Bonhoeffer wrote this prose poem a few months before his execution by the Nazi regime in 1945, translated by Frank Clarke.
If you set out to seek freedom, then learn above all things to govern your soul and your senses,
for fear that your passions and longings may lead you away from the path you should follow.
Chaste be your mind and your body, and both in subjection, obediently, steadfastly seeking the aim set before them; only through discipline may a man learn to be free.
Daring to do what is right, not what fancy may tell you,
valiantly grasping occasions, not cravenly doubting –
freedom comes only through deeds, not through thoughts taking wing.
Faint not nor fear, but go out to the storm and the action,
trusting in God whose commandment you faithfully follow;
freedom, exultant, will welcome your spirit with joy.
A change has come indeed.
Your hands, so strong and active, are bound; in helplessness now you see your action is ended;
you sigh in relief, your cause committing to stronger hands; so now you may rest contented.
Only for one blissful moment could you draw near to touch freedom;
then, that it might be perfected in glory, you gave it to God.
Come now, thou greatest of feasts on the journey to freedom eternal;
death, cast aside all the burdensome chains, and demolish the walls of our temporal body, the walls of our souls that are blinded,
so that at last we may see that which here remains hidden.
Freedom, how long we have sought thee in discipline, action, and suffering;
dying, we now may behold thee revealed in the Lord.
Excerpt from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Letters & Papers from Prison, (c) 1953, SCM Press, LTD], London, UK.
- See related article Fighting for Costly Grace by Bonhoeffer
Tribute to Bonhoeffer by Donald Bloesch
In perhaps no other century has the church seen so many confessors and martyrs to the faith as in this one. Countless Christians have placed their lives on the line for the gospel. Most of these witnesses to the passion and victory of Christ are relatively unknown, but some have become public signs of God’s kingdom. I have in mind a number of candidates for sainthood in the new religious situation in which we find ourselves – people who have refused to bow the knee to Baal and whose stories have increasing significance for our time.
[In the 1930s] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a then relatively unknown German Lutheran pastor and theologian, aroused the ire of the Nazis by his radio address attacking the Nazi leadership principle and also by his open support of the Confessing Church movement. Having founded what soon became an underground seminary at Finkenwalde in Pomerania, he demonstrated in his own life what he had urged on others – that fidelity to the kingdom of God takes precedence over all other loyalties, including that which we owe to our nation. By the late 1930s, Bonhoeffer’s activities were greatly restricted by the Gestapo. Two of his former professors at Union Theological Seminary in New York succeeded in bringing him safely to America but he could not allow himself to remain in refuge, detached from the sufferings of his people. Against his teachers’ advice, he boldly decided to return to Germany, even though by this time he was a marked man.
After the war began, Bonhoeffer, despite his pacifist convictions, was led to participate in a resistance group that eventually plotted to assassinate Hitler. In April 1943 he was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned at Tegel in Berlin. While in prison, he had an opportunity to escape, but he called off the escape plans for fear of reprisals against his family. Although often tempted to despair, he radiated a joy and peace that were a constant source of inspiration to his fellow prisoners. He was hanged on the gallows in the Flossenburg prison camp in April 1945.
Bonhoeffer was arrested because of his illegal activities in the resistance movement. Bonhoeffer has been hailed by secular and political theologians as an outstanding example of political involvement on behalf of the oppressed. What they have not sufficiently discerned is that Bonhoeffer’s political acts were motivated by a deep religious faith in the God of the Bible, by an unequivocal commitment to the gospel of reconciliation and redemption. Bonhoeffer will come to be appreciated in this new age of persecution for his devotion to Jesus Christ and not simply for his political heroism.
[Excerpted from the book, Crumbling Foundations, by Donald Bloesch (c) 1984 by The Zondervan Corporation, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Used with permission.]
Top image credit: Photo of a German stamp with portrait of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from Bigstock.com, © Boris15, stockphoto ID: 110525201. Used with permission.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German Lutheran pastor and a founding member of the Confessing Church. He was the first of the German theologians to speak out clearly against the persecution of the Jews and the evils of the Nazi ideology. In spring of 1935 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was called by the Confessing Church in Germany to take charge of an “illegal,” underground seminary at Finkenwalde, Germany (now Poland). He served as pastor, administrator, and teacher there until the seminary was closed down by Hitler’s Gestapo in September,1937.
In the seminary at Finkenwalde Bonhoeffer taught the importance of shared life together as disciples of Christ. He was convinced that the renewal of the church would depend upon recovering the biblical understanding of the communal practices of Christian obedience and shared life. This is where true formation of discipleship could best flourish and mature.
Bonhoeffer’s teaching led to the formation of a community house for the seminarians to help them enter into and learn the practical disciplines of the Christian faith in community. In 1937 Bonhoeffer completed two books, Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship. They were first published in German in 1939. Both books encompass Bonhoeffer’s theological understanding of what it means to live as a Christian community in the Body of Christ.
He was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo in April 1943. On April 8, 1945 he was hanged as a traitor in the Flossenburg concentration camp. As he left his cell on his way to execution he said to his companion, “This is the end – but for me, the beginning of life.”