A week ago I started what may turn out to be one of my favorite classes. The next few months at Fuller I’m studying the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian alive during the rise of Hitler. He was executed about one month before the Nazi’s final demise. While I do not agree with everything Bonhoeffer believed or did, his life offers us a vulnerable look at how to live out a faith in Christ amidst the most trying times one might imagine.
The first book I read for the course is called A Spoke in the Wheel by Renate Wind. It provides both a biographical look on Bonhoeffer’s life as well as a collection of some of his writings. Below are some of the quotes from the book that most stood out to me.
His later friend Eberhard Bethge, who probably knew him best, said in retrospect: “Because he was lonely he became a theologian, and because he was a theologian he became lonely.”
Dietrich mentioned three possibilities of church action towards the state: “In the first place it can ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, i.e., it can throw the state back on its responsibilities. Secondly, it can aid the victims of state action. The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community. The third possibility is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.”
He did not live to see how German Christians felt no guilt over the concentration camps, euthanasia programs, and genocide, and how after the end of the Nazi regime almost all of them would remain in office.
From London Dietrich wrote to Karl Barth, whom in the meantime he had come to know personally: “I felt that I was incomprehensibly in radical opposition to all my friends, that my view of matters was taking me more and more into isolation. . . . I was afraid that I would go wrong out of obstinacy – and I saw no reason why I should see these things more correctly, better than so many able and good pastors – and so I thought that it was probably time to go into the wilderness for a while.”
This brought Dietrich to his theme, “How can obedience to the command of Jesus be shown today?” His answer: by attempting to live according to the Sermon on the Mount without compromise. For him that was not retreat into a Christian ghetto in which one achieves a personal piety far from the world, but a basic program for an opposition church which does not allow the world to do what it wants.
And here a few directly from Bonhoeffer:
Consider what is on earth. By that much will be decided today, whether we Christians have enough strength to bear witness to the world that we are no dreamers with our heads in the clouds. That we do not let things come and go as they are, that our faith really is not opium which leaves us content in the middle of an unjust world. But that precisely because we look to what is above we protest all the more stubbornly and deliberately on this earth.
If you board the wrong train it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.
The life of Jesus Christ on earth is not finished yet, for he continues to live in the lives of his followers.
Our speech must be truthful, not in principle but concretely. A truthfulness which is not concrete is not truthful before God. `Telling the truth,’ therefore, is not solely a matter of moral character; it is also a matter of correct appreciation of real situations and of serious reflection upon them. The more complex the actual situations of a man’s life, the more responsible and difficult will be his task of `telling the truth.
It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life…. Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life.
Our church, which over these years has fought only for its self-preservation as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of being the vehicle of the reconciling and redeeming word for human beings and the world. So the former words must become powerless and fall silent, and our being Christians today must consist of two things: in praying and doing what is right among men.
“The life of Jesus is not finished yet, for he continues to live in the lives of his followers.”Click to tweet
And finally, here’s part of a poem written by Dietrich that I find particularly moving:
Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
Even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
We will not falter, thankfully receiving
All that is given by thy loving hand.
But should it be thy will once more to release us
To lifeâ€™s enjoyment and its good sunshine,
That which weâ€™ve learned from sorrow shall increase us,
And all our life be dedicate to thine.
Today, let candles shed their radiant greetings;
Lo, on our darkness are they not thy light
Leading us, haply, to our longed-for meeting?
Thou canst illumine even our darkest night.