Edited by Victoria H. Barnett
Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.
One of the most moving books in my life is The Cost of Discipleship. It was this reading that made me realize I am joyfully and gladly a follower of Christ and wish others to have the same joy. The editor of this essay has also a love of Bonhoeffer. This is a second translation, insights and revision of this work. This essay is a reflection about what happened to Germany, its people and their political culture in the decade after the Nazis came to power. It was written in December 1942 by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Protestant theologian and pastor who fought against the nazification of his church and was executed in April 1945 for his ties to the conspiracy to overthrow the Nazi regime. I will offer to the reader several excerpts from the essay as they prove themselves invaluable for us at this time in our history.
Without Ground under One’s feet
“Have there ever been people in history who in their time, like us, had so little ground under their feet, people to whom every possible alternative open to them at the time appeared equally unbearable, senseless, and contrary to life? Have there been those who like us looked for the source of their strength beyond all those available alternatives? Were they looking entirely in what has passed away and in what is yet to come? And nevertheless, without being dreamers, did they await with calm and confidence the successful outcome of their endeavor? Or rather, facing a great historical turning point did the responsible thinkers of another generation ever feel differently than we do today, precisely because something genuinely new was forming that was not yet apparent in the existing alternatives?”
“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind at least a sense of unease in human beings. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests or the use of force accomplish anything here ‘reasons fall on deaf ears’ facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.”
“It is infinitely easier to suffer in obedience to a human command than in the freedom of one’s very own responsible action. It is infinitely easier to suffer in a community with others than in solitude. It is infinitely easier to suffer publicly and with honor than in the shadow and in dishonor. It is infinitely easier to suffer through putting one’s bodily life at stake than to suffer through the spirit. Christ suffered in freedom, in solitude, in the shadow, and in dishonor, in the body and in spirit. Since then, many Christians have suffered with him.”
“There are people who think it frivolous and Christians who think it impious to hope for a better future on earth and to prepare for it. They believe in chaos, disorder, and catastrophe, perceiving it in what is happening now. They withdraw in resignation or pious flight from the world, from the responsibility for ongoing life, for building anew, for the coming generations. It may be that the Day of Judgment will dawn tomorrow; only then and no earlier will we readily lay down our work for a better future.”
The View from Below
“It remains an experience of incomparable value that we have for once learned to see the great events of 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. If only during this time bitterness and envy gave not corroded the heart; that we come to see matters great and small, happiness and misfortune, strength and weakness with new eyes’ that our sense for greatness, humanness, justice, and mercy has grown clearer, freer, more incorruptible that we learn, indeed, that personal suffering is a more useful key, a more fruitful principle than personal happiness for exploring the meaning of the world in contemplation and action. But this perspective from below must not lead us to become advocates for those who are perpetually dissatisfied. Rather, out of higher satisfaction, which in its essence is grounded beyond what is below and above, we do justice to life in all its dimensions and in this way affirm it.”
“After Tem Years” could be included in the timeless body of texts that includes Martin Luther King’s Letter to a Birmingham Jail” and Abraham Joshua Herschel’s “No Religion is an Island” writings that addressed the specific challenges of their times by speaking to the greater issues at stake. Those issues include the human capacity in all ages for decency, for courage, and for engagement in political culture that affirms these values and honors human integrity. In whatever particular historical moment we find ourselves, we are summoned to determine what our place in history will be, to think and act beyond our self-interest for the sake of a common good: not just the common good of the moment, our particular political group, or even our society, but of our times, to act, as Bonhoeffer put it, on behalf of history itself and for the sake of future generations and the kind of society we would wish for them.
This is an uplifting and spirited book and one that causes me to be grateful that this man, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, journeyed on our earth so we may learn much from him.