February 2012 - Vol. 57

Stations on the Road to Freedom

by Dietrich Bonhoeffer(1906-1945)
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.

[source: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Letters & Papers from Prison, (c) 1953, SCM Press, LTD]

Dieterich Bonhoeffer was born into a family of seven children in Breslau, Germany. He grew up in Berlin, where his father worked as a  prominent professor of psychiatry and neurology; his mother was one of the few women of her generation to obtain a university degree. At the age of 14 he decided he would become a Lutheran pastor and theologian. He was the first of the German theologians to speak out clearly against the persecution of the Jews. He was 39 years old when he was taken out of his prison and hanged as a Nazi traitor in 1945. As he left his cell he said to his companion, "This is the end but for me, the beginning of life.".

Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of Tegel Prison, summer of 1944

photo source:
Christian Kaiser Verlag

> See related article, Costly Grace, by Dietrich 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.]


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