N-G is for Nazi Germany,
the dark, death-dealing reality in which Dietrich Bonhoeffer shines with the Light and Life of Christ, then and now. We remember his witness (literally, his martyrdom) 60 years after the fact -- April 9, 1945.
Discipleship and the Cross
The Witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Throughout the ages Christian men and women have sought to express their faith and commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed. Understanding what that might look like has not always been easy to articulate, let alone accept, even by the most fervent Christians. But one noteworthy example of what it means to follow Christ is Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
As a young German Lutheran pastor and theologian, Bonhoeffer wrote in a powerful and lucid way on the meaning of Christian discipleship. Concerning the Christian life, Bonhoeffer knew that there was no such thing as a partial or tentative commitment to Christ. "When Christ calls a man," he wrote, "he bids him come and die." (Cost of Discipleship)
What makes Bonhoeffer a fascinating person to Christians and non-Christians alike is how he personally heeded that call. He heard Christ's call as a summons to risk life and limb for the well-being of the German people who capitulated to the evil promises of Hitler's Nazi vision. For that call Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned as an "enemy of the State," a charge which he did not deny, and which was tentatively revoked by the German authorities in 1996. Frankly, I doubt that Bonhoeffer would approve of the revoking of the charge, for it was part and parcel of his historical witness. Just listen. (See John W. DeGruchy, "Bonhoeffer's Legacy: A New Generation," Christian Century, April 2, 1997). When asked by the Gestapo concerning this, he answered simply, "Yes, as a Christian, I am an enemy of this State. I am against everything you Nazis stand for." On April 9, 1945 Bonhoeffer was executed for his commitment--only a month before the Allied forces arrived and defeated the Nazis.
Of course, Bonhoeffer knew that most Christians would not lose their life for confessing their faith in the same way he did, by literal martyrdom at the hands of the hangman. Most Christians lose their life in obscurity, simply by being faithful disciples in the midst of their day-to-day struggles. But on second thought, that is in reality how Bonhoeffer died, too. His struggle with Nazism was not something he sought out. Rather, it was something that was thrust upon him in the course of his day-to-day life, much as all our struggles are thrown upon us. As Christians, we can easily find ourselves being an "enemy" of the status quo, if we dare acknowledge it. What we are prone to forget is precisely what Bonhoeffer would have us remember: namely, that no matter what our situation in life is, as Christians, we are called by Christ to a life that is lived for all others.
That, by the way, points to Bonhoeffer's favorite way of thinking about Christ. Jesus was the "man for all others" (a Christological title he himself coined), so much so that he gave his life for them. Through faith in Christ "living as a person for all others" is also what Bonhoeffer and every Christian becomes. That kind of living is the meaning of discipleship and the cross: denying the self, following Christ, being a person for others, that is, "a little Christ." Bonhoeffer was very much attuned to the words of St. Paul in this regard: "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Gal. 2:19b-20)
What follows are a few insightful words by Bonhoeffer from his famous little book, The Cost of Discipleship. These words give a picture of what is happening to us in the call to die with Christ. Not only is this death a witness to our faithfulness, that is, a genuine "account of the hope within us" (1 Peter 3:15), but God is actually at work in it, at work bringing the promise of baptism to its completion, at work putting an end to that part of us that is enslaved to sin, at work raising us up from scratch to be an all new person in Christ. In this way, the call to discipleship is part and parcel with our call to salvation. It is a living out of the good news, the promise that what has happened to Christ is happening to us, now--death and cross to be sure, but never without the promised resurrection and new life that follows.
The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering that every [Christian] must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death--we give our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a [person], he bids [that one] come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther's, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time--death in Christ, the death of the old man at his call. Jesus' summons to the rich man was calling him to die, because only the [person] who is dead to his [or her] own will can follow Christ. In fact, every call of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both death and life. The call of Christ, his baptism, sets the Christian in the middle of the daily arena against sin and the devil. Every day he must suffer anew for Jesus Christ's sake. The wounds and scars he receives in the fray are living tokens of this participation in the cross of his Lord. (From The Cost of Discipleship, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, First Paperback Edition, 1963, page 99.)
Be aware that this call to discipleship is not intended as a call to rough it alone. God, mercifully, has given us the church and his gospel and sacraments to accompany us in this endeavor. That was also true for Bonhoeffer. (See for example his little classics Life Together and Spiritual Care.) For while he was in prison and separated from his loved ones, he still had "church," that is, fellowship with the people of God, through the connections he made in prison with his fellow inmates and even with his prison guards. Together they would celebrate the sacraments and engage in what Luther called the "mutual conversation and consolation" of one Christian with another.
In remembering Bonhoeffer, we may be tempted to distance ourselves from him by thinking God has made it "easy" for most of us in comparison to him. Could we be a Bonhoeffer? But that kind of speculative comparison is the path of despair. Avoid it! True, we are probably not literally prison bound, but we do face our own kinds of imprisonment as long as we are "in the flesh." And that dare not be overlooked or minimized. What of Bonhoeffer we imitate is not his literal witness, but his literal source of hope: Jesus Christ. Therefore, we imitate him, by making use of our access--every week and every day!--to Christian fellowship and the Word and sacraments so "that the life [we] now live in the flesh [we may] live by faith in the Son of God" (Gal. 2:20). It is out of that common grounding in Jesus Christ that a rich cornucopia of Christian witness emerges--a diversity of witness that does not delight in competition or comparison, but in mutual wonder and encouragement. That Bonhoeffer himself needed that diversity of witness to sustain him in his unique context for witness is evident in the following poem "Who Am I?" he wrote in prison, March 4, 1946.
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell's confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore 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!
From: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.; First Paperback Edition, 1972. Pages 347-348.