New York: The Macmillian Company, 1953
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945) was a German pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, and key founding member of the Confessing Church. He was executed by hanging at Flossenburg Concentration Camp in Bavaria, Germany at age 39 for his part in the “officers’ plot” to assassinate Adolf Hitler. His most famous book, The Cost of Discipleship, is considered a Christian classic. It is centered on an exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Bonhoeffer spells out what he believes it means to follow Christ.
Letters and Papers from Prison, as the title indicates is a very different kind of book. It gives a deep look into the heart and mind of this astute pastor during the last three years of his life. One reviewer wrote the following about it: “Acute and subtle, warm and perceptive, yet also profoundly moving, the documents collectively tell a very human story of loss, of courage, and of hope. Bonhoeffer’s story seems as vitally relevant, as politically prophetic, and as theologically significant today, as it did yesterday.”
It is obvious from this 226 page book that Bonhoeffer was a deep thinker with strong convictions. Though he was influenced by Barth and Bultmann, with whom I have some theological differences, I am quite confident that he was a genuine believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. For example, he wrote, “My past life is brim-full of God’s goodness, and my sins are covered by the forgiving love of Christ crucified.”
What impressed me the most in the letters, papers, and poems Bonhoeffer wrote was his genuine humanity. He was humble. He cared deeply for people – his parents, his friends, and all that he met in prison. I was touched by his kindness, his empathy, his strong faith, as well as his great learning.
Bonhoeffer was not a legalist. His religion was practical and non-ostentatious, as it is sometimes the case with evangelicals, myself included. The following quote will give a glimpse into how he saw his faith:
During the last year or so I have I have come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Christian is not a “homo religiosus”, but simply a man, as Jesus was a man – in contrast, shall we say, to John the Baptist. I don’t mean the shallow and banal this-worldliness of the enlightened, the busy, the comfortable, or the lascivious, but the profound this-worldliness, characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection.
In prison Bonhoeffer’s faith was strengthened by reading Scripture, meditating on the hymns of 17th century hymnodist Paul Gerhardt, and following with deep reflection the liturgical calendar.
His close friend and the editor of Letters and Papers from Prison, Eberhard Berthge, adds many of his own insights into Bonhoeffer’s years in prison, especially his final weeks:
Bonhoeffer’s last weeks were spent with prisoners drawn from all over Europe. Among them was Payne Best, an English officer. In his book THE VENIO INCIDENT he writes: ‘Bonhoeffer … was all humility and sweetness; he always seemed to me to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy in every smallest event in life and of deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive. … He was one of the very few men that I have ever met to whom God was real and close.’
And again, ‘The following day, Sunday, 8th April 1945, Pastor Bonhoeffer held a little service and spoke to us in a manner which reached the hearts of all, finding just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment and the thoughts and resolutions which it brought.
He had hardly finished his last prayer when the door opened and two evil-looking men in civilian clothes came in and said, ‘Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready to come with us.’ Those words ‘come with us’ – for all prisoners they had come to mean one thing only – the scaffold.
We bid him good-bye – he drew me aside – ‘This is the end,’ he said, ‘For me the beginning of life’, and then he gave a message to give, if I could to the Bishop of Chichester … Next day, at Flossenburg, he was hanged.