Letters and Papers from Prison: The New English Translation by John de Gruchy

Letters and Papers from Prison: The New English Translation by John de Gruchy

I first read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison in 1960 while completing my theological studies in South Africa. That edition, the first in English translation, was published in 1953 and as it immediately aroused widespread interest, was reissued in 1959. I still have my copy, its tattered condition bearing testimony to its use. There have been several subsequent English editions since then, each an improvement on the last. The most widely known expanded edition of 1971 is now regarded as a classic and my copy, as disheveled as the earlier one, is beyond repair. But now before me lies the brand new English translation published by Fortress Press as volume 8 in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series. Little did I dream when I first read LPP that I would one day become its editor, a task that has taken five years aided by a remarkable team of translators as well as the knowledge and skill of the general editor of the series, Victoria Barnett, and the support of the chair of the editorial Board, Clifford Green.

Based on the new German critical edition, DBWE 8 at seven hundred and fifty pages is more than three hundred longer than the already expanded 1971 edition. In addition to new primary material, there are also extensive editorial notes, bibliographies and appendices to help readers, especially those of a new generation, reflecting the greater knowledge we now have of Bonhoeffer's legacy, his family, and the historical context in which the letters, papers and poems were written. Two other DBWE volumes provide additional background and collateral reading. DBWE 16, Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940–1945, shows that the prison letters between Bonhoeffer and his friend Eberhard Bethge were part of an extensive correspondence that began well before Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment, while Fiction from Tegel Prison (DBWE 7) contains a drama, novel and fragments of a story that Bonhoeffer also wrote in prison.

Those already familiar with LPP will know that it is an intensely personal collection. I vividly recall how the tears welled up in my eyes as I worked through the last of the letters Bonhoeffer wrote to his parents and those they wrote in return, never to be received. I knew full well how the story would end. How Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer would not only lose Dietrich, but also their son Klaus and sons-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi and Rüdiger Schleicher, all murdered on Hitler’s orders shortly before the end of the war. At this time I can hardly read those letters again, struggling as I am to come to terms with the death my own son, Steve, a theologian and scholar in his own right, who tragically drowned at the age of 48 in February this year. So the reader of DBWE 8 must know in advance that LPP is no ordinary compilation of letters and papers or theological text. It is an intensely human record of the life of the extended Bonhoeffer family during the final eighteen months of the Third Reich when Berlin was subjected to daily Allied bombing and increasingly threatened by the advancing Russian army. While some members were incarcerated, interrogated and tortured, others struggled to cope with daily life, celebrate family events in the absence of loved ones, live in hope amidst the increasingly dire circumstances of the times – and write thoughtful letters about matters both ordinary and extraordinary. Woven into this story is the sub-text of Dietrich’s poignant relationship with hbis fiancé Maria von Wedemeyer, his stimulating discussions with his elder brother, the scientist Karl-Friedrich, and his extensive correspondence with Bethge who would later become his biographer and interpreter-in-chief, as well as custodian and editor of his literary legacy of which letters and papers from prison are such a significant part.

I have returned again and again to the pages of LPP in its different formats in search of insight into what it means to do theology today, especially in my own South African context. Whether my interest and enquiry has focused on theological issues, the renewal of the church and its public responsibility, or on history, literature, art and aesthetics, this remarkable collection has always provided food for thought and much practical wisdom for people living in tough and uncertain times. Not all of it comes from Bonhoeffer’s own pen, though his voice is clearly the dominant one. And by no means is it all confined to theological matters, though there are scattered references of theological interest throughout. The unsuspecting reader, like the first recipient, will be taken by surprise on reading Bonhoeffer’s letter of 30 April 1944 to Bethge, then a soldier on the Italian front. Written just two months before the fateful day on which the attempt to assassinate Hitler failed and Bonhoeffer’s fate as a co-conspirator virtually sealed, it is the first of the so-called ‘theological letters’ that follow each other in rapid succession over the next few months. This is also the period in which Bonhoeffer turned to writing poetry as a way to express more existentially his personal feelings and theological struggles. Perhaps it is this combination of personal struggle and theological reflection that draws the reader into the pages of LPP and speaks to us so powerfully even today in our post-Bonhoeffer world.

What bothered Bonhoeffer as he put pen to paper to test out his theological reflections in his letters to Bethge was the future of Christianity in a post-Christendom western world disenchanted with religion. These fragmentary reflections were in anticipation of a short book that he was in the process of drafting, an outline of which is in LPP. In doing so Bonhoeffer had in mind those who had turned away from Christianity and especially the church because of its intellectual ineptitude and failure to take a stand against Nazism. ‘Heavily burdened by difficult, traditional ideas,’ the church was making ‘no impact on the broader masses.’ Instead of ‘being there for others’ as Jesus was, it was defending itself, afraid to take any risks for the sake of telling the truth, pursuing justice and standing in solidarity with social and political victims. In short, ‘Jesus had disappeared from view.’ In responding to this situation Bonhoeffer raised several key questions: Who is Jesus Christ actually for us today? Do we have to be ‘religious’ in order to be Christian? What is the responsibility of the church in a ‘world come of age’ and how does this affect its structure and liturgical life? And, as Bonhoeffer pondered such questions, daily reflecting on Scripture and praying the Psalms, he also considered afresh the connection between prayer and the struggle for justice, between action and the spiritual disciplines that enables Christians to live fully in the world as free and responsible human beings. All of this remains pertinent to the contemporary reader and adds further explanation as to LPP continues to attract attention and stimulate thought and action.

Bonhoeffer’s ‘theological letters’ have caused controversy since they were first published, and for good reason. They were labeled radical by some and misused by others for their own agendas. Since then much has been written about them that helps us understand better what Bonhoeffer was seeking to do and how this relates to his earlier writings. But the contemporary reader may still ask whether these theological fragments remain as relevant today as they did sixty years ago. It could be argued that the lively debates about hermeneutics that engrossed many of us in the nineteen sixties and seventies have become relics of a previous generation’s theological formation, though anyone familiar with the current ‘God debate’ will think otherwise. In any case, have not Bonhoeffer’s ideas somehow seeped so deeply into much contemporary Christian thinking outside of the fundamentalist world, that what appeared radical in his day is now widely accepted? It might also be assumed that Bonhoeffer’s enquiry about religion in a ‘world come of age’ is passé in a post-modern global context where religion has made a remarkable come back and religious pluralism is, for many, a theological sine qua non.

Bonhoeffer does not provide simplistic answers in response to his searching questions, but he does open up new perspectives and invites us, as he did Bethge, to enter into a conversation that helps us to go with him in his quest, but also beyond him as we engage our own. Take, for example, his comments on holding on to Christ in order to experience the polyphony of life in its fullness. Or his reflections on recovering ‘aesthetic existence’ within the church as a sphere of freedom within which art, education, friendship and play are encouraged and developed. Or on overcoming the dualisms that threaten our existence through a renewed vision of what it means to be both Christian and human. I do not have to stress how significant these insights are, and there are many others, in a world where religious fundamentalism vies with secularism and scientism to capture hearts and minds, and where economic injustice continues to threaten social stability.

There is a further reason for the enduring significance of LPP, the clue to which is found in an essay Bonhoeffer wrote as a Christmas present for his friends at the end of 1942 shortly before his arrest. Published in LPP as a prelude and linking his prison writings to his previous work on ethics (DBWE 6), Bonhoeffer reflects in the essay on the past ten years of life under Hitler’s rule. It is a thought provoking essay that continues to provide insight on a range of issues. But one passage is particularly challenging for those of us who like Bonhoeffer come from more privileged backgrounds in seeking to be of some use in serving the needs of the world. Bonhoeffer writes: ‘we have for once learned to see the great events of the world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short from the perspective of the suffering.’

Seeing things ‘from below,’ that is, from the perspective of the suffering of the ‘other,’ not only helps explain why Bonhoeffer became involved in the plot against Hitler, but it also anticipates his own experience as a prisoner and influences the way in which he understands the future of the church. This becomes clear in the ‘Outline for a Book’ where he writes: ‘The church is church only when it is there for others.’ To become such a church, it must learn to serve others not dominate them, confront the vices of hubris and the worship of power and learn to speak in ways that are authentic and genuinely human in the sense that Jesus was truly human. Or, as he wrote earlier from prison in a sermon for the baptism of his godson Dietrich Bethge, ‘[the church] has become incapable of bringing the word of reconciliation and redemption to humankind and to the world. So the words we used before must lose their power, be silenced, and we can be Christians today in only two ways, through prayer and doing justice among human beings.’ This, he insisted, required a fundamental re-orientation on the part of the church, a metanoia that would lead to vicarious solidarity with a suffering world and enable the church to proclaim the fullness of life in Christ.

Though written in a different historical context to our own there is an uncanny sense in which Bonhoeffer’s prison writings speak loudly and clearly to our own times. For once you probe beneath the surface of the historically conditioned issues Bonhoeffer wrestled with in prison, you soon discover that they are perennial to the human condition, and dealing with them is critical for both the future of Christianity but of humanity. In one of the newly included letters in DBWE 8, that to his nephew, Hans-Walter Schleicher, dated 2nd June 1944, Bonhoeffer writes that ‘the most important question for the future is how we are going to find a basis for living together with other people, what spiritual realities and rules we honor as the foundations for a meaningful human life.’ That is why his question about the significance of Jesus Christ for us today inevitably led him to speak of Christ as the ‘human being for others’ and, concomitantly, of the church as existing only for others. From this perspective, Bonhoeffer’s emerging theological project was not designed to discover how to preserve Christianity for its own sake, or even to answer his own theological and existential questions important as they were for him as they are for us. His concern was the future of humanity beset by oppression, violence and war, a concern that the next generation would inherit not only a more faithful and relevant church, but also a more humane and just world.

(This article is reprinted here with permission from The Christian Century, where it first featured.)