Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Veteran's Day: Choosing Risk (Letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

I. The Empty Cream

I'm at the coffee shop where I usually do my editing work.
Just now I went to pour cream into my coffee, and the cream-thermos was empty.

Sometime in my early thirties, I consciously chose not to be the person who uses up the cream and doesn't let the barista know.

I mention that I was in my thirties because it seems important:
making a choice about this sort of thing––even seeing that it is a choice–– can take a long time.
I was not a selfish beast before that, not at all:
I'm sure I mostly attended to the empty cream (or the empty toilet paper roll)---but I acted more by intuition than on a chosen policy.

II. [digression] Tales from the Thrift: Policy FAIL

Not to claim I always follow my policy now, either;
ohgodno, sometimes I really fail.

Like, the other day I was cashiering at the Thrift Store and a rather bothersome customer, a regular, was complaining about how disgustingly dirty the counter was;
so I took out a bottle of Windex, and –– just as the thought crossed my mind, "I bet this customer has environmental sensitivities" –– I sprayed it all over the counter.

And sure enough, they backed up like it was mustard gas, saying, "I'm scent sensitive!"  

And I felt really sorry, but also, I confess, a small sense of satisfaction.

[end digression]

Anyway, choosing a policy of How to Be in This World really matters when the problems get more complex than empty creamers.
And yet I think they're related.

If we choose to risk small discomforts (a moment of physical, intellectual, or social effort), might we be more ready to take risks in the bigger matters?

(I'm actually not sure of the answer. Maybe not? )

III. Dietrich's Choice

Along these lines,  this morning, Veterans Day, I happened across a letter written in a Nazi prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, about choosing how to be in This World.

Bonhoeffer was, as you probably know, a Lutheran pastor and theologian who agonized over what it meant/how to be a peacemaker (as Christ calls his followers to be), if one lived in Nazi Germany, as Bonhoeffer did.
(In fact he'd chosen to return to Germany *, when he could have stayed safely in the US).
The Christian churches in Germany had mostly capitulated to Hitler, so Bonhoeffer was having to figure out how to be a freelance Christian.
Which, to some small extent, I feel I am.

My position is different in that I don't believe in God, but it's similar in that I believe in many of the things people mean when they say God--well, the things liberal social-justice–minded Catholic people I know mean, anyway, like, feed the hungry, clothe the naked--that stuff, where Jesus says,
"since you did it for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me." --Matthew 25:40

And then, I'm nothing like Bonhoeffer in temperament! 
I expect that if I'd lived in Nazi Germany I'd have done something tiny and ineffectual--like, maybe sneak someone a piece of bread (I like to think I'd do at least that much, but perhaps I'm flattering myself I'd even be that brave).)

^  via NYRB: "The Tragedy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi"

Back to our tale...
Finally, Bonhoeffer decided that killing a man such as Hitler was justified for a Christian:
The church must “not only bind up the wounds of those who have fallen beneath the wheel” of the state “but at times halt the wheel itself.” [Ibid.]

Bonhoeffer wrote this letter from prison [excerpt below, to his friend and former student Ebergard Bethge], eight months before the Nazi regime executed  him on April 9, 1945, for plotting to assassinate Hitler.

"Letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Ebergard Bethge"
21 July [1944]
During the last year or so I've come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. ... I don't mean the shallow and banal this-worldliness of the enlightened, the busy, the comfortable, or the lascivious, but the profound this-worldliness, characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection....

I remember a conversation that I had in America thirteen years ago with a young French pastor [pacifist Jean Lassere]. We were asking ourselves quite simply what we wanted to do with our lives. 

He said he would like to become a saint (and I think it's quite likely that he did become one). At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. For a long time I didn't realize the depth of the contrast. I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it.

I discovered later, and I'm still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. 

By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. 

That, I think, is faith; ... and that is how one becomes a man....

* IV. Bonhoeffer, on choosing to return to Germany after war broke out in 1939 (this comes to mind when I hear fellow Americans say they will "move to Canada if ______ [name of candidate] becomes president"):
"I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people...
Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security."[24] 


Michael Leddy said...

I love this — both what Bonhoeffer wrote and what you’ve written. A non-believer here (at least I think I am, at least most of the time).

Fresca said...

Thanks, Michael---I was actually thinking along thesse lines (developing a moral policy) because of what you posted about young students being morally outraged in an illiberal, self-indulgent way---which I remember being too, which got me thinking about when I finally realized it wasn't all about MY safety, MY comfort...

I really like Bonheoffer's line:
"By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities".

Oh, those perplexities!!!

Zhoen said...

Doing the job in front of me, not easy, but the less I chew it, the easier it is to swallow.

deanna said...

I'm glad you titled this Choosing Risk, because that sums it up so well. Even to risk writing about an encounter with someone in which you may not have adhered to a standard you'd like to follow involves risk, I think, and some courage. And it might help somebody reading who can relate (about everybody, of course, goes through such things as your Windex moment; I sure do). There may be a Hitler in power to deal with or the empty creamer thing, but it's all related to the journey of risk, which we're free to dismiss. I'm glad you don't... :)

Fresca said...

ZHOEN: I'm not sure what you mean, in this context...

DEANNA: I was hoping you'd see this, my theology-minded friend!
I did feel exposed, writing about my pettiness toward a customer,
but as you say, I expect everyone has their petty moments and I think it's important we share that---something that never seemed to happen on Facebook, where my life (and I!) came across looking weirdly *and falsely* wonderful.

Zhoen said...

Oh, just seeing what needs doing, then doing it, without overthinking it. Most real heroes, when asked how they did something so brave tend to shrug and say it just seemed like the right thing. Practicing appropriate actions, so that in a crisis, one just acts.

It's also a reference to Sam Vimes, Sir/Commander/Captain/Sgt. (Pratchett)

Frex said...

ZHOEN: Oh, I see, and I agree in the everyday way of replacing an empty tp roll and the heroism of responding automatically to a short-term crisis.

These are different than having to choose, as Bonhoeffer did, whether to slowly and methodically plan to assassinate a man;
and for a Lutheran pastor such as Bonhoeffer to choose to commit murder does take some intense discernment, intellectual and spiritual.

I'm truly not sure how much the one kind of "just do it" choices feed into the other kind...

Frex said...

P.S. Aaaannd... putting together the two (thinking and action), a quote attributed to Andrew Jackson:

"Take time to deliberate; but when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in."
--Quoted as "a maxim of Gen. Jackson's" in Supplement to the Courant Vol. XXII No. 25, Hartford, Saturday, December 12, 1857

bink said...

Just read this story today on FB:

Bernhard Lichtenberg was a German Catholic priest who defied the Nazi regime and paid a heavy price.

Born in Prussia in 1875, Father Bernhard grew up among the Catholic minority of a largely Protestant city. He was ordained as a priest in 1899 and served as a military chaplain during World War I.

He served in several parishes in Germany. As the Nazis rose to power in the 1930’s, he was assigned to St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin.

During the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938, German churches kept quiet, and most Christian clergy stood idly by. Father Bernhard was the only Catholic priest in Berlin who spoke out publicly against the atrocity.

His voice grew louder in 1939, when the Third Reich began implementing a merciless child euthanasia program, in which disabled children were secretly killed by the thousands.

Horrified, Father Bernhard went to Nazi headquarters and vehemently protested the euthanasia program.

Nazi officials laughed at him.

He wrote a letter to the Chief Physician of the Reich, saying "I, as a human being, a Christian, a priest, and a German, demand of you, Chief Physician of the Reich, that you answer for the crimes that have been perpetrated at your bidding, and with your consent, and which will call forth the vengeance of the Lord on the heads of the German people."

Over 200,000 people were killed in the euthanasia program.

Father Bernhard also preached from the pulpit against the Nazi regime. He prayed publicly every day for Jews and other victims, and ended every mass with a prayer for the Jews of Germany.

Two female students heard him pray publicly for Jews that had been sent to concentration camps, and denounced him to the police.

In 1941, Father Bernhard was arrested by the Gestapo. He refused to disavow his moral objections to the Reich.

Father Bernhard was imprisoned for two years. He endured terrible conditions and physical abuse.

In 1943, he was transferred to Dachau. He died in a cattle car on his way to the camp. He was 68 years old.

In 1996, Father Bernhard was beatified by Pope John Paul II and declared a Blessed Martyr. The beatification ceremony was held in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin.

In 2004, he was honored as Righteous Among The Nations by Yad Vashem, the official Holocaust Memorial of Israel.

Fresca said...

BINK: THANKS for this! These individuals are so inspiring, and yet they show up the atrocity of the Churches's betrayal---Lichtenberg's behavior should have been the *norm* for the leaders...