Saturday, April 5, 2008

On baptism and bombs

Letters and Papers from Prison was collected and edited by Dietrich Bonhoeffer's friend and relative by marriage Eberhard Bethge. Bethge and Bonhoeffer had been friends since the earliest days of the Confessing Church. It was to "Dear Eberhard" that the majority and best of Bonhoeffer's prison letters were written. I should add that their correspondence was illegal. It was only thru the kindness (or bribery) of various guards that their letters were smuggled in and out of the prison. We wouldn't have them today if not for this example of God's strange providence. Bonhoeffer valued Bethge as a confidante and sounding board for his evolving ideas about Christianity and the church. He writes that there are certain things he can share with Bethge that he can't share with others -- even his parents or fiancé Maria.

This was a most intimate friendship between two pastors born out of a common struggle and vision. The most moving moment of the outstanding documentary Bonhoeffer (2003) is when Bethge reads this passage from the letter Bonhoeffer wrote the day after the failure of the July 20 plot -- "I discovered later, and I'm still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith."

Bonhoeffer is third from left

On February 3, 1944 a son was born to Eberhard and Renate Bethge (Renate was Bonhoeffer's niece). They named him Dietrich after his great-uncle. Of course this was a cause of joy for Bonhoeffer and is a major subject of these letters. On 5 February he wrote to Renate -- "I'm very pleased that you've called your boy Dietrich. Not many people in my position will have a similar experience. In the midst of all our hardships we keep experiencing an overwhelming kindness and friendship." and on 9 May to Eberhard -- "How I should have loved to baptize your little boy; but that's of no great consequence. Above all I hope the baptism will help to assure you that your own lives, as well as the child's, are in safe keeping, and that you can face the future with confidence." Dietrich Bethge was baptized by his father on 21 May 1944 as air raid sirens sounded throughout Berlin. Bonhoeffer participated in the only way he could, with prayer and a letter:

I've just written the date of this letter as my share in the baptism and the preparations for it. At the same moment the siren went, and now I'm sitting in the sick-bay and hoping that today at any rate you will have no air raid. What times these are! What a baptism! And what memories for the years to come! What matters is that we should direct these memories, as it were into the right spiritual channels, and so make them harder, clearer, and more defiant, which is a good thing. There is no place for sentimentality on a day like this. If in the middle of an air raid God sends out the gospel call to his kingdom in baptism, it will be quite clear what the kingdom is and what it means. It is a kingdom stronger than war and danger, a kingdom of power and authority, signifying eternal terror and judgment to some, and eternal joy and righteousness to others, not a kingdom of the heart, but one as wide as the earth, not transitory but eternal, a kingdom that makes a way for itself and summons men to itself to prepare its way, a kingdom for which it is worth while risking our lives.

I love the attitude behind those words! An attitude of clear-eyed realism and defiance of temporal circumstances. This is what faith looks like "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." He was manifestly "in the world" but clearly not "of the world" and he had a firm grasp on the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of man. Yes, the example of the German church of Bonhoeffer's day is an extreme one, but in all ages the temptation to compromise the mission of the church for the sake of worldly survival or success is strong. There were historical reasons why the established German church shamefully capitulated to the Nazi idealogy, but some of the seeds were sown during World War I when German Christians believed that God was on their side. After that national humiliation, many were far too eager to believe Hitler's message of a return to traditional values, and his assertions that this time God would be on their side. In this way, the wider story surrounding Bonhoeffer is a cautionary tale.

Bonhoeffer also participated in little Dietrich's baptism by penning a sermon of sorts (Thoughts on the Day of the Baptism of Dietrich Wilhelm Rüdiger Bethge). It's Bonhoeffer at his prophetic best. The more the church finds itself situated in a post-Christendom context (as is already the case in Europe) the more I believe he has to say to us. Bonhoeffer knew the war would end eventually, and much of his prison theologizing was toward answering the question of what Christian faith would/should look like in the future. Sadly, his work was cut short, but you can get the drift of his thought in this excerpt from the baptism sermon. It ends with a prayer.

Today you will be baptized a Christian. All those great ancient words of the Christian proclamation will be spoken over you, and the command of Jesus Christ to baptize will be carried out on you, without your knowing anything about it. But we are once again being driven right back to the beginnings of our understanding. Reconciliation and redemption, regeneration and the Holy Spirit, love of our enemies, cross and resurrection, life in Christ and Christian discipleship - all these things are so difficult and so remote that we hardly venture any more to speak of them. In the traditional words and acts we suspect that there may be something quite new and revolutionary, although we cannot as yet grasp or express it. That is our own fault. Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among men. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action. By the time you have grown up, the church's form will have changed greatly. We are not yet out of the melting-pot, and any attempt to help the church prematurely to a new expansion of its organization will merely delay its conversion and purification. It is not for us to prophesy the day (though the day will come) when men will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it. It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming - as was Jesus' language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God's peace with men and the coming of his kingdom. 'They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it' (Jer. 33:9). Till then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair, but there will be those who pray and do right and wait for God's own time. May you be one of them, and may it be said of you one day, 'The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter till full day' (Prov. 4:18).

1 comment:

Alison said...

Hi Stephen: enjoyed your text on Bonhoeffer!