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Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters And Papers From Prison

A taste of his thoughts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers From Prison” (Collins Fontana Books; London:1953) pp. 122 -125


July 18th 1944

I wonder how many of our letters have been destroyed in the raids on Munich? Did you get the one containing the two poems (Who Am I? and Christians and Unbelievers)? It was just sent off that evening, and it also contained a few introduc­tory remarks on our theological theme. The poem about Chris­tians and Unbelievers embodied an idea you will recognise. “Christians range themselves with God in his suffering; that is what distinguishes them from the heathen.” As Jesus asked in Gethsemane,” Could ye not watch with me one hour?” That is the exact opposite of what the religious man expects from God. Man is challenged to participate in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world.

He must therefore plunge himself into the life of a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion or try to transfigure it. He must live a ‘Worldly” life and so participate in the suffering of God. He may live a worldly life as one emancipated from all false religions and obligations. To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of ascetism (as a sinner, a penitent or a saint), but to he a man. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.

This is metanoia. It is not in the first instance bothering about ones own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneseIf to he caught up in the way of Christ, into the Messianic event, and thus fulfilling Isaiah 53. Therefore, ” believe in the Gospel or in the words of St John the Baptist `’Behold the lamb of God-that taketh away the sin of the world.” (By the way, Jeremias has recently suggested that in Aramaic the word for “lamb” could also mean “servant” – very appropriate­, in view of Isaiah 53) This being caught up into the Messianic suffering of God in Jesus Christ takes a variety of forms in the New Testament. It appears in the call to discipleship, in Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners, in conversions in the narrower sense of the word (e.g. Zacchaeus) , in the act of the woman who was a sinner (Luke 7), an act which she performed without any specific confession of sin, in the healing of the sick (Matthew 8.17, see above), in Jesus’ acceptance of the children. The shepherds, like the wise men, from the cast standing at the crib not as converted sinners, but because they were drawn to the crib, by the star just as they were. The centurion of Capernaum (who does not make any confession of sin) is held up by Jesus as a model of faith,(cf Jairus). Jesus loves the rich young man. The eunuch (Acts 8), Cornelius (Acts 10) are anything but “existences over the abyss.” Nathanael is an Israelite without guile (John 1.47). Finally, Joseph of Arimathaea and the women at the tomb. All that is common between them is their participation in the suffering of God in Christ. That is their faith. There is nothing of religious asceticism here. The religious act is always something partial, faith is always something whole involving the whole life. Jesus does not call men to a new religion, but to life. – What is the nature of that life, that participation in the powerlessness of God in the world? More about that next time, I hope.

Just one more point for to-day. When we speak of God in a non-religious way, we must not gloss over the ungodliness of the world, but expose it in a new light. Now that it has come of age, the world is more godless, and perhaps it is for that very reason nearer to God than ever before.

Forgive me putting it all so clumsily and badly… We have to get up nearly every night at 1.30, which is not very good for work like this.

~ ~ ~

July 21st 1944′

All 1 want to do to-day is to send you a short greeting. I expect you are often thinking about us, and you an always pleased to hear we are still alive, even if we lay aside our theological discussion for the moment. It’s true these theo­logical problems are always occupying my mind, but there are times when I am just content to live the lift of faith without, worrying about its problems. In such moods I take a simple pleasure in the text of the day, and yesterday’s and to-day’s were particularly good (July 20th: Psalm 20.8: Romans 8.31; July 21st: Psalm 23.1: John 10.24). Then I go back to Paul Ger­hardt’s wonderful hymns, which never pall.

During the last year or so I have come to appreciate the worldliness of Christianity as never before. The Christian is not a homo relgiosus, but a man, pure and simple, just as Jesus was a man, on par with John the Baptist anyhow. I don’t mean the shallow this-worldliness of the enlightened, of the busy, the comfortable or the lascivious. It’s something much more profound than that, something in which the knowledge of death and resurrection Is ever present. I believe Luther live a this-worldly life in this sense. I remember talking to a young French pastor at A. thirteen years ago. We were discussing what our real purpose was in life. He said he would like to be­come a saint. I think it is quite likely he did become one. At the time I was very much impressed, though I disagreed with him, and said I should prefer to have faith, or words to that effect. For a long time I did not realise how far we were apart. I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life or something like it. It was in this phase that I wrote the Cost of Discipleship. Today I can see the dangers of this book, though I am prepared to stand by what I wrote.

Later I discovered and am still discovering up to this very moment that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to believe. One must attempt to abandon every attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, a churchman (the priestly type, so called!) a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. This is what I mean by worldliness – taking life in one’s stride, with all its duties and problems, its successes and failures, its experiences and helplessness. It is in such a life that we throw ourselves into the arms of God and participate in his sufferings in the world and watch with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith, that is metonoia and that is what makes a man and a Christian (cf Jeremiah 45) How can success make us arrogant or failure lead us astray, when we participate in the sufferings of God by living in this world?

I think you get my meaning, though I put it so briefly. I am glad I have been able to learn it, and I know I could only have done so along the road I have travelled. So I am grateful and content with the past and the present. Perhaps you are surprised at the personal tone of this letter, but if for once I want to talk like this, to whom else should I say it? May God in his mercy lead us through these times. But above all may he lead us to himself!

I was delighted to hear from you, and glad you aren’t finding it too hot. There must still be many letters from me on the way. Did we travel more or less along that way in 1936?

Good-bye. Take care of yourself and don’t lose hope that we shall all meet again soon!



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  1. thank you for these letters, so pertinent today as well as then. john.

    Posted by John | September 28, 2010, 1:24 am