After Ten Years
Ten years is a long stretch in a man’s life. Time is the most precious gift in our possession, for it is the most irrevocable. This is what makes it so disturbing to look back upon time we have lost. Time lost is time when we have not lived a full human life, time unenriched by experience, creative endeavour, enjoyment and suffering. Time lost is time we have not filled, time left empty.
The past ten years have not been like that. Our losses have been immeasurable, but we have not lost time. True, knowledge and experience, which are realized only in retrospect, are mere abstractions compared with the reality, compared with the life we have actually lived. But just as the capacity to forget is a gift of grace, so memory, the recalling of the lessons we have leamt, is an essential element in responsible living. In the following pages I hope to put on record some of the lessons we have learnt and the experiences we have shared during the past ten years.
These are not just individual experiences; they are not arranged in an orderly way, there is no attempt to discuss them or to theorize about them. All I have done is to jot down as they come some of the discoveries made by a circle of like-minded friends, discoveries about the business of human life. The only connexion between them is that of concrete experience. There is nothing new or startling about them, for they have been known long before. But to us has been granted the privilege of learning them anew by first-hand experience. I cannot write a single word about these things without a deep sense of gratitude for the fellowship of spirit and community of life we have been allowed to enjoy and preserve throughout these years.
Prisoner for God:LETTERS AND PAPERS FROM PRISON by DIETRICH BONHOEFFER, edited by EBERHARD BETHGE, translated by REGINALD H. FULLER, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1959
Article by VICTORIA BARNETT
In December 1942, Dietrich Bonhoeffer sent a Christmas letter (“After Ten Years”) to his closest friends in the resistance. In a bitterly realistic tone, he faced the prospect that they might fail, and that his own life’s work might remain incomplete. He may have wondered, too, whether his decision to return to Germany and to work in military intelligence had been the right one. “Are we still of any use?” he wrote:
We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? 22
The necessities of subterfuge and compromise had already cost him a great deal. He pondered the different motives for fighting evil, noting that even the finest intentions could prove insufficient. “Who stands firm?” Bonhoeffer asked:
Only the one for whom the final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these, when in faith and sole allegiance to God he is called to obedient and responsible action: the responsible person, whose life will be nothing but an answer to God’s question and call. 23
In this letter, one of Bonhoeffer’s most moving and powerful writings, the various threads of Bonhoeffer’s life and work came together. He had been one of the few in his church to demand protection for the persecuted as a necessary political step. He had called upon his church, traditionally aligned with the state, to confront the consequences of that alliance. The church struggle, as he wrote Bishop George Bell in 1934, was “not something that occurs just within the church, but it attacks the very roots of National Socialism. The point is freedom. . . .” 24
Bonhoeffer’s focus remained more theological and political. The church debates about the Aryan paragraph had convinced him that the old traditions were bankrupt. Instead, Bonhoeffer called for the practice of “religionless Christianity” in “a world come of age”—a world in which the old certainties and values had been replaced by cynicism and ideology. He tried to determine what kind of Christian faith was viable in this new world—not in order to “extricate himself heroically from the affair,” but to arrive at a new understanding of faith, to pass on to future generations.
It is in this context that his ongoing reflections on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity must be understood. His insights were less about Judaism, more about his own Christianity. His 1941 statement that “The Jew keeps the question of Christ open,” (published in his Ethics) was a final acknowledgment that the persecution of the religion most historically bound to his own had led him to rethink his own faith fundamentally.
For this reason, Bonhoeffer’s greatest influence today is precisely in those critical Christian circles that have sought to reformulate Christian theology after Auschwitz. Nonetheless, we cannot know for sure whether he would have abandoned his early supersessionism, or how he would have dealt with the theological questions raised in the aftermath of the Holocaust. He was unable to complete his theological journey.
Bonhoeffer’s final legacy transcends that of the German resistance circles in which he moved. Their tragedy was not just that they failed, but that their failure revealed the extent to which they were “unfinished.” As the decades since 1945 have passed, we become ever more aware that the scope of Nazi evil demanded a more finished kind of heroism—impelled not only by repugnance against the brutality of a dictatorship, but by a deeper awareness of the costs of antisemitism, compromise, and complicity.
But this is an awareness that we have won only gradually, partly as the result of the growing scope of Holocaust scholarship. Our realization that the pervasive antisemitism and anti-Judaism in Christian circles helped foster the attitudes that culminated in the Holocaust leads us, correctly, to read Bonhoeffer’s theological writings more critically.
This should not blind us to the fact that he leaves a legacy unique among theologians and church activists. As hardly any other Christian thinker in history, Bonhoeffer articulated a theology that truly confronted his times—and he did so not with the benefit of hindsight, but during the Third Reich itself. We are left with many questions about where this life would have led. But, in a very real sense, the questions Bonhoeffer left unresolved are the ones we face today, as we continue to wrestle with the aftermath of the Holocaust.
Prayer and Reflection
Bonhoeffer’s words are reinforced by the price he paid, that of death. His example, and the willingness he demonstrated to oppose evil, whatever it might cost, are a stirring example to us today in the face of growing antisemitism worldwide. How are disciples of Yeshua to respond? How are Jewish disciples especially to respond to misunderstanding and prejudice that they experience, both in the church, the world and even at times amongst our own people. Let us ponder well the life and teaching of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Prayer: Thank you Lord for the stirring message and challenging reflections of your witness, Bonhoeffer. Help us, like him, to have the courage of our convictions, love for those who persecute us, and the wisdom to know and follow after you as your disciples. Help us to walk in the way of suffering, martyrdom if necessary, for your grace and glory to be made know. In Yeshua’s name we pray. Amen.
22 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. “After Ten Years,” in Letters and Papers from Prison. Enlarged Edition, Eberhard Bethge, ed. (New York: The Macmillan Company), 1971, 16–17. [Back to text]
23 Ibid., 5. [Back to text]
24 Bonhoeffer, Gesammelte Schriften 1, letter dated 15.5.1934 (Munich: Kaiser Verlage, 1958), 194. [Back to text]
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