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Letters and Papers from Prison (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 8) Hardcover – June 1, 2010
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Eberhard Bethge, who originally collected and published this material under the title "Widerstand und Erbegung," knew how important and powerful this collection of letters were, but was also understandably humble about publishing a collection in which he himself figures so prominently. So he focused on publishing Bonhoeffer's ethics first, only later issuing this collection. Ever since it was published, it has caused a stir in Bonhoeffer studies, because it forces readers to re-think much of what they think they know of Bonhoeffer, especially through is most popular works like Discipleship (Cost of Discipleship) and Life Together.
Central to this re-appraisal is the concept he is developing of "religionless Christianity." Here's a very important passage:
"A few more words about "religionlessness." You probably remember Bultmann's essay on "demythologizing the New Testament." My opinion of it today would be that he went not "too far," as most people thought, but rather not far enough. It's not only "mythological" concepts like miracles, ascension, and so on (which in principle can't be separated from concepts of God, faith, etc.!) that are problematic, but "religious" concepts as such. You can't separate God from the miracles (as Bultmann thinks); instead, you must be able to interpret and proclaim them both "nonreligiously." Bultmann's approach is still basically liberal (that is, it cuts the gospel short), whereas I'm trying to think theologically. What then does it mean to "interpret religiously"?
It means, in my opinion, to speak metaphysically, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, individualistically. Neither way is appropriate, either for the biblical message or for people today. Hasn't the individualistic question of saving our personal souls almost faded away for most of us? Isn't it our impression that there are really more important things than this question (--perhaps not more important than this matter, but certainly more important than the question!?)? I know it sounds outrageous to say that, but after all, isn't it fundamentally biblical? Does the question of saving one's soul even come up in the Old Testament? Isn't God's righteousness and kingdom on earth the center of everything? And isn't Romans 3:24ff. the culmination of the view that God alone is righteous, rather than an individualistic doctrine of salvation?
What matters is not the beyond but this world, how it is created and preserved, is given laws, reconciled, and renewed. What is beyond this world is meant, in the gospel, to be there for this world--not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, mystical, pietistic, ethical theology, but in the biblical sense of the creation and the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Barth was the first theologian--to his great and lasting credit--to begin the critique of religion, but he then puts in its place a positivist doctrine of revelation that says, in effect, "like it or lump it." Whether it's the virgin birth, the Trinity, or anything else, all are equally significant and necessary parts of the whole, which must be swallowed whole or not at all.
That's not biblical. There are degrees of cognition and degrees of significance. That means an "arcane discipline" must be reestablished, through which the mysteries of the Christian faith are sheltered against profanation. The positivism of revelation is too easygoing, since in the end it sets up a law of faith and tears up what is--through Christ's becoming flesh!--a gift to us. Now the church stands in the place of religion--that in itself is biblical--but the world is left to its own devices, as it were, to rely on itself. That is the error. At the moment I am thinking about how the concepts of repentance, faith, justification, rebirth, and sanctification should be reinterpreted in a "worldly" way--in the Old Testament sense and in teh sense of John 1:14. I'll write you more about it." (374-375, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, volume 8)
Theologians and church leaders will be especially interested in sections of the work such as this, but they will need to be patient. Bonhoeffer does not get around to "doing" such theology until the middle of the correspondence. However, to skip to these sections without reading the whole of the correspondence is problematic, because these passages only make sense in an overall correspondence in which they are situated.
In fact, I can suggest to readers that the only way to truly read this volume is to be prepared to read it lovingly, slowly, and carefully. It takes time, but yields much. It is the overall development that is persuasive and (at times) almost overwhelming. Towards the end, you enter into his experiments with poetry, which make little sense outside of context, even if they also stand alone as poetry does. And the last few letters remind readers of how much wasn't said, or was said sideways. The very fact of his imprisonment pushes these letters into a kind of surreal or postmodern mode that is all the more realistic for being postmodern.
I cannot recommend the whole book highly enough. The critical apparatus is also top-notch, as in all of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Thank you Fortress Press.
I will raise unto David a righteous branch and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgement and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved and Israel shall dwell safely in confidence. And his name shall be called: the Lord our Righteousness.
One of the most haunting and traumatic passages in modern literature is to be found in a slim autobiography - Night - by the Nobel prize winner Elie Wiesel. It is an account of an incident that occurred in his childhood, a childhood spent in the concentration camps. For Elie Wiesel was a Jewish boy born in Nazi Germany. In one of them, Buna, three Jews who had attempted to escape, two men and a boy, were hanged. The other prisoners were forced to watch. The men died quickly. The boy, being lighter, was strangled more slowly,
'Where is God? Where is he' someone behind me asked ... For more then half an hour the boy stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed. Behind me I heard the same man asking: 'Where is God now?'. And I heard a voice within me answer him: "Where is He? Here he is - He is hanging here on the gallows...'
That was it. For the Jewish boy hanged and for the Jewish boy watching, God died on those gallows and hope was buried for good.
In another concentration camp, Flossenberg, a Christian pastor, theologian and would-be assassin, was waiting for his own execution at the hands of the Nazis. He asked a similar question: 'Who is God?' and gave the answer, 'A crucified Jew'. For the Christian pastor God was to be found on the gallows and Hope was resurrected in the tomb of his prison.
Last Sunday we celebrated the feast of St Amos, the prophet who condemned his own people to terrible destruction for the injustices they had committed. Amos, a prophet walked into the limelight for a few days and then walked out. When he preached against the powers that be in the Royal Chapel itself, he was rebuked by the clergy of the established Church, ignored by the prospering classes, and was left to a fate unknown.
This Sunday, as I warned you, is the Feast of St Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor - shepherd - and prophet who preached and acted to bring about the destruction of his own country. And today - this very day - is the 53rd anniversary of the failure of the attempt by the German Resistance to assassinate Hitler.
Until very recently this is a feast day little commemorated in Germany, since such men as Bonheoffer - of Schindler - are viewed ambiguously. A Saint to some, a traitor to others.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 of a well-connected, and intellectual middle class family living in Breslau. A brilliant pupil and student, he rapidly acquired distinction as a writer and teacher of the first rank. His greatest inspiration, and the ground rock of his faith, was the Sermon on the Mount, the ethical teaching of Jesus, and his greatest theological interest was the nature of the Church, and the cost of discipleship. He was an active pastor as much as an academic. Theology had to serve the pastoral ministry. In ordinary times Bonhoeffer would have been a extraordinary man, writer, teacher, intellectual, theologian, pastor. But these were not ordinary times. The spectre of Hitler was looming on the land, and the Church of which B was a pastor was bowing its knee to Baal.
This was not as surprising as it now seems. The Catholic Church was later to come to a reluctant and short-lived accommodation with the Nazis, but the Lutheran's who had flourished under the protection and support of their rulers, seemed to have no qualms. 'The Powers that be are ordained of God!' was one of the biblical passages most quoted. Some Lutherans felt they could not defy Hitler. Others had no wish to do so. These were the so-called German Christians who wholeheartedly welcomed the racist Aryan ideology of the Nazis and incorporated it into their understanding of Christianity. Jesus the Jew, St Paul the Rabbi, and Bonhoeffer the pastor had no place in that Church. Bonhoeffer and a few others broke off to form the Confessing Church. For most this was a way of retaining their Christian integrity, not bowing the knee to Baal. For Bonhoeffer it was the first step into active opposition to a satanic regime. This was merely the beginning of Bonhoeffer's isolation and exile: his was a voice increasingly crying in the wilderness, he was a prophet without honour in his own country, a pastor willing to sacrifice himself for his flock. And his flock included the Jews.
Another victim of the Nazi camps was the former U-Boat commander and Lutheran Pastor, Niemoller, who put the moral cowardice of his church and nation graphically.
First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out -
because I was not a Jew
Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out -
because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out -
becasue I was not am trade unionist.
Then they came for me -
And there was no one left to speak out for me!
The Confessing Church would not adopt racist ideology, would not deify the Fuhrer, but still closed its eyes to the fact that the Jewish Question was central to the Christian faith at that time, in that place. It was the touchstone of faith or apostasy. Almost 2000 Protestant pastors were killed serving in the armed forces in Hitler's war; only 20 were killed by Hitler for their opposition to it. This Church was no longer Bonhoeffer's home. He was in the cold world with no place to lay his head. He saw with increasing clarity that opposition to Hitler - to the Devil and all his works - was what the Christian Faith was for. He wrote a new confession of faith confessing his won and his church's failure of nerve and of faith.
The Church was silent when it should have cried out because the blood of the innocent was crying aloud to heaven. The Church stood by while violence and wrong were being committed under the cover of the name of Christ. The Church has witnessed the brutal force being applied to countless innocent people, oppression, murder, hatred, and has not raised her voice on behalf fo the victims. She is guilty of the deaths of the weakest and most defenceless brother sof Christ.
The Church has lost its faith.
To this end he aligned himself with those conspiring to murder Hilter. He alied himslef with atheists and humanists in the attempt. He would renounce all privileges, seek no different treatment form the rest. He would use whatever credibility and connections he had in their service. He would lie, deceive, masquerade, camouflage and ultimately kill. Now to be a true patriot was to be a traitor. For the sake of Humanity, Hitler must die.
He has no illusions. It was action too late. Neither he nor the others in the conspiracy had clean hands or pure motives. They had let things go this far. Their action was an act fo repentance and atonement. As conspirators, they would be reduced to behaving with deceit, lying constantly. They would contemplate murder in their heart, their hands would be washed in blood.
What is worse than doing evil is being evil. It is worse for a liar to tell the truth than for a lover of truth to lie.
Cruel times give to cruel necessity. Hitler must be stopped. But he was unstoppable. He led a charmed life. Three times they tried to kill him.
- In February 1943 a bomb (of English design) was placed on Hitler's plane but failed to explode.
- in March he was to inspect an arsenal and the conspirators got hold of his itinerary. Major von Gersdorff strapped two bombs in his coat pocket and was going to detonate them beside Hitler, killing himself in the process. Hitler was late and in a hurry. He stayed only 10 minutes not the half hour forecast.
- the third and last attempt was July 20th 1944 when a bomb was placed in a bag by the leg of table at which Hitler was sitting. It went off, but almost miraculously Hitler survived unscathed.
Bonhoeffer had already been arrested. Now his involvement in assassination came to light. He survived until April 1945, a prisoner in body but not in spirit.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed 50 years ago today. He too returned home to face the music, and to be a traitor for Christ. In the USA where he was visiting, he told Reinhold Niebuhr that Christians in Germany had two choices: either they could pray and work for the defeat of their nation which would thus preserve Christian civilisation or they could actively participate in their country's victory and thus bring about the destruction of that Christian civilisation. He knew which choice he had to make and knew he could not make it from the safety of America. He went home, offered himself as an Army Chaplain, was involved in the plot against Hitler, was triad and condemned for treason, and executed in Flossenberg Concentration Camp.
This great work written in prison is a lasting testament to a noble man, a righteous gentile