Philosophical and theological reflections
In the reflections entitled 20 Years Later Bonhoeffer tries to explain to himself the absurd situation in Germany of his time. Without naming names, he makes allusions quite clear to be understood. Sometimes we find they word for word in his Ethics.
Values are upset. The stronger – the Nazi party in power – dictates its law and a disciplined man – Germans are known for their sense of discipline – is ready to obey the devil himself, i.e. Hitler and his associates.
Whoever resists is ready to sacrifice all his values on behalf of a call from God only to an obedient and responsible action, even though this obedience is opposed to the imposed order. And he must find the balance between lack of scruples and scrupulite or paralyzing excess of scruples. God requires responsible action in free risk of faith and forgives the one who becomes a sinner by this same action.
The group of conspirators, some on the highest positions of the state, with several family members and friends* of Bonhoeffer, prepared against Hitler attacks, which all unfortunately failed. Beyond the men, the Lord directs history, creates the good from the bad. But what to do when evil prevails?
Dangers of folly and conformism
Bonhoeffer then highlights the dangers of foolishness, a special form of influence of historical circumstances on man. This foolishness leads by conformism to any bad action: the popular vote which brought the Nazi party to power, anti-Semitism by imitation or cowardice.
The power of some people needs the folly of others … But men can be damaged forever. An external act of liberation is needed and for this, no need for the advice of others. The question does not arise for a responsible man.
According to immanent justice, evil very quickly turns silly and ineffective … Compliance with the laws that govern human life is inevitable unless there is an absolute necessity.
Perhaps this is an allusion to the laws on euthanasia or sterilization of disabled promulgated by the Nazi regime.
For him, prayer and action together allow to see the men who are indispensable in difficult situations have access to state responsibilities.
To avoid an anarchy of values, Bonhoeffer asks Christians to keep distance at a time when representatives of all social classes become plebeians (vulgar) and when a nobility made of people from all society remains by courage, respect for self and others, humble and great people, by the pursuit of quality, which is the antidote against levelling down.
The Christian, an instrument in the hands of the Lord of history
Before suffering a passive attitude is not Christian, even if we are not responsible for all the misery in the world. We are instruments in the hands of the Lord of history. Since the war, the idea of death is familiar to us, our life is broken and yet death can no longer surprise us.
Today, for many, the inability to make a plan for their lives leads to irresponsible forfeiture or to the way out of daydreaming.
To think and to act for the new generation … that is the attitude … to be kept, with optimism, a strength of hope, in order not to abandon the future to the opponent but to claim it for oneself.
Call to maturity
Bonhoeffer will develop this perspective in two letters in 1944 where he claims for maturity for the new generation, a maturity which is to have one’s center of gravity where one is standing, a maturity which does not make out of unfulfilled desires obstacles for oneself and others. There can be a fulfilled life despite of many unfulfilled desires.
The world in God’s hands
Although the war, which destroys by night, literally and figuratively, what was built by day, makes life shapeless and sketchy, even if we can no more build our future on the certainties of the past, with a goal in mind, although there is no more certainty beforehand about the outcome of any action, that generation will have to discover, through hardships, pains, and tested patience, that the world is in the hands of God and that it must be content to keep its soul alive – to save it out of the chaos like out of a house on fire – in the midst of the collapse of the benefits of life.
These prophetic words were fulfilled by the invasion of the allied troops and by the collapse of the Hitler regime which resulted, by a voluntary apocalypse, in the terrible destruction of the vital centers of the country and in the death of many of its inhabitants.
Sense of responsibility and commitment
But they were also fulfilled by the next generations, of which some elites have probably discovered the new relationship required between sense of responsibility and commitment. By recognizing their responsibility or their collective cowardice and the guilt of their leaders of the Nazi period, they were able to rebuild on sound foundations what seemed lost in irremediable decline. Until now, Germany has rebuilt itself, economically and socially, perhaps even better than the others.
But also infantile and egocentric behavior
Bonhoeffer also noticed, around him, people who cling to their desires … are closed to the love of their neighbor and have a quite infantile and egocentric behavior:
I observe here, again and again, that there are few people capable of hosting in themselves simultaneously many feelings. When planes are approaching, they are only afraid; when they have something good to eat, their greed is triumphant; when a desire remains unfulfilled, they are just desperate and when something succeeds, they do not see anything else. They miss the fullness of life.
What about these people – and we must think here of the whole Western world – who regulate their whole life at the level of their desires and who have gone without thinking from the misery over to the materialism of the 60s?
How to proclaim the Word?
How to proclaim the Word in a world – here in Germany – where many have not any longer seen God, but an official religion accomplice to a destructive ideology in the hands of an oppressive power? The religion was discredited in Germany and in the Resistance, Bonhoeffer has also met people getting involved in a just cause, without being Christians.
Christianity and Christ today
So he raises the question of what Christianity is, and of who Christ is for us today ... He distinguishes between Christ and religion.
Are there Christians without religion? What is an irreligious Christianity? How can we form an ecclesia (a church) without regarding ourselves as called ones, spiritually privileged ones, but rather as fully belonging to the world?
He answers that then Christ is no longer the subject of religion, but actually the Lord of the world.
He remains deeply committed to Christ, his faith is Christocentric:
Everything stems from the words “in him.” Everything we are entitled to expect from God and to ask in our prayers is found in Jesus Christ. The God of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with a god … as we imagine him.
Rejection of the stopgap god and of magical religion
This imaginary god is the one of the still imperfect knowledge, of unmet desire of men, a stopgap god pushed to the limits of human knowledge.
We must find God in what we know, not in what we do not know.
God wants to be found not in our frustrations, our failures and our sins, but when things go well for us and when we do not even have the idea to trust Him, because we think we are sufficient for ourselves. We do not have the right to reject him to the limit of our unanswered questions. God does not let himself being shut into an equation that could be removed by solving it, as human problems are solved by progress. There will always remain at least one unknown.
This is what Bonhoeffer explains by refusing that we introduce God fraudulently and by requesting that we recognize the adult nature of the world. He refuses a magical religion, that is offered only at times of crisis, to solve problems.
The Christian in the hands of God
He requests from the Christian not to be a homo religiosus (a religious man) but a man, as Jesus was …
aware of the presence of death and resurrection .., who gave up completely becoming someone in order to live in the multiplicity of tasks … and of the perplexities of the world. Then we put ourselves fully in the hands of God, we take serious not our own sufferings but those of God in the world … This is how we become a man, a Christian.C.S.
* Admiral Canaris, General von Hase, his Brother Klaus and both his brothers-in-law.