Tag Archives: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Perspectives from the Past-Reflections from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Writings in 1932-33

One of the gifts of reading more deeply into the lives and experiences of people in the past is the perspectives they can give us into our own time. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor during the critical time leading up to and including the Second World War in Germany. In his collected works we can see not only the evolution of a thinker but we can also read in his letter, preaching and teaching the impact of the events on his teaching and thought. For example, in the critical time of 1932-33 (represented by DBWE 12) we see Bonhoeffer struggling with the Aryan paragraph and how the church can respond (especially in the context of a state church). While Bonhoeffer would consider this statu confessionis (an item that if adopted the church ceases to be the church) many of his colleagues, even in the Confessing Church, would not agree. Perhaps two of his most telling quotes come out of this time. First from his Christology lectures:

There are thus three possibilities for action that the church can take vis-à-vis the state: first (as we have said), questioning the state as to the legitimate state character of its actions, that is making the state responsible for what it does. Second is service to the victims of the state’s actions. The church has an unconditional obligation toward the victims of any social order, even if they do not belong to the Christian community…The third possibility is not just to bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel but to seize the wheel itself. (DBWE 12:365)

And the second from immediately before the Reichstag elections where the Nazi party would emerge as the strongest party preaching on the letters to the churches in Asia in Revelation 2:

The church is doing a tremendous amount, very seriously and even sacrificially. But we are all doing so many things that come second, third, and fourth; the church is not doing the works it did at first. And that is precisely why it is not doing what is crucial. We celebrate; we attend the events where we should be seen; we try to be influential; we set up a so-called Protestant movement; we do Protestant youth work; we provide social services and care for people; and we have anti-godless propaganda—but are we doing the very first works, the one that epitomized what we are all about? Do we love God and our neighbor with that first, passionate, burning love that is willing to risk everything except God? (DBWE 12:444-445)

Transitioning Into Exodus

Rembrandt, Moses with the Ten Commandments

Rembrandt, Moses with the Ten Commandments

When I started the biblical reflections portion of this blog almost four years ago, I didn’t realize how much I would learn and how much it would shape my ministry. Many Christians don’t know how to approach the Hebrew Scriptures that many call the Old Testament, and as much as I love the gospels and the letters of Paul I am learning how to hear those writings much more fully as I become more and more familiar with the Psalms, Jeremiah, Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes, Esther and Haggai. I am understanding more what Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when he said,

I notice more and more how much I am thinking and perceiving things in line with the Old Testament; thus in recent months I have been reading much more the Old than the New Testament. Only when one knows the name of God may not be uttered may one sometimes speak the name of Jesus Christ. Only when one loves life and the earth so much that with it everything seems lost and at its end may one believe in the resurrection of the dead and a new world. Only when one accepts the law of God as binding for oneself may one perhaps sometimes speak of grace. And only when the wrath and vengeance of God against God’s enemies are allowed to stand can something of forgiveness and love of enemies touch our hearts. Whoever wishes to be and perceive too quickly and too directly in New Testament ways is to my mind no Christian. We have already, discussed this a few times, and every day confirms for me that it is right. One can and must not speak the ultimate word prior to the penultimate. We are living in the penultimate and believe the ultimate. (DBW 8: 213)

As I have wrestled with some difficult pieces of the Bible it has caused me to think about ethics, faith, our current world and so much more. For me this is the more challenging way but it has also been incredibly rewarding. Finishing Psalms 21-30 as a transition between books now I stand ready to begin another large piece. Next will be the book of Exodus, the second of the Pentateuch that I have approached. It is a book that I am more familiar with than I was with Jeremiah or Deuteronomy when I began and it is more of a narrative than any of the books I have done previously. I have two trustworthy companions for the journey. Since this is one of the central books of the Torah and the defining drama of the Jewish people I am delighted to have Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’, Covenant and Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible as he reads through Exodus: The Book of Redemption as one of my primary dialogue partners. I will also be taking along Carol Meyers commentary on Exodus from the New Cambridge Bible Commentary Series. I have other resources that I have read in the past or that are on my shelf that may also be a part of this journey. With the forty chapters of Exodus the hope is to make the journey in approximately forty weeks, but as journeys go there are often unforeseen stops along the way. I am looking forward to this next exploration as I reenter the journey of the people of Israel from Egypt into the wilderness, from slavery into becoming the people of God and seeing how their journey and faith continue to shape and inform my own.

Are we willing to ask the difficult questions?


As the world continues to change at a dynamic pace and the church continues to attempt to minister faithfully in that changing world it will force us to ask difficult questions, questions that reach right to the heart of our identity. One of the earliest questions we learn as toddlers is “why?” and I think that as the church continues to evaluate what we are called to do going forward we need to be willing to go back and ask that question of why are we doing the things we are doing. Do we even understand why we do many of the actions and say many of the things we do? I am convinced that there is a lot of wisdom in the actions that have been passed down from generation to generation-but if we are unable to ask the why questions what was passed down as a tradition, which to use Jaroslav Pelikan’s famous way of talking about it is the living faith of the dead, can calcify into traditionalism, which Pelikan referred to as the dead faith of the living. Our actions do have meanings but if we find ourselves going through the motions do we have a dead faith? What is the end that we are seeking?
Even Protestant Christians rested for a long time on Cyprian of Carthage’s( a 3rd Century Catholic Bishop) famous dictum “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” (No salvation outside the church) if not in theology in practice. People came to church because it was a way of earning their salvation (and what people mean by salvation may differ widely, but that is a topic for another time). Attendance in worship was something that people were expected to do, now certainly not everyone attended all the time but there was a societal expectation to attend worship. I remember one of my instructors in Marriage and Family Dynamics at the University of Central Oklahoma whose father had been a minister and who had members of the mob in his community who were at worship every Sunday. That expectation is no longer there in society, and officially in most protestant churches it has not been theologically there since the time of Luther, and so in a time of change maybe we need to be willing to ask the difficult questions of what are people getting out of the time they spend in worship. Reggie McNeal, who I have referred to in other posts, tells of a time when he had to confront the question:

I remember it as if it were yesterday, even though it was over twenty years ago. We had just comleted a midweek leader luncheon at the two-year-old church where I served as founding pastor. Everyone else had left the building. I sat alone in the fellowship hall And the Lord spoke to me. It was in the form of a question: “Are people better off for being a part of this church, or are they just tireder and poorer?” …The question bothered me. A lot. Not only did I not know the answer, I feared knowing! (McNeal 2009, 89)
I am convinced that worship has meaning, that the church as an organization has a purpose and meaning, that we have a mission and things that God calls us to be a part of in the world. Yet, I am also aware that sometimes it is so easy to become distracted by things that are not important. Working my way through Jeremiah, like I am currently, you can’t help but see the disconnect between the cultic practice of the people of Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s time and the ways in which they were not living out of God’s vision of shalom (peace, harmony). If we are merely coming to worship out of a sense of duty, doing the same things we have always done then perhaps we are just tireder and poorer, perhaps it is a traditionalism, a dead faith of the living and God is doing what God does in the midst of death. God is creating new life!
There is meaning in the things that we do, the words that we say, but ultimately our work should be an expression of love. The two great commandments, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” should be at least one of the ends of our worship-to help us to learn to love. In a world where spirituality and our religious lives have become one segment of our increasingly busy lives perhaps we as church leaders and members need to be asking questions on how our worship and our investment of time and resources are helping us integrate who we are as people of faith into the rest of our lives. It will not be an easy transition, but the bible itself is concerned with life much more than it is with afterlife. We may be the people who to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s language from his Letters and Papers from Prison are keeping the archane disciplines-these ancient practices that help us make sense of our faith and our lives-in a world that has come of age. As faithful people and congregations we will continue to wrestle with the difficult questions of how to be faithful in our time and place, and hopefully in the midst of that wrestling we will be shaped by the love of the one we come together to worship so that we may be a blessing to the world we are called to serve.

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Remembering Bonhoeffer: The Powers of Good

Four of the ten 20th Century Martyrs above the west door of Westminster Abby, installed in 2000. From left to right: Grand Archduchess Elizabeth of Russia, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bishop Romero, Pastor Bonhoeffer

Four of the ten 20th Century Martyrs above the west door of Westminster Abby, installed in 2000. From left to right: Grand Archduchess Elizabeth of Russia, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bishop Romero, Pastor Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at Flossenberg Concentration Camp on April 9, 1945, and at some other point I am sure I will share more reflections since his writings have definitely shaped me in many ways, but today I am just going to share one of his lesser known poems. Many people will share his famous “Who Am I” poem, but this is one of my favorites (and if you look back at Golgatha you will probably see some resonance):

Powers of Good (December 28, 1944)


With every power for good to stay and guide me,

comforted and inspired beyond all fear,

I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me,

and pass, with you, into the coming year.


The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening;

the long days of our sorrow still endure;

Father, grant to the souls thou hast been chastening

that thou has promised, the healing and the cure


Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving

even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,

we will not falter, thankfully receiving

all that is given by thy loving hand.


But should it be thy will once more to release us

to life’s enjoyment and its good sunshine,

that which we’ve learned from sorrow shall increase us,

and all our life be dedicate as thine.


Today, let candles shed their radiant greeting;

lo, on our darkness are they not thy light

leading us, haply, to our longed-for meeting?

Thou canst illumine even our darkest night.


When now the silence deepens for our harkening,

grant we may hear thy children’s voices raise

for all the unseen world around us darkening

their universal paean, in thy praise.


While all the powers of good aid and attend us,

boldly we’ll face the future, come what may.

At even and at morn God will befriend us,

and oh, most surely on each newborn day!

(Bonhoeffer 1953, 400f)

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White Crucifixion, Marc Chagall

White Crucifixion, Marc Chagall

Alone, life is over,
Those whom I ask to wait for me enter into sleep
A sleep deeper than death itself
Seconds creep by, minutes last for years
As I wait for my Father to answer me
Yet no answer comes.

Life, truly lived in God blessed abundance
Good friends, those who love me and whom I love
Those who would drink my cup, those who would share my bread
And yet for them I am alone waiting on the Father
Yet no answer comes.

Love, freely given and rarely returned
The religious mock me and the educated despise me
A few closer than brothers and sisters I have drawn near
Yet the same God brings love and separation
So still I sit alone and await an answer from the Father
Yet no answer comes.

Torment, yet it is the cup I choose
I could allow this cup to pass; yet I drink it to the dregs
I take on the curse so others might have a blessing
For those who curse me and those I have drawn near
I sit alone, the answer from the Father
I am the answer.

Betrayal, a brother draws near
With a kiss comes a wound deeper than any sword or spear
One who shared my bread rends my heart in two
I stand surrounded, forsaken by the Father
I am the answer for Judas.

Abandoned, every brother and sister scattered
For the fear of death my name forgotten and denied
All whom I opened myself to now flee as I sit on the altar
Accused, Spat upon, Beaten, a lamb for slaughter
I am the answer for the scattered.

Hated, I bear the weight of Jerusalem
An earthly kingdom I would not claim, so a thief’s death they select
Nothing did I take, only love did I give
Yet in my love I uncovered hatred so dark that hell could not contain it
Marked, Broken, Despised, a Scapegoat
I am the answer for a conquered people.

Disregarded, shown contempt as a peasant
I do not even merit the time of the procurator, only the fervor of the city’s hatred
Places me as King of the Jews before the vassal of Caesar
The power to judge I could wield, yet instead to earthly power I yield
I become the crucified one for the Romans
I am the answer for the empire.

Hung on the mountain, exposed to the world
I bear witness to a kingdom present given my form
I stake my claim as I gasp for air in the God forsakenness of Golgotha
I bear the rebellion of humanity waging war against the Creator
I am love hung on a cross for the world, the embrace of the Father
I am the answer for all creation.

I hang on the cross today bearing the sins of a world come of age
Aging but still turned inward on itself, consuming its own flesh
A world that may know my name, but has forgotten who I am
A world who no longer needs me, but is intent on saving itself at the cost of its own life
Creation is smothered and the oppressed are crushed
The powerful are caught in their paranoia and fathers disown their children
Wives seek other lovers and leaders devour their followers
The blood of the earth cries out for vindication, the desecrated heavens shout for judgement
Yet here I hang, the lamb, the scapegoat, the crucified one, love it self
Forsaken for the world’s sake, and yet I am
I am the answer for the world
Does anyone question anymore?

Composed Neil White, 2013

Updated from a poem originally written in 2002

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