Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Teacher, Pastor, Martyr
You are the first of a new generation in our family, and therefore the oldest representative of your generation. You will have the priceless advantage of spending a good part of your life with the third and fourth generation that went before you. Your great-grandfather will be able to tell you from his own memories of people who were born in the eighteenth century, and some day, long after 2000 A.D. you will be a living bridge for more than 250 years’ oral tradition, though of course with Jacob’s proviso, “If God will and we live.” So your birth provides a suitable occasion to ponder on the vicissitudes of history and to try to scan the outlines of the future.
The three names you bear are reminders of three houses which are most intimately connected with your life, and which should remain so. Your grandfather on your father’s side lived in a country parsonage. A simple, healthy life, with wide intellectual interests, a zest for life’s little pleasures, a natural and ingenuous companionship with ordinary folk, a capacity for self-help in practical things, a modesty grounded in spiritual contentment-these are the earthly values which were at home in the country parsonage, values you will meet in your father. Whatever may betide you, they will always help you to live together with others, to achieve real success and inner happiness. The urban middle class culture embodied in the home of your mother’s parents stands for pride in public service, intellectual achievement and leadership, a deep rooted sense of duty towards a noble heritage and cultural tradition. This will give you, even before you are aware of it, a way of thinking and acting which you will never lose without being untrue to yourself.
It was a kindly thought of your parents that you should be known by the name of your great-uncle, the Vicar of your father’s parish and a great friend of his, who at the moment is sharing the fate of many other good Germans and Protestant Christians, and who therefore has only been able to participate at a distance in your parents’ wedding and in your own birth and baptism, but who looks forward to your future with great confidence and cheerful hope. He is striving to keep up the spirit he sees embodied in his parents’ home-your great-grandparents, so far as he understands it. He takes it as a good omen for your future that it was in this house that your parents got to know each other, and hopes that sometime you too will be grateful for the spirit of this house, and draw inspiration from it yourself.
By the time you are grown up, the old country parsonage and the old town villa will belong to a vanished world. But the old spirit will still be there, and will assume new forms, after a time of neglect and weakness, of withdrawal and recovery, of preservation and convalescence. To be deeply rooted in the soil makes life harder, but it also enriches it and gives it vigour. There are certain fundamental truths about human life to which men will always return sooner or later. So there is no need to hurry: we must be able to wait. “God seeketh again that which is passed away” (Ecclesiastes 3.15).
In the revolutionary times ahead it will be a priceless gift to know the security of a good home. It will provide a bulwark against all dangers from within and from without. The time when children rebelled in arrogance against their parents will be past. Children will be drawn for shelter to their parents, and in their home they will seek counsel, peace and light. It is your fortune to have parents who know by experience what it means to have a parental home in time of trouble. Amid the general impoverishment of culture you will find your parents’ home a storehouse of spiritual values and a source of intellectual stimulation. Music, as understood and practiced by your parents, will dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and emotions, and in time of anxiety and sorrow will help you to keep going a ground bass of joy.
Your parents will soon be teaching you to help yourself and never to be afraid of soiling your hands. The piety of your home will not be noisy or loquacious, but you will be brought up to say your prayers and to fear God above all things, to love him and to do the will of Jesus Christ. “My son, keep the commandments of thy father, And forsake not the law of they mother: Bind them continually upon thy heart, Tie them about thy neck. When thou walkest, it shall watch over thee: When thou sleepest it shall lead thee: And when thou wakest, it shall talk with thee” Proverbs 6.20-22).
“Today is salvation come to this house” (Luke19.9).
It would be much the best thing if you were brought up in the country. But it will be a very different countryside from that in which your father was brought up. People used to think that the big cities offered the fullest kind of life, and pleasure in abundance. They used to flock to them like pilgrims to a feast. But now these cities have brought death upon themselves, and women and children have fled from them in terror. The age of big cities on our continent seems to have come to an end. The Bible tells us that Cain was the first city dweller. A world metropolis may survive here and there, but their brilliance, alluring though it may be, will have an air of uncanniness about it, for us Europeans at any rate. This flight from the city will bring tremendous changes to the country-side.
The tranquility and remoteness of country life were already being undermined by the advent of the radio, the car and the telephone, and by the spread of bureaucracy into practically every department of life. And now that millions who can no longer endure the totalitarian claims of city life are flocking to the land, now that industries are being dispersed in rural areas, the urbanizing of the countryside will proceed apace, and the whole pattern of life there will be revolutionized The village as it was thirty years ago no more exists to-lay than the idyllic isles of the southern seas. Much as he needs solitude and peace, a man will find them very difficult to come by. But it will be an advantage amid all these changes to have beneath one’s feet a few inches of soil from which to draw the resources for a new, natural, unpretentious and contented day’s work and evening’s leisure.
“But godliness with contentment is great gain . . . but having food and covering, we shall therewith be content” (I Timothy 6.6f.). “Give me neither poverty nor riches: Feed me with the food that is needful for me: Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord? Or lest I be poor, and steal, And use profanely the name of my God” (Proverbs 30.8f.). “Flee out of the midst of Babylon, and save every man his life; be not cut off in her iniquity” (Jeremiah 1.6).
We have grown up in a society which believed that every man had the right to plan his own life. There was, we were taught, a purpose in life, and it was every man’s duty to accept that purpose resolutely, and pursue it to the best of his powers. Since then however we have learnt that it is impossible to plan even for one day ahead, that all our work may be destroyed overnight, and that our life, compared with our parents’, has become formless and fragmentary. Despite everything, however, I can only say I should not have chosen to live in any other age than our own, though it is so regardless of our external fortunes. Never have we realized, as we do today, how the world lies under the wrath and grace of God. In Jeremiah 45 we read: “Thus saith the Lord: Behold, that which I have built will I break down, and that which I planted I will pluck up; and this in the whole land. And seekest thou great things for thy-self? seek them not: for behold, I will bring evil upon all flesh, saith the Lord: but thy life will I give unto thee for a prey whither thou goest.”
If we can save our souls unscathed from the debris of civilization, let us be satisfied with that. If the Creator destroys his own handiwork, what right have we to lament over the destruction of ours? The task laid upon our generation is not the indulgence of lofty ambitions, but the saving of ourselves alive out of the debris, as a brand plucked from the burning. “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life” Proverbs 4.23). We shall have to keep our lives going rather than shape them, to endure, rather than forge ahead. But we do want to preserve an heritage for you, the rising generation, so that you will have the resources for building a new and better world.
We have spent too much time thinking, supposing that if only we weigh every possibility in advance, everything will somehow happen automatically. We have learnt a bit too late in the da# that action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility. For you thought and action will have a new relationship. Your thinking will be confined to your responsibilities in action. With us thought was often the luxury of the looker-on; with you it will be entirely subordinated to action. “Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the Will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 7.21).
Today we have almost succeeded in banishing pain from our lives. To be as free from pain as possible had become one of our unconscious ideals. Nicety of feeling, sensitivity to our own and other people’s pain-these things are at once the strength and the weakness of our way of life. From the very outset your generation will be tougher and closer to real life, for you will have had to endure privation and pain, and your patience will have been sorely tried. “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth” (Lamentations 3.27).
We believed that reason and justice were the key to success, and where both failed, we felt we were at the end of our tether. We have constantly exaggerated the importance of reason and justice in the historical process. You are growing up during a world war which ninety per cent. of the human race did not want, yet for which they have to forfeit goods and life. So you are learning from childhood that the world is controlled by forces against which reason is powerless. This knowledge will enable you to cope with these powers more soberly and effectively. Again, in our lives the “enemy” had no substantial reality. You know that you have enemies and friends, and you know what both can mean in life. You are learning from the cradle how to deal with your enemy, which is something we never knew, and you are learning to put uureserved trust in your friends. “Is there not a
warfare to man upon earth?” (Job 7.1). “Blessed be the Lord my strength: who teacheth my hands to war and my fingers to fight. My hope and my for-tress, my castle and deliverer, my defender in whom I trust” (Psalm 144.lf.). “There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18.24).
Are we moving towards an age of colossal organizations and collective institutions, or will the desire of multitudes for small, manageable, personal relationships be satisfied? Must they be mutually exclusive? Is it not just conceivable that world organizations with their wide meshes should allow more scope for private interests? The same considerations apply to the question as to whether we are moving towards an age of the selection of the fittest, i.e. an aristocratic society, or to a uniform equality in all material and spiritual aspects of human life. Though there has been a good deal of equalization in this field, there is still a fine sensitiveness in all ranks of society for such human values as justice, success, and courage, and this is creating a new selection of potential leaders. It should not be difficult for us to forfeit our privileges, recognizing the justice of history.
We may have to face events and changes which run counter to our rights and wishes. But if so, we shall not give way to bitterness and foolish pride, but consciously submit to divine judgment, and thus prove our worthiness to survive by identifying ourselves generously and unselfishly with the life of the community and the interests of our fellow men. “But the nation that shall bring their neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, that nation will I let remain in their own land, saith the Lord: and they shall till it and dwell therein” (Jeremiah 27.11). “Seek the peace of that city . . . and pray unto the Lord for it” (jeremiah 29.7). “Come, my people, enter thou into the chambers and shut thy doors: hide thyself for a little moment, until the danger be overpast” (Isaiah 26.20). “For this wrath endureth but the twinkling of an eye, and in his pleasure is life: heaviness may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm 30.5).
Today you are being baptized as a Christian. The ancient words of the Christian proclamation will be uttered over you, and the command of Jesus to baptize will be performed over you, with-Out your knowing anything about it. But we too are being driven back to first principles. Atonement and redemption, regeneration, the Holy Ghost, the love of our enemies, the cross and resurrection, life in Christ and Christian discipleship~ all these things have become so problematic and so remote that we hardly dare any more to speak of them. In the traditional rite and ceremonies we are groping after something new and revolutionary without being able to understand it or utter it yet. That is our own fault. During these years the Church has fought for self-preservation as though it were an end in itself, and has thereby lost its chance to speak a word of reconciliation to mankind and the world at large. So our traditional language must perforce become powerless and remain silent, and our Christianity today will be confined to praying for and doing right by our fellow men.
Christian thinking, speaking and organizatiorn must be reborn out of this praying and this action. By the time you are grown up, the form of the Church will have changed beyond recognition. We are not yet out of the melting pot, and every attempt to hasten matters will only delay the Church’s conversion and purgation. It is not for us to prophesy the day, but the day will come when men will be called again to utter the word of God with such power as will change and renew the world. It will be a new language, which will horrify men, and yet overwhelm them by its power. It will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, a language which proclaims the peace of God with men and the advent of his kingdom. “And (they) shall fear and tremble for all the good and for all the peace that I procure unto it” (Jeremiah 33.9). Until then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair, but there will be those who pray and do right and wait for God’s own time. “The path of the righteous is as a shining light, That shineth more and more unto the perfect day” (Proverbs 4.18).
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