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Prophets: Part Two

Friday, July 12, 2019

We live by responding to the word of God . . . since this word is addressed to our entire life, the response, too, can only be an entire one; it must be given with our entire life as it is realized in all our several actions.­ —Dietrich Bonhoeffer [1]

The German Lutheran pastor and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), who was executed at Flossenburg prison camp, could be considered a modern prophet. I personally believe that the Catholic Church should canonize Bonhoeffer a saint—of the first magnitude. Robert Ellsberg writes about Bonhoeffer’s impact over time and his invitation today.

[Bonhoeffer’s] witness has inspired other Christians wrestling with the ethical dilemmas of responsible action in the face of oppression. Through most of his career Bonhoeffer had espoused a pacifist position, and he never ceased to believe that violence was inconsistent with the ideals of the gospel. In the end, however, he believed that the crisis of the times was so grave as to require that certain Christians willingly compromise their purity of conscience for the sake of others. . . .

As a theologian, Bonhoeffer’s reputation rests largely on the vision forged in the confinement of his last years and disclosed in letters smuggled to his friend, Eberhard Bethge. Here he outlined the need for a new “religionless Christianity,” a way of talking about God in a secular language appropriate for a “world come of age.” Traditional religious language tended to posit a stop-gap deity occupying a “religious” realm on the boundaries of day-to-day life. Instead, Bonhoeffer wrote,

I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in [humanity’s] life and goodness. . . . God is the beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village. [2]

In the postwar decades these writings helped inspire a broad range of Christians seeking to overcome the gulf between the churches and the secular world. More recently . . . theologians have highlighted a more radical insight in Bonhoeffer’s writings: “It remains an experience of incomparable value that we have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short, from the perspective of the suffering.” [3]

And it is perhaps in this light, in which he came to see the identity between the cross of Jesus and solidarity with the oppressed, that Bonhoeffer offers such a poignant model of contemporary holiness. After the war some German Christians were reluctant to call him a martyr, since he had been executed for political rather than “religious” charges. This attitude, which would set the “holy life” apart from the world and its concrete demands, exemplified the religious mentality that Bonhoeffer rejected. For him, following Christ was a matter of engagement in this world, “living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world—watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think is faith, that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a [person] and a Christian.” [4]

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. Neville Horton Smith (Touchstone: 1995, ©1955), 219.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, letter to Eberhard Bethge (April 30, 1944), Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, rev. ed. (The Macmillan Company: 1967), 155.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “An Account at the Turn of the Year 1942–1943,” Letters and Papers from Prison (Fortress Press: 2015), 20.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, letter to Eberhard Bethge (July 21, 1944), Letters and Papers from Prison (Macmillan: 1967), 202.

Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 1997, 1998), 161.

Image credit: Deborah Under the Palm Tree (detail) by Adriene Cruz. Used with permission of the artist. See more of Cruz’s work: adrienecruz.com.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: A prophet is one who keeps God free for people and who keeps people free for God. —Richard Rohr
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