Letter from Prison Dec 21, 1943

(I have copied this letter from “Wellspring.” If you wish to read more, check Wellspring about once a week. Click on the link above, or in the blogroll on the right.)

Eberhard Bethge was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s best friend. He had been a student at the Seminary in Finkenwald. During Bonhoeffer’s time in prison Bethge married Bonhoeffer’s niece Renate. The couple named their first child Dietrich. Most of the letters are addressed to Bethge, who collected and edited them.

Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment in Tegel was somewhat like the apostle Paul’s imprisonment, in that he had some liberty to read and write. The guards treated him with respect, at first because of his family connections and later because they came to admire him personally, as did the other prisoners. Some of the letters passed through censors; others were smuggled out, sometimes with the cooperation of prison guards.

The German title of the Letters and Papers from Prison is Widerstand und Ergebung, which means “Resistance and Submission.” The title was inspired by this passage in a letter Bonhoeffer wrote to Bethge on February 21, 1944.

Some background information: Michael Kohlhass is a classic of German Literature, based on the life of a man who lived in the time of Martin Luther (Click on the link to learn more about Michael Kohlhass). Bonhoeffer spent a short time in Barcelona as a pastor before the war; but his knowledge of Don Quixote was probably part of his general education. Martin Buber’s famous book “I and You” (or I and Thou in some English translations; Ich und Du in German, published 1921) described the difference between personal “I-You” relationships and impersonal “I-It” encounters.

February 21, 1944, from Tegel to Eberhard Bethge (an excerpt)

I have often wondered about this: where is the boundary between necessary resistance against “Fate” and equally necessary submission? Don Quixote is the symbol for continuing resistance to the point of absurdity, even insanity—like Michael Kohlhass, who by pressing his claim to justice became a criminal . . . with both men, resistance in the end lost any real meaning and evaporated into a theoretical fantasy; Sancho Pansa is the representative of a full and clever submission to the given circumstances.

I think we must venture what is great and individual, and at the same time do what is natural and generally necessary. We must oppose “Fate” (I find the neuter gender of the word important) with the same determination as we submit to it when the occasion requires that.

Only after this twofold process can one speak of divine “Guidance.” God meets us no longer as “You” but is shrouded in “It” and my question goes to this point: how can we find the “You” in this “It” (”Fate”). In other words, how can “Guidance” come out of “Fate”?

The boundary between resistance and submission cannot be defined according to an abstract principle; but both must exist, and both must be moved by determination.

Faith demands this flexible, living approach. Only so can we make it through each present situation and make it fruitful.