Both ML King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer died at the age of 39; Bonhoeffer in 1945 in a Nazi prison, the war in Europe would be over within weeks. Martin died in 1968, 23 years later. These two men of God were and are still some of the most influential theologians of our time.
You see some of the key issues after WWII were who is God, Who is the God that allows the suffering of human beings? Where was God in the Concentration Camps and where was God in Hiroshima (one of the Christian communities in Japan) and Nagasaki? And where God is as men and women and children are beaten and lynched and refused service and equal access because of their race.
These questions were about healing: The healing of our broken hearts and the healing of the nations.
Bonhoeffer was a respected theologian who had been on a teaching tour prior to 1939 in the United States. He had a promised teaching position, I think, at Union Theological School, and seeing the evil in his homeland, from a prominent German family, his father an honored psychiatrist, Bonhoeffer returned to his homeland. It was here that he started the Resistance Church, wrote his famous book referenced later by King in a 1957 sermon (quoted later) called the Beloved Community. And also his seminal book The Cost of Discipleship and his Ethics.
In 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested because of his connection with a group who plotted and attempted an assassination of Hitler. For the next two years he lingered in prison and then on April 8th he was called from a celebration of the Eucharist and the next day hung, stripped of his clothing, on a wire.
Bonhoeffer became the theologian of resistance to evil and also the theologian who helped so many of us to come to terms with murderous insanity of the 20th century. The first was a call to resist evil at whatever cost. Bonhoeffer was erudite about the subject of evil and familiar with it from vast experience by the time he wrote his Letters and Papers from Prison, a work that was collected and published after his death.
The second break though for some of us at the time of our education in the 60”s was his theology of the suffering God, One who suffers with the whole creation. A God who not only gives us consolation in our desolation, but a God who needs to be consoled as He or She weeps over the cruelty of humanity towards one another. One paragraph from his Letters and Papers from Prison says,
“Jesus asks in the Garden, “could you not watch with me for an hour?’ That is the exact opposite of what the religious man or woman expects from God. Humans are challenged to suffer with God at the hands of a godless world.
He or she must plunge into the life of a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion or trying to transfigure it. He must live a worldly life and participate in the suffering of God… It’s not religious act which makes a Christian what He or she is, but the participation with God in the sufferings of the world.”
The truth of this struck me one night as I awoke from sleep and thought how often I asked God for something, for consolation, for a suffering person in my family or congregation, and just then I looked and it was as if the God in Jesus was next to me and I took Him in my arms and let him weep for the world. Yes, I know it’s weird, but there it was.
Elie Weisel reports an experience from this time. As a youth he was imprisoned in Auschwitz, a concentration camp in Poland. They had strung up three people to serve as an example to what would happen if any dared infringe the rules of the Nazi overseers. One of the three was a youth and he was lighter than the rest. And because of that his neck didn’t break and his young body struggled on the wire. One of the men in the crowd murmured, “Where is God now?” The young Elie Weisel reflected to himself, “There, on the wire twisting and suffering with the boy. That is where God is.”
Here is a poem Bonhoeffer wrote from prison. I admire him as much for his vulnerability as for the power of his mind and his total commitment to be a human Christian in the midst of a world that has turned from the good. The poem which is called, Who Am I, captures the spiritual place of many contemporary women and men, I think, very well.
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 which 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 colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, 0 God, I am Thine!