O God, I Am Thine!

Earlier this week was the seventieth anniversary of the execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Nazi Germany.  Although Bonhoeffer is someone whose writings I have found enormously beneficial and someone whose faith and courage I greatly admire, I was not aware of this poem of his until I saw it on my friend Neil Willard’s blog.

Bonhoeffer wrote this poem while imprisoned.  It is titled, Who am I?  Its ending provides the only answer we need to have to that question.

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 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!

Neil’s post also has a clip from a film about Bonhoeffer I showed to my Heroes and Heroism seminar students this past January: Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace.  Take a look at the clip if you have a chance.

A Fundamental Claim on Our Being

I just finished reading Charles Marsh’s recent biography, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I had seen a review of it this fall and so was happy to find a wrapped copy under the Christmas tree on Christmas morning.

Bonhoeffer has always been a figure I admire and I included him as one of the figures we discussed in the Heroes and Heroism undergraduate honors seminar I offered during this J-term that just ended. I have benefitted from many of his writings and often use some of that material in retreats I offer.

I found Marsh’s biography a worthwhile read – albeit a hefty one (400 or so pages, not including the endnotes). It paints a fuller picture of Bonhoeffer than I have read before.

So many things in this book struck me. But what most sticks with me are some of the questions Bonhoeffer asked himself, questions that in one form or another were his focus throughout his life.

In one of his dissertations, he asked: How might social existence be transformed if this ideal of the body of Christ became the aspiration of every Christian? (A good – and exciting – question to put to ourselves.)

While serving in a parish in Barcelona “the question then forming in his mind was whether Christianity – despite the bland outward cast it had assumed – could still become a vital and meaningful reality for people who had found better ways to spend a Sunday morning.”

In more simple terms, the question he explored over and over again in his own mind, with his students, with those with whom he corresponded, What does it mean to be a Christian with a lived devotion to Jesus?

Such questions reflect Bonhoeffer’s understanding, shared in one of his lectures,

that we understand Christ only if we commit to Him in an abrupt either-or. He was not nailed to the cross as ornament or decoration for our lives. If we would have Him, we must recognize that He makes fundamental claims on our entire being. We scarcely understand Him if we make room for Him in merely one region of our spiritual life, bur rather only if our life takes its orientation from him alone or, otherwise, if we speak a straightforward no. Of course, there are those not concerned with seriously considering the claims Christ makes on us with His question: Do you wish to make a complete commitment, or not? They should rather not get mixed up with Christianity at all; that would be better for Christianity, since such people no longer have anything in common with Christ. The religion of Christ is not the tidbit after the bread; it is the bread itself, or it is nothing.

The claim Bonhoeffer makes here is a bold and hard one, but I believe it is the correct one: Even if we can’t embody it fully, as least in aspiration and in effort, it has to be all or nothing.

Spiritualization of the Gospel

Although Dietrich Bonhoeffer is not generally remembered for his preaching, he believed that proclaiming the Word of God was the heart of Christian life.

On the plane to Seattle yesterday, I began reading a book of Bonhoeffer’s collected sermons. Thus far, I haven’t read one that is not worthy of serious and prayerful reflection. One that struck me was a sermon he gave on the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s gospel. He began that sermon with a statement that challenges not only homilists, but all of us, since we are all called to proclaim the Gospel.

A real evangelical sermon must be like holding a pretty red apple in front of a child or a glass of cool water in front of a thirsty person and then asking do you want it? We should be able to talk about matters of our faith in such a way that the hands reach out for it faster than we can fill them. People should run and not be able to rest when the gospel is talked about, as long ago the sick ran to Christ to be healed when he was going around healing… Shouldn’t it really be that way wherever the good news of God is spoken of? But it just isn’t that way – we all know that.

As if that were not enough of a rebuke, Bonhoeffer goes on to criticize our failure to accept that “the gospel is as concrete, as close to life, as it is” – our “spiritualization of the gospel,” which, he claims, lightens it up.

Bonhoeffer illustrates his point with a discussion of the story of the rich man and Lazarus, which he suggests is typically treated solely as an admonition that the rich should help the poor. We do not treat the story as a very concrete proclamation of the good news itself – a promise of salvation for the sick, the poor, the outcasts. (He recognizes and addresses the criticisms that might be launched against his concrete reading.) The frightening thing about the story, he suggests, is that “there is no moralizing here at all, but simply talk of poor and rich and of the promise and threat given to the one and the other.”

If Bonhoeffer is right, then he is also right that “We must end this audacious, sanctimonious spiritualization of the gospel. Take it as it is, or hate it honestly!”

No Ordinary Men (or Women, For that Matter)

I just finished reading No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State, by Elizabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern. As the title suggests, the book focuses on the efforts of Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi, as well as others in their circle, to oppose Hitler, efforts that led both men to be executed (shortly before the collapse of the Third Reich).

There is much that moved me in reading this book, but one of the things that touched me most was the incredible strength and faith of so many members of this family as they suffered the consequences of their opposition to Hitler. One of those was Christine Bonhoeffer Dohnanyi (Hans’ wife and Dietrich’s sister), who all along assisted her brother and husband in their efforts.

When Christine was imprisoned, she wrote to her children

Everything is always immediately at hand, for it lies either on the table or in the suitcase. I should like to introduce this at home. And in general one sees how good it is when one has few needs. Remember that. Not for the jail but for life….

Now I want to tell you one more thing. Don’t carry any hate in your heart against the power that has done this to us. Don’t fill your young souls with bitterness; that has its revenge and takes from you the most beautiful thing there is, trust…

Believe me, when one has experienced this, then one knows that it is after all a really small and meager part of the human being that one an put in jail.

After her release from prison, Christine took care of various branches of the Bonhoeffer and von Donnanyi familes, as well as complying as well as she could with requests from Dietrich from prison. After the war, she held out hope for a long time that her husband had survived, a hope that was finally dashed at the end of 1945.

Many of us are familiar with Bohoeffer’s actions during the war, fewer with von Dohnanyi’s. The book does a good job of letting us see how much of a “family affair” was the Bonhoeffer/von Dohnanyi resistance against Hitler.