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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
    I would step from my cellís confinement
    calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
    like a squire from his country-house.
    Who am I? They also tell me
    I would talk to my warders
    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 myself 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.

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,
    Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
    For mercy for them sick, sinning or dead:
    All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

    Men go to God when he is sore bestead,
    Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
    Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead:
    Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

    God goeth to every man when sore bestead,
    Feedeth body and spirit with his bread,
    For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead:
    And both alike forgiving.

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 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 trying 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 asceticism (as a sinner, a penitent or a saint), but to be 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 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.
    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.

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.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

See also:

Poetry
Dietrich Bonhoeffer Links:

    -Dietrich Bonhoeffer Home Page (International Bonhoeffer Society)
    -Bonhoeffer's Cell
    -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)

FILM :
    -Bonhoeffer :  Agent of Grace (PBS)
    -INFO : Bonhoeffer : Agent of Grace  (2000) (Imdb.com)
    -BUY IT : Bonhoeffer : Agent of Grace (Amazon.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Eric Till (Imdb.com)
    -REVIEW : of Bonhoeffer :  Agent of Grace (Elesha Coffman, Christianity Today)
    -REVIEW : of Bonhoeffer : Agent of Grace (Craig von Buseck, CBN)
    -REVIEW : of Bonhoeffer  : Agent of Grace (Hollywood Jesus Movie Review)
    -REVIEW : of Bonhoeffer : Agent of Grace (Allan R. Andrews, American Reporter)
    -REVIEW : of Hanged on a Twisted Cross and A View From the Underside (Mary Glazener, Sojourners)

GENERAL :
    -REVIEW : of The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive  World History. By Robert Royal (Alicia Mosier, First Things)
    -REVIEW : Jan 9, 1997 Thomas Powers: The Conspiracy That Failed
       BOOKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ARTICLE
       Plotting Hitler's Death: The Story of the German Resistance by Joachim Fest and translated by Bruce Little
       The Unnecessary War: Whitehall and the German Resistance to Hitler by Patricia Meehan
       Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-1944 by Peter Hoffmann
       American Intelligence and the German Resistance to Hitler: A Documentary History edited by Jürgen Heideking and Christof Mauch
       The Unseen War in Europe: Espionage and Conspiracy in the Second World War by John H. Waller
       Changing Enemies: The Defeat and Regeneration of Germany by Noel Annan
    -REVIEW : of Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust,  ed. Robert Ericksen and Susannah Heschel (Dagmar Herzog, Tikkun)
    -REVIEW: of Bonhoeffer (2003) (Elvis Mitchell, NY Times)

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