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Dietrich Bonhoeffer, via Terry Harter & Bill Trench

March 6, 2023

(February 4, 1906 – April 9, 1945)

Several years ago I was reading a short biographical commentary on Christoph von Dohnányi, who was for many years the conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, and I was amused to see the note that “his uncle was a Lutheran pastor.” His uncle was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And to say that he was a Lutheran pastor is like saying that Tom Brady was a football player. Over the years my sermons have employed dozens of Bonhoeffer quotations, references, and interpretations. In recent years I often found that the mention of Bonhoeffer was met with blank stares and I realized that a theologian and Christian martyr who a few decades ago needed no introduction was unknown to a new generation.

My shorthand introduction for Bonhoeffer was that he was a great theologian and pastor who was a leader of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, confessing their allegiance to Christ alone (and therefore not to Hitler). I said that Bonhoeffer was part of the resistance and was eventually arrested, imprisoned, and brutally executed for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

With the rise of fascism in America (sometimes we euphemistically speak of it as authoritarianism) I have often thought about the small group of Christians in Germany who had the courage to oppose Hitler. I have wondered how it happened that Bonhoeffer, Barth, Tillich and others recognized the danger of Hitler so early in the process at a time when press reports in the United States still spoke positively of Hitler and Mussolini. And that has led me to ask myself the very uncomfortable question, is this our Bonhoeffer moment? I hope not, but I also know that in the 1930’s there were plenty of people in Germany and around the world, who told themselves that Hitler was just right wing nut who should not be taken seriously.

I wrote a short one person play which I presented as a sermon, portraying Bonhoeffer in prison, writing to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer. The text is taken almost entirely from Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison” and assembled to present a coherent narrative. Parts are Bonhoeffer’s from reflections, other parts are from letters to Eberhard Bethge, some parts are my interpretations of Bonhoeffers’ thought, and some parts are taken directly from letters to Marian von Wedemeyer. The set consists of a table and a straight back chair.

(Seated at table. Put on glasses. Take out pen.)

My Dearest Maria,
I received a letter from Eberhard last week
His happiness with Renate
Is a source of great joy to me
They were certainly meant for each other

I look forward to the time
When we will be together
As they are
It grieves me
To think of the sorrow I have caused you
Yet I am convinced
That this is God’s work

The way in which we found each other
With the time so short before my imprisonment
Everyday I am overcome
With how undeservedly I received this happiness
And each day I am moved
At what a hard school God has led you through
During this past year
And now
It appears to be God’s will
That I should bring you even more suffering

Yet when I think of the world
Of this present darkness
I am overcome by the gift of grace and light
Which our union has brought to me
I believe that this can only be
A sign of God’s grace and kindness which calls us to faith

We would be blind
If we did not see it!
This is where faith belongs
May God give it to us daily

I do not mean a faith which flees the world,
But faith which endures the world
And even loves the world
And remains true to the world
In spite of all the suffering
Which is contains for us
Our marriage shall be a yes to God’s earth
It shall strengthen our courage to act
And to accomplish something on the earth


There is hardly anything
That can make one happier
Than to know that one counts for something
With other people

What matters here is not numbers
But intensity

In the long run
Human relationships
Are the most important thing in life

I sometimes wonder
If God can forgive me for what I have done
To Maria and Everhard
And to mother and father
And to so many others who followed me
And are in prison just as I am
Students, friends, colleagues, family

No one can tell me
If they are safe or in prison
Dead or alive
Anyone I ask about
Will be immediately put in danger

In all of human history
Have there ever been people
With so little ground under their feet
People for whom every alternative
Seemed equally intolerable and futile?
Have there ever been people
So utterly bereft so utterly without hope
And yet for whom hope is so real
That they would risk everything
So that this hope would live?

I believe
That God can and will
Bring good out of evil
Even out of the greatest evil.
For that purpose he needs men and women
Who will make the best use of everything.

I believe that God
Will give us the strength
We need to resist in all time of distress.
But he never gives it to us in advance,
Lest we should rely on ourselves
And not on him alone.

I believe that even our mistakes and shortcomings
Can be turned to good account
And that it is no harder
For God to deal with them
Than with our supposedly good deeds.

I believe that God is no timeless fate
But that he waits for and answers
Sincere prayers
And responsible actions.

Who can stand?
Who can endure in times such as these?
Only the man whose final standard
Is not his reason or his principles
Or his freedom or his virtue—or even his conscience
But who is willing to sacrifice all of this
When he is called to obedient and responsible action
In faith
And in exclusive allegiance to God

To be a Christian
To be a human being
One must be willing
To give up every dream, every hope
Every self-concept
In faithful obedience
To the call of God

That is what we declared
More than 10 years ago at Barmen:
We have only one Fuhrer
We follow God
As he has been revealed in Jesus Christ
To many it seemed little more than theological prattle
But the Nazi’s knew what it means
Just as the demons
Knew who Jesus was
Before the disciples did

One must be faithful to the call of God
But this is not about personal salvation
The heroic struggle of the individual
In the face of incalculable odds

Success and failure make a difference
We have a responsibility to history
This cannot be foolish heroism
A desperate wish
To go down fighting

Evil must
And shall be overcome
It is not enough simply to die bravely
Though after all these years
Death at times
Seems like a friend

There remains for us
Only the very narrow way
Often extremely difficult to find
Of living every day
Every hour
As if it were our last
And yet at the same time
Living as though there were to be a great future

I am discovering
That it is only by living completely
And unreservedly in this world
(Yes, even this world right here!)
That one learns to have faith
One must completely abandon
Any attempt
To make something of one’s self

God does not need saints
But rather
God needs human beings
Who will live all of life’s duties
Successes and failures, perplexities, problems,
And experiences
\for I am convinced
That in so doing
We throw ourselves into the arms of God
And we take seriously
The sufferings of God in the world

This is what it means
To wait with Christ in Gethsemane
That is our task
Our only task
To wait with Christ in Gethsemane
Do you see it?
Palm Sunday and Gethsemane and Easter
They are not long ago and far away
They are here
Right now

Please don’t ever get anxious or worried about me
But don’t ever forget to pray for me
I am sure that you don’t
I am so sure of God’s guiding hand
That I hope I will always be kept in that certainty

You must never doubt
That I am travelling with gratitude and cheerfulness
Along the road where I’m being led
My past life is brim-full of God’s goodness
And my sins are covered by the forgiving love
Of Christ crucified

I am most thankful for the people I have met
For my family and friends
For Eberhard
And for you, my dear Maria
It says in the old children’s song
That angels watch over us
And adults need that as much as children
I feel them close

Do not think that I am unhappy.
What is happiness and unhappiness?
It depends so little on the circumstances;
It depends on what happens inside a person.
I am grateful every day that I have you
And that makes me happy.

Your faithful and loving,

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One Comment
  1. Excellent and powerful. Thanks for sharing these remarks, Joe. Terry Harter is a source of great wisdom.


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