Saturday, April 09, 2011
Feast of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
This is adapted from my Dietrich Bonhoeffer sermon.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born on February 4, 1906, in Breslau, Germany, the sixth child of Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer. He had a twin sister named Sabine. His father was a prominent professor of psychiatry and neurology and his mother was one of the few women of her generation to obtain a university degree. As a result she had strong opinions regarding the German education system and decided to educate her children at home in their early years. She said, “Germans have their backbones broken twice in life: first in the schools, secondly in the military.” The entire Bonhoeffer family shared her belief in strong moral and intellectual character, a belief which lasted with her children throughout their lives. Dietrich studied at Tübingen and Berlin universities and his intellect and theological achievements won him renown. His dissertation was published in 1927. He became a pastor in the Lutheran Church in 1928, and his first church was a German parish in Barcelona, Spain. In 1930 he studied for a while at Union Seminary in New York. He became active in the newly forming ecumenical movement and he made international contacts that would be crucial to him and his work during World War II. In 1931 he began teaching at the theological faculty in Berlin.
The German Evangelical Church, which is a Lutheran Church, was the main Protestant Church in Germany in those days, and from its beginnings had been shaped by nationalism and obedience to state authority. As a result of that nature, the German Evangelical Church had no problem teaming up with the Nazis. A group called Deutshe Christen became the voice of the Nazis within the Church. They even advocated the removal of the Old Testament from the Bible. They worked with the government to ban “non-Aryans” from serving as ministers or religious teachers; this was called the Aryan Paragraph. This nearly split the German Evangelical Church, as most church leaders supported what they called the Judenmission: the evangelization, conversion, and baptism of Jews. The Deutshe Christen claimed that the Jews were a separate race and could not become members of an Aryan Church, even through baptism, which is, of course, against the teaching of the Gospel. I don’t know how many Jews were looking for conversion; perhaps some thought that conversion would protect them from the Nazis. This was an attack on the civil rights of all Germans. So often we forget that an attack on another group’s civil rights is an attack on everyone’s civil rights. When we allow the government to restrict or take away the civil rights of any group,we should fight against it because they will becoming after our group next. In Panamanian history, Arnulfo Arias didn’t try to take away the citizenship of only one group, right? He went for Afro-antillanos, the Chinese, and other groups. And when one group wins their civil rights, it leads other oppressed minorities to fight for their civil rights. That’s what we learned in the U.S. and some people are still mad about that! Bonhoeffer bitterly opposed the Aryan paragraph. He argued that its ratification surrendered Christian precepts to political ideology. He suggested that if “non-Aryans” were banned from the ministry that all ministers should resign in solidarity, even if this meant the establishment of a new church, a “confessing” church which was free from Nazi influence. This was a minority view; the majority of German bishops wanted to avoid upsetting the Nazis and just wanted to keep their churches together; they didn’t want to make any important stands against oppression. The strongest opponents of Nazi interference in the churches,including Dietrich Bonhoeffer did form a Confessing Church. Some members of the Confessing Christians moved toward open resistance against the regime, but the more moderate Protestants made what they saw as necessary compromises. As the Nazi dictatorship tightened its hold on all areas of life, the Confessing Church became paralyzed. Bonhoeffer also realized that Nazism posed a very different challenge for the churches, and it was here that he broke new ground, theologically. The church was not just being called to clarify its attitudes toward Judaism and the people of Israel, he noted. The real question was how the church would judge and respond to the Nazi state's actions against the Jews. On this point, Bonhoeffer was explicit about the church's obligations to fight political injustice. The Church, he wrote, must fight evil in three stages: The first was to question state injustice and call the state to responsibility; the second was to help the victims of injustice, whether they were church members or not. Ultimately, however, the church might find itself called "not only to help the victims who have fallen under the wheel, but to fall into the spokes of the wheel itself" in order to halt the machinery of injustice. That would be the third stage. When the Deutshe Christen took control of the majority of Protestant Church governments in 1933, they passed their policy of excluding those with “Jewish blood” from the ministry at the national church synod at Wittenberg.
Bonhoeffer realized that it was important to inform the international Christian community about what was happening in Germany with the Nazis. He attended the ecumenical World Alliance meeting in Sofia, Bulgaria, and spoke completely openly about the Jewish question, the Aryan paragraph, and the question of minorities in Germany. The delegates passed a resolution condemning the Nazi actions against the Jews. Bonhoeffer was offered a parish in Berlin, but he turned it down, saying that he could not accept such a post at a time when his non-Aryan colleagues were barred from such positions. He accepted a position at a German-speaking congregation in London instead. His parish became a haven for Christian and Jewish refugees from Germany.
He returned to Germany in 1935 to teach at a seminary of the Confessing Church. He discovered that the Confessing Church was under much pressure from the Gestapo. The graduating students were usually unable to find work in most parishes, and they were under government surveillance. In 1937 the Gestapo closed the seminary and some students were arrested. Bonhoeffer spent the next two years secretly traveling from one eastern German village to another to supervise his students, most of whom were working illegally in small parishes. Under growing Gestapo observation, he limited his public pronouncements. The Gestapo banned him from Berlin in January 1938, and in September 1940 issued an order forbidding him from speaking in public. On November 9, 1938, when the synagogues burned throughout Germany, Bonhoeffer was with students far from the city, in the region of Pomerania. A telephone call the next day alerted them to what had happened; Bonhoeffer immediately travelled to Berlin to learn more details. When he returned, his students began debating the theological significance of the Kristallnacht. Several of the students "spoke of the curse which had haunted the Jews since Jesus' death on the cross." Bonhoeffer rejected this vehemently, stating that the pogrom was a case of "sheer violence" that only revealed Nazism's "godless face." Around this time, the first meetings among the German resistance were taking place. Among them was Hans von Dohnanyi, a lawyer married to Bonhoeffer's sister. Dohnanyi, a passionate enemy of Nazism, moved in 1939 from the Justice Department to the Armed Forces High Command office of Military Intelligence. This office,soon became a center of the conspiracy. In early 1939, Dohnanyi approached Bonhoeffer about possible resistance against the regime. Bonhoeffer was experiencing a lot of uncertainty. He knew that war would break out soon, and he also knew that he couldn’t serve in Hitler’s army. He wrote some friends in the ecumenical movement, who offered him a post teaching at Union Seminary in New York. Bonhoeffer left for New York in June 1939. By the time he arrived in the U.S., however, Bonhoeffer had decided that his place was in Germany. He wrote the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. . . I shall have no right to take part in the restoration of Christian life in Germany after the war unless I share the trials of this time with my people.
His return to Germany in July 1939 marked a new stage in his life: active resistance. Virtually the only man in a position to do so, Bonhoeffer became the crucial link between international ecumenical efforts and the German conspiracy against Nazism. He was active in the group planning to overthrow Hitler. He and his brother-in-law worked with Bonhoeffer’s international contacts to arrange visas and sponsors for Jews they were smuggling out of Germany. The Gestapo eventually traced the large amounts of money that was being sent abroad to help the emigrants. They arrested Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer in April of 1943. It wasn’t until the failed assassination attempt of Hitler on July 20, 1944, that the Gestapo realized the extent of Bonhoeffer’s involvement in resistance circles. Up to that point they had only accused him of conspiring to rescue Jews. In October 1944, Bonhoeffer was moved to the dreaded Gestapo prison in Berlin; in February 1945, he was taken to Buchenwald. He was then moved to the Flossenbürg concentration camp where, on April 9, he was hanged, together with Canaris, Oster, and other conspirators. His brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi and his brother, Klaus Bonhoeffer, were executed days later. The SS doctor who witnessed Bonhoeffer's death later recalled a man devout . . . brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds . . . I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God. Bonhoeffer sent one final message, to Bishop George Bell in England: "This is the end, for me the beginning of life." Dietrich Bonhoeffer fought against the evil of the Nazi dictatorship, and he fought for the civil rights of the oppressed. He realized what Christians have been forgetting since the time of Constantine: when Church and State get together, it is always the Church which is corrupted. He was a pacifist theologian who accepted the guilt of plotting the death of Hitler because he was convinced that not to do so would be a greater evil. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, discipleship was to be had only at great cost. So let us honor the memory of the German Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor, theologian, and martyr.
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.
Who Am I?
Poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written in Tegel Prison, and dated July 9, 1944
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 warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
Whom 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 others tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling from 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.
I See You!
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