Monday, January 16, 2012

Pericope for the Week: A Comment from Prison

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
A week from today I will be speaking about the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) at a conference devoted in part to the one substantial book of his that was published during his lifetime, Discipleship. People outside of Germany got to know this book only after its author's death and mostly because they wanted to learn more about the person who wrote the prison letters that he sent to his former student, friend, nephew-in-law, and eventual biographer, Eberhard Bethge. (Bonhoeffer was involved in the resistance efforts against Hitler that centered around Col. Oster and Bonhoeffer's brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi. He was eventually arrested, interrogated for more than a year, and then executed.) His "letters and papers from prison" delivered a new way of thinking theology, from below, from the margins, from the perspective of the least.

Eberhard Bethge
We know from these letters that he was working on several theological projects, not least his Ethics, but also a book that would offer an appraisal of the Christian Church in the modern world and set forth the direction he thought theology should take in light of "a world come of age." While the finished parts and fragments of Ethics were published posthumously, most of what he did on the other book was lost between the prison cell in Tegel and the gallows at the Flossenbuerg concentration camp.

One comment from one letter to Bethge caught my attention last night, partly because it speaks to a situation within my own church body. It certainly fits with the spirit of the person whose words and actions we commemorate today, someone who also was influenced by Bonhoeffer:

The church must get out of its stagnation. We must also get back out into the fresh air of intellectual discourse with the world. We also have to risk saying controversial things, if that will stir up discussion of the important issues in life. As a "modern" theologian who has nevertheless inherited the legacy of liberal theology, I feel responsible to address these questions.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Letter to Eberhard Bethge, August 3, 1944," Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. John W. De Gruchy, trans. Isabel Best et al., vol. 8 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English, ed. Victoria Barnett et al. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), p. 498.

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