Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Wisdom from Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer shares a nugget of wisdom in his Papers and Letters from Prison. The proper way to view other human beings is through a particular lens colored by humility, self-awareness and compassion. See what he has to see about the matter.

The man who despises another will never be able to make anything of him. Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves. Why have we hitherto thought so intemperately about man and his frailty and temptability? We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. The only profitable relationship to others — and especially to our weaker brethren — is one of love, and that means the will to hold fellowship with them. God himself did not despise humanity, but became man for men’s sake.

Contaminated By Responsible Action

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a theologian positioned in a challenging historical situation. As a Christ-follower, pastor and professor he wrestled with the dynamic of Hitler’s dictatorship and the terror of the Holocaust.

What must a responsible disciple of Christ do in such an impossible context? Many turned a blind eye to the situation and plugged their ears. Bonhoeffer pushed for and modeled a different path. His comments are wise and challenging in this regard.

Here and there people flee from public altercation into the sanctuary of private virtuousness. But anyone who does this must shut his mouth and his eyes to the injustice around him. Only at the cost of self-deception can he keep himself pure from the contamination arising from responsible action. In spite of all that he does, what he leaves undone will rob him of his peace of mind. He will either go to pieces because of the disquiet, or become the most hypocritical of Pharisees.

Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles. his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God—the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God. Where are these responsible people?

Responsible action is messy. When you enter the fray obediently, staying clean is unlikely. The idea that a Christian can stay faithful and unscathed by the mess around them is faulty. This “private virtuousness” that removes our neighbors from us and keeps the world at bay is no virtue at all.

Bonhoeffer’s theology would root virtue in the cross; the embodiment of contamination for responsible action.

Who am I?

This is a poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer written while he was imprisoned in Germany. I find it challenging and refreshing.

Who am I? They often tell me I would step from my cell’s confinement calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me I would talk to my warden freely and friendly and clearly, as though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me I would bear the days of misfortune equably, smilingly, proudly, like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of, or am I only what I know of myself, restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds, thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness, trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation, tossing in expectation of great events, powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance, weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making, faint and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the other? Am I one person today, and tomorrow another? Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others, and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling? Or is something within me still like a beaten army, fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine.