What Bonhoeffer Said When Hitler Survived

Today marks 78 years since the failed 20 July plot to assassinate Hitler. 78 years ago, and nearly 500 miles away, Dietrich Bonhoeffer sat in Tegal prison. He was waiting for news. He knew his suspicious associations (which had landed him in prison) would turn treasonous if the plot failed. When no news came, Bonhoeffer wrote.

It was cryptic reflection to his good friend Ebhard Bethage. In the letter, he recalled a conversation with a Frenchman, Jean Lasserre, during his time in 1930’s America. They spoke about their aspirations as young men, studying theology. Lasserre wanted to be a saint. Bonhoeffer said he wanted faith.

It was on that very trip to America with Lasserre, in an African American church in the American South, where Bonhoeffer heard the gospel preached for the first time. This experience with the African American church changed him. So much so that he returned to Nazi Germany with clear eyes for the struggle ahead.

We forget, Bonhoeffer confronted nationalism in the church before he resisted the tyranny of his government. It really is something: the faith of Bonhoeffer and the faith of Martin Luther King Jr. were both shaped by the same stream.

A decade later in Germany, Bonhoeffer’s vision had not dimmed. But his life had narrowed. This was the effect of faith. The wide range of options, choices, and circumstances which characterized his earlier life had converged into a single, solitary path of suffering God alone had called him to walk. This subverts our American story, which seems to define “freedom” (and so freedom as *Christians* too) with the guarantee and presence of an infinitely expanding catalogue of choices. The Christian life is on the opposite trajectory.

Now from his cell he saw that, in faith, “one has completely renounced making something of oneself—whether it be a saint or converted sinner…one only learns to have faith by living in the full ‘this-worldliness’ of life.” To have faith is to be paradoxically dispossessed and yet set free to live.

For Bonhoeffer, “this-worldliness” meant “…living fully in the midst of life’s tasks, questions, successes and failures, experiences, and perplexities. Then one takes seriously no longer one’s own sufferings but rather the suffering of God in the world. Then one stays awake with Christ in Gethsemane. And I think this is faith;”

We hear a lot of talk these days about “defending” Christianity. We have not heard a lot of questions asking what this talk benefits. Might it be our own comfort & control?

Faith is not an evacuation or escape, but an embrace. It is an embrace of the life of God in the world we live in. We live in hope of tomorrow, of New Creation, yes. But this is not a hope without faith or love. It is demonstrative (faith) and it is effective (love). It orients our actions, and fills them with compassion. In all this, in living in the world, we suffer. This is what it means to identify with Christ. It’s what it has always meant.

We cannot manufacture persecution or martyrdom, a witness to God before the world, from within artificial bubbles of purity and protection. We can only bear witness to God for the world by being implicated in the attempts to live responsibly, in full view of our world and moment.

Bonhoeffer’s 20 July reflection still speaks. He embodied the reality that the Christian is not resigned to bare fate. We are called to responsibility, to the taking seriously of our situation and the action it brings forth, while admitting there is much we cannot control. There remains a final judgment and vindication for those who live this way, that was was sown to the Spirit will, one day, inherit eternal life.

Published by Jared Stacy

Jared is an American Pastor, writer, and PhD Candidate in Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

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