Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (2023, April 1). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dietrich_Bonhoeffer
(April 9th (Easter Sunday) marks the 78th anniversary of the death of noted theologian and martyr Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. To honor his memory, I have written him a letter, in the tradition of his famous work, “Letters and Papers from Prison.”)
May I call you Dietrich? I’ve known you for 27 years now. I’ve walked through your home in Berlin and stood at the place in Flossenburg Concentration Camp where you died. Your books line my shelves. I feel like I know you. It feels strange to call you Pastor Bonhoeffer. You are my friend, Dietrich. But at the same time, you are also a pastor to me.
In my darkest moments, I remember a letter you wrote from prison in which you said, “…my grim experiences often follow me into the night, and the only way I can shake them off is by reciting one hymn after another, and that when I wake up, it is generally with a sigh, rather than with a hymn of praise.”
You tell it like it is. We need to hear from a pastor who’s not afraid to speak the truth when he has good and bad days. I’ve tried to do the same. You taught me not to give up, even when you feel like you have one Good Friday after another.
The anniversary of your death coincides with our celebrations of Christ’s resurrection on Easter. Knowing you as reasonably as I think I do, I believe you’d say that to mention your death, in any way, at the same time we celebrate the resurrection, isn’t something you’d want us to do. It’s not about you. I can hear you telling us. It’s a story that begins and ends with our giving voice to the Good News and forming an ethical Christian community. We shouldn’t lose focus by talking about you. I do admire your humility. However, my brother in Christ, you were and are one of the most important martyrs of the Christian faith. This year, the anniversary of your death falls on the day that we proclaim our most powerful message. I, for one, couldn’t look at myself in the mirror if I didn’t say “Thank You” for your words that continue to inspire my preaching and witness.
Dietrich, we are in a difficult and divided time. America, like your Germany, is on edge. It is not as you experienced in Weimar Germany in the 1930s, but the forces of fascism, totalitarianism, violence, and evil are surging in familiar ways. Antisemitism is on the rise. School shootings are becoming a regular part of American life. I turn to your writings on ethics and the Sermon on the Mount to expound on Jesus’ teachings and help others understand that the dominant culture of despair and hopelessness is not the kingdom of God. Because as you said, “we only know who we are in the light of God.” We must keep the light shining, even from places like Flossenburg, Nashville, Uvalde, and Sandy Hook.
About a year before you died, you wrote, “You would be surprised, and perhaps even worried, by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to… What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, for us today.”
Then you continued, ““We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious’…
“And if therefore man becomes radically religionless—and I think that is already more or less the case (else, how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any ‘religious’ reaction?)—what does that mean for ‘Christianity’?” “Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity—and even this garment has looked very different at different times—then what is a religionless Christianity?”
My life changed forever when I read those words. You said something I’d been thinking about and could not describe. Bonhoeffer could not understand how people could continue to call themselves Christian and confess Orthodox beliefs, observe its moral codes, and follow the accepted behaviors and practices of the Church while simultaneously committing unspeakable horrors. We saw the same thing in the American south with racism and lynching. Now we are witnessing Christian nationalism on the rise throughout our country, which advocates strict doctrines while easily “othering” those in society they deem as unworthy of God’s love.
Perhaps, you proposed, religion was the problem with Christianity. Was it possible, you asked, to practice Christianity if it was divorced from Jesus’ command to love our neighbors if religion got in the way?
You never got a chance to answer the question. One week after you died, the camp was liberated.
Finding the answers, your answers, it’s up to us.
I, for one, am ready to keep trying and searching.
You stay safe, my friend.
Peace, my brother,
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