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Holy Week and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

This week's blog post has been written by our Associate Chaplain, Revd Ali Newell.

This is Holy Week when in the Christian tradition many are reflecting on the suffering of Jesus and suffering in the world.

I would like to share some thoughts on this subject from Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was a German theologian and Lutheran pastor. He spent 18 months in prison for his involvement in the Confessing Church’s resistance to Hitler in Nazi Germany. This poem (which is also a hymn) was written by him in July 1944. It is found in Bonhoeffer’s posthumous publication Letters and Papers from Prison:

‘We turn to God when we are sorely pressed, 

We pray for help and ask for peace and bread, 

We seek release from illness, guilt, and death, 

All people do in faith and unbelief’    

Many of us will have experienced this.  When we are pushed to our limits, when we are vulnerable and overwhelmed, when we cannot see the way forward, sick in body, heart, mind or spirit, when we know our need, we turn to God.

But Bonhoeffer has another insight. In the second verse of the poem, he writes: 

‘We turn to God when he is sorely pressed, 

And find him poor, scorned, without roof and bread,

Bowed under weight of weakness, sin and death, 

Faith stands by God in his dark hour of grief.’ 

Bonhoeffer sees God in the suffering of humanity. When we suffer, when others suffer, Bonhoeffer says, God is in that time of need with us, suffering too, weak too, bowed down too.

Bonhoeffer says in one of his letters:

‘It is not a religious act which makes a Christian but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.’

He also says:

‘To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way but to be a human being.’ 

This week as we think of those suffering across our world because of COVID 19 or in situations of conflict or poverty or oppression, we can remember Jesus who asked his disciples to wait with him in the garden of Gethsemane so that he would not feel alone. We can also remember all the nurses, doctors, and health care workers who have waited alongside those who have suffered and died through COVID 19 in our world over the last year.  Holy week is a time to reflect on how we learn to wait with God who is suffering in hospital wards, in homes, in prisons, in psychiatric hospitals.

Bonhoeffer speaks to our hearts and minds because he was able face the suffering that was being inflicted on Jews and others under the Nazi regime. And facing the suffering, he then chose to act. He was involved in the German resistance movement, helping Jews escape to Switzerland and elsewhere. Finally, Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the conspiracy against Hitler with others in the Abwehr, a German military intelligence organisation, cost him his life.

On the 9th April 1945 Bonhoeffer, after concluding a Sunday morning service, was led out to be executed by hanging in the Flossenburg concentration camp. He was stripped of his clothing and led naked to the scaffold. This happened one month before the capitulation of Nazi Germany.  

What do we mean by God?  Bonhoeffer says, ‘Certainly not abstract belief but an encounter with Jesus, the man for others, an encounter with Jesus who had a freedom from self which he maintained to the point of death.’ 

Bonhoeffer was known for his resilience in prison, for his selflessness, his other-centred focus and his courage to the point of death. However, in the poem entitled, ‘Who am I?’, he explores his inner doubts, reminding us of Jesus in his journey to the cross, when, vulnerable and alone, he sweated tears and blood in the garden of Gethsemane:

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

‘Who am I? They often tell me

I stepped from my cell's confinement

Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

Like a Squire from his country house.

 

Who am I? They often tell me

I used to speak to my warders 

Freely and friendly and clearly,

As though it were mine to command.

 

Who am I? They also tell me

I bore the days of misfortune

Equably, smilingly, proudly,

Like one accustomed to win.

 

Am I then really all that other men tell of?

Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick like a bird in a cage,

Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,

Yearning for colours, for flowers, for voices of birds,

Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,

Tossing in expectation of great events,

Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at doing,

Faint and ready to say farewell to it all.

…..

Who am I?

They mock me these lonely questions of mine. 

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine.’ 

 

‘Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine’ are words of Bonhoeffer that echo Jesus on the cross saying ‘into thy hands I commit my spirit’.

These words are an utterance of deep surrender and faith in Love - words to hold during this Holy Week and words for all those who are suffering and facing death at this time in our world.