Bonhoeffer Christmas Letter

I have returned to posting excerpts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters on my Theological German blog, so I will share a few translations of the selections. The first is from a Christmas letter to his parents, written December 17, 1943.

Dietrich had been held for several months with no formal charges being made. He assumed he was being held on suspicion of a relatively minor charge and would be released soon. In several earlier letters he had expressed the hope of being free by Christmas to celebrate the holiday with his family and close friends.

By the time he writes this letter, he has given up on the hope of being free for Christmas.

Dear parents,

Above all, you must not think that I will let myself sink into depression during this lonely Christmas. It will take its own special place in a series of very different Christmases that I have celebrated in Spain, in America, in England, and I want in later years to be able to think back on these days not with shame but with a special pride. That is the only thing that no one can take from me.

I don’t need to tell you how great my longing for freedom and for all of you is. But you have for so many decades provided us with Christmases so incomparably beautiful, that the grateful memories of them are strong enough to outshine even a dark Christmas.

From a Christian point of view, a Christmas in a prison cell is no special problem. It will probably be celebrated here in this house more sincerely and with more meaning than outside where the holiday is observed in name only. Misery, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something entirely different in the eyes of God than in the judgment of men.

That God turns directly toward the place where men are careful to turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because he found no room in the Inn—a prisoner grasps that better than someone else. For him it really is a joyous message, and because he believes it, he knows that he has been placed in the Christian fellowship that breaks all the bounds of time and space; and the months in prison lose their importance.

On Holy Evening (Christmas Eve) I will be thinking of all of you very much, and I would very much like for you to believe that I will have a few beautiful hours and my troubles will certainly not overcome me.

If one thinks of the terrors that have recently come to so many people [with the heavy allied fire bombings] in Berlin, then one first becomes conscious of how much we still have for which to be thankful. Overall, it will surely be a very silent Christmas, and the children will still be thinking back on it for a long time to come. And maybe in this way it becomes clear to many what Christmas really is. . .

Your Dietrich

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.