February 6, 2006


Theologian struggled with courage vs. conscience (G. Jeffrey MacDonald, 1/31/06, USA TODAY)

In July 1939, a 33-year-old German theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer left a comfortable teaching post in America for his troubled homeland. The fateful decision ultimately would land him in history books as the clergyman who tried to kill Adolf Hitler.

His story, recalled widely at events honoring the centenary of his birthday Feb. 4, leads from his post as a double agent inside the Third Reich to the concentration camp at Flossenbürg where the Nazis hanged him and his co-conspirators.

Thanks in part to his dramatic story, Bonhoeffer is now the subject of about a dozen films and documentaries, including Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Pacifist, Nazi Resister, which airs this coming week on PBS.

Yet his greatest drama, according to those who are inspired by his legacy, may have transpired inside this man who struggled with the moral implications of taking another man's life — even Hitler's.

"He found himself confronted by the Anti-christ" in the Hitler regime, says the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of First Things, a journal of religion and public life.

Although Bonhoeffer ultimately believed "he was doing the right thing (in the murder conspiracy), he did feel deeply torn and did at times evidence a sense of profound moral ambiguity." [...]

For Bonhoeffer, being authentic meant facing death as destiny. His most famous line highlights the sacrifices required in Christian life: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

His final act was to celebrate Communion with some fellow prisoners.

Witnesses reported his final words.

"This is the end for me, the beginning of life."

Netflix has the fine film Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace, the final scene of which is unforgettable. His prison writings are an especially good place to begin reading about him: Prisoner for God: Letters and Papers from Prison.

Christmas Trees (Geoffrey Hill )

Bonhoeffer in his skylit cell
bleached by the flares' candescent fall,
pacing out his own citadel,

restores the broken themes of praise,
encourages our borrowed days,
by logic of his sacrifice.

Against wild reasons of the state
his words are quiet but not too quiet.
We hear too late or not too late.

WHO AM I? (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell'­s 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.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 6, 2006 4:50 PM


Posted by: Gideon at February 7, 2006 2:49 AM