Included in the collection of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's prison writings are two poems that it appears he must have written at Tegel Prison in Berlin in mid-July 1944, around the mid-point of his doomed imprisonment (April 1943 to April 1945). The first is justifiably famous, expressing as it does Bonhoeffer's own strange and strained relationship to his pending martyrdom :
WHO AM I?
Who am I? They often tell me
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Who am I? This or the other?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of
What makes this so affecting is that he tells us of the doubts and terrors that afflicted him, yet we know of the eerie serenity and equanimity with which he mounted the scaffold to face his own hanging.
It seems though that the other poem he wrote at this time is less well known, and it strikes me as somewhat more pertinent to our times (after all, hopefully there are few of us who will ever face the situation that he did) :
CHRISTIANS AND UNBELIEVERS
Men go to God when they are sore bestead,
Men go to God when he is sore bestead,
God goeth to every man when sore bestead,
In a letter of July 18, 1944, Bonhoeffer offered his own analysis of the ideas he was trying to develop in these verses. He explained to his correspondent :
The poem about Christians and Unbelievers embodies
an idea you will recognize: 'Christians range themselves with God in his
He must therefore plunge himself into the life of
a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with
a veneer of
This is particularly stern stuff for us, who live in an age when religion has pretty much been reduced to a glorified self-help program, a sickeningly shallow way to feel good about ourselves. Even the Christians are now heathens, interested in God only for what He can do for them. As one of the lessons of Bonhoeffer's life and death is the power of faith to quiet a tumultuous soul when events oppress us, so must another be that the experience of God is not a oneway street, where we take, take, take. He does not exist merely to comfort us and heal our petty personal wounds, like some sanctified version of Deepak Chopra. Our approach towards Him serves also, perhaps more importantly, to understand something of the world as it must appear to Him--with billions of souls, besides our own, beset on all sides by sin, crying out for help.
When Bonhoeffer spoke of a godless world he meant something to the effect that God is not an immediate presence to be turned to when we have problems, as He had seemed in earlier times, but that instead we must learn to help ourselves. Mightn't we also say that the world is godless in the sense that we are not willing to participate in the suffering of others in the here and now, but are so consumed with the self that we seek only an escape of some kind from this reality? Bonhoeffer summoned us to live in this world, filled as it is with sin and wickedness, rather than to pine for the next, to lift our gaze from our own navels and to see and feel the suffering of others around us. It is a summons we still choose not to hear.
Bonhoeffer tried to end his letter on a hopeful note, but the final lines are heartbreaking :
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.
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
Maybe Bonhoeffer was right in this, one of his central ideas, and the world is godless because mankind and the world have come of age and we must push God away and stand on our own as if He did not exist. But our continuing focus on ourselves to the exclusion of everything else certainly seems more the mark of an infantile culture than a mature one. If God is nigh, surely it is not because we have done anything to deserve it; witness what was done to this thoughtful, decent man.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer Home Page (International Bonhoeffer Society)
-Augsburg Fortress--Dietrich Bonhoeffer
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer (US Holocaust Memorial Museum)
-International Network on Personal Meaning : Dietrich Bonhoeffer
-Bonhoeffer (GLIMPSES FROM CHURCH HISTORY)
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) (Kin's Home Page)
-ESSAY : Contributions to human rights in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics (Michael L. Westmoreland-White, 01/01/97, Journal of Church & State)
-ESSAY : Who, exactly, is a Righteous Gentile? : Since 1986 Yad Vashem has declined to honor a Lutheran pastor killed in the fight against Nazism. Undaunted, the lawyer grandson of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise has gone public in his campaign to get Dietrich Bonhoeffer the recognition he feels he deserves. (MARILYN HENRY, Jerusalem Post)
-ESSAY : Why isn't Bonhoeffer honored at Yad Vashem? (Christian Century, February 25 1998 by Stephen A. Wise)
-ESSAY : Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "Historical" Reading of the Bible
-ESSAY : First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin: Bonhoeffer's New York (Scott Holland, CrossCurrents)
-ESSAY : Radical Theology and the Death of God by Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton : Dietrich Bonhoeffer by William Hamilton (Religion Online)
-ESSAY : The New Godless Theology (Kurt Eggenstein)
-ESSAY : The Death of God (faithnet)
-ESSAY : Theology and Philosophy In Dialogue (David R. Crownfield, July 1967, Theology Today)
-ESSAY : Crouching Tiger, Hidden . . . Bonhoeffer? (Daniel L. Weiss, Breakpoint)
-ARCHIVES : "dietrich bonhoeffer" (Find Articles)
-ARCHIVES : bonhoeffer (NY Review of Books)
-ARCHIVES : bonhoeffer (Mag Portal)
-REVIEW : of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Man of Vision, Man of Courage By Eberhard Bethge (Beate Ruhm Von Oppen, Theology Today)
-REVIEW : of Love Letters From Cell 92, edited by Ruth-Alice von Bismarck and Ulrich Kabitz (Wendy Murray Zoba , Christianity Today)
-REVIEW : of The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer Edited by John W. de Gruchy (Jeffrey Hensley, Journal of Church and State)
-REVIEW : of Saints and Villains By Denise Giardina (Paul Baumann, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Saints and Villains by Denise Giardina and Cup of Wrath by Mary Glazener : Bonhoeffer: Factual Fictions (Betty Smartt Carter, Books & Culture)
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