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The Road to Freedom

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Last Writings

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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  • Claudio Oliver

    Thanks, thanks and thanks again for this inspiring article... it helps to keep the focus on the right path, and to encourage those struggling about how to act in times of trouble. Inspirational and in perfect timing. Love you, Sisters and brothers.

  • metin erdem

    The Journey of hope; Unfortunately many brothers and sisters struggle on the Journey of hope. All they want is a peaceful life and freedom. They leave their homeland , because of war. They want to reach free and rich countries . But not all of them can reach to their dream. They die on the journey of hope. From Syrian, Somalia, Yemen, Afganhstan, Iraq. No matter where they are from but all they want is a peace of freedom. We think of them and pray God for their peace.

  • Al Owski

    I don't recall who wrote it, Bonhoeffer or Bethge, but the moral ground of that time was so turbulent there was "no place to set one's foot" and better to have a guilty conscience than a dead one. In our time, the ground is not as unsure as in Bonhoeffer's time, and we are not passing the test as believers. I refuse to pass judgement on Bonhoeffer's decision to join the resistance, because I couldn't be sure what I would do when faced with such choices under such circumstances. I only hope I would do the right thing in the eyes of God.

  • Ed Wolfe

    This article reminded me of the African American Spiritual, 'There Is a Balm in Gilead'… Thank you!

Selected and edited by Susannah Black

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – theologian, pastor, dissident, and martyr – will remain a controversial figure. Did he, a convinced pacifist, take part in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler? Where was his theology heading? The following selections from his last writings will not resolve these questions. But they do show what enabled him to bear the consequences of his opposition to the Nazi regime: his complete rootedness in Christ’s overcoming love.

By late 1942, the independent Confessing Church seminaries had been closed for five years. Even the underground seminary that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had started in Finkenwald had been broken up by the Gestapo in 1939. But Bonhoeffer worked hard to maintain ties among the Finkenwald seminarians and other Confessing Church pastors. He sent them a series of circular letters – hand-signed and hand-addressed – reporting on the activities and deaths of members of this circle, encouraging those remaining, and continuing their instruction. The last of these letters was written on November 29, 1942, several months before his arrest:footnote

Dear Brother …,

At the beginning of a letter that in this solemn hour is meant to call you all to true joy, there necessarily stand the names of those brothers who have died since I last wrote to you: P. Wälde, W. Brandenburg, Hermann Schröder, R. Lynker, Erwin Schutz, K. Rhode, Alfred Viol, Kurt Onnasch, Fritz’s second brother; in addition to them, and presumably known to many of you, Major von Wedemeyer and his oldest son, Max.

“Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads” (Isaiah 35:10). We are glad for them; indeed, should we say that we sometimes secretly envy them? From early times the Christian church has considered acedia – the melancholy of the heart, or resignation – to be one of the mortal sins. “Serve the Lord with joy” (Psalm 100:2) – thus do the scriptures call out to us. For this our life has been given to us, and for this it has been preserved for us unto the present hour.

This joy, which no one shall take from us, belongs not only to those who have been called home but also to us who are alive. We are one with them in this joy, but never in melancholy. How are we going to be able to help those who have become joyless and discouraged if we ourselves are not borne along by courage and joy? Nothing contrived or forced is intended here, but something bestowed and free.

Joy abides with God, and it comes down from God and embraces spirit, soul, and body; and where this joy has seized a person, there it spreads, there it carries one away, there it bursts open closed doors.

A sort of joy exists that knows nothing at all of the heart’s pain, anguish, and dread; it does not last; it can only numb a person for the moment. The joy of God has gone through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable. It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but finds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye, but it finds life precisely within it.

What matters is this joy that has overcome. It alone is credible; it alone helps and heals. The joy of our companions who have been called home is also the joy of those who have overcome – the Risen One bears the marks of the cross on his body. We still stand in daily overcoming; they have overcome for all time. God alone knows how far away or near at hand we stand to the final overcoming in which our own death may be made joy for us.

Some among us suffer greatly because they are internally deadening themselves against so much suffering, such as these war years bring in their wake. One person said to me recently, “I pray every day that I may not become numb.” That is by all means a good prayer.

And yet we must guard ourselves against confusing ourselves with Christ. Christ endured all suffering and all human guilt himself in full measure – indeed, this was what made him Christ, that he and he alone bore it all. But Christ was able to suffer along with others because he was simultaneously able to redeem from suffering. Out of his love and power to redeem people came his power to suffer with them.

We are not called to take upon ourselves the suffering of all the world; by ourselves we are fundamentally not able to suffer with others at all, because we are not able to redeem. But the wish to suffer with them by one’s own power will inevitably be crushed into resignation. We are called only to gaze full of joy at the One who in reality suffered with us and became the Redeemer.

Full of joy, we are enabled to believe that there was and is One to whom no human suffering or sin is foreign and who in deepest love accomplished our redemption. Only in such joy in Christ the Redeemer shall we be preserved from hardening ourselves where human suffering encounters us.

Whoever I am, Thou knowest me, O God, I am thine!

In July 1944, Bonhoeffer had been in prison for over a year. He’d composed prayers for other prisoners, circulating them illegally, and ended each day in prayer, including prayers for his guards. His composure and evident dependence on Christ would become legendary. Fellow prisoner Fabian von Schlaberdorff writes that Bonhoeffer kept them all going, “consoling those who had lost all hope and giving them fresh courage. A towering rock of faith, he became a shining example to his fellow prisoners.”footnote  It was then that he wrote this, enclosing a copy in a letter to his parents:

Who am I?footnote

Who am I? They often tell me
I step 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 one 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!

The next month, on August 23, 1944, he wrote in a final letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge:

...I am so sure of God’s guiding hand that I hope I shall always be kept in that certainty. You must never doubt that I’m travelling with gratitude and cheerfulness along the road where I’m being led. My past life is brim-full of God’s goodness, and my sins are covered by the forgiving love of Christ crucified....

“I have hardly seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

 On February 7, he was transferred to Buchenwald; then, on April 6, with several others, to another facility. April 8 was a Sunday: Bonhoeffer led a worship service for the prisoners, speaking on the Scriptures for the day: “Through his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5) and “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again into a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). Early the following morning, Bonhoeffer was lead to the scaffold. The camp doctor watched: “Through the half-door in 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 of the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”footnote

Stations on the Road to Freedomfootnote

Discipline
If you are drawn to seek freedom, learn first of all
to discipline yourself and your senses, lest desires
and your members lead you hither and thither.
Pure and chaste be your body and spirit, totally under control,
and obedient, seeking the goal which is set for them.
No one experiences the secret of freedom, except by discipline.

Action
Choose and do what is right, not what fancy takes,
not weighting the possibilities, but bravely grasping the real,
not in the flight of ideas, but only in action is there freedom.
Come away from your anxious hesitations into the storm of events,
carried by God’s command and your faith alone.
Then freedom will embrace your spirit with rejoicing.

Suffering
Wondrous is the change. The strong active hands
are bound now. Powerless and alone, you see the end
of your action. Yet, you breathe a sigh of relief and lay it aside
quietly trusting to stronger hands and are content.
Only for a moment did you touch the bliss of freedom,
then you gave it back to God that He might gloriously fulfill it.

Death
Come now, highest feast on the way to everlasting freedom,
death. Lay waste the burdens of chains and walls
which confine our earthly bodies and blinded souls,
that we see at last what here we could not see.
Freedom, we sought you long in discipline, action and suffering.
Dying, we recognize you now in the face of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, standing and smoking a pipe.

Footnotes

  1. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Translated by Lisa F. Dahill. Mark S. Brocker, Ed. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 16, Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940–1945 (Fortress, 2006). 377-8
  2. Fabian von Schlabrendorff, The Secret War Against Hitler (London: Hodder and Stroughton, 1966). 324.
  3. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Translated by Nancy Lukens et al. Eberhard Bethge et al, eds. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 8, Letters and Papers from Prison (Fortress, 2010). 459.
  4. Quoted in Devine, Mark, Bonhoeffer Speaks Today. Nashville: Broadman & Holman (2005). 36-37
  5. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Prison Poems. Edwin Robinson, ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan (1999). 73-74
Contributed By A black and white image of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ca. 1931 Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Unwilling to allow the church to compromise its most fundamental beliefs in the face of Nazism, Dietrich Bonhoeffer worked tirelessly to keep the true spirit of the church alive in Germany. His resistance cost him his life.

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