Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Bonhoeffer on making room "for God and the whole world"

Air raid alerts were a constant part of life in Tegel Prison, indeed in all of Berlin, during 1944-45. Dietrich Bonhoeffer refers to it often in his letters from prison. Tegel sat next to a factory which was a frequent target of Allied bombing, and sometimes the prison itself was struck. In one letter, Bonhoeffer mourns the death of a fellow prisoner (killed by a direct hit) who he'd become close to. Elsewhere he writes of the God-forsakenness he felt while lying on the ground waiting for the bombing to end. "While the bombs are falling like that all round the building, I cannot help thinking of God, his judgment, his hand stretched out and his anger not turned away (Isa. 5:25 and 9:11-10:4), and of my own we were again lying on the floor last night, and someone exclaimed 'O God, O God' (he is normally a very flippant type), I couldn't bring myself to offer him any Christian encouragement or comfort; all I did was to look at my watch and say, 'It won't last more than ten minutes now.'" Whatever the inner turmoil Bonhoeffer experienced, his fellow prisoners testified to his strength and calm. In this passage -- from a letter to Eberhard Bethge -- Bonhoeffer articulates an attitude that sounds a lot like the peace that only Christ gives.

Dear Eberhard,
I hope that, in spite of the alerts, you are enjoying to the full the peace and beauty of these warm, summer-like Whitsuntide days. One gradually learns to acquire an inner detachment from life's menaces-although 'acquire detachment' seems too negative, formal, artificial, and stoical; and it's perhaps more accurate to say that we assimilate these menaces into our life as a whole. I notice repeatedly here how few people there are who can harbour conflicting emotions at the same time. When bombers come, they are all fear; when there is something nice to eat, they are all greed; when they are disappointed, they are all despair; when they are successful, they can think of nothing else. They miss the fullness of life and the wholeness of an independent existence; everything objective and subjective is dissolved for them into fragments. By contract, Christianity puts us into many different dimensions of life at the same time; we make room in ourselves, to some extent, for God and the whole world. We rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep; we are anxious (I was again interrupted just then by the alert, and am now sitting out of doors enjoying the sun) about our life, but at the same time we must think about things much more important to us than life itself.

Letters and Papers from Prison (29 May 1944)

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