Monday, November 07, 2005

"Like a squire from his country house ..."

Most of these essays have been revised dozens of times, only to have the same "errors" inserted in them by hackers. I fully expect that my efforts will have to be repeated on a regular basis. July 16, 2007 at 6:30 P.M.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison (New York: Macmillan, 1967).
Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (new York: Doubleday, 1971).
Antonio Gramsci, Selections From the Prison Notebooks (Lawrence and Wishart, 1971).
A.J. Languth, Patriots: The Men Who Sarted the American Revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), pp. 335-51: "Jefferson and Paine."
Alasdair MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity (Indiana: Notre Dame, 1967).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran Pastor who chose opposition to Hitler's regime rather than any sort of reconciliation with the Nazi government, even joining in a plot to assassinate Hitler (after much agonized soul-searching), which resulted in his imprisonment and eventual execution, at the personal order of Adolf Hitler.

Bonhoeffer is one of the great inspirational figures of the twentieth century. He is an embodiment of the Christian faith. His life's journey is proof, if any were needed, that the ethics of Christianity is indestructible, as are all true ethical systems. The ethical truth in Christianity or Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jeffersonianism or Marxism, cannot be destroyed by pointing to the failures or inadequacies of this or that particular individual, who happens to be an adherent of one of these belief-systems.

You have said nothing about a person's moral principles by pointing out his or her character flaws and failures in life. Although you may have said something about how sincere he or she is in holding those principles. More likely, you have merely established the person's humanity. Not surprisingly, one finds that these belief-systems coincide in many of their insights into the human condition, especially in their concern with social justice and freedom, though these values are defined differently by each system. By the way, a person who believes nothing, who is an amoralist or nihilist, an ABSOLUTE skeptic concerning ethics, is hardly in a position to complain about the moral flaws of others.

Bonhoeffer was everything Nazis claimed to admire: born into an old and respected German family; a fine athlete; intellectually gifted and accomplished (Bonhoeffer received his doctorate in theology before his 26th birthday); a talented thinker and writer. He was offered opportunities to remain in the U.S. or Britain in 1939, so he might have sat out the war teaching at a great university, or even in an office job in Germany.

Bonhoeffer chose to return to Germany in 1939, knowing the suffering that awaited his people and having made his views concerning the Nazis clear, because he could not allow himself to escape those sufferings when so many ordinary Germans were certain to experience them.

Bonhoeffer came to the conclusion that it was impossible not to attempt to stop Hitler's evil, when the nature of the Nazi horror became apparent, so that he joined a conspiracy to murder Hitler, knowing that he was embracing evil by doing so. He was arrested and experienced great suffering, until his execution days before the end of the war, on April 9, 1945. Before leaping to a judgment of Germany, think that opposed to Hitler there was a Bonhoeffer, alongside the Germans in the camps were those who opposed the Nazis and died with Jews in the camps.

If I were in that situation, I hope that I would have the courage to oppose Hitler and to state my reasons for that opposition, publicly -- to his face or before the authorities -- whatever the consequences, but not to take upon myself the right to act violently against another person.

I would confront the institutions of that society -- or any other that is unjust -- with their hypocrisy and mendacity, insisting that they act. If they failed to act, then I would adopt a strategy of nonviolent resistance and outspoken opposition, knowing the consequences. I would combine Bonhoeffer's and Dr. King's lessons concerning opposition to evil, with indestructible moral purpose and hope, always hope.

It takes a lot more courage to resist nonviolently in a totalitarian State, than in a democracy which is concerned to be moral (despite occasional errors), like the United States or United Kingdom. Both of those are great nations, so are all of the democracies of this world. Although there is no human society in which opposition and resistance will never be necessary.

Bonhoeffer's letters and writings from prison, known as his "Tegel theology," have become classic documents of religious and philosophical meditation on the nature of evil and upon love's redemptive power. His words have great meaning for persons of all religious faiths -- or who are not religious at all -- in many parts of the world, suffering from injustice.

Bonhoeffer was imprisoned shortly after his engagement to the young (she was eighteen at the time) Maria Von Wedemeyer, who even managed to visit Bonhoeffer a few times, during his final months. They were never "alone together as lovers." Yet for the remainder of her life the memory of those brief and difficult personal encounters were, by her own admission, unsurpassed by other emotional experiences, both in the joy and pain that they caused her. I can understand this. Malcolm Muggeridge writes of Bonhoeffer's life and mission:

It is very difficult indeed for a twentieth century mind to accept, or even grasp, the notion of the blessedness of affliction. Bonhoeffer provides us with a perfect object lesson. His greatness grew directly out of affliction, and through the very hopelessness of his earthly state, he was able to generate hope at a dark moment in history, when it was sorely needed, comforting and heartening many. ...

The guards who knew Bonhoeffer in his final days respected his "sanctity" and spoke of his gentleness, recognizing his concern for them and other inmates. Days before his death Bonhoeffer wrote a poem, which has served as an inspiration for prisoners in many settings throughout the world:

Who am I? They often tell me
I step from my cell's confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country house
Who am I? They often tell me

I talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command,
Who am I? They also tell me
I bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

The most striking capacity displayed by Bonhoeffer, in the midst of his torments and in the darkness of his cell, was an iron-like firmness of purpose and a serene confidence in the truth of his faith as well as in the power of love. When others despaired or contemplated suicide, he counseled hope. Always hope. In July of 1944, at one of his darkest hours, he wrote:

I have now finished Dostoievsky's "Memoirs From the House of the Dead." It contains a great deal that is wise and good. I am still thinking about his assertion, which in his case is not a mere conventional dictum, that man [and woman] cannot live without hope, and that men that have really lost all hope often become wild and wicked. It may be an open question whether in this case hope is equal to illusion. The importance of illusion to one's life should certainly not be underestimated; but for a Christian there must be hope based on a firm foundation. ... "Christ our hope" -- this Pauline formula is the strength of our lives.

As an atheist (or agnostic) and skeptic, I always find these words deeply moving. I also share in Bonhoeffer's sense of the wisdom acquired only by those who suffer in this world. It was this appreciation of the importance of hope that led to Thomas Merton's famous statement:

We are not perfectly free until we live in pure hope.

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