Faith and Reason / A prophet who paid the ultimate price

The Rev Hugh Searle looks at the lessons to be learnt from the example of the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis 50 years ago tomorrow.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The guest-room at Union Theological Seminary, in New York, is named after a German pastor called Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As a student he spent a year at Union in 1930-31. He returned there in the summer of 1939 so that he might avoid being conscripted into Hitler's army.

He occupied the guest-room, then known as the Prophet's Chamber. He only stayed for three and a half weeks. His great friend and biographer, Eberhard Bethge, recalls that, after Bonhoeffer had departed, the room was occupied by a Professor McNeill. "He was surprised," Bethge records, "at the mass of illegible sheets of paper of his unknown predecessor, and at the quantities of cigarettes that he had smoked. He thought he must be either a very hard worker or very slipshod."

I see these sheets of scribbled notepaper, and these cigarette ends, as symbols of Dietrich Bonhoeffer; of a man and his struggles; symbols of the seriousness with which he engaged with the demands of life on the one hand, and with the meaning of faith on the other. In that guest- room, after a time of intense personal conflict, he made the momentous decision to return to Germany. He gave his reasons in a letter:

I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany . . . Such a decision a man must make for himself. Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilisation may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilisation. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make the choice in security.

Thereafter, Bonhoeffer not only willed and prayed for the defeat of his nation. He actively participated in conspiracy against Hitler. For this he paid the ultimate price. After two years in prison, he was hanged in Flossenburg concentration camp on 9 April 1945.

The letters he wrote from prison to Eberhard Bethge are rightly famous for their daring theological insights. He reflects on the failures of the Church in the face of Nazi tyranny, and on the ruthless efficiency which made that tyranny so terrifying. Surrounded by such deep darkness he asks: Who is Jesus Christ for us today?

The question still needs to be asked, as it does in every generation. But his affirmations that we discover Christ in the midst of the world; and that the Church exists for others through prayer and action still remain uncomfortable words of prophecy for the Church.

To remember him is to affirm the importance of what Bonhoeffer himself came to recognise as the goal and purpose of all human aspirations, including spiritual aspirations - namely, to be a life-affirming, fulfilled, adult person within the realities of everyday living. This is not primarily a matter of modelling our identity on some psychological photo-kit of the ideal superman or woman. It is not even to model ourselves on an imagined Christ. It is simply to be a human being, a man. As Bonhoeffer wrote on 21 July 1944, the day after the last attempt to assassinate Hitler failed:

It is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one.

His story, therefore, can be understood as one man's quest to discover and become in the fullest sense a man; and to become such a person is what he, in the end, calls "the profound this-worldliness of Christianity".

Moreover, to remember his struggles is to speak of that search for responsible, free, and truthful living which is a key to our understanding of what it means to be a mature adult. Some appear to believe that struggle is the mark of adolescence, that it is something we grow out of as we progress along the path towards adulthood. By contrast Bonhoeffer shows us that it is the adolescent who sees the world in black and white, whose commitments and passions tend to be focused on single-issue over-simplifications of reality and packaged solutions to life'sproblems. To remember Bonhoeffer is to come close to a companion who in his thinking and living locates adulthood not in a garden named Eden, but a garden named Gethsemane.

So we remember him on this the 50th anniversary of his martyrdom. And we recall the crumpled notepaper and cigarette ends - symbols of a man and his struggles, of his unhesitating readiness to take responsibility before God, so that both he, and the world, might grow to manhood in Christ.