedom".

Action:
Doing what is right, not what fancy may tell you,
seizing reality boldly, not weighing up chances,
freedom's in action alone, not in wavering thought.
Leave aside anxious delay and go into the storm of our history,
Come along solely by faith and God's will and commandment;
freedom, exultant, will welcome your spirit with joy.

Bonhoeffer, remaining faithful to Christ, finally entered his freedom shortly before the war ended. It can only be a loss to the churches - and indeed to the European community - that he did not live to participate in the rebuilding of post-war Europe and in the developing life of the church. At least we can continue faithfully in his prayer, "May God in his mercy lead us through these times; but above all may he lead us to himself..."

Quotations are from Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Tegel prison.

George Morley


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St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 30th July 1997